Designing your great outdoor living space can be more mind-boggling than picking the perfect wallpaper. (The good Lord made sure there were more ornamental plants available than wallpaper patterns.) And once you think you’ve seen it all, someone introduces something new and more fabulous than the plant before it!

Trying to visualize how it’ll all work together in your yard can make you feel a bit frazzled. How can you make all your plants’ colors, sizes, textures and bloom cycles flow throughout your landscape when it’s difficult to visualize how things will actually look in your garden in the first place? After all, an actual garden plan is nothing more than empty circles on white paper, and imagining its future reality can be daunting (to say the least).

Well, worry no more! There’s an easy way to help you visualize and achieve a great garden on your own – just borrow my professional secret trick for planning a beautiful yard…which I borrowed from a professional trick used in interior design.

Swatch Board - Step 1

Swatch Board - Step 1

I usually start my swatch boards by selecting the large, more permanent plants.

Photo Credit: Clayton Landscaping, Gastonia, NC

Interior decorators would be lost without their swatch boards. The samples of fabrics, flooring, paint and accessories they arrange on a card is what they traditionally use to visualize a client’s finished room. And you, the “exterior decorator,” can borrow this swatch board technique to help visualize your outdoor living space. All you need is a computer with Internet access (which you appear to have already) and a desktop publishing program. You don’t need anything fancy – just the ability to randomly arrange plant photos, crop or resize them, and label them (so you don’t get your plant picks mixed up).

Swatch Board - Step 2

Swatch Board - Step 2

As the collection of samples grows, some personality begins to form.

Photo Credit: Clayton Landscaping, Gastonia, NC

Since the world of flora is about as endless as the Internet, I go online to locate photos of plants that I’m considering for a garden. (Learn2Grow has lots ideas, too!) Once I find what I’m looking for, I just copy and paste the images onto a blank page in my publishing program to create my electronic swatch boards. (If a photo doesn’t look right later, I just pull it off to the side or delete it.)

Swatch Board - Step 3

Swatch Board - Step 3

Try to include photos that show as much of the plant as possible.

Photo Credit: Clayton Landscaping, Gastonia, NC

The real key is finding photos that include the entire plant, not just the flower. Flowers are nice, but being able to see how different leaf textures and colors work together is important, too. Remember, most plants don’t bloom all season long, so having neat leaves that make a pretty grouping is just as important as the flower colors!

You can arrange your plants on your master board in rows by height, color or flowering time. Then you can copy and paste them into groupings on other pages within the same file. This is an easy way for you to see how your selected colors and textures work together long before you buy any plants. And this swatch board method cuts out lots of guessing at what your end result will actually look like. (Imagine – less frustration and confusion in your garden planning! What a concept!)

It’s also easy to copy and paste enough duplicate pages to represent the weeks or months of each season. And if you use each page to illustrate what’s in color every month, it’ll help you create a garden with year-round interest. If perennials are a big part of your plan, the trick is to keep these spots of color threaded through the entire yard or garden. Don’t worry if you find you’ve got some “dead spots” in your landscape. That’s common, and this swatch design technique should help you find – and eliminate – them even before you start digging holes.

Swatch Board - Step 4

Swatch Board - Step 4

Look at that! With a little work, a lush, colorful and tropical feeling washes over the swatch board. (Now bring on the planting season!)

Photo Credit: Clayton Landscaping, Gastonia, NC

And that’s all there is to it. Thanks to the Internet, this design method is a breeze! Even after years of being a professional landscape and garden designer, I still use this approach when putting together every planting that crosses my drawing board. In fact, many times I wind up scrapping a plant I originally intended to use because it just didn’t blend in right with the other plants on my swatch board.

So take a tip from the interior experts (and from this professional landscape designer), and give the swatch board a whirl the next time you want to add anything new to your garden. With a few clicks of the mouse, you don’t have to leave your design to chance – leaving you (and Mother Nature) in charge!