Planning the Garden Design


When people move, they expect to impart their personalities to the new home, perhaps by redecorating but certainly with their own possessions. Yet all too often the garden stays just as it was. However, if you assess your site thoughtfully, considering all the factors which come with it such as climate and soil, you can make a garden as individually suited to you as any other part of your home.

The essence of good garden design lies in creating an area that is visually pleasing, functional, within the bounds of maintenance by the owner and not outrageously expensive to install. Maintenance is controlled by the amount of work that any owner is prepared to put into the upkeep of the garden – and the key rule here is to be realistic. Expense is a comparative matter – it simply depends on how much you are prepared to spend, have to spend or want to spend. If finance is not available immediately, you can work in stages of development, even in a small area, with temporary cheap answers for the time being, such as sowing the whole site with grass seed, parts of which are then later removed to create beds and borders. At the other end of the scale, you may consider employing a landscape architect. If you are a novice gardener, then this may be a wise move, but a rapport has to be established, so that whoever is submitting the proposals can be confident of understanding your wishes.


Other factors enter into the consideration of a design, such as the age of a family – whether playing areas are needed in the initial years, which can later become different features in the overall design. Is entertainment a high priority for you, so that an outside living area is needed, complete with barbecue facilities? Are you keen gardeners, with a knowledge of plants, or are you complete beginners? Some husbands and wives garden harmoniously and enjoy working together; others have separate areas where neither dares trespass. However limited the duration a child’s enthusiasm for gardening may be, he or she must never be given a plot in the furthest corner of the garden where nothing else will grow, for how can that encourage the young gardener? Fresh vegetables may be the heart’s desire of the cook of the household; soft fruit may also be a preference; it may even be economics that dictate that you grow your own.

The site and situation of a garden are relevant to any design – north-facing aspects will not accommodate sun-loving plants; shade-loving plants will not be happy if the garden faces south. The ground may be permanently damp or excessively drained; the soil may be alkaline or acidic -this factor often being overlooked by new gardeners with disastrous and expensive results. It is no use, for example, trying to grow rhododendrons on chalk downs or in limestone areas. Neither is there any point in trying to create beds of imported soil to overcome the problem, for lime will always seep in somehow and the water supply is bound to be tainted. Accept your lot, garden accordingly, working with, rather than fighting against, nature.

You may want a greenhouse, cold frame or shed in your garden. The former will want good sunlight. Such structures should be serviced by hard dry paths and should not be placed anywhere near overhanging trees if you live in an area of high snowfall. .


Planning may seem unnecessary or daunting to the new gardener. Not everyone is able to commit to paper their ideas or evaluate the different possibilities systematically. But it does pay to be sensible and, particularly with the smaller site, to have some sort of plan in mind so that you do not make time-consuming and expensive mistakes in laying out your garden.

The first priority to consider must be the site itself: its existing good points, amenities or problems. Decisions will have to be made to remove or retain whatever is already on site.

The current design vogue is to disguise the existing shape of your site but it is also fashionable to accentuate the squareness or elongate the length of the site you possess. I personally feel that lines in landscape need to be softened and long narrow gardens need to be broadened visually to give a more substantial look to them. So your main style decision is whether you want a ‘formal’ garden based on regular shapes such as straight lines and circles or whether your garden should rely on more apparently random shapes to look ‘informal’ or natural.

The next priority is to think about the climate, aspect and the condition of the soil in your garden.


As you assess the basic considerations of your site, you will want to review the kind of plants you will grow in your garden, but be patient. Any existing features will usually influence how the garden shall proceed. You work from a recipe in which the ingredients are your own taste, your soil, the climate, aspect and the features of your site.

It may be that you have a superb specimen tree; or in fact, this tree may well overshadow the entire garden. Other features should be considered; for instance, you may be overlooked by an unpleasant building. Conversely, you may have a view which needs to be accentuated and so all your planning needs to lead the eye to the view in question.

If your new garden has a summerhouse, shed or greenhouse, you will need to consider whether the structure is pleasing or useful to you, whether it wants to be masked or moved. Similarly, you will need to question die permanence of other large features. Paved areas may be enlarged upon, planted up with alpines or tubs, or removed.


