Garden Design Tips And Principles

Guidelines here are aspects, levels and contours, scale, balance and colour. An understanding of these will promote the final success of the shape of your garden and the right choice of plants and other features used to furnish it.


A south-facing wall or fence is the most felicitous because it is protected from harsh winds and in summer the sun’s rays will stay on it at an ever-widening arc from late morning until late afternoon. The wall thus absorbs warmth for the greater part of the day, even if the day is overcast. Plants like Passiflora and Ceanothus, which can be vulnerable to cold in the mildest counties, will thrive given the shelter of a south-facing wall.

A west wall, sun-warmed from around midday until sunset, is almost as beneficial to growth.

An east-facing wall can be treacherous: if there is frost, early-morning sunshine can rupture the tissues of frosty petals. A north wall attracts hardly any direct sun. But this is not to say that it must be left bare: many climbers and other plants prefer to bathe their feet in a cool and moist position.

Exposure and enclosure

Over-exposed and over-enclosed sites are almost equally a drawback. Gardens hate wind, which not only wrecks plants that have been inadequately secured or staked but saps them of life-giving moisture.

If your garden is on a windy hill, plant hardy stock and introduce windbreaks: a stout chain-link fence (but grow climbers up it because it is not in itself a thing of beauty) or any kind of substantially built fence that allows the wind to filter through. Hedges of hazel or the flowerful Escallonia are robust alternatives to a manmade barricade.

Small over-enclosed gardens, common in urban areas, are made claustrophobic for plants not only by the giant buildings which so often overshadow them but by typical close-lapped boundary fencing which might have been specifically designed to trap mildew. Wind-resistant such gardens usually are, but they are sorely in need of air. If it is practicable, the existing fences might be exchanged for wattle fencing or a wall of screen blocks, both of which will admit light and air. But radical change of the kind depends upon neighbours’ agreement and is pointless if the boundaries are acheek with narrow overhung access passages, or next door’s stooping yews.

Levels and contours

The natural slope of the land is the first influence. If it is nose-diving down to the foundations of the house its inclination should be restrained by a low wall built at terrace-distance from the house, the land beyond being levelled off or gently inclined over a chosen distance.

Most hillside gardens are better terraced if there is not to be land subsidence and unequal drainage over the whole area. Low brick or drystone retaining walls set off the tiers of the garden and, if adequately founded, using gravel to a depth of at least 6 in. (or 15 cm), counteract the danger of dryness at the top of the slope and waterlogging at the bottom. If there is also a slope to one side or the other, this should be retained to encourage water to drain away from the house.

All natural inclinations of the land can, of course, be artificially flattened or altered. But if you aspire to the true understanding of gardening you will greet nature as friend rather than foe. Quite the dullest gardens are the long narrow strips at the back of suburban houses to be seen one after the other from any main-line train.

Given uniformity of plot and level and the pollution of the environment, it is unfair to be too critical of the monotonous sequence of lean-to sheds, oblongs of starved grass flanked by stringy flower beds and a culminating vegetable patch. The same “square” treatment is, however, too often imposed upon land whose vagaries and variety should be rejoiced in rather than snubbed.

The planes, the shoulders, the snug nooks and laps, the sharp elbows and fingers of land all ask to be dressed as their nature suggests. Grass the planes or close-cover with creeping plants starred with flowers like Dryas octopetala. Drape the shoulders with shrubs of pendant habit like laburnum, or accent the contour in one place with a weeping willow or ash. Make of the nooks bowers of tiny alpine flowers and fill the laps with cascading water. Point the angle of the elbow with the slender shaft of an evergreen conifer. Glove the finger in grass and let it simply point to some rarity, a shrub of beauty, a close-framed spectacular view, a piece of sculpture or a tranquil seat in the path of the setting sun.

