Garden Design 2 – Getting Started
I jumped in with both feet with my first attempt at gardening. My first garden was not only a restoration, it was also large enough to compel me to incorporate numerous individual garden design ideas within a single overall landscape design project. Check out any botanical garden or historical garden and you will find this is a common solution. But with just over an acre to work with in my English Gardens, I was going to have a very compact design, one that would be crammed with opportunities. I didn’t know it then, but later thousands of garden visitors would tell me they had never found so many ideas for their own gardens in just one garden.
No doubt about it, my learning curve was near vertical and I made mistakes along the way for sure. But this web site highlights both the ups and the downs and through it all I’m sharing what worked for me in my English Gardens. I designed, built, restored, planted and maintained everything you see on this site. The ideas tips and suggestions throughout are all based on my hard-won practical experience in the garden. That’s it.
All too often people become overawed by the task ahead, get swamped with all the possibilities and their best ideas fall by the wayside of an abandoned project. Others will consider computer-aided garden design. For some it works. But for the majority, the mechanics of simply learning how to use the program erodes the creative energies that should be directed to your landscape garden.
I’m not artistic with a pen. But when I designed this garden I had a fair idea of what I did not want. What I liked and some ideas I was prepared to experiment with. And if you’re reading this I’m betting your ideas for your garden are pretty much the same.
One of the first things you need to ask yourself is What do I want from my garden landscape? Gardens are living entities that evolve over time. Anyone who has done nothing out back for awhile knows exactly what I’m talking about. Recognise your gardening aims. A garden can be many things to many people, but what does your proposed garden mean to you?
Would you describe yourself as a would-be weekend gardener, or are you intending to spend more of your free time in the garden now the children have flown the nest? How much of your plot do you intend to garden? Do you need a play zone for children/grand-children? The kind of games and activities they like will dictate what facilities will be incorporated in their play zone. How much entertaining do you wish to do in the garden? Will it be predominantly at weekends, during the day or week-day evenings? Do you intend to B-B-Q? How regularly? Is it worth a permanent brick-built structure? Or will a mobile unit suffice? Put your intentions down in black and white, but be prepared to change them too!
Next, sit down with some A4 sheets and make a different list on each page – I’ll explain why later. All we’re doing here is getting you to think creatively about your garden design and what you ultimately want from it. On one list arrange the following plant types in the order that interest you most. Kitchen herbs, vegetables, spring bulbs, grasses, alpines, coniferous trees, ornamental trees, shrubs, ferns, water plants, heathers, herbaceous, orchids, house plants, biennials, palms, cacti, fruits.
Do you prefer straight garden paths or natural-looking curved paths? Do you want curved or straight garden borders or garden islands? Provide additional sheets with titles like, ‘Garden Design Hates’, ‘Garden Design Must Haves’, Garden Design ‘Would Likes’. At this stage, you can mix everything up inside each list, the main thing to note is that, making lists is quick, easy and gets your creative ideas moving! I’ve reproduced some of my own lists below to show exactly what I mean.
|“No-No’s”||“Must Haves”||“Would Likes”|
|Straight linesLeyland CypressAnnual flowering plants – too much work
Grass – too much work!
Any ‘formal’ layout
|Curving Paths & Borders
Bubble fountainPaths wide enough for 2 people to walk side-by-side
All paths well drained for all-season use
Frequent seating at regular intervals
Preferred style – Cottage/herbaceous
|PergolaPatio spaceStructural plants in broken lines to hide hedging effectBougainvillea
Mix heights of plants to add extra interest
You get the idea. You can also see in the example above just how easily your garden design ideas can shape up. After your ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ the next thing is to take a closer look at your own space. But for now I’ll explain why lists on separate sheets is important. At this stage you want to get your creative ideas flowing, you don’t want to erase things or even be tidy, your main focus here is getting the ideas out of your head and on to paper. Furthermore and most important, the Golden Rule when making lists or drawing ketches is NEVER THROW ANYTHING AWAY. Otherwise you could be sorry when recalling that brilliant idea you thought of yesterday that you discarded. . . (Remember, 500 sheets only cost a fiver)!
Don’t lose the PLOT!
Many garden design texts initially talk about ‘shape and form’. They’re coming at you from a garden designer’s perspective, not too surprising really, but shape and form are good basic concepts that need to be appreciated, only they come later. They won’t get you out there thinking about your plot and designing your garden. Which is what we need to do here and now. You need to consider your plot in a logical and methodical manner, to identify its strengths and the areas that need improvement – with a fresh outlook.
Just 4 years separate these two views!
Now, mark the following on your sketch. (Use the margin you set aside for the ‘key’ to your shorthand symbols). Set out your garden’s North. The direction from where your local prevailing warm wind comes from. Repeat for your local prevailing cold wind. Is there a zone where the wind swirls in eddies? Remember that awful area that’s always wet in winter? Sketch it in. Label it. Is there an area that requires a pickaxe whenever you want to plant anything? (Hopefully it’s not the whole garden!)
