Planning a Garden – Garden Design Ideas

planning a garden

With the site plan finished and the necessary notes made, you are ready for the next stage.

Putting Things into Perspective

Place a piece of tracing paper over your plan on which you will plot the changes and improvements to be carried out to your garden with all your garden design ideas. Work in pencil to begin with, as there are sure to be some false starts and alterations to make as you go along. However, before you draw anything on the tracing paper, walk round the garden with a pencil and paper, making sketches and notes, trying various new ideas and roughing out how you think they will look from different points of view.

It is a good idea to look out onto the garden from an upstairs window, as this will give you another and useful perspective. If your garden has a view or can be provided with one by some judicious thinning and pruning, your plan will to some extent be pre-determined, as your main sight-lines will lead towards this prospect. In other gardens, the focal point will be within: a fine tree or shrub, an ornament or perhaps a pool. If there is no such point of interest, you will have to provide one and plan around it, either formally or informally, as you choose.

It is a good idea to take some photographs of the house and garden from different angles and have several prints made of each aspect. On these, you can draw, in ball-point, various improvements and changes: a pair of planted urns on the front steps, a garden seat across a corner, a large tree under-planted with shrubs, a trellis or a climber on a wall. If all this strikes you as an extravagant gesture, just remember how much an expensive mistake will cost – an unnecessary load of topsoil, a poorly sited terrace or path, or a pool in deep shade.

Incidentally, when sketching out your ideas, set your view at an angle, rather than head on. It is easier to do this way, and can give a more realistic effect. If you think of a shoe box, set askew, with the long side nearest you, missing, you will get the idea.

In a larger garden, you can plan your garden design ideas for a number of these ‘stage-sets’ and route your paths so that you come across them unexpectedly: a pavilion or a shaded seat in one corner, a rose or herb garden in another, a wild garden in a third, and so on. In our climate, it is a good idea to provide seating in areas of both light and shade. If you are at home during the day, place the sunny seating area where the sun falls at noon, but if you are at home in the evenings only, site the seating area accordingly. However, even our most predictable summers can provide some days of searing heat, so if you have room to put a bench in the shade somewhere, it will provide cool relief.

‘Utility’ Areas

where to site a greenhouse This is the time to decide on where you are going to place the ‘utility’ areas – a horrible expression I know, but I cannot think of another one – the greenhouse, garden shed, compost heap, clothes-line, dustbins, sandpit, barbecue, ete., – if your garden is large enough for such things. A greenhouse, or at least a cold frame, will be an invaluable aid in propagating plants, whether by seed or by cuttings, and will certainly help to keep to a minimum the cost of planting out your garden.

On the other hand, today’s models are seldom things of beauty, and the problem is to hide the items without starving them of the light they need. In a large garden, this is not too difficult; they can be banished to an unfrequented corner and hidden by a hedge or something, but in a small space it is a different matter. They will sit there malevolently, staring at you in a disconcerting way, and I for one would prefer to do without them, remembering that small miracles of fertility can be achieved by sowing seed into everything from an egg-box to a hollowed-out grapefruit, and ‘bringing them on’ in airing cupboards, glassed-in porches and warm window-sills.

Garden sheds are a different matter as they do not have the same need for light, so that a cunning bit of planting will obliterate them. Evergreens can be grown up their sides, and climbers can sprawl amorously across their roofs, but do remember to give them, and all of these areas, a good firm base and a well-constructed path which will make access safe and easy in bad weather.

Kitchen Gardens

planning a kitchen garden If you have room for a kitchen garden, so much the better. Once again, a good path is essential, and the beds should be divided by more paths to make it easy to work on and harvest from them. A good open site with plenty of light is necessary, and while I would not suggest that you place it right in front of the drawing-room windows, a well designed and planted-out kitchen garden can be most charming, if it is kept in good heart. However, the beds may be edged with herbs: the sages, perhaps, or alternate plants of green and gold thyme, with parsley, chives or with alpine strawberries. I am not sure that home-grown vegetables are much of an economy, if you costs your time realistically, and allow for losses from disease, predators and waste, but they are undoubtedly fresher, more delicious, and undoubtedly better for you, as you can at least be sure that they are free from sprays or chemicals; and, of course, you can eat them not merely with butter, but with a fine seasoning of virtue and self-congratulation.