Scale, balance and colour

It takes no artistic talent to make a rough layout on paper of the garden you have in mind. How rough doesn’t matter, as long as it means something to you. Use coloured pencils for the obvious reason and, if you cannot draw, work out a code of symbols (e.g. green dots for grass, a single vertical stroke for a shrub of fastigate (upright) habit, circles of various sizes to indicate shrubs of low spreading form and so on).

Use squared graph paper, so that the layout is at least roughly to scale, each side of a square representing so many feet or centimetres of the actual garden.

1 Mark in essential areas and structures like the lawn, beds, borders, any paved areas and outhouses. If you are nervous of drawing curves collect a number of discs of .varying diameter (lids of jars or tins, coins, tiddlywinks). By sliding them from side to side and using now the convex, now the concave of the rim you will soon find it easy to outline the kidney-shaped lawn you aspire to.

2 Emphasis comes next: the plants and features of really bold form which provide the cornerstones and accents that hold together the basic design of the garden and dramatise its component areas.

3 Now colour: variations on a single theme are usually more effective in this respect than rainbow groupings.

Pleasure and purpose

One gardener’s willing toil is another’s servitude, so the first thing to decide once the ground is prepared is how much time you can give the garden. On this will rest what proportion of it is to be relatively maintenance-free (e.g. paths and paved areas and shrubberies rather that flower beds).

But long-term time-savers are initially a costly investment. The cost of shrubs you cannot avoid, but nursery prices vary quite considerably and a safari to outlying growers can amply refund the costs of getting there.

The material costs of paving are considerable if you use natural stone, especially if it is not indigenous to your neighbourhood. Manufactured aggregates or concrete slabs provide a cheaper alternative, at their best textured to look like the real thing. Because of their uni- formity they are not so hard for ths lay stonemason to lay as random natural stone Whatever pleasure it gives its gardener, any garden must give pleasure to others if it is to be more than a mere allotment or an open laboratory for growing plants. As well as making major decisions like how. Much land to devote to the lawn or whether or not to grow vegetables, provision should be made for family needs and tastes. Cases are infinitely variable, but among the following checklist you might find it helpful to tick off priorities as they affect you personally:

1 A place for eating, drinking, sitting, talking. If the property is detached and you can chase the sun through the day, three such areas are possible: where the early sun falls for breakfast; high noon in the sun for lunch, but perhaps with the relief of some shade; an evening place where you can dine and watch the sun go down.

2 Play space for children. A paved area where they can ride their bikes or scooters. A sand pit, natural or raised in a frame. A swing or a climbing frame, firmly lodged in concrete set in a soft-landing bed of soil or grass. Given a tree, even a tree-house. Given the space, a rough patch where children can run wild.

3 Washing line area. The rotary-action washing line takes up least room and looks neatest. Ideally site it close to the kitchen but where it also catches the wind and is near to an outhouse for storage when not in use.

4 Garage, greenhouse or any other necessary outhouses.

5 Decorative statuary, seats and plant containers.

6 Structures and supports, such as trellises, pergolas, arches.

7 A herb garden. Site this as close as possible to the kitchen.

8 A vegetables cage to keep the birds off.

9 A bird table to attract the birds and lure them away from other areas of the garden. Even a close-meshed netting bag filled with nuts, dried fruit, apple and meat fragments and hung from a branch of a tree. A daily delight for you as well as the birds.

10 Water effects. Station stand pipes at as many points as they can conveniently be placed, to enable you to hose the garden with ease. Beyond this, pools, waterfalls and fountains are possibilities that will give great pleasure.


A really good nursery catalogue will greatly help you to achieve a harmonious balance of both form and colour. Its listings of plants will include many special recommendations other than the basic ones of preference for particular aspect and soil.

It will tell you not only what flowers when, what is evergreen and what is deciduous, what is a hardy plant, what a half-hardy, what an annual and what a perennial, but many other things, of which the most important to keep in mind at the planning stage is the ultimate height and girth of a plant. Trees or shrubs of any stature will eventually overwhelm a small garden if their size at maturity has not been calculated at planting time.

