New Gardens: The Planning Process

Many people feel daunted by the prospect of creating and maintaining a garden, fearing that their ignorance of gardening methods and the care of plants will mean inevitable failure. Perhaps a little more optimism and positive thinking would lead to the transformation of those lines of boring and neglected gardens that can be seen from the route of any suburban train journey. We believe that with such positive thinking, and a little practical guidance, it is possible to create a useful and attractive garden — one that is within your reach in terms of time, money and physical ability.

Sophisticated machinery and gadgets have become part of our everyday lives, but our ancestors’ survival depended on their ability to work the land, so perhaps gardening as an activity is not so far from being one of our natural instincts! Certainly the creation of gardens as a means of adding beauty to our environment has a long history.

Even before the time of the Roman Empire various civilizations had developed the building of small gardens attached to the individual house, as an integral part of their domestic surroundings. However, during the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire there was little activity or advance in the art of gardening. Much later the Elizabethans created gardens based on intricate patterns; the knot garden is a typical example. These, however, were not small gardens attached to the homes of ordinary folk, but were the grounds of palaces, manors and grand houses. During the Renaissance period formal layouts on the grand scale flourished in France and Italy and the style spread to Britain. A classical influence was much favoured, and reproductions of Greek and Roman statues were as essential as the elaborate fountains and planted beds laid out in regular, geometric patterns. The eighteenth century, however, produced a spirit of rebellion against such stiff and regimented formality. Launcelot ‘Capability’ Brown advocated the creation of ‘natural’ pastoral settings. These were, in fact, an idealized version of nature — the landscape as we might like it to be — but they have survived and matured to become an essential part of our landscape heritage.

The early Victorian era saw the introduction of the herbaceous border and a growing interest in plants for their own sake. Botanists embarked on plant hunting expeditions all over the world — one such journey gave Australia’s Botany Bay its name because of the wealth of new plants to be found there. The fascinating new species were soon named and cultivated, and began to find a place in many garden schemes, again primarily the large gardens of wealthy landowners.

But during the reign of Queen Victoria the social scene slowly began to change, as on the perimeter of the big cities people settled in suburbs and acquired a house with its own garden, albeit a modest plot for many. The change marked the start of a move towards the conditions of today, when most gardens are owned by the ordinary family. Not only is gardening a hobby that is open to most men and women; what is more we have greater leisure time to enjoy such pursuits.

Few of us any longer have vast areas available for the creation of extensive formal gardens, and probably few of us would want such a garden. Not only did its upkeep demand a large, permanent workforce, its potential as a place for pleasant and comfortable relaxation was strictly limited, its main purpose being that of a showpiece. Modern gardens may be much smaller, but they nevertheless present a valuable opportunity for the addition of an extra dimension to our everyday lives.

The Americans originally looked to English traditions for inspiration in the creation of their gardens, but more recently we have begun to accept their approach to the garden as an important part of a family’s environment — a place to be used and enjoyed as often as possible. If the garden is to provide useful living space for its owners and afford an interesting and attractive view all the year round, then careful and thoughtful planning is essential. Planning of an interior décor is generally considered important; most people take great care to match the colours of paintwork or wallcoverings with carpet and furnishings. Thought is given to whether surfaces should be plain or patterned, and then to the intensity of the pattern, its colour and the style and atmosphere it evokes. Furniture and fittings are chosen to suit the size of the room, allowing for the comfort and free movement of the people who will use it. This careful process of consideration and selection is equally important outdoors as indoors. Planning and forethought can avoid so many ghastly mistakes and much resultant despair and disappointment. If an area of concrete is laid and then found to be an eyesore, breaking it out and removing the debris can be a tiresome and expensive operation. It is too late to discover that a tree has been planted too near to the house when its roots have already started to disturb the foundations! Just as interior planning is based around the needs of the people living in the house, so the garden should be planned with your requirements in mind. The space is there for you to use and enjoy.