If you have no room for a separate vegetable patch, quite a few things  can be grown in mixed borders, pots, window-boxes and of her containers. The smallest spot can house a few herbs, and runner beans will climb up walls and trellises as happily as they will up bean poles. Clumps of rhubarb, horseradish, angelica and globe artichoke will provide handsome foliage in any odd corner, while strawberries will flourish in a special pot or barrel if they are well looked after.

A fruit tree can be trained against a wall, whilst one that is grown on dwarf stock will fit charmingly into any but the merest pocket handkerchief of a plot, as will one of the crab-apple trees with edible fruit, such as ‘John Downie’ or ‘Golden Hornet’. These have the added bonuses of blossom in the spring and brightly coloured fruits in the autumn, through into winter, which will provide you with the most delicious jelly. Fruit trees can also be trained flat, along wires, to make a fence, to edge a path or screen a vegetable bed, but if you live in rabbit country, you will have to make more serious efforts to seal off the vegetable garden.

Composting for Soil Improvement

Try to make room for a compost heap. You can make your own bins from bricks, breeze-blocks, timber or just chicken-wire nailed to posts. If you really cannot find room for even a small bin, you can fill plastic refuse sacks with garden and kitchen waste, tie them firmly at the neck and dump them in some hidden corner to rot down – behind  the shed, perhaps, or hidden by a clump of evergreens.

In even the smallest of gardens, you will have to find somewhere for the dustbins to stand, and if possible, make some kind of ‘hide’ for them. They should not be too far from the kitchen door, with a good path to them, and any disguise that you plan for them will have to be sufficiently robust to withstand the onslaught of the dustmen, who regard this sort of frippery as a challenge to their masculinity.

Gardening Tools

A home must be found for garden tools and deck chairs, etc. If the garden is too small for a shed and you have no garage, a spot in the house will have to be selected. A broom cupboard, cellar or that handy space under the stairs are all possibilities. In older properties, there is often an outside privy, and this makes a splendid toolshed. If the ‘seat’ is still intact, it will prove an ideal place for a little peace and quiet when all else fails.

Continuing Your Garden Design Ideas

When you are quite sure that you have found a practical spot for all of the above that you can accommodate, mark them on your plan (still in pencil).

This will be a good time to mark in those things that you wish to remove, so draw them in with dotted blue lines, but do not rush these decisions or take drastic action before you are quite sure what you want to knock down or uproot. An overgrown shrubbery, for instance, could, if carefully pruned, provide you with some small trees or large shrubs that have developed handsomely twisted trunks and branches, and these could be just the pivot on which to hang your design. Once cut down, their possibilities will be lost forever. A fruit tree that is a little long in the tooth could still make a splendid support for a clambering rose or clematis as, indeed, could an old tree stump, and it will be a great deal less expensive to put them to work in this way than to go to the trouble of having them removed. A tree or shrub that is in ‘just the wrong place’ might, if the overall planting plan were changed, prove to be in just the right place.

garden design ideas Even an ugly wall or outbuilding can be painted or trellised, perhaps, and smothered in climbers. In fact, most structures which will provide a surface for vertical climbers can be turned into an asset, and many plants will be grateful for the added protection. You might think that nothing could redeem the ugliness of chain-link fencing or wire, fixed to concrete posts, but when their depressing nakedness is veiled by ivy or an evergreen honeysuckle, they are transformed into handsome green walls.