Nomenclature. In catalogues you will find plants listed under their predominant characteristics: Fastigate or Pendulous Habit; Shade-loving; Bold Foliage; Purple, Golden, Silver or Variegated Foliage; Aromatic Flowers or Foliage; Ornamental Bark or Fruits, to name a few.

Most nurserymen list plants under their common as well as their botanical names, but an understanding of the latter is an instant guide to some characteristic of the plant. If you take a long commonsense look at the word it can be surprisingly self-revealing, without your knowing a word of Latin. It is easy to guess, for instance, where a plant described as aquatica grows, or one that is maritima or montana. What else could a floribunda be but free-flowered but it is not hard to understand why even a uniflora would hate to be mistaken for a mere nudiflora.

The lawn

Even a pocket-handkerchief lawn refreshes the eye. You can manage a small lawn with one of the nimble little mains or battery-powered mowers. A big garden grassed to save time in beds will need a much more powerful — and much more expensive — machine, probably petrol or battery-driven. Mains electric mowers, it must be said, can only be used if handy to a power point and are really not much use if the cable extends only halfway up your lawn. Extension cables are tiresome if trailed over any distance and can easily trip the unwary.

Preparation. Requirements for a good lawn are preparatory double-digging, effective drainage, a rich top spit, fairly acid soil and an open situation. Sloping lawns can be very charming, but steep banks are hard to mow, so if there is any dramatic difference in levels it is wise to terrace, retaining the bank by a wall or turning it into a rockery. If you are planning steps between two levels bear in mind the weight of your lawnmower; you might have to make a communicating ramp in some unobtrusive spot.

Turfing a lawn is expensive but quick. Results from the best seed are more reliable but slow. Cheap grass seed is a poor investment. Buy the best you can. There are grasses to suit all purposes, even mixtures that will flourish in shade and thirsty sandy soil. Camomile seed, an alternative to grass, is costlier but produces a luxuriant green carpet which grows more thickly the more you tread on it and is resistant to drought.

Maintenance. For good lawn maintenance top-dressing occasionally with organic matter (if using a proprietary fertiliser follow the instructions carefully to avoid scorching the grass), rake and aerate by spiking frequently and roll only two or three times in early spring when the ground is fairly dry.

Do not shave the grass, but mow it frequently— twice a week if you can— when it is growing fast. In long dry spells, mow less often and leave the cuttings on the lawn. Any artificial watering must be liberal if it is not to do more harm than good: use a sprinkler when you can.

Beds and borders

Thinking big pays off, at least in terms of effect. A small bed is fine for a single specimen tree or flowering shrub but a mean thing if several plants are fighting for space inside it, none with a chance to flourish. The narrow border, more often than not within the heavy shade of a fence, can be disastrous.

Two of the joys of the mature garden are the grand rose bed, with several dozen bushes each with space to breathe, and the deep herbaceous border, its plants subtly ranked from front to back, from flowering toes to crest, over a depth of 10 or more feet. Such glories, though time-consuming, repay the effort if you have the space. If not, aim for simplicity and impact.

Three to four feet (say a metre or so) is really the minimum depth for an effective border. An ugly fence in a small garden is better off without a border; clothe it instead with an evergreen climber that will trail tactfully down to the ground so that there is no need to keep a trim edge to the grass. Honeysuckle suits the purpose, though its vigour must be kept in reasonable check. Avoid a really rampant climber like Polygonum baldschuanicum, which will take over house as well as garden, given half a chance.

A few ample beds are preferable to many small ones. Plant them for year-round leaf and colour. Different varieties of a few plants chosen for boldness and beauty of form and flower will prove more effective than an ambitious miscellany. The same goes for the shrubbery, which can usefully soften any harshness in the face of the house.

A rare ornamental tree or shrub deserves a place of its very own and will gratefully show off, given the right soil and setting.

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