Where are the sunniest and the shadiest areas of your garden? Which areas receive no winter sunshine. Which direction does your garden slope and where? Any manholes? Or undergound cables or drains? Put them in. Where’s the electricity supply point? The cold water tap for irrigation. Will there be cold frames? A greenhouse? Or a garden shed? Or a trampoline? If you want a trampoline where will it be located when not in use? Whatever your intentions for your garden space they should be clear in your own mind before you start.
Done? Now make several copies. You can then sketch your ideas on these copies or overlay your ideas on film sheets. Whatever way you choose you can immediately see the effect of locating different plants where. For example; locating your tall herbaceous plants in that north-east corner (that’s covered in shade and has swirling wind) – it’s not going to them much good. These initial exercises get you thinking about your future garden design and what influences can affect it and how they can affect your plans in turn. They’re quick and they’re easy. The sketches are simply a means to get your ideas down in a tangible form. From there you can develop them into more ideas as you wish.
Know Your Garden Soil
One of the most important things in Garden Design for every gardener to know is what soil they are working with. Why? The type of soil you have, whether it’s neutral, acidic or alkaline has a significant affect on your plant purchases and therefore your pocket. Acidic-loving plants in alkaline soil or alkaline lovers in acidic soil will, after a while, begin to look pretty sick. This is because plants in the ‘wrong’ soil type will have essential soil nutrients ‘closed’ to them and they will look as though they are starving – which they are. Having the right soil for your plant acts like a ‘key’ that ‘unlocks’ the soil nutrients to your plant.
How do you find out if your soil is acid, neutral or alkaline? The surest and cheapest means is to use a soil pH (parts Hydrogen) meter available from your garden centre. (7.0 is neutral, under 7 is acid, over 7 = alkaline). Whatever it costs, it will surely repay you in spades on your future plant purchases.
Another, less accurate method is to check out what your neighbours are growing. Blue (alkaline) or red (acidic) hydrangeas for example, may provide a general idea, but they do not tell you the strength of their acidic or alkalinity, nor do they tell you whether or not the gardener has added anything to the soil beneath their plants – like rusty nails for example!
For comparative purposes a good acidic soil is around 6.7 to 6.3. My own soil when I started gardening was 5.5pH in places. If you have soil that acidic, don’t try to correct it in one application over one year. In fact, if you have soil this strong it is better and cheaper to consider planting accordingly (with camellias and rhododendrons for example) rather than try to correct it. I dug mine up and mixed it with neutral soil, then re-spread it in places over several years.
Creating Your Plant List
Earlier you set out a list of your favourite plants to include in your proposed garden design. But that first list may not have taken into consideration your soil type. Spend time now with a garden plant reference to confirm or otherwise, which plants can be grown most easily in your soil type – acidic, neutral or alkaline.
If your soil is alkaline/neutral, you can still grow those gorgeous azalea flowers you’re after, only not directly in the beds. Grow them separately in pots or in raised beds containing their preferred compost. Containers are most flexible because you can move them temporarily amongst your border flowers for the summer. Now a word of warning. . .
Beware! Ericaceous compost is NOT ACIDIC COMPOST!!!
This is a very common fallacy and one which every gardener assumes is the case. Images of glorious flowering and well-known acidic loving plants featured on ericaceous compost bags is just an illusion at best and lead to widespread miss-understanding among gardeners of all abilities. Here’s why. Ericaceous compost simply means the compost does not contain lime. It is very rarely acidic. Most samples of ericaceous compost I’ve come across in years of gardening will be around the neutral mark. So, if your acidic-loving plant is planted in ericaeous compost and still showing all the signs that it is ‘hungry’ because it’s not drawing nutrient from the soil. It’s almost certainly because your ericaeous compost is ‘hovering’ around the neutral pH mark and is not nearly acidic enough.
Under “wind” for example, you need to consider its prevailing direction and force. All winds dehydrate plants to a greater or lesser degree, which can affect the plants you are able to grow. However, by ‘layering your planting’ you can mitigate the negative effects of wind and have a more interesting garden design into the bargain. For example, put your most robust plants/trees as your first line of wind defence. Next behind these, and somewhat protected by the first, can be your more resilient garden shrubs, followed by your more exotic, specimen plants and shrubs. For more detailed information concerning head on over to Garden Design and Garden Wind.
Visualise your planting scheme – Practical points to consider
Up until now your garden or landscape design consists of ‘considered lists’ which have given you plenty to think about. Simultaneously, you have highlighted areas where different plants can take advantage of your existing conditions. For example, in those areas you have marked as being often wet/moist which are in shade, these would be ideal for hellebores in spring and hostas in summer. Sprinkle a few Iris amongst them and you have the makings of a colourful all-season bed in an area which had previously only caused you grief. Likewise, in hard, dry, sunny areas consider adding exotic-looking plants like Cannas that do not appreciate cold wet roots all winter. All these ideas will spring up at you from the pages as you make your lists. All you have to do is note them down when they appear.