The planning process

The basic planning process involves reaching decisions on the uses to which your garden will be put, finding the best place for all the necessary features within the limitations of the site, and finally bringing together all these features in a pleasing design. This is true whether the garden is an overgrown wilderness or a barren waste covered in a thin sprinkling of something the builder was pleased to call topsoil. Either prospect can be equally depressing.

What do you want in your garden?

Specialists who wish to devote their plot entirely to a particular interest will have no dilemma as to the features they wish to include in a garden layout, but for most the choice will be rather less than straightforward.

A clean, hard surface — probably in the form of a paved patio — is a fairly basic necessity, since it is no fun having mud continually trampled into the house. A path will probably be necessary for access from the patio to other parts of the garden.

Most people like to see a lawn; many will want to grow vegetables. A plot should be allocated away from the shade of large trees. Decorative features such as a pond or rock garden may be considered a high priority, and a statue or other ornamentation can add the finishing touches. Space for children to play may, on the other hand, be considered more important.

Certainly plants are vital. Only the most unfeeling person could fail to appreciate the infinite variety of flowers in colour and form, the texture and movement of leaves and the changes brought about by the seasons. The choice of plants will, however, depend on personal preference and on the conditions of the site, particularly climate and soil.

How will the garden be used?

Ultimately the selection of features depends on how you will use the garden and that, of course, depends on who you are. For example, a couple or individual with no children at home may have little time for gardening jobs that demand urgent attention, preferring to potter outdoors when they feel so inclined and to spend time relaxing after a hard day’s work. Certainly such people will want a pleasing view from the window when they sink into their easy chair. The emphasis will, therefore, be on a good looking garden that does not require too much maintenance, but allows space for sitting, eating and entertaining outdoors. A patio will be needed and this should be spacious to accommodate visiting friends and family. It would be worthwhile planning for a built-in barbecue and seating to form the focal point of activity on convivial summer evenings.

A lawn may present too much maintenance work and an alternative would be an open area surfaced in pea shingle or a similar material, broken up by ground cover planting. Decorative features would be important; an ornamental pool with fountain, for instance, should be planned close to the house so that it can easily be seen and enjoyed.

As regards planted areas, these would probably consist in the main of shrubs which need some attention, but do not make as many demands as seasonal plants. Busy people may not want to grow vegetables seriously, but they might like a few herbs for cooking, perhaps grown in pots on the patio or in a bed near to the barbecue, where their aroma can be appreciated. One or two small fruit trees would also make a useful addition to the scheme. Where a layout is essentially decorative, outdoor lighting will extend the hours of pleasure it can give. Individual lights should be positioned to illuminate beautiful plants and objects, or the patio area for practicality. A young couple planning the garden of their first house should do so with a degree of flexibility if children are intended, for they will soon become a family with youngsters whose needs must be met.

For the family garden a patio is again important, but not only for relaxing and eating. It will also provide space for play and for riding sit-on toys, particularly in wet weather when the grass is muddy. The addition of a roof to part of the patio may also be considered; this need only be a simple construction of timber and clear plastic sheeting. Play space for children of all ages is vital. For toddlers this should preferably be within view of the house for safety’s sake, so a sand pit could perhaps be placed in a corner of the patio. If a permanent one is installed it can be converted to form a pool when the children are bigger. As the children grow older, and do not need supervision, an area may be set aside for play. If equipment such as a climbing frame, swing or slide is used the surface should not be hard paving or concrete, but pea shingle or similar, for a softer landing. Almost certainly a lawn will be wanted, and this allows further potential for family games and activities. Even a swimming pool need not be beyond the means of the average pocket, since it is now possible to install for yourself, a pre-formed pool with sufficient space for children and adults to splash about. On a practical note, the pool should be in a sunny position away from the nuisance of falling leaves.

