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Garden Design - Start here

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Making a start;

Design can be one of the most enjoyable bits of gardening - relaxing, not dependent on the weather and time spent dreaming of wonders to come.

Even if you're not a habitual designer, time spent in preparation can be worth ten times the investment later on when you decide that a particular tree, border etc. is not appropriate or is in the wrong place.

These pages are intended as a starting point if you are planning great things, or as a complete and simple guide if you aren't.

Step 1    - Draw up a plan of your garden to scale on a large piece of paper.

Step 2    - Mark on this plan the things you can't change. Position of your house, windows, doors, garage, fences and other boundaries, neighbours trees/hedges, neighbours windows that overlook your garden. Don't underestimate the influence on your garden of things just outside it.

Step 3    - Make a (realistic) wish list of the things that you would like (and the things that you need) in your garden.

Step 4    - Take your basic plan and your wish-list outside and start thinking about where things are going to be. Write them in pencil on a separate piece of paper. Then leave it all alone for at least a few days before you repeat this step until you're happy with the result.

As time goes on you may decide to have a rose bed or house your National collection of Euphorbias in a particular place rather than the original idea of a herbaceous border. You may go for a patio instead of decking, but at least you will have a good idea of the kinds of things in each area. Think in terms of the use of the surface, of how you will move around the garden and of vertical height.

Lay things out outside, use a hose-pipe for borders, pegs for the edge of hard surfaces. Above all make sure the size of the features are realistic and useful. What may look a delightful shape for a deck on paper, may in reality not have any area that is actually large enough to be useful. It is better to have a useful if mundane rectangular patio than a lovely sinuous shape where however you arrange things, there's always one table leg on the lawn.

Architectural Plants

A frequently used term. If your garden is your outdoor room, then architectural plants are the furniture. They are the long-lived permanent residents that give the garden much of its shape and character. The shorter lived annuals, bulbs and herbaceous perennials are the ornaments and pictures.

Design Books

Design Your Garden  Diarmuid Gavin

The Garden Planner  
Robin Williams
John Brookes Garden Design (revised)
John Brookes Garden Design
The Essential Garden Design Workbook
The Essential Garden Design Workbook
Rosemary Alexander

RHS Really Small Gardens
RHS Really Small Gardens
Jill Billington

When deciding on your planting, begin with architectural plants.

Design Tips

    Cost. This will dictate to a large extent what you can and can't do, but often as not is a question of time. Do you complete the whole garden that you want at once or do it in stages? I would suggest that you stick to a longer-term more expensive plan rather than a quick cheapie. If you try to cut corners initially, you will probably end  up fiddling around with what you've got and re-do it over  the longer period spending the same amount of money (if not more).

    Take your time planning - don't rush it. Make plans then ignore them for a while, come back again later and see if you still like them. Get the overall large scale plan sorted first with shapes of lawn, hard landscaping etc. Try not to get sidetracked into the details too early

    If possible make an entrance to the garden - a leafy tunnel with an arbour and climbers over maybe. Shield entrances to the garden from direct line of sight. Coming around a corner or through a tunnel to a "surprise" garden is always dramatic and impressive.

    Think about how your garden looks from the overlooking windows. Throughout the year, you will probably look at the garden through windows more than you will actually be in it. Attention to this is one of the easiest and more successful things that you can do to get a rewarding garden. If the garden looks good through the windows, then it will probably tempt you out into it more.

    Place bird feeders / tables where they can easily be seen from frequently used windows. You'll also get more value from water features if they're placed where they can be easily seen from a window.

    Privacy in the garden is one of the most important elements. Most people take steps to prevent passers by from seeing straight into their living rooms and you'll feel much more comfortable in the garden if there's no sense of being watched. The old adage "good fences make good neighbours" definitely applies here.

    Link the garden to its surroundings if possible. If you are lucky enough to have a view of countryside or woodland. Place sympathetic plants leading to the view to give the impression that it is a continuation of your garden. If the view is reasonable, but not wonderful, then a filigree screen of planting gives a similar impression.

    Planting is too often piecemeal, plants are introduced at random by different people at different times. Plant lovers need to be very disciplined here to not be side-tracked by plants that wink at you in the garden centre.

    A sense of mystery and discovery is one of the most enchanting elements of a garden;

Plan the garden so that you don't see the whole from the house. There should be some parts out of immediate view if possible, with something such as a winding path or stepping stones drawing the eye further and encouraging you to go further.  

 Features such as statues and pots, sculptures etc. can be successfully be placed out of immediate sight giving a sense of discovery when happened upon.

    Make borders as wide as you can. 2ft minimum for small plants, 6ft is better. Rather than have a border all around the garden which will probably be narrow by necessity, restrict the range of it but increase the depth.  Avoid straight edges, sweeping curves look more natural and interesting. When planting beds and borders, plant according to the ultimate height of the plants, tallest at the back of course.

    Try to introduce year-round interest. Time spent planning what plants to grow is important.

Decide what you want before you buy your plants. It's always very tempting to buy the plants that look good at the time of purchase. The danger of this is that you get a garden that looks fabulous each year at the time you went plant shopping but is probably fairly bland the rest of the time.

Don't plant too many evergreens, and try to make sure that some of the ones you do plant flower and / or have berries. Non-flowering evergreens might seem an ideal answer to providing year-round interest but you could end up having a garden that hardly changes with the seasons.

Some plants are spectacular for short periods and ordinary the rest of the time. Think about what you plant near them so that they really shine when it's their turn, but have other plants around them that take turns to do their thing at a different time of the year.

