Designing the Garden Around the Shape of Your Plot
The Shape of the Garden Plot
It becomes necessary at some point between the ‘What have I got?’ and ‘What do I want?’ questions to get to work with tape measure, ruler, pencil and rubber and some squared paper.
Where to Start
Firstly measure up the plot with some care. Note the positions of existing garden features;, borders, buildings and especially existing shrubs and trees. Mark the orientation and record the amount and time of shade cast by the house, by plants and by those outside the boundaries. Show trees, not by just dots where the trunks are, but circles describing their spread.
Draw this out to scale. Initially a relatively small plan is suitable, but several copies are needed. If it is too time consuming to draw them individually do the first with all the information and take it to one of those copying machines and do a dozen. So armed one can play with a number of plans without rubbing each one out and losing its ideas, or making the single plan confusing.
Inevitably everyone has certain preconceptions of what is required of their garden and these will be in mind at the next stage. This is to view the site from all angles at which it will be seen including from the kitchen window or door, French windows and upstairs (note too what is particularly in view from next-door’s upstairs if there is one: a certain privacy is a prime requirement for many of us). Then do the exercise from the other way round by looking back to the house. It may be agreeable enough but is likely to be less effective as a back-drop for. Stack pipes and drain pipes, large areas of bare wall, all are a suitable case for horticultural treatment. More productively niches by the chimney breast may offer covetable spots for some splendid exotic or a table grape vine perhaps.
Building up the Picture
In this way it becomes possible to site some of the desiderata on the ‘What do I want?’ list instead of the ‘What have I got?’ list. Much play is made in subsequent sections of this website on the out-of-doors-room concept of parts of a modern garden and this terrace or is a basic point at which to start. At this stage it is enough to sit about in a garden chair, regardless of the weather, to see what is in view or out of it at about 1 to 1.25 m (3 to 4ft) above the ground. It is apt to be dramatically different from what is seen in the standing position.
This is the time to try the Reptonian game of making a sketch or taking a photograph. Do this both from and to the positions of importance and then build up an accompanying sketch of what one bravely hopes will be the ‘after’ effect. One does not have to be able to draw well to outline the shape of a tree or two or outline the upper limit of an area of planting-to-be.
The Basic Rectangle
The ultimate restraint, of course, is the shape of the plot. And this, as has already been admitted in the vast number of cases today, is a simple rectangle behind the house some three or four times as long as it is broad. It is usually entirely separated from the front garden by the house itself so that the whole area can seldom be considered as a single unit.
The wider the plot the more the possibilities of interesting variations in design occur because there is a chance that several vistas or lines of sight can be contrived from the windows of the house. The basic rectangle seldom offers such potential, though sometimes it is possible to ‘borrow’ an eye catching tree or worthwhile building outside one’s own domain, the view of which must be kept open.
A typical, logical layout is, to use the term, a ‘three-box’ one: terrace; lawn and flower borders; vegetables and fruit. Where the orientation from the house is south west round to due west, this is likely to be satisfactory. The inevitable formality of the hard materials — brick, stone or stucco that comprise the house moves towards the only partially less formal terrace with its stone floor and man-made retaining walls and furniture. This, however, should be softened by luxuriant plant growth spilling over the edges, climbing the walls and possibly roofing a part of the area as a pergola. Successful terrace planting is the visual door to a successful garden, for the terrace is seen and used the most of any part of the garden. Its design is, therefore, vital.
Size should be adequate for the sort of outside living that is intended. Although it should not overbalance the garden design as a whole it may well be dominant in a very limited area. Its extent, the position of integral beds or boundary planting, needs to be simple and logical: lines which already exist; the house gable, a bay window, even an immovable coal bunker are reasonable starting points for the layout and take their place to give the impression of inevitability, though if it is successful conscious thought will no longer be given to it. This slots into the next part of the garden and its view and access.
The second ‘box’ of lawn and flower borders is obviously less formal in texture and material than the terrace by which it is approached. Its furnishings, although utterly unnatural as far as arrangement is concerned, are mainly living organisms and as such have their own potential and habit to develop. The gardener’s role is to choose plants which like his soil and(there is no point in putting rhododendrons at the top of the ‘What do I want?’ list if the garden is on chalk for instance). In doing this a selection is being made; a selection from the truly magnificent range of plants actually available.