It is even more important to go carefully before levelling the ground. Are you quite sure that you want it level? Of course you will want to fill in pot-holes, etc., but a change of levels can be an attractive feature in a garden, even if it is just a few inches to provide a couple of steps from one area to another. A tree or a gentle mound will give instant height to your plan, and possibly help to hide an ugly building, whilst even an inconvenient tilt or slope can be terraced by the cut-and-fill method. In a small town garden, a series of small terraced beds can provide far more shape and interest than a flat design.

However, whether you do decide to level or to change levels, remember that you will have to remove the topsoil first and set it aside for re-use later on. Topsoil is precious and should be preserved whenever possible. In general, you will find a use for most excavated material, and this is all to the good: the less stuff you have to barrow away to a skip, or take in your protesting car to the council tip, the better for you.

Removing Garden Rubbish

Talking of skips, should you decide you need one (and they are not cheap), you will have to obtain a skip permit from the engineering department of your local council, in order to have it placed in the road. (If you have parking meters in the road, you will also have to pay for the privilege of parking your skip: the ‘temporary lifting of parking restrictions’, as they put it.) You will have to provide it with warning lights at both ends during lighting-up hours, and I would recommend that you pay a little extra to have a tarpaulin put over it at night. If you do not, you may wake up to find that your brand-new skip has been miraculously refilled. People with rubbish to dispose of will scent out your skip from miles away, arrive in the dead of night, hurl in their debris, then screech away on burning rubber before you can point out to them, courteously, that you have paid good money for the skip and would like to be able to use it yourself.

Damp Proof Course and Services:

Water Drainage

garden design ideas When planning out the areas around the house, it is important to realise that all surfaces that abut the house should be at least six inches below the damp-proof course. If you don’t know where it is, get a builder to check for you. As a rough guide, it is usually a few inches below the door-sills. It is essential not to ‘bridge’ the damp proof course in any way – by allowing the earth from wall-beds to mound up over it, for instance, or by laying paving above it. If you wish to make a raised bed along a house wall, or a new wall butting onto the house, you will need to install a vertical d.p.c. To avoid the risk of penetrating damp, and if you are not a skilled and knowledgeable do-it-yourself expert, get professional advice or you could run into some very expensive problems.

All paths and terraces should have a slight fall or camber to prevent surface waters lying on them. This fall should be away from the footings of the house and into the drainage system through drain-traps, or into soak-aways.

On areas away from the house, the water can drain into surrounding lawns or planting areas, unless the water-table is already too high, in which case you will have to consider installing some form of drainage system: a soak-away or a French drain if the problem is patchy, or a serious system of land-drains if the problem is an overall one. If the wetness is caused by over-compacted soil and subsoil, it may be possible to deal with it by digging over the land, breaking up the subsoil and incorporating as much vegetable matter in the bottom spit of each trench as you can lay your hands on, together with as much coarse grit and gravel as you can afford. Do not, however, be tempted to do this just round the roots of a tree or shrub that you are planting, as this will form a sump into which water will drain, and your plant will become waterlogged and drown.

Suitable materials to add to the broken-up subsoil include broken bricks, shards and stones, twiggy trimmings, seaweed, bracken, cabbage stalks, corn husks, straw, bark and compost. Into the topsoil you can fork peat, compost, coarse grit, leaf mould and well rotted manure. If the vegetable matter that you use is not sufficiently decomposed, it could produce a nitrogen deficiency in the soil and you will have to correct this with a suitable fertiliser.

For larger areas with a more serious problem, a herring-bone system of land-drains should be laid at a minimum of 45cm (18″) deep, bedded-on, and surrounded by gravel which will allow the water to seep through into the open-jointed pipes. These should slope in a continuous fall to soak-aways at the lowest points of the garden. Where the garden is small and the damp less severe, a few soak-aways or French drains in the worst parts should do the trick. A soak-away is a hole roughly 90cm-120cm (3 – 4ft) square and deep. Fill the bottom with large stones and hardcore, to about half of its depth. Then add a layer of gravel and top this with a layer of upturned turfs; finally, replace the topsoil and the turf. A French drain is similar in principle, being a ditch which is filled with stones and gravel, leading the water away from the boggy patch.