There is one point which I would like to stress at the beginning. This is that one of the mistakes that we all make when planning a garden is to imagine that it is ever finished. I estimate that a garden can take five years to mature, after which a good hard look is necessary because some things will have got too large or mistakes will have been made. To quote a personal example, we thought we had bought a small Pampas Grass which would not misbehave. It grew and grew, together with Thuya occidentalis ‘Rheingold’, until one day I looked behind them and found that there was a huge gap that could be planted up so they were both thrown out. About 100 interesting plants such as hellebores, snowdrops and euphorbias were planted in their place to give an attractive late winter garden, followed by hostas in the summer. So always review how your garden is growing, your own changing needs and ideas and don’t be afraid to rework the design.


Before considering your design likes and dislikes and your favourite plants, take a good hard look at the site and adapt your thinking accordingly. A garden facing south will give you full sun for most of the day, most of the year. If your site faces slightly to the cast, it will give you sun early in the morning, and conversely, to the west, late in the evening. The disadvantage of an eastern aspect is that the sun will damage the frosted flowers of winter-flowering plants. It is not actually frost which kills flowers but the rapid melting of the ice that docs the most damage. A north-facing garden is not the end of the world as there are some lovely woodland plants that can be accommodated in what will probably be a chilly aspect.


The type of soil in your garden will determine what sort of preparation is necessary before planting. Clay soils will grow good plants but will be brutish to dig and may hold the moisture too readily. Depending on the degree of stickiness of the clay, a good deal of well-rotted garden compost should be incorporated.


Plants that thrive on acid soils include rhododendrons, camellias, certain primulas, meconopsis and as a wide generalization, members of the heath and heather botanical grouping known as Ericaceae. Usually, a quick look at neighbouring gardens will indicate the type of chemical structure you have – if rhododendrons and ericaceous plants are growing locally, the answer is obvious. If you are in a known limestone area, or on the chalk downs, then it will be obvious that the soil is alkaline and you must choose plants accordingly. There are many plants that will tolerate both conditions. Soil acidity is measured on the pH factor, neutral being 7.0, below being acid, above alkaline.

Sometimes the natural drainage of a soil has become impeded by building works and improvement is required. A permanently damp soil quickly becomes stagnant and offensive to plant life, so it is essential to make sure that surplus moisture is able to be removed or will remove itself naturally from die site. It may be necessary to construct a sump – this would be a large hole filled with rubble, towards which land drains can be led. Land drains are short 30cm (12in) clay pipes that should be kept cleared to maintain an efficient system. Conversely, a soil might be too quick-draining, in which case more moisture may have to be channelled its way, or the physical properties of the soil improved by the addition of peat, leafmould, compost or manure, to give it more moisture retentive properties.


Clay soil is easily waterlogged after rain and a handful will roll into a solid ball. Sandy soil drains very quickly and tends to be lacking in goodness. A handful will run through your fingers. Loamy soils are a good blend of sand, clay and humus. I am a great believer in garden composting. At home we have a fairly scientific, but simple system of throwing all vegetable rubbish (household and garden) into a brick bay with corrugated iron above so that the compost rots in a dry condition – this allows the correct bacteria to work on the decomposition of the waste products of the garden. All vegetable matter is thrown on, with an occasional sprinkling of Sulphate of Ammonia, which helps activate the compost. The heap is turned once and then bagged up into small polythene bags, easy to handle and stored ready for use. In our establishment we use it as a top dressing but in a new garden it will be useful to dig it in. Obviously when you begin on a site you do not have your own ready-made compost and so will have to rely on something like leafmould, cow manure or peat, but the latter is expensive so it is best to look for natural materials that cost you less. The same principle of digging in rotted vegetable matter applies to a well-drained sandy soil too in that this needs humus material in it to bind it and so the same materials are used for the opposite reasons. In clay soil the compost makes the whole more friable, in sandy soil it adds ‘body’. In really heavy clay conditions, more drastic forms of drainage may need to be considered, but usually the incorporation of good compost lightens the soil. Fortunate is the person who picks a site that has been cultivated for some while, for the action of plants growing will improve the soil’s fertility from its original condition.