    Think laterally (OK I know it's easier said than done). Don't feel that you have to accept what is presented or for sale. There is great satisfaction to be had from making your own features from raw materials.

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the functions that the garden fulfills are totally user specific.

    What should be in a garden? We're told these days that all sorts of things belong there and weird and wonderful materials too. Stainless steel, rusty iron, crushed glass in various colours, steel coated in red primer, concrete looking like concrete and even tarmac in various colours. What will look good in 20 years time still? Alternate patio slabs in rose and yellow shades, a deck of railway sleepers with a frame-work of red painted steel girders or "boring" old fashioned York stone paving? I know where I'd put my money.

This table may help,

  Now   Later  Not required









Bench / other seating




Pergola / arch / trellis


Shed / greenhouse 




Utility area for bins, other storage washing line and dry access

Gravel / shingle area      

Children's play area

Watr feature      

    Smaller grdes -now that's a tren I'e sen more and moreof ecetly. There's two ew ousng developments being built nearto her I live (withinabot 5miles) and both have houses and apatmets oing up to three storeys with he argst gardens being small nd many houes/flats having none at all. The one that gets my vote for the worst ever i ner t Hinchingbrooke Country Park o th ouskirts of Huntingdon, maybe thebuider think that having a cunty prk on the doorstep is compensation for building Dickensian street scenes in the countryside. The worst part of it all though that takes it to a next level is the communal garages / parking spaces (no garden, many flats, no driveways) where there are armies of wheelie bins lined up in serried ranks like an Abominable Terracotta Army. Huntingdon likes wheelie bins - we've got three - 2 too many and I never use the green one as I'm a compost fanatic - if you have no garden, you end up putting them where everyone else does and it looks horrible. Rant over.

Sex and Death in the Garden - by Roger Noakes

Right, so that's got your attention.

The real point of this piece is to ask the question, "What is your garden for?"  Here are two answers.  The writer Sam Llewellyn in his book "The Sea Garden" says " gardens beauty is a by product. The main business is sex and death". Give it some thought and you can see what he means. The sole purpose of plants from a botanical perspective is reproduction. Hence the cycle of growth, flowering, fertilization, seed production and dispersal followed by death. For some plants (trees, shrubs and perennials) this takes years. With others, annuals, that have a life of less than a year, all of the cycle is crammed into spring, summer and autumn. Attractive flowers and leaves are simply means to ends - a by product.

Another answer was provided by the late and outstanding American landscape architect

That area of land outside, the garden, is part of your property and part of your life. To some people, gardening is a passion and they happily devote hours of their time to it.  To others gardening is no more than housework outside, necessary to keep the thing under control.  The vast majority of people are somewhere between these extremes.

More and more of us now see the garden as an integral part of our homes.  Just like the rooms inside, the garden must meet our needs, be in tune with our tastes and personality, and fit our lifestyle.  It must also complement the house and its surroundings.  Your garden can be pretty much anything you want it to be so long as it fits in with the practical limitations of space, time and budget.

You may be thinking that it is about time you sorted out things in the garden.  You may have recently moved in and don't like your inherited garden. You might not have as much time as you did to look after it.  Whatever the reason, you may be dissatisfied with it.  But before you go outside to slash and burn ask yourself a few questions.

Fist of all, consider what needs the garden must meet for your household.  For example, do you want the garden for entertaining and relaxation?  How much are you willing and able to do (i.e. work) in the garden?  Should the garden be child friendly?  Are you a garden enthusiast or do you know little about plants and gardening?  Do you have a dog?  Modern lifestyles are often dominated by work (on average we work more hours per week than people in other EU countries) and/or children.  So increasingly the demand is for low maintenance gardens.  But no garden is 100% maintenance free.  The point is that your garden should require no more effort than you are willing/able to put in.  By the way, a low maintenance garden does not have to be dull.  Low maintenance, interest and attractiveness are not incompatible.

The next big question concerns what you want your garden to look like - its style.  Whether it's traditional English cottage garden (lot of work), modern (low maintenance), Mediterranean (medium maintenance), formal or informal is entirely a matter of your taste.  If your garden is big enough you can have more than one style.  You don't have to be bound by convention or what's fashionable - it's your garden.  Making the best use of your space in your preferred style and to meet your needs is a matter of design principles, vision, imagination, knowledge of plants and landscaping expertise.  If your garden is well planned it will have the same effect on you as a well designed and decorated house, a great holiday or good clothes.  It will enhance your well being and improve your lifestyle.

As for plants, the key thing is to work with the conditions you have in your garden.  If you have a heavy clay soil don't expect plants that require a well drained soil to prosper.  Similarly, don't put sun loving plants in a shady position.  Most of us want the garden to look good year round.  To achieve this at least 60% of the plants should be evergreen.  When thinking about colour, go for groups of the same plant rather than have them dotted about - it gives a more striking effect.  Don't forget that colour can also be provided by foliage.  Lastly, don't go near a garden centre without a clear idea of what you want, preferably written down.  Otherwise you'll buy plants on impulse and get them home only to find that you have nowhere to put them or that they are unsuitable for your garden.

Thomas Church got it right when he wrote, "People expect to find happiness in their gardens.  Happiness will come by adding as much beauty and by eliminating as many irritations as possible".  I like the word "irritations".  You can imagine this domestic scene: "I'm just going into the garden to get rid of an irritation" - like mowing the lawn, trimming a hedge or clearing weeds.  In which case do you really need a lawn or hedge?  Weeds, however, like death and taxation are certainties.  But there are ways of making life hard for weeds.

Roger Noakes runs a garden design and landscaping business and can be contacted on 020 8925 9173 or by email

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