Planning a Garden Design

The Initial Design

This should encompass those things that we want — within the confines of the site and the depth of our pocket. It will place and arrange flowers and shrubs, lawn and vegetable patch, fruit trees and bushes; it will site a sitting-out area to catch the sun and a compost heap to recycle all spare organic material. It will decide upon paths and drives and where the washing is to be hung out to dry.

These are the elements of design; the fitting together of the ultimate in jigsaw puzzles. A jigsaw which has unlimited pieces of varying shapes to make up the picture that is not yet on the front of the box.

It sounds daunting, if not completely impossible.

planning a garden design So we return to the distinctive character of the place for it is that which will determine, in general, what sort of pieces each particular puzzle of a garden will contain, while the garden-maker more clearly controls their shape. Again, it must be repeated, we must work with what we have, not against it, if anything approaching success is to be achieved. The shape of the design and the hard materials do what they are told; plants, with few exceptions, do what they must. That is, they grow to the best of their ability not to please the gardener but to try to reproduce their species. Perhaps it’s as well that carrots cannot know that their fine accumulated foodstores end up in a stew instead of providing the energy to rocket up a flower spike the summer following that winter rest!


The Requirements of Plants

These must be considered if they are to be happy — and that to them is to be biologically successful — organisms filling the niche in the contrived walk-through sculpture we call a garden. Like animals, plants that we all normally cultivate, have specific needs to be able to live. These needs, simply, are fivefold: warmth, food, air, light, water, and wherever these factors combine, plant growth will happen; watch a piece of bare earth for a few months and see.

In the wild and even in neglected bare patches in gardens, if left alone, the plants which colonise the site will be just those that have adapted, over aeons, to succeed on just that soil in just that climate and in just that amount of shade. If they do not succeed then they are pushed out by those that can. Fortunately a cultivated plot is not quite so blatant an example of nature, green in thorn and spine as the plant world might be described. And we are able to ameliorate, if not change, the local conditions so that our plants represent a vastly greater environmental range than just that of our own wild flora. But we neglect the natural environment and plants’ requirements at our peril.



Of the five essentials the most likely to restrict plant growth in temperate climes is warmth or, to be exact, lack of it. So clearly the part of the country in which one lives makes a great deal of difference. It is often said that Great Britain doesn’t have a climate — only weather — and certainly in gardening the combination of small factors that make each garden’s microclimate is vital.

In general the winter minimum temperatures commonly experienced are the most limiting factor governing any choice of plants. And in Great Britain these are most likely to be lower in the east whilst the west has milder winters. Hence the surprise in seeing fine palm-trees and tree-ferns in wind-sheltered gardens in the north-west of Scotland which would have no hope of succeeding in Kent, some 500 miles to the south.

It should also be remembered that temperature at the plant’s roots is vital. A heavy clay soil holding large amounts of water will keep the temperature low in winter as well as being very slow to warm up in the vital early days of spring. Many desirable garden plants, especially from dry Mediterranean regions, such as lavenders, rosemary and rock roses find such a soil an unpleasant and unsatisfactory home. And they may well demonstrate the fact by dying.

A cold garden and a cold soil can be helped, as can all gardens, by careful planning and by using the right plants. This does not mean that all one’s cherished hopes of growing this or that exotic must be thrown away. Parts of the garden can be protected to conserve the warmth of the sun and to deflect the wind, soil can be made less sticky and water retentive or, for some special plants, a raised bed can be made. Much can be done. And great pleasure is obtained in succeeding when the websites, invariably pessimistic to preserve the authors’ reputations, assure you that all is impossible!



The soil is the basic material on which every garden has to work and and the material which makes plant growth possible. It is a highly complicated mixture of inorganic debris broken down over thousands of years from parent rock plus the decomposed organic remains of plant and animal bodies. It has been moved and mixed by the action of ice-sheets and by water. It also contains a huge population of living organisms from bacteria to earthworms all reacting upon it. Depending upon the type of parent rock, the soil will differ in its chemical makeup. Those built upon old igneous rocks such as granite are likely to be acid (we can grow rhododendrons and camellias but our cabbages will be poor) whilst those on the soft sedimentary limestones and chalk will have the opposite reaction as they will be growing on an alkaline soil.