Few countries have a uniform climate. In Britain it is accepted that it is generally colder in the north and warmer in the south but there is also an east/west difference in that the west has more rainfall and the east is drier. Exposure to strong winds is a factor which influences what will grow quite as much as temperature. Many plants will not thrive without some shelter from wind, particularly near the sea because the wind will carry salt. The proximity of other houses also affects your garden. City gardens often receive some warmth and protection from surrounding buildings but may also be shaded by them, especially in winter.

The fault committed by most of us is to plant plants that are on the tender side because they are attractive or a challenge to grow. Come a hard winter and these less hardy specimens are damaged or lost to us which is very sad. For those who are determined to grow tender plants in cold areas then the most sensible solution is to have a greenhouse in which rooted cuttings are placed each year.


Not all gardens come flattened and level, and not all slope in the right direction. However, a change of level can greatly add to the interest of your site. Gentle slopes can be used for rock garden features; turned into shady woodland areas; stepped and terraced to provide formal levels and, in fact, offer perhaps more than does a flat site. An area that has gently undulating levels or a ghastly mess left by the builders can be landscaped to give you sunken features below the average level of the surrounding ground and, again, provide some interesting aspects and cool corners for plants that are happy in such situations.

Level changes may complicate your planting because of course a south facing garden may have a slope towards the house, which means that the slope itself faces north. This can be corrected by terracing and turning the levels so that they tip into the slope and therefore get some of the warmth from the sun. Any major amount of heavy earth moving may well prove to be too gargantuan a task, so you will need to adapt your thinking to accommodate the slope as it stands.


Before thinking about the shape of your garden you will have to consider your boundary. Generally, when you move to your property, the boundary fence has been put in place for you, or there is a hedge or brick wall. Alternatively, there may be an open plan for the estate or locality, in which case you must discover whether you are allowed to create screens, if you wish to divide yourself from your neighbour. Remember that any form of division is expensive, be it wooden fencing, chain link fencing or most of all, brick or stone walling. On a tight budget, building a boundary may take up a great deal of the available finance, but it does ensure the balance you want between privacy and public display.


If your design is going to be relatively simple, you may prefer to dispense with paper plans. In this case, use trails of sand or rope to mark on the cleared site or grass the intended outline of beds, borders, paving or other features.

For any larger or more sophisticated garden you would be wise to attempt a paper plan, perhaps with several alternatives, until you are happy with the balance of hard and soft surfaces, the shape of planting areas etc. Make your plans on graph paper on a scale of 1/50 or 1/100. Translate the garden measurements on to it so that you can calculate the ultimate size of trees and shrubs and overcome future problems. Ideas can be put down on paper and translated roughly on to the ground to give you an idea of how the whole will look.

A lecturer in landscape design in my student days stressed that you needed to go into the bedroom in order to see how your garden will look. Whilst this sounds slightly jokey, it is nevertheless a good idea to view the garden from above and from every aspect before you take the final plunge. Check that the features you want are incorporated in your garden – flowerbeds, borders, vegetables, soft fruit, fruit trees and so on -remembering that some cause more work than others. Do not, however, try to create a ‘labourless garden’ because there is no such object. All gardens need some regular maintenance.


If the landscaping of the site is costly in terms of putting the soil to rights and making a decent feature of what was a total wilderness, then there may be little left over to spend on trees and shrubs. It cannot be emphasized enough that the preparation of the garden is far more important than the actual planting. Skimped preparation will lead to years of heartache and disappointment.

Remember that features such as rock gardens and pools and waterfalls are expensive to construct and maintain. Water adds movement to the garden and is exceedingly attractive, but if the budget is limited, then its use as a feature should not be considered.

Budget priorities are thus easily summarized: the first expense is to make the site clean, the second is to consider the boundaries and the third is to consider the planting costs, both in terms of the plants themselves and in terms of any extra labour involved. Having said all this, you need to go back to the planning stage to consider the amount of maintenance that you have created, whether you can cope with this physically and, if not, whether you can cope with it financially by employing someone as necessary.

