Cooperative garden design is about learning how to garden with nature, all nature- the ecology of your home site and your own personal nature too. Successful garden layout keeps 3 things in mind: your goals, your site and your style.
Never start a garden without a quick functional assessment. More robust garden design, and later garden maintenance, will be far easier for the 20 minutes site assessment takes.
Function, Part I: Site Assessment
or, in plain English, "Whatcha Got?"
We also could have called this section 'There are No Moss Gardens in Phoenix, Arizona', but as soon as we write that... YOU should not be trying to make a moss garden in Phoenix, no matter what your neighbor is doing.
Check this simple tic-tac-toe board, known as the Site Conditions Square. From top to bottom, we move from Sunny to Shady. From left to right, Dry to Wet.
This gives us nine squares with which to describe your site's particular quirks.
All quirks are deal-with-able, but... remember this: the further from home base you try to move your garden, the more maintenance it will require to stay 'moved'.
Our Phoenix example falls into the upper left square: HOT and DRY. This is stellar rock garden territory, for succulents and cactuses, and a host of other drought smart plants, too.
The upper right is sunny and wetwetwet. It is perfect for a rain garden or a bog garden (more fun than you'd think). The center square and the one just below it are shady and moist, making them perfect for a gorgeous, wild, woodland garden (yes, there are edibles for that space too.)
Get the idea? Not only is a whole countryside divvy-able this way, any generic residential yard is too. The fancy name for these designations is microclimate, literally 'mini-climates'. In front of a south facing brick wall will be very very hot compared to the rest of the yard, and the if the lowest point is a dip on the north side of the house, that's where the frosts will be heaviest. Looking around your yard for microclimate doesn't cover everything (see the next paragraph), but it does tell you a lot.
The Caveat: Did you catch those qualifiers? Hot compared to...? Heaviest? Microclimates are powerful but they are relative. There are still major regional temperature realities (translation: "frost dates") and soil pH to consider.
The official USDA Zone Hardiness Map is from 1990. In 2006, the National Arbor Day Foundation created another unofficial map in response to climate change. It's pretty good (and pretty telling!), but it didn't take as many years into account, so err on side of your site being able to get a smidge colder in the winter right now than the National Arbor Day map will say.
Edibles and Microclimates
The garden layout and design ideas are almost the same once the edibles are involved. The biggest bulk of traditional edibles like medium moisture and medium bright to very bright sun. Aloe and rosemary are both bright and medium to dry, mint is able to handle some shade and love love loves more moisture, while the cabbage family handles a little shade very well but doesn't want as much moisture as the mint.
So what's different? If harvesting means cutting down or digging up the plant, then it pretty much means digging up the garden layout too. All that disruption is hard on the ecology of the garden, and overtime that harshness can change the microclimate you are dealing with. There are ways to handle mitigating that disruption, and we cover them in our guide to planning your vegetable garden's crop rotation. There is also a growing interest in perennial crops, which would skip the disturbance. We'll cover more on those crops ASAP.
Understanding our climate zone and our microclimates gives us a lot of information, roughly one half of Function: our site's ecological quirks. This is enough to start getting curious about the other half.
Function, Part II: Your Personal Goals for the Garden
Your garden layout goals could be anything. Sometimes they are a style: 'oh, I loved the gardens of Kyoto!' Sometimes they are a feeling or sensation: 'I need somewhere very calming to unwind from work.' And sometimes they are very functional: 'I want to grow my own lasagna ingredients.'
Usually, the more explicit your goal, the easier your task. Your mind is made up! You know what your priorities are! It's the rest of us who have trouble. We want the pasta primavera but we want where they grow to look like a royal rose garden. Don't worry: as long as you are not looking for that outdoor cactus garden in Anchorage or a moss garden in Albuquerque, you should be able to get there through creative compromise and steady work.
So that's the gist of Function: what your site can do (easily) plus what you want it to do. Form is emphasized in two places: our Garden Design Overview page gives a brief overview of 3 very different historic garden styles, and our Vegetable Garden Layout page gets into some key garden layout considerations (this page is worth the herb gardener's look-see too.)