With growing mouths to feed, a family would probably want to grow vegetables. The plot can look decorative but is really basically a functional item and is best situated away from the house. The tools required for tending crops will need storage space, probably in a shed. An area can also be set aside for the cultivation of soft fruit. Being obtainable in the shops for only a short season, and at high prices, this is useful for variation of the family diet and some types are suitable for freezing. The selection of general planting will depend on preferences. A basic framework of shrubs can be planned, but will take some time to mature; spaces can be filled meanwhile with annual flowers grown quite cheaply from seed. Bulbs bring cheerful spring colour when little else is in flower; they can be planted each year or left in the lawn area to naturalize. Children usually love the satisfaction gained from growing something themselves, and it is often a good idea to set aside an area for their own horticultural efforts.

As children grow up and start to leave home, the needs of garden owners change. They may wish to adapt their existing layout, or move to a new house and start afresh. There will be the opportunity to introduce decorative elements that were previously impractical, or to develop a specialist interest — the creation of a rock garden, perhaps, or a large pool for breeding fish.

In later years, when a couple or an individual retires from work, their garden often becomes an important part of their lives, with time on their hands to spend outdoors. However, they must also consider possible physical limitations as time goes on, and the introduction of features such as non-slip paving and raised plant beds may be useful.

Certainly such people would want something interesting and attractive — a raised pool, perhaps. They would probably not be interested in barbecues but may like to take a tray of tea outside on a summer afternoon, and may prefer to sit in partial or full shade rather than bright sunshine. Permanent, comfortable seating will avoid the need to move furniture.

It is doubtful that a large vegetable plot would be required, but space for salad crops would almost certainly be welcomed, and fruit could take the form of cordon bushes, being more manageable than large trees.

As for other plants, one special need that could, indeed, be common to any age group is for flowers and foliage suitable for cutting and arranging indoors. Cut flowers always brighten up the house, and are particularly nice to have around when you are entertaining.

Time and money

The features that you would, ideally, like to include in your garden layout may prove to be beyond your means, due either to the expense or time involved. It is futile and hopelessly optimistic to plan, for instance, for a herbaceous border and a large fruit and vegetable plot if you have only two or three hours a week to devote to the maintenance of the entire garden.

The initial expense and time involved in the creation of a satisfying garden layout is somewhat easier to calculate, and need not prove daunting. Even the most ambitious scheme can be successfully phased over a period of time, tackling the various stages as a series of jobs. It should not even matter if this process extends over a period of two or three years; the vital starting point will have been reached — a plan that can gradually be implemented. Throughout the building process you will have the great advantage of a clear idea of what will finally be achieved.

The site — its advantages and limitations

It is easy to assume that when it comes to the site — the basic material with which you have to work — the new home owner is at an advantage. Whilst life may be easier for him in some ways, this is not necessarily so. An empty plot has no mature shrubs and although there may be one or two trees, these will almost certainly afford no privacy from neighbours. An established feature in the garden of an older house can provide a useful focal point around which to build. Triumph can arise from diversity, for the very limitations that seemed to make redesign impossible can provide an essential starting point. Indeed, the restrictions imposed by planning around an existing framework can prove easier to handle than the almost bewildering range of possibilities offered by the virgin site. Consider the advantages that the site has to offer, whatever its condition, and think very carefully before tearing out large shrubs and trees. What is easily destroyed in an afternoon can take years to replace.

If the site offers pleasant views, incorporate these in the design. The creators of the ‘ha-ha’ knew what they were doing. Only a ditch — invisible from afar — divided the garden from the open countryside beyond, creating the impression that the owner’s property extended to rolling acres as far as the eye could see. Each site has its own particular problems — some have more than others — and the solutions depend to a great extent on the main purpose for which the space is intended.

For family use a steeply sloping garden is perhaps better terraced. Although this involves the construction of retaining walls and steps, it does create the benefit of level areas that can be put to practical use for growing, playing and sitting. Another problem often encountered is a site that is in the shade of very large trees, making it less than ideal for the keen grower of flowers and vegetables. Even a lawn can be difficult and a pond impossible, for it is covered in leaves all the year round. The best solution is to accept the limitations and plan a ‘woodland’ garden with shrubs tolerant of shade and mown paths through long grass. Much of garden design is concerned with creating illusions. A long, narrow site looks wider when it is broken up by diagonal lines. A small, dark garden looks bigger and brighter when light coloured paving- is laid. A lawn looks larger when it is not broken up by pockets of fiddly plant beds.