It creates informality. There is no crime in having a flat, square or rectangular lawn if you so desire. There is a formal school of gardening, which, with the addition of garden features such as urns and statues, can produce very imposing results and can be much simpler to maintain than the in-formal garden. Likewise, it is not necessary to create your ups and downs artificially. Clever planting can do this, leading the eye along a gradient by the use of well planted upright growing conifers and small trees. Use heathers or ground cover plants to create a wider space. Remember that many different colours will make a fiat space look smaller than if you use a more limited range.


If you choose to construct a pond, the soil excavated therefrom can, of course, be employed in making a rock garden nearby. Rock gardens and pools seem to be a natural, attractive and practical combination. Sound planning is the key to a successful rock garden.


I wish I had a slope in my garden. With a slope you can create many aspects and you can, in effect, turn round the slope position to face a different point of the compass. South facing slopes on sandy soils will, of course, be very well drained and the moisture will evaporate considerably.

Terracing a slope can be an expensive undertaking, but there are various ways of doing it: by building a series of retaining brick walls and having each level absolutely fiat; by creating a dry stone wall effect or, in a larger garden, you can install a series of steps going up the slope with wider beds incorporating shrubs and herbaceous plants.

If you want to create slopes in a flat area, this is easily done by digging out soil and replacing it in banks, but in a small area this would look bitty; it needs bold thinking and should only be attempted in the larger garden. Remember to put the topsoil aside before making your mound, then replace the topsoil. Raised beds are a good way of adding interest to fiat gardens.


It is relevant to say here that if you are seeking a formal style of gardening, and have a flat area, then it is best left flat. When slopes are introduced


What immediately springs to mind under this heading is the garden on the grand scale with magnificent statuary placed at the end of a long vista, or a temple erected on a knoll, Capability Brown-style. But you do not need to work on country house scale! For the smaller garden there are some very reasonably priced statues in reconstituted stone, glassfibre or even concrete. There is also a profusion of urns and vases in different sizes to choose from. Attractive garden seating is a feature in its own right; a pergola, entrance arch or a piece of trellis work could be a feature, especially if you wished to screen a compost heap, shed or greenhouse. But focal points do not need to be artificial as there is such a wealth of rich colourful plant material that sparkles even in the far distance. An upright growing golden conifer placed on the corner of a border is always a pleasant point of interest. The variegated shrub Elaeagnus pungens ‘Maculata’ makes a brilliant colourful display at the end of a path, and as it is evergreen it could easily hide a compost heap or similar feature. Evergreens are the best choice for year-round focal points. Deciduous trees and shrubs can look slightly sparse in winter but a possible exception to this is the twisted hazel, Corylus avellana ‘Tortuosa’. This has curiously twisted stems and large, slightly gross leaves during the summer but come February time, its branches are clothed in delicate, pale fawny, yellowish catkins which are a most attractive feature at a thin time of the year for interest. Under planted with dwarf Iris reticulata, this tree provides a very interesting sight. A bed of heathers, which grow best in acid or peaty soil, can, by careful choice, give an eye-catching display throughout most of the months of the year. If you want to have an arresting feature in the summer, and the garden is large enough, then a bed cut out of the lawn filled with self-supporting herbaceous plants (ie. That do not need supporting stakes) can be most attractive. In principle I prefer to leave the lawn as a vast expanse rather than have it broken up by beds.

If the garden faces south and a summerhouse can be incorporated, there are some very attractive standard designs that can be found. If placed in an arbour of surrounding trees and shrubs, these can be made to look very cool and restful in the summer. If you have a pergola, train clematis and roses or wisteria to clamber through it, and your garden will have a beautiful centre of interest.


A focal point can also be made to take the eye away from a less pleasant feature and so consideration might be given to the placing of, say, a vegetable garden conveniently nearer the house which can be screened easily by fruit trees or roses and the real centres of interest placed at the further end of the garden. Likewise, a shed at the end of the garden is inconvenient on a time and motion basis. The best place for the tool shed is in the centre of your plot, so that wherever you walk from the shed is equidistant. Your shed may be hidden for most of the summer behind a magnificent screen of sweet peas or honeysuckle, with a forsythia shrub to do the job in spring.

01. May 2013 by admin
Categories: Featured, Garden Management, Top Tips | Comments Off on Planning the Garden Design


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