One very useful tip I found was not to complicate my garden design sketch with the names of different plants. Again it bogs your creativity down while you struggle for that plant name that remains on the tip of your tongue. We’ve all been there and doubtless will be again!
Instead I simplified things by drawing in circles (I used a thimble at the time) to mark positions of plants. Then inside each circle I simply added the height and colour of the plant I wanted there. The advantageous this provides is that you can easily visualise the heights and colours in your borders and focus on their relationship to each other. Then when you go plant shopping you’re looking for “something yellow about 2 feet high” or a “red shrub 6ft x4ft”. It leaves your options open when you walk along those plant aisles.
While talking about colour, most people tend to prefer either ‘colours in harmony’ or ‘colours in contrast’ or combinations of the two along the same border. Whatever. Similarly, planting schemes can be of individual ‘spots’ of colour or swathes of colour that sweep through the available spectrum. It’s all a question of personal choice and part of the great joy of gardening is that for many it’s painting in 3D! I was one for the ‘spots of border colour’ myself which allowed me a greater and more interesting range of plants (3000 varieties).
Don’t worry too much about colour, I’ve never seen three plants together that looked so awful they could not be planted together. Have you? So don’t worry unduly about colour right at the start. Once the plants are in the ground and you have lived with them for a season, you will doubtless have colour preferences. A particular combination will become preferable to you and these can be quickly changed in late autumn and will not harm the plant.
Please note: when a plant is actually in flower, and you move it, it will almost certainly lose its flowers that year . So you might just as well leave it until the late autumn. I made written notes during the summer of any plant changes I wanted to make. The changes were then made in late autumn. Then I promptly forgot about them. Spring was always even more interesting when ‘old friends’ popped up in new places!
Try to avoid larger plants overshadowing smaller neighbours unless shade is required for the latter. This can be very difficult in practice. I can’t tell you how many times I have planted 2ft high herbacaeous plants in front of taller plants only to discover their heights have miraculously ‘switched’ in practice. Usually this becomes apparent only when the plants are in flower and can’t be moved without losing the blooms. At which point all you can do is enjoy the blooms, take a photograph and switch your plants in the autumn.
Don’t forget therefore, that your garden design is not at Chelsea! You must allow growing room for all your plants. Failure to do so will mean your plant purchases are more expensive than they need to be, and later you will need to spend time and effort on digging them up to make room anyway. So give yourself a break and allow for growing room!
This is one of the great advantages of growing herbaceous plants. Once established they can be divided and increased for free every late autumn! Provided you’re patient. More about designing and growing herbaceous borders here. LINKLINK LINKLINK
Unfortunately, most plant reference works will suggest planting almost everything in ‘well drained’ soil. Invariably they will also simultaneously suggest that many plants should be grown in ‘full sun’ and ‘partial shade’. There’s no escape, they all do it and after reading the label you often are more confused than when you started. The best the gardener can do is identify the plant and where it grows naturally and then try to imitate the native area as near as you can. Which, you can do to a surprising degree with a little forethought. The sort of thing to avoid is locating a dry, mediteranean herb like lavender for example in a darkened area facing north, since it is unlikely to survive past its first winter. Conversely, most Ligularia’s will wilt after an hour or two of summer sunshine (but there are exceptions)!
Pathways should ideally be wide enough for your wheelbarrow. Three feet should be regarded as a safe minimum width between borders. Unless you intend to have low growing plants in your opposing foregrounds OR, you wish to have the jungle effect of constantly brushing past your foliage. Consider those areas where you need a pickaxe to garden in the past. If you could design your pathways and other hard areas over this ground it could well save a lot of effort!
Shopping for plants – Hot tips
The hardest part, yet often the most rewarding of all. Shopping for plants. This is the part every gardener enjoys. But, for the sake of your plant’s health and your pocket. You should be ruthless in your selection. Ideally, you should arrive at the nursery with a clipboard with your shopping list. Start at ‘A’ and go through everything methodically so you don’t miss things.
Having identified a plant on your list. Which example will you take? Look for the plant among the group that has the best combination of strongest-looking and stoutest stems. Are they showing fresh growth emerging? Check for broken stems. If there are broken stems and there is only one plant available, would the broken stem badly disfigure the plant? If yes, then leave well alone.
Next is the most telling part. Pick the best sample and pop it out of its pot. Are the roots nice, fresh and white looking? Good. If the pot is a bit dry the plant will almost certainly recover with a good ‘dunk’ when you get it home. But if the roots are grey and dry and the plant came out of its pot before you even tipped it up – look for another.
Don’t forget plenty of wire ties before you leave the nursery.
Once your plants are home, it is almost impossible to resist locating them where they are intended. Don’t resist. Enjoy the moment. Plant your plants and remove all the nursery ties. Invariably they are either plastic bands which are stapled together, or thin paper ties with steel wire running through the centre – just like the bin bag ties. Both of these can be quite harmful to young plants as they are often put on too tight. Replace these ties with your new purchase which secures but is more loosely attached allowing for at least a year’s growth.