The type of soil in your garden will, to a certain extent, limit design possibilities. Plants ideally need soil that allows water to drain away rather than form a waterlogged mess, but not so quickly that the plant nutrients in the soil are washed away before they have a chance to do their work. A heavy soil, such as clay, may not allow for sufficient drainage, whereas a light, sandy soil may drain too quickly. Some shrubs simply will not thrive in a certain type of soil, and it is wise to bear this in mind at the planning stage. Rhododendrons, camellias and heathers all belong to the same plant family, and they all hate chalky soil but thrive in one containing plenty of peat. So if your house is built on chalk, do not set your heart on creating a heather bank or rhododendron walk!


You will probably be familiar with the general climate in your area, and the local peculiarities that result. Hard winters, strong winds and deep frosts affect the plants and crops that can be grown. In Cornwall, for instance, seeds can generally be sown earlier than in, say, Yorkshire and tender crops such as peppers and aubergines can successfully be grown outdoors without protection. Northern parts of the British Isles experience, too, shorter daylight hours during winter months and this can restrict gardening activity and enjoyment.

Probably the greatest enemy of people’s enjoyment of their garden as a place to relax is wind; shelter from wind can make your patio or sitting out area a more comfortable and inviting place. Of course, the most effective windbreak is the house itself, but a screen of trees or shrubs tolerant to wind may also be necessary.

Bear in mind that if you build a wall four feet high the wind will travel over it in waves, like water, and still prove uncomfortable. A height of six feet would be necessary to be effective. What is more, a solid screen is not always necessary; a semi-solid wall or fence or closely planted shrubs can be equally effective.

Blending the house and garden

A garden can never be planned in isolation; it should appear as an integral part of your home, reflecting the style of the house. Everyone has an ideal, chocolate box impression of what a cottage garden should look like, complete with roses round the door. But this profusion of flowers that seem to emerge from every corner, clinging to walls and covering paths, would not be right for a suburban semi-detached house. A very modern house with simple architectural lines is complemented well by the use of individual plants with an interesting shape, or of concrete and pebbles, with perhaps a simple pool. If a brick wall is required, try to match up the type and colour of bricks used in the house construction.

All the component parts of a garden should be in keeping with its basic theme, from structural materials to plants and ornamentation. An elaborate classical stone urn and plinth would be incongruous in the garden of a new ‘town house’, and a yellow plastic bucket seat would not blend with Victorian architecture.

The style of the garden will also, of course, reflect your own taste. Just as indoors most of us acquire over a period of time items that are, perhaps, of relatively low intrinsic value but immense personal importance, so a garden develops and matures with elements that have a particular significance. Plants may have grown from cuttings given by friends, or may serve as mementoes of people or places. What appears to others to be a useless object may be seen by you as the perfect garden ornament.

The pleasure of building up a garden brings an extra dimension that cannot be found in the collection of inanimate objects, for plants are living things. They not only change with the seasons but mature with the years; it is most rewarding to watch a twiggy little shrub transformed into a stately specimen. Planting can almost always be changed and added to, either with seasonal colour — bulbs in spring, annuals in summer — or with a permanent shrub blended carefully into the overall scheme.

Putting the plan on paper

Having considered the various factors that will be involved in forming a plan for the layout of your garden, it is time to think in terms of the more practical aspects of planning.

It is useful to spend some time walking around the garden, visualizing the general areas that would be most suitable for the features you wish to include in your scheme. Look carefully at it from all the rooms that have any view of the site. It is equally important to have a pleasant aspect from the kitchen window as from the lounge, and the garden takes on quite a different look from the first floor of the house.

