I ran across a great article about landscape design for beginners. It’s a quick read and has some important tips about things to consider while planning your garden: http://bit.ly/1iDGQtw
Adding my 2 cents:
“Make a list of needs and wants.”
Get the whole family’s opinion. Look at your garden from the point of view of a guest. Remember to make things easily accessible, like the place you store chair cushions or gardening tools. If you have to carry them back and forth to the garage on the other side of the house, you aren’t going to use them.
“Study the sun and wind patterns.”
This is especially important if you get the Santa Ana winds trying to blow your house down every autumn thru spring. Also, know how much sun and shade your flower beds will receive. It isn’t unusual for some areas to have all day sun on the edges, but deep shade in the middle – or visa versa. Both the wind and the amount of sun/shade make a huge impact on your choice of plants.
“Live with it for a while.”
Essentially, don’t jump in and finish building and planting in a weekend or two. Think on it awhile because there will be things you missed, like making a seating area for the fire table away from the house.
Instead of starting small, I would say to relax and work slow. It goes hand-in-hand with “Live with it for a while.” Once you start putting in hardscape and a few structural plants, you’ll start thinking of things you want to include or change, which is great. If you finish everything right away, you’ll sit back to admire your new garden and think “Dang, I wish we would have…!”
“Work around a focal point.”
You’ll want a place for the eye to settle, or destination to walk to. There’s a tree tucked into the corner of my yard that people tend to migrate to. It’s not far from the seating area on the patio, but it would be nice to put a bench and small table under the tree, or maybe a swing. Instead, we fenced it off and created a veggie garden – something we had no plans to do just a couple years ago.
“Focus on scale and pacing.”
Keep the size of your space in mind. If you have a small area, you will probably want to stay with one or two colors (other than green) and repeat most of the plants you’ve chosen in order to keep the space feeling clean. The larger your space, the larger your plants can be and the more variety you can have. An English garden on an apartment balcony will be busy and messy, not the romantic stroll through a private park it was intended to be.
“Be open to change.”
A garden is an ever changing project. You as a person will change, your family’s needs will change, the plants will change. Expect to make changes. It might be something relatively simple, like moving a bush 8″ to the right or relocating a bird bath. Or it could be something big, like removing a 10′ aviary, which throws off the balance of the structural plants and requires a whole new planting scheme for the garden.
Relax and enjoy the process. It can take a few years to get your garden just right… and then you’ll remove the aviary.