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How to Design a Terraced Garden

Ask This Old House landscape designer Jenn Nawada helps a homeowner select, place, and install plants for her terraced garden

When working on a garden with varying heights and sun exposure, Jenn follows the following guidelines:


  1. Add grasses in the back and on the sides of the garden to act as a backdrop for the garden and to minimize other structures.
  2. Anchor stairs with symmetrical plants. She finds shrubs will better define the walking area than other types of plants.
  3. Keep taller plants on the lower terraces so that they don’t obstruct the view of the higher terraces.
  4. Add perennials with color throughout the garden for visual impact.
  5. Add creepers and other plants with texture to the lower terraces so they can grow over the edges of the planter to soften the look.
  6. Plant shade tolerant plants in the shady areas. There are shade tolerant plants with varieties of textures and colors that can make the area beautiful.
  7. Repeat plants and elements throughout the garden to make the entire garden feel cohesive.

Jenn installed a variety of plants, depending on their location in the garden.

To minimize the fence and add a backdrop to the rest of the garden, Jenn planted maiden grass. To anchor the stairs, Jenn planted two boxwoods and two butterfly bushes. For color, she planted blue hill salvia and orange echinacea. To add texture to the lower planter, Jenn planted hens and chicks and lemon thyme.

Underneath the tree, Jenn planted snake root, Japanese painted ferns, false indigo, and bleeding heart, because they are shade tolerant and will do well under the tree.

All of these plants can be found at nurseries and some of them can be found at home centers.