How to Design a Garden

Garden design

Getting started

There are several stages to garden design, from survey and inspiration, planning and researching to plants and co-ordination of the build.

We look at the phases from survey to planting plans here. However, it really is a very broad topic with each aspect deep enough that many have books in their own right. So this should be considered a basic introduction to the garden design process and the schools of thought behind it.

First steps

When considering a re-design, we always start with a site survey and site analysis. This may be more formal than you were expecting, but certainly when designing in a professional capacity, it’s important to know, quite literally, the lay of the land. You can employ a topographical surveyor if you wish, but if you’re aiming to complete this yourself then start by measuring the house which will act as your base point.

Be sure to include details of windows and doors so you can consider the views and walkways. From this point, we then triangulate all measurements from the house, triangulation meaning that we measure the location of a given object from two independent reference points. Ensure you include details such as the location of inspection covers, trees and other fixed points which are to remain in the new garden. Levels are important too if you are able to measure these, even as an approximation.

Once the survey is complete, you can start to think about other factors which will impact the design, such as views to be shown off or screened, the direction of any prevailing wind, the aspect, or frost pockets. Consider too the ground conditions - is the soil light (doesn’t hold well when squeezed into a ball in your hand) or heavy and claggy as this will impact which plants can be used successfully.

Next we get digging! Excavating a few holes in the garden in different areas to understand the drainage conditions will save time later. If you’re on a high water table, this will impact both hard and soft landscaping. Dig each hole approximately 500mm deep (if possible) and fill up with a few buckets of water; does this drain immediately? If not, return a few hours later or the next day and see how the water level has changed.

Gather ideas

Most people have some thoughts on the style of garden they are drawn towards, but getting the tone right will be an amalgamation of details. Google will really help, but gardening magazines can be great too, and we are huge fans of Gardens Illustrated for ideas. Instagram and Pinterest are also fantastic for getting inspiration and starting mood boards.

Don’t be put off by an idea ‘not being suitable’. You may not be able to have an elaborate maze in a small garden, but you can take the essence of an idea and introduce it by, for example, including some statement Yew columns or creating pinch points on a path to break up the space.

Drawing up

Once you’ve drawn up your existing garden, try to be open minded about the space. Don’t feel restricted about existing features (unless these absolutely must remain). First decide if you’d like an extrovert or introvert garden. By this, we mean consider if the garden is outward (extrovert) or inward (introvert) looking. As an example, if the garden is very much part of the surrounding landscape and the eye is encouraged to see what lies beyond the boundaries, then this is extrovert. If you want to keep the focus within the garden and are keen on screening for privacy or other reasons, then the garden will be introvert. If it’s the former then the layout is likely to be much more open and spacious, whereas the latter will mean considering focal points and probably breaking up the space into different areas.

Make sure you're working to scale; scale rulers are inexpensive and we’d suggest 1:50 or 1:100 will be suitable for most gardens. On a scale of 1:50, 2cm on your page represents 100cm in your garden i.e. a fiftieth of the reality.

The next step is to allow your creativity to flow! Use your pencil to create shapes on the plan without thinking too much about what these are. You may find it easier to cut shapes on card and play around these. Squares and rectangles are easier to work with but these will create strong lines and geometric patterns which will lead to a more contemporary finish. Circles and curves can be trickier to ‘fit in’ to a garden and the overall effect will be softer and more naturalised.

Overlap different shapes on top of each other until a basic framework starts to form. Then start to think about it from a practical perspective; is the seating area easily accessible from the house? Will the barbecue get the sun when you want it to? Is the shed navigable with a lawn mower? Paths shouldn’t feel too tight and the areas should all be proportionate to the house.

Layering

Time to get down to the details. We’ll look at a quick example to show you how important each facet is in contributing to the end result: look to the image on the right.

Everything about this garden asks us to come further in; to explore its wonder. The uneven brick pavers create a sense of age and charm (if paths could talk!). This is enhanced by the path winding a little here and there as it runs into the distance and even the fact that the brick pavers have been laid running away from the pergola play a role in elongating the perspective and encouraging the eye to look down the garden.

The line of sight becomes less clear and, generally, the planting is undefined, adding to the sense of charm and perhaps creating a suggestion that this garden has been slightly forgotten and therefore all the more intriguing.

Notice how the Cordyline is carefully positioned on the bend, but from the pergola it is at a central line of sight. It reinforces the suggestion that there is more interest to be found in this garden, but we must be willing to explore a little deeper.

designing a layered garden

Plants: Colour and Form

Colour and form can rarely be considered in isolation, hence their being grouped together so often. It is the use of one and how that combines with the other than ultimately impacts the look and feel of a scheme. To best illustrate our point, we are going to work through some examples. But first, let's take a closer look at what is meant by ‘form’.

