Garden design is not just the ability to create a beautifully illustrated plan, although this is one of the many outputs of the garden design process and arguably the most exciting. A garden designer’s role is to find creative, practical solutions to the many technical challenges presented by an outdoor space. A good garden designer can make a garden that is useable and suitable for a specific set of requirements as well as being beautiful and a pleasure to spend time in.
It would not be possible to describe fully how to design a garden in a single article. A great deal of training and experience is required to understand how to obtain the correct ratio of mass to void in a garden design scheme, or how to create rhythm in a garden design, or working with shapes to ensure the garden flows and feels comfortable to use. So, the following paragraphs outline major steps in the garden design process and I will go into more detail about each phase in separate articles.
1. Decide on the requirements for the garden
Before considering aesthetics it is necessary to understand the practical requirements for the garden such as how it will be used, by whom and who will look after it. Answering a series of questions is the best way to arrive at the requirements. These are the kind of questions that need to be answered to arrive at the requirements:-
• How much time is available to look after the garden?
• Will a professional maintenance company/garden be looking after the garden?
• Will the garden be used by pets or children?
• Does the garden need to cater for elderly or disabled visitors?
• Will the garden need to cater for users with mobility problems?
• Will the garden be used for eating and entertaining?
• How many people will want to use the garden at one time?
• Is the garden owned by a keen, knowledgeable gardener?
The aim is to arrive at a list of requirements which forms the basis of the design process.
2. Get inspired
Experienced garden designers know the value of regularly looking at all forms of art and architecture in order to keep their ‘visual vocabulary’ up to date and get inspiration for their designs. Inspiration can come from a shape in nature like an old, gnarled tree, an architectural detail on a building, a combination of shapes and colours in a painting, almost anywhere if you are looking with a creative eye.
Look at materials, interior and exterior. Textures and patterns in wall and floor tiles, stone cladding, marble mosaics, etc are a great source of inspiration and can result in a piece of detailing that lifts the garden design scheme out of the mundane. Visit landscaping supply yards, reclamation yards and interior design suppliers like the Design Centre in Chelsea Harbour in London.
Visit some gardens, look in gardening books and magazines, go to some garden shows like the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) Chelsea Flower Show and Hampton Court Flower Show and look at the show gardens.
3. Take the site survey
Take a thorough site survey and analysis. Measure the house including the position and height of all doors and windows. The survey should show steps, drains, manhole covers, chimney breasts, and anything else that will affect the final garden design.
A garden is rarely square or flat. Use triangulation and offsetting to plot in the garden boundaries, and the location of all plants, garden features and buildings. Make a note of things outside the garden like overhanging trees or a fabulous view as they will affect the eventual design of the garden. Survey any level changes in the garden and mark these clearly on the survey.
Take a soil sample for analysis. It’s important when planting to know what the ph level (acidity or alkalinity) of the soil in order to choose the correct plants. Some plants prefer a soil that is more acidic and others will only grow in a more alkaline soil. It is also necessary to identify boggy places, shaded areas and other potentially troublesome parts of the garden.
A note must be made of what lies beyond the garden boundaries. If the garden overlooks a great view this can be used as part of the new design – this is called ‘borrowing’ the view. However, if there is something ugly outside the garden like a derelict building, or the garden is overlooked by neighbouring properties these will need to be screened out as part of the garden design.
The site survey must be drawn up to scale, in ink on a piece of tracing paper large enough to show clearly the new design and put in labels – most gardens will fit onto an A1 sheet.
4. Create the new design
Using the requirements and site survey the new design is created using a series of interconnected geometric shapes. The final design should create a pleasing picture on paper and each element that comprises the design should be the correct size for its intended purpose. For example, if the terrace needs to seat 6 people for dinner it must be large enough to hold a table of the correct size with room to pull out chairs so that people can sit down and stand up comfortably.
The design must addresses any sloping parts of the garden. If flat spaces are required for lawns, seating areas, etc and the site is sloping retaining walls will be required -these should be shown clearly on the plan.
The new design should be drawn to scale in ink on a piece of tracing paper. Everything must be labelled clearly including wall heights, paved areas, lawn, edgings, pergolas, planted areas, walls with their heights, water features.
5. Choose construction materials
Select materials for constructing each area and make sure these are labelled on the plan. There are many different construction materials available and these vary greatly in price and quality. Research DIY stores, garden centres, and landscape and building suppliers to find materials that suit the intended purpose, and fit the budget.
6. Create the planting plan
A planting plan is required that shows the location, type and numbers of plants clearly labelled with their Latin names for each planted area of the garden. Planting should comprise a mixture of evergreen and deciduous shrubs, herbaceous plants and bulbs that will give a year-round display of colour and scent. The plants give the garden structure and that important quality of seasonal change.
7. Create the construction plan
The construction plan helps remove margin for error and ensure the garden is constructed correctly to a high standard. The construction plan is a technical drawing that shows contractors how to construct specific features in the garden such as steps, pergolas, fences and retaining walls. It should contain details of required paving patterns and sections showing how paving is to be laid, how footings for walls are to be constructed, how edgings are to be laid.
8. Create the setting out plan
The setting out plan is another technical drawing that enables landscape contractors to construct the garden accurately. This plan shows the dimensions and location of all features in the garden. The central point of any circular features such as seating areas and lawns will be shown as a measurement from a fixed, measureable point such as the corner of the house. This plan will also show angular dimensions, wall heights relative to finished paving height, and the finished ground level of any terraced areas.
The setting out plan enables landscape contractors to quickly mark out the garden before they start building the garden. This allows them to check there are no errors in the design or survey and that the design will fit correctly into the space. It enables adjustments to the plan, if necessary, before construction work starts, thereby avoiding expensive mistakes further down the line.