In a large garden, you could consider planting some kind of thirsty tree, such as a willow, poplar, oak or cherry. These will suck up surplus moisture and, by transpiration, release it into the atmosphere. However, these trees have invasive roots, which can undermine drains and foundations; even, in periods of drought, causing the subsoil to shrink, which can lead to the subsidence of the buildings, a very expensive disaster to remedy. The root system of a tree can spread well beyond its canopy, so that, as a rough guide: do not plant poplars within 150 feet of any drains or buildings; with an oak, 100 feet is probably safe. In a small, damp garden, you might think it worth while to build some raised beds, about one or two feet high, in which the plants could grow safely with no fear of water-logging. These have the added advantages of changing the levels in the garden and are very easy to maintain, which makes them especially suitable for the elderly, disableed or even just those with back problems.

There is a  system of land drainage which has a crush-proof core of flexible styrene, wrapped in a rot-proof filter which is laid in a comparatively tiny trench, 10cm (4″) wide by 25cm (10″) deep. This obviously causes far less disturbance of the garden, can be done easily enough by an amateur and is claimed to be cheaper than the conventional clay pipe drains.

watering the garden As well as the drainage system, you will have to make some provision for watering. For anything more demanding than a couple of containers, I would beg you to splurge out on an outside tap at least. If you have a plumber around doing odd jobs, it is not very expensive to get him to install one for you. If you have a largish garden, and your house is more or less in the middle, try to have an outside tap on all sides. The initial expense will be repaid by the savings on plants.

Even in our sodden climate, there are surprisingly long periods of dry and windy weal her when daily watering is necessary. I find, time and time again, that unless people are fanatical gardeners, watering is hardly ever carried out sufficiently or frequently enough, unless it is made very easy to do. The watering tends to get put off . . . and off . . . and off. Given an outside tap and, whenever possible, a wall-mounted hose reel and some kind of sprinkling device, the laziest of us will be prepared to turn on the tap and, from time to time, move the sprinkler round the garden. The salvation of a newly planted hedge, turfed lawn, or ten containerfuls of bedding, will soon recoup the cost of the whole installation.

In very large gardens you will have to join up a series of hose-pipe lengths, using little connectors, but you will have to take care that the resulting serpent does not strangle your most precious plants in its undulating coils or knock down your containers as it writhes across your patio. If you are installing some kind of fixed irrigation system, or stand-pipes in various parts of the garden, you will have to protect them from frost by burying the pipes about 90cm (3ft) down and lagging the stand pipe, unless the system can be drained down in the winter.

Electricity Supply

An electricity supply is something else that you may find it useful to install, but this is really something for an electrician to do, requiring special cable and fittings. At first, you may think this is a bit of a luxury in terms of economical gardening, but this is not really the case. If you have to move round your garden at night, for any reason, searching for a lost pet or a recalcitrant child, perhaps, or to-ing and fro-ing to garage and log pile, well-lit paths and terraces, especially when a change of levels is involved, will be a big safety factor, while efficiently lit exits and entrances are good burglar deterrents, which could be your most cost-effective ploy of all. Other possible needs are lighting and power points to garages, greenhouses and sheds.

An electrically-heated propagator could make for real savings in stocking the garden. If you plan to have a pool with a fountain, or water splashing from a wall-mask into a shallow pool or basin (both of which you could make yourself), you will need electricity to power the submersible pump. Lights on the terrace will turn it into a magic dining-room at night, while various points of interest round the garden, such as a pool, tree or spectacular plant, will all take on new and mysterious life when suffused by strategically placed up-lighters or ‘spots’. The burbling and splashing of moving water will be an endless delight and fascination and, at the very least, all these ‘luxury’ additions will enhance the enjoyment of the garden and the value of your property. They are seldom as expensive as improvements inside the house.