It is too simplistic to assert, as is so often done, that sandy soils are necessarily poor. Similarly, clay soils, whilst well known to be extremely difficult to work and slow to warm up, are not all bad. They can produce splendid crops with almost no supplementary feeding.


Air and Light

Of two other essentials for plant growth it would seem that there is no lack. Yet nowadays under glass it is common for the greenhouse atmosphere to be enriched by added carbon dioxide in order to increase the rate of photosynthesis (and hence growth) and to extend daylength artificially to the same end. In the open garden such possibilities do not occur but it does emphasise that, as with other factors, plants are adapted to succeed in every sort of position. There are those which are best in full sun, in dappled or full shade.

It is much better to suit such plants to the position rather than to fight with what doesn’t want to ‘do’.



Water is necessary to all plants — even cacti which have gone as far as any plant can in adaptation to manage with very little. Its use is two-fold; as a part of the photosynthesis process which builds up sugars and starches in the leaves as one source of the food needed for plant energy, and secondly, but vitally, as the medium in which chemical nutrients are taken up from the soil through the roots into the conducting tissues of every part of the plant. The problems posed by the necessary ‘plumbing’ of a big tree are worth a lot of thought, for it is the sufficiency of water which keeps all young plants or young parts of older plants upright. Cut off their water supply and they wilt and die.

Fortunately rainfall in Great Britain is usually adequate, at least in theory, for most of the plants we want to grow, though it varies from less than 60cm (24in) per annum to four times that amount in different parts of the country. Rainfall, however, is not the full story. How much of it is actually available to our plants may be quite another thing. So much will depend upon the water-holding capacity of the soil so that it is still there when plants need it during the important growth periods of spring and summer. Heavy clay soils hold too much water, but this is usually in the winter. Paradoxically, in summer it is often easier for relatively light soils to ‘pull’ water up from underground sources. The answer for the gardener is to try to develop his soil to drain excess water away while building up its organic complement with well-rotted manure or compost. This acts like a sponge and holds some moisture to be available to plants’ roots at all times. Chalky and thin limestone soils have a continual problem here because organic compost and manure decomposes so quickly; but it is vital to persevere with improving them.


Exposed Sites

It can be seen then that working within the climate and the soil that the garden is blessed with, does not encourage mere fatalism. Amelioration is always possible in one form or another.

Another consideration in answer to a self-posed question of ‘What have I got in my garden?’ is that of exposure to the wind. The problem varies from seaside gardens where the first onslaught of spray-carrying gales has to be met, to small town gardens, apparently protected by high walls yet often vulnerable to wicked down-draughts and eddies roaring round the buildings.

The seaside or high hillside garden has very special problems. In the former case strong salt-laden winds are able to kill young leaves and soft growth of even native plants: I have seen the south side of hedges burned for miles inland by a late summer gale roaring up the valley from that direction. Clearly few plants can succeed in the front line, but there are a few. Again one must see what is successful already in the area and build upon that. Fortunately, the influence of the sea moderates low winter temperatures so that some suitable plants, too frost-tender for inland gardens, are available which might generally not be thought of. Even then, in the early years, a few carefully placed wattle hurdles may be necessary to give some protection.

Exposed hillside gardens have similar problems, but often without the comforting mildness of the seaside. The shape of any mature trees will show very graphically the direction and fierceness of the prevailing winds. But, and this factor must have consideration in all gardens, such sites have been chosen to put a house on because of the views of the seaside or its commanding position on the hill. The view is vital, it must never be planted out. In such situations protected corners can be contrived to keep open the view whilst still providing a sheltered site for plants which would otherwise perish.


10. May 2011 by admin
Categories: Garden Management, Planning and Design | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Planning a Garden Design


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