When you have formed an impression of the feel of the site, you will need to transfer your thoughts on to paper, in order to create that plan so essential to making a successful garden. If you have a new house, or have had plans drawn up for improvements or an extension, then you may well be able to obtain a copy of an outline plan of the site, showing the house and boundaries. Failing that, it will be necessary to draw up your own plan and this need not involve complicated surveying techniques. Use squared or graph paper for the plan and work out a simple scale that enables you to show the entire site on your paper (say, 1/4in or two squares to 1ft).

Measure first the boundaries of the site and the house and mark them in. Permanent existing features such as trees should then be indicated. These can be plotted by measuring their distance from two fixed points, each on a different boundary. Indicate too features such as manhole covers, house doors and windows and the line of views that are to be either emphasized or disguised. When you have built up a complete picture of the garden’s outline and permanent features, then mark on the plan the general areas you have decided upon as the best place for the component parts of your new layout. The stage has now been reached where these disconnected parts must be blended to form a harmonious design. But such a design is unlikely to appear as a product of instant inspiration. It is more likely to involve juggling with many ideas before the right one emerges. Play around with lines and patterns in the form of thumbnail sketches or on tracing paper overlaid on the basic site plan.

It is useful to be aware of some basic design principles. Firstly, plan boldly, remembering that people are your yardstick for the amount of space required. Make the patio big enough to take at least four adults sitting at a table and chairs, and several children moving around without running a tricycle over their feet or bouncing a ball into their laps as a matter of inevitability.

Make a path wide enough for people to walk on and seats at the right height and position for comfort. Plan decorative features near to the house where people can see and enjoy their beauty, either from inside the house or whilst sitting on the patio.

Be positive with shapes and outlines; they will appear less stark when transferred into the garden, particularly as plants start to grow and merge with the line of features such as the lawn. If you are planning curves, make them bold. With pencil in hand try loosely flexing your wrist rather than moving your arm in stiff, awkward motions. The result should be a visually satisfying line with a natural, flowing appearance. A curve that is little more than a meandering line or a regularly scalloped edge serves no purpose, and only looks fiddly and irritating when transferred physically to the garden.

Make full use of the space available, attempting to open it up rather than restrict its use by rigid divisions. A straight path running the length of the centre of the plot will not only make it appear smaller, it will also split it into two parts that are more difficult to design. Moreover, if the path leads to a shed, then the eye will be drawn straight to the shed as a focal point of the layout — not an attractive thought! This introduces also the element of balance. When both ends of a mantelpiece are decorated with a collection of identical objects, it tends to look uncomfortably regular. It is balanced — but too balanced to create a pleasing appearance.

In the garden the design should achieve an agreeable balance. If each side follows an identical line, a totally formal layout is created, and indeed this can be successful. The average modern garden lends itself better, however, to a degree of informality, but this is where a balance must be maintained so that the end result is not a layout with, for instance, bold curved planted borders on one side and nothing but a lawn running adjacent to the fence on the other. Plan practically; allow for easy access to the parts of the garden that will get the most use. A large vegetable plot is impractical if you cannot reach its centre without trampling rows of onions. If a shed, seat or greenhouse is planned at the far end of the lawn a path should lead to it, or you will find that a bald track is worn through the grass.

Forming a right angle

It will almost certainly be necessary to mark out a right angle in order both to measure the garden, when preparing your plan, and to put it into action. Use string and pegs to form a triangle of the dimensions shown (or multiples of 3-4-5). A right angle will be formed at the point where the shorter sides meet.

Measuring and plotting an awkwardly shaped site

First measure across the back of the house, and mark the corners of the rear wall in order to plot its exact position.

Measure out the length of the garden at right angles to the corners of the rear wall of the house; if possible run a length of string along this line and mark off intervals of 20ft or so.

By measuring across the width of the garden at right angles to this line it will be possible to plot strategic points of the site boundary, as well as permanent features such as trees.

This is a very basic, simple form of surveying and may not result in an exactly accurate plan. However, it should be adequate for the purpose required, since a discrepancy of up to 6 inches or so is unlikely to cause problems.

02. August 2013 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Fruit Trees | Comments Off on New Gardens: The Planning Process


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