I've just wrapped my third show for HGTV's "Landscape Smart," transforming an entire backyard on a tight budget and an even tighter schedule. As always with these shows, it was an exercise in discipline; and it evokes some principles to keep in mind even if you're just replanting a border:
Think small. Include details that will really give your project that stand-out quality -- a water feature, a specimen plant, a coat of paint -- and invest disproportionately more of your time and money into making them shine.
Think big. The smaller the project, the more important its raison d'etre. Whether it's an outright theme or just a big idea, express it boldly and completely, from the smallest plant to the tallest structure.
Be relentless. Even professional designers get overwhelmed by choices. The tendency is to overcompensate, tossing in some of everything for insurance. Don't do it! Keep your focus, and trim away everything that doesn't advance that big idea. Cut your plant palette by half; and even reduce your budget. The creativity this demands will burn like an overworked muscle... but you'll make smarter choices for it.
Be gentle. Especially if your time or budget is limited, you'll probably have to compromise some good ideas and abandon others entirely. It can be hard to let go, and the disappointment can shake your confidence. But don't take it as a failing: look instead at how much you're achieving despite the limitations. And add those good ideas to your garden journal -- you never know when you'll have the chance to implement them after all.
A friend of mine installed her entire yard herself, with a baby in tow, in one week while her husband was out of town. It's an amazing feat (especially since she had no landscaping experience) and a beautiful garden. Her secret, she confides, was to dig the holes and buy the plants for only six feet at a time; that way she was never far from being finished.
Which illustrates my last principle: Be reasonable. Don't bite off more than you can chew. As another friend is fond of saying, "done" is better than "perfect." And it's a lot more fun, too.