All these services – drains, water and electricity – will be most easily and therefore most cheaply, installed at the earliest possible moment in the garden’s construction or re-construction, especially if the necessary tradesmen are about the place already, working in the house. You need not add all the equipment straight away. The fountain, lights and propagator, etc., can all be bought and added at a later stage, but you will have got the services in and out of the way, with all the necessary disturbances over, so that there will be no need to upset the, by then, we hope, established garden and plant-life. As for the drains, if there is a need for them, you will realise, if you have ever seen a gardenful of dying, water-logged plants, that they are not a luxury but a necessity.

The Vision

Once all these have been decided upon, pencil them in on the tracing paper, and start to mark in your other ideas: walls to be built, paths and terraces, trees, planting areas, lawns, ponds, even the garden furniture and ornamental items.

planning a garden - steps made from granite This basic plan will help you to see if your ideas make sense in a practical way . . . that the paths, for instance, are wide enough and that they are taking a realistic route which has some likelihood of being followed; that the terrace will provide enough room for sunbathing and dining out, or for the children to rollerskate to self-destruction; have you hung the clothes-line in an area of permanent shade? etc., etc.

When you have sorted all these problems out on paper, and have added all the features that you can cram in, try to visualise your creation three-dimensionally. Imagine a tree standing sentinel here, a path disappearing round a corner there, somewhere, perhaps, a gleam of water; referring back to your photographs and preliminary sketches.

If this vision is beyond you, set out your plan with pieces from a child’s toy garden or with the accessories for model railways. If you do not have either of these, and are unable to borrow them, draw all the features and plants on the plan (or cut out pictures from magazines and catalogues) keeping roughly to scale and mount them on cardboard. Move these around like a stage set. Then kneel down by the table and look through this set at eye-level, which should give you some idea of how the finished garden will look when it is established. If it looks overcrowded you will be able to remove a tree here, an ornament there, shift things round a bit until you feel that you have the balance of the place just about right. This all sounds like a great deal of toil and trouble; in practice it is a lot less bothersome than you would think. In fact, it is all rather good fun, and a great deal more entertaining than most TV programmes, while, once again, it will help to weed out potentially expensive mistakes and a lot of wasted time and effort.

Armed with your plans, sketches and photographs, and with your stage set firmly in mind, you can begin to try it all out ‘on the ground’. Use lengths of string or hosepipes to lay out paths, lawns and flowerbeds. Use bricks, stones and pebbles to mark out clumps of planting within these lines. Stick large twiggy branches into the ground to represent trees and shrubs and lay out black refuse sacks or plastic sheeting to suggest water. This may sound rather childish, but it is amazing how the garden will take shape for you. Pieces of household furniture can stand in for their outdoor cousins and so can indoor plants and containers. Lengths of material strung over string can suggest the lines of a hedge or fence, while cardboard grocery boxes or tea chests can indicate raised levels and low walls. Not only will this be a real help to you but it will also provide your neighbours with hours of innocent pleasure and entrance any children or animals who may chance upon you.

Research and Planning

Ideally, all the preliminary research and planning should be done in times of rotten weather, when it is too cold and wet to work outside. However, life seldom works out so neatly and you may well have to get the whole job done in a mad rush during the year’s one heatwave, when your only desire is to be sipping Pimm’s on the postulated patio. Fortunately, in these days of container-grown plants, a garden can be made at any time when the ground is not actually frozen, waterlogged, or drought-stricken.

However, at whatever season you begin, do not attempt to implement your plans until you have checked that you will not be infringing the law, or local by-laws. All new buildings, including outbuildings, greenhouses, walls and even large sheds may need planning or building permission – probably both – so check this out with your local council. The rules will be particularly strict if you live in a conservation area. Your house and even your outbuildings may be ‘listed’. Nothing may be added or subtracted to or from a listed building, and even repairs must be to an agreed standard. Do not be tempted to go ahead and hope to ‘get away with it’. The odds are that you will not. As well as being fined quite heavily, you may well be made to rebuild or pull down an unauthorised alteration, and will earn the opprobrium of all and sundry.

