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Introduction to Garden Design

A well-designed garden

About the course

View full syllabus.

This 6-week online course (7.5, including the introductory week and Spring Break week) provides an opportunity for you to design your own garden. You will be studying and experimenting with the basic design procedures, learning about proper plant selection, and you will write and reflect on the process as you learn. The instructor will take an active role in this creative endeavor by providing feedback on your assignments and journal entries. You will also have the opportunity to learn from one another through an open forum in which you can share your ideas with others.

The purpose of this course is to understand the steps necessary to create a healthy & attractive garden, and to engage in self-expression through this process. Upon completion of this course, you will be able to:

  • Understand garden site analysis and apply the concepts to your personal space.
  • Gain some proficiency in basic garden design principals.
  • Articulate a personal aesthetic -- what appeals to you, and what you enjoy.
  • Layout a rough site plan overview of your garden design.

This course is designed to encourage your discovery of basic garden design techniques. It is a garden design course for the beginner. We teach an approach to gardening that is based on the principle of right plant, right place. In other words, we will consider the needs of the plant in addition to the needs of the gardener.

Course schedule

  • Introduction Week: Welcome & Introductions
  • Week 1: Site Assessment Part 1
  • Week 2: Site Assessment Part 2 / Basic Design Principles: Personal Style, Garden Unity, and Maintenance
  • Week 3: Basic Design Principles: Scale & Proportion, Balance & Symmetry, Repetition, Movement
  • Spring break
  • Week 4: Basic Design Principles: Color, Form & Texture
  • Week 5: Designing Your Garden: Choosing & Buying Plants
  • Week 6: Designing Your Garden: Final Project and Buying Plants

Required Reading

We will be using Taylor's Master Guide to Landscaping by Rita Buchanan (Houghton-Mifflin Co. New York, NY) for our main text. There will be chapters assigned with lessons as we move through the course. This book should be very easy to find, most local libraries have it and if not it should be available for around $25 from a local bookstore or on If you end up mail-ordering it (used prices can be extremely inexpensive for this title) and would like to start the first week's reading before it arrives, the first chapter is available to read online from Google Books.

About the instructors

Ethan Garner

Ethan Garner
Ethan Garner

Ethan is Master of Landscape Architecture Candidate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. Previously receiving his Bachelors of Science in Horticultural Sciences from North Carolina State University in 2016, Ethan concentrated his studies in landscape design. He took a range of courses from soil science to planting design and served as a co-teacher for Site Engineering during his undergraduate degree. Ethan has a keen eye for arranging plants in the landscape according key design principles ranging from color, foliage textures and seasonal attraction, while still paying attention to detail regarding site analysis. 

Ethan's plant care and landscaping knowledge extends past that obtained through school. He is a former employee of Toms Creek Nursery and Landscaping in North Carolina, and served as a landscape maintenance and nursery production worker throughout the four years he worked for Toms Creek. Teaching is passion of his, and upon receiving his Masters he hopes to return to teach as an adjunct professor for Horticulture and Landscape Architecture.

Fiona Doherty

Fiona Doherty
Fiona Doherty

Fiona is an Educator Enrichment Specialist for Cornell Garden-Based Learning. Her background is in both nutrition and garden-based education and she brings a passion for food gardening in particular to educator enrichment. For the past five years Fiona has facilitated horticulture classes in Ohio and New York. She has presented at several national conferences including the American Community Gardening Conference and the National Children and Youth Gardening Symposium. She also teaches Cornell’s online Organic Gardening course and leads professional development workshops for Cornell Cooperative Extension Educators.