Good garden design follows some simple principles. Of course, in any specific garden these may not all apply. And in some of the great gardens (and in the hands of great designers), many are turned on their head. But for now, here are seven design tips that you might find helpful when considering a new garden:
1. What do you want from your new garden?
Sit down with all family members and make two lists. One a very practical one – cooking area, play area for children, composting, dining for 8 and so on. The other list is the fun one. Think about your favourite places, holidays, gardens you have visited, childhood memories, favourite scents, your aspirations and inspirations. Let your imagination run riot. By the time you’ve finished your dream list, you may have a better idea of what emotions you’d love your new garden to stir in you every time you walk out into it. This applies to a garden with any budget, large or small. It may be as simple as a dining area with jasmine trained above it, to remind you of a holiday spot. A well-designed garden should be special to you and your family.
2. Look around
How many times have you walked into a garden that felt a bit odd? It may contain beautiful plants and landscaping but somehow the garden isn’t a comfortable space. Chances are that a garden like this has been designed without the surrounding landscape, buildings and history of the site in mind. Your garden does not exist in isolation. It’s not a room with four walls and a ceiling. When you walk around a garden you take in views of your house, other houses, neighbouring gardens, the wider landscape and the sky. The light changes through the day and through the seasons, becoming warmer and cooler. The site itself may have interesting historical influences that can guide a new design. The most successful gardens are ones that match their owners’ desires with the unique qualities of their settings. So have a good look around, take in all the views and think how your new garden will sit comfortably in its surroundings.
3. Your garden should take you on a journey
A well-designed garden will encourage you to step into it, and (depending on size) to explore it. Start with thinking about paths and steps. A common mistake is to use indoor proportions outside, making paths too narrow, or steps too steep. Unless you are going for a particular dramatic effect, don’t do it! Second, make sure that paths take you exactly where you want to go. How often in a garden do you find yourself ignoring paths and cutting across lawns, stepping over dwarf walls or planting beds? Gardens like this have not been laid out with ‘desire lines’ in mind. Finally, good gardens will draw you to a particular place. This can often be a seating area, a little hidden from sight of the main house. Typically this area should be partially enclosed, which makes it an instinctively comfortable place to sit in. And, as mentioned earlier, this area should be designed to be unique to you and/or your family. It should be your special place.
4. Your garden should look good in death
Always design a garden with winter in mind. Most of the flowering plants will be dead and it’ll probably be wet, grey and not somewhere you may want to be. The key here is structure and good detailing. Structure comes first through evergreens. Holly, yew and osmanthus are just a few plants that create terrific hedging or topiary. And second, walling and garden features such as pergolas, ornaments and garden buildings provide strong structure. These elements will remain constant in all seasons and are the bones of your garden. An overlooked area in many gardens is good detailing. Small cobble edging to a patio, a herring bone pattern path or accents of oxidised copper will lift a garden in the dullest of winter weather. And the added bonus of good structure and detailing is that you’ll find yourself spending less on spring/summer planting. Why? Because if the basic structure is well done, you’ll need fewer plants to pep up your garden.
5. Less is More
If you’ve followed the first four tips, this should be fairly easy. You’ll already know what you want from your garden, you’ll be aware of what your garden wants to be and you’ll be designing it with winter in mind. For example, you may want to create an elegant town garden, in keeping with surrounding Georgian architecture. Start off with limiting yourself to three different evergreen plants and three different hard landscaping materials. When choosing general plants, think about their architectural structure first, leaf shape second, and colour last. If that seems odd, remember that plants with small leaves give the appearance of depth and large leafed plants appear closer to you than they are. So, a laurel hedge on a back wall will make the garden feel smaller, and a similarly placed yew hedge will make it feel bigger. And a final tip is that once you’ve made a list of plants in keeping with a Georgian-style town garden, cut the list in half, and maybe cut it again.
6. Follow the rules
Tree preservation orders, proximity of garden buildings to walls, height of walls, right to light and so on are all covered by law. If you’re not sure about what you can remove or build where, check with your local council. Before you start thinking about plants for your garden, check the soil PH, condition and structure. Are there drainage issues? Do you have acid soil? Do you need to improve your soil? All plants have ideal growing conditions and it is always sensible to put in plants that will at least tolerate the growing conditions in your garden. Start by checking your chosen plants on the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) website, then talking to your local garden centre.
7. Last, but not least…
Gardens shouldn’t be a chore. They are there to be enjoyed. A family member might suggest you plant endless beds of plants or veg, but if you have no intention of labouring away with secateurs and a spade either ignore them or make them sign a binding contract to come and labour on your behalf! Better to begin small until your inner Monty Don (or Monty himself) comes calling…