Your neighbours will have desires, some of them legally enforceable, to light, privacy and, in some cases, rights-of-way or common access over your land which must not be obstructed, restricted or altered without prior arrangement. If this irritates you, just imagine how you would feel if the position was reversed. Whenever possible, establish friendly relations with all your neighbours and sort things out with them well in advance.

Any lawyer will tell you of the horrors, frustrations and wildly escalating costs of disputes between neighbours. Even if right is on your side, you will need a first-class legal adviser and a full purse to establish the facts. Whichever way the verdict goes, much bitterness will remain – sometimes for years.

overhanging trees Trees are quite frequently covered by a preservation order and, once again, in conservation areas, all the trees may be protected. You must get permission before you cut them down or carry out any serious pruning. If the trees are diseased and likely to drop on your head at the first puff of wind, you may be able to get them cut down, and if they are of any size at all, get the help of a good tree surgeon. He will be able to tell you if all or part of the tree could be saved, and this is no time for false economies. One hefty tree-trunk plummeting down in an uncontrolled fashion, can cause a truly horrendous amount of damage, as well as being quite likely to crush your house and your nearest and dearest.

Trees arouse great passions in many people, so that any covert action you take is bound to be noted and reported upon by incensed conservationists (rightly so). Remember that, if the trees are not protected, your neighbour will be entitled to cut back to the boundary the branches of any of your trees that overhang his land, although he must offer the prunings back to you. He must also carry out the pruning without causing damage to the health of the tree. Of course, all this applies equally but in reverse, to any of his trees that may encroach on your land.

Remember, too, that if you plant a tree of such vigour and enthusiasm that its roots seek out and cause damage to your neighbour’s property, whether it be to his house, outbuildings, walls or drains, you will be held legally liable. Poplars are notorious for causing this kind of damage, and should be planted not less than about 45m (150 ft) from all buildings and drains. However, if your neighbour is foolish enough to build over existing roots, even if they do come from your trees, the odds are that you will not be held liable.

Boundary disputes are distressingly common. On some deeds it is made quite clear whose fence or wall is whose, and then the owner can be made responsible for its upkeep and repair, in theory at least. However, in many cases, the ownership is not clear, and then it will make sense for both parties to share all expenses as this will be of benefit to both, although they may not be too keen to chip in for your fancier flights of treillage. This will still be worth doing and will probably save you money in the long run, by keeping your own children, pets and elderly dependants in, while, with any luck, repelling those belonging to others, as well as making life more difficult for the local villains.

cats and dogs Incidentally, you are considered to be responsible for the actions of your dogs but not your cats, which is probably just as well for the cats. You are not allowed to take pot shots at trespassing pussies, but you might get away with water-pistols. In theory, keeping a dog will scare off the cats, but in practice I find that the cats sit on the wall and sneer at my dog, which usually annoys him to such an extent that he crashes about the garden in a fruitless attempt to get at them, thereby causing more damage than twenty cats.

It is as well to make sure that your household insurance policy covers you for accidental injury on your property, such as falls caused by faulty surfaces or knock-out blows from falling slates and expiring elms. You will be liable for any damage that you or your contractors cause to your neighbour’s property, to the main services such as water, gas, electricity and drains, and to telephone and cable TV lines. In fact, when you engage a contractor it is as well to make sure that he is suitably insured; get it confirmed in writing and, if in doubt, ask to see his policy. Remember that if your property is rented or leasehold, the landlord or freeholder may well have included restrictive clauses in the lease which can, in extreme cases, even apply to the colour of the paintwork on the house; so, once again, check up.

Finally, all surplus water on your land should drain away within your boundaries or into your drainage system. It should not be discharged onto your neighbour’s property or onto the public highway.

03. October 2010 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Garden Landscapes, Gardening Ideas, Landscaping, New Gardens | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Planning a Garden – Garden Design Ideas


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