How to Design a Garden — from scratch

‘Design a Garden’ — it’s just a phrase, but what it really means is this….

You need to design YOUR garden, but design your garden in such a way that:

  1. You can enjoy relaxing and sitting in it.
  2. Can admire pretty flowers that grow beautifully.
  3. Have time to spend time enjoying the garden and not gardening.
  4. Don’t spend time on garden chores you hate when you’d rather be doing something else.
  5. And that the garden created behaves itself!

OK, so now maybe it seems a little more daunting, especially if you know very little about plants