For the successful garden design whether it is a ‘basic rectangle’, extending, as the house agents say ‘. . . in all to nearly one tenth of an acre . . .’ or one of considerable size, this plethora of choice is a potential danger. Gertrude Jekyll put the point with characteristic force not far off a century ago; ‘I am strongly of the opinion’ she wrote, ‘that the possession of a quantity of plants, however good the plants may be in themselves, does not make a garden. It only makes a collection.’ And elsewhere Miss Jekyll states ‘There is a duty we owe to our gardens’ (which is to develop a) ‘state of mind and artistic conscience that will not tolerate bad or careless combination or any misuse of plants.’
The problem is a complicated one and such high flown sentiments are not easy to live up to. Gardens with which this website is mainly concerned are not likely to be big enough to have areas of separate seasonal interest, or an enclosed rose garden which can look like a heap of bare sticks for a third of the year without anyone complaining. Even more important then are the associations of plants in those areas which are to be cultivated. Oddly enough while most people take great care in the arrangements of plants when cut for the house, the same thought is not so frequent in the garden.
This is not just putting together a group of plants which flower at the same time; this might be just a bit of traditional red, white and blue summer bedding. Though, of course, the time factor is an important one. It is impossible, and certainly undesirable, to have a blaze of colour throughout the year; so emphasis is best made by contriving a series of small garden pictures.
So what are wanted are groups, sometimes only two or three plants which are complementary at any one time, each adding to the others’ beauty and effectiveness. While shape, texture and leaf effect are all vital, much association is bound to be based upon flower colour. Much, too, is personal choice but general guidance can be given, though nothing to compare with actually observing the plants themselves and working with them. Certainly the assertion that ‘flower colours don’t clash’ may be true enough in the wild; in the garden which is the accumulation of nature’s and the hybridist’s art it certainly has no validity at all.
A couple of good examples might be a pale yellow tree lupin with some clear blue flag; grey foliage of santolina or Artemesia ‘Lambrook Silver’ with a whole range of soft lilac and pale purple flowers. Bright scarlet and other ‘hot’ colours need especial care.
While such considerations are always necessary much plant association suggests itself in what might be called an ecological fashion. Shade-loving ferns, primulas, hostas, Smilacina racemosa are inevitably ‘right’. So too are plants of hot dry banks, cistus, lavender, rosemary, yuccas and so on. And in general ‘species’ plants (that is those wild in some parts of the world) are less difficult to deal with than the brighter garden hybrids. Often, too, they have a delicacy of form that the others lack.
These apparently specialist considerations are not immediately necessary to the design of the ‘basic rectangle’ but they are aspects which should be inherent in all that is planned.
Movement from lawn and flower garden is frequently to the economic ‘bottom of the garden’, the vegetables, fruit, garden shed, compost heap and bonfire corner. These last two factors are vital. There is always woody rubbish to dispose of and more importantly there is always organic material to compost. Not a leaf should be wasted that can be converted into humus to return to the soil. There are a number of bins currently on the market designed to compost tidily. Make sure the size is sufficient to take everything convertible (it may be better to construct two or three cubic metre [6 or 10 cubic feet] bays from old planks. As two mature, one is then ready to use).
A problem of this hypothetical basic rectangle is frequently its lack of depth. To divide the already small area into sections is potentially restrictive. Where possible therefore a main vista should stop as far as possible from the beginning of the sight line. This vista closing may well end at the tool shed: this is no worry if the shed is visually acceptable. If it is not, then an attractive tree in front or a mural on the door may need to be considered. An amusing conceit is the construction of a trompe de l’oeil arch or gazebo at the end of the vista. A garden shed could well be its base. Well done it gives a splendid false perspective. The only thing to emphasise here is that no main sight line should end in anything unattractive. Nor need it.
Other Garden Shapes
Basic rectangles may be frequent but they do not encompass all small garden possibilities. Sometimes, especially with 19th century houses, the garden is narrow and very long. Here a full length vista may seem entirely out of scale. A main view-line may end at a median point with hidden egress from that apparent end to further limits of the garden. Such gardens can be happily contrived as a series of small interconnecting rooms, each with its own emphasis or cultivational specialisation. Often such gardens, simply because of their age, have fine trees around which to base contemporary planning.
Here at least the constraints of the long narrow plot are plain to see and often immediate answers are apparent. More difficult are the irregular near triangular corner plots that are an almost inevitable part of new housing developments. Although actual area may be greater than the conventionally rectangular inner plot sight lines are shorter. Privacy becomes of considerable importance, not just from neighbours but from frequent passers-by.