It is thanks to Piet Oudolf that different concepts behind form in the garden were really brought into our consciousness. He refers to plants falling into one of two categories: structural plants and filler plants.

The former can be sub-divided further still according to their shape. Oudolf refers to plants in terms of dots, spires, domes and umbels. Grouping plants in this way suddenly makes the process of plant selection a lot easier! The later, filler plants, are the understory of planting and, it is widely agreed that these should comprise no more than a third of the planting. It is how these categories are combined overall which leads to different styles in the garden.

Example 1: Few colours and multiple forms for an natural finish

If you want to work only with colours on the same end of the spectrum, this can create a strong impact: therefore we’d suggest mixing up form for greater visual interest. However, how these forms interact with each other will impact the finished look too.

Take this image, there are ‘dots’ of orange (Geum), tall informal spires of white (Digitalis), shorter peach spires (Verbascum), stout columns of yellow (Lupins) and then repeat: yellow dots (Trollius), white flowers (Jasmine and aquilegia) and subtle texture changes in green, all acting as filler plants.

The inclusion of several colours (albeit still on the same end of the spectrum) and multiple forms leads to rather a busy image which we would associate with a ‘Cottage’ garden. The eye is moving around to digest the changes but, overall, the scheme is a success because of the way the shapes of the plants interact with each other.

Did you know: Green is the only colour which doesn’t require our eye muscles to adjust to see. It is completely neutral in this respect, which is why many people find it calming to look at. Furthermore, it is a colour that we associate with the presence of water, so in evolutionary terms, it’s a reassuring colour to find also. It’s the perfect backdrop colour to this border which would look very busy indeed if it was next to adjacent border of multiple forms and differing colours.

Example 1: Subtle colour change with different forms
Example 2: The gardens at Versailles, Paris

Example 2: Minimising colour and form

On the extreme end of the spectrum, you can have only minimal changes of form which generates a much more formal (form all) look.

In this photo taken in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles, there is only one colour in the planting and two forms; spires and domes. The combination of a restricted palette of colours and form means the eye can quickly take in most of the garden, making it much more formal. This simplicity has an elegance which is partly due to the scale of it, enabling strong repetition.

Example 3: Multiple colours and one form

Alternatively, you can have one form and multiple colours such as these Primulas (okay, the odd Iris is included also, but actually the form of these is relatively similar). Instantly, this image feels less formal and more joyous due to that diversity of colour.

It’s not advisable to pursue this style of planting where you are restricting yourself to one variety of plant (especially a perennial) unless you have a very large garden. Once these Primulas have finished, the border will be very boring indeed.

Example 3: One variety, Primula, in several colours.
Example 4: Charlie Bloom's 'Colour Box' Show Garden, Hampton Court, 2017

Example 4: Multiple colours and multiple forms

Increasing form and colour such as in this image of Charlie Bloom's ‘Colour Box’ Show Garden from Hampton Court in 2017 means that you can really see how the variation pushes the style down a much less formal route.

It takes several minutes to absorb the majority of the planting details in the garden as we process the differing shapes and tones. However, there is still an air of formality about it, and this is due to the geometric shapes of the layout - the strong paving line above the water, the boxy seat and the metal panels. Should any of these features have been softer, then the garden would have felt much more traditional overall.

Repetition

With little exception, most plants should see an element of repetition in a garden. This helps to unify the planting, and it’s our single biggest tip for getting a professional look. As with everything, there are different options; plant in drifts, plant in small groups and repeat at regular intervals, and block planting to name the most common.

Planting in drifts

This is the High Line in New York (planting design by Piet Oudolf) which shows drift planting. Each variety of plant is planted loosely in groups and each group slightly overlaps the next.

Border of irises

Group and repeat

Simple and effective; a large border appears cohesive. Note the low variety of plants for maximum impact.

Block planting

Block planting generates a more formal feel to the scene. Had these been more intermingled, the border would have looked more naturalised. Neither is ‘wrong’ as it’s all a matter of taste and which look you are aiming for.

The quantities too are important. There are just three varieties which have been planted in multiples. Had there just been one plant of each variety, the border would not be noteworthy.

Summary

As can be seen, there are multiple factors to consider and processes to go through to achieve a professional finalised garden, and we haven’t even considered the myriad of options in terms of hard landscaping.

We hope this blog has given you a little insight into the process and may even help you on your way to your dream garden. However, if it’s all seeming more overwhelming than ever, it’s time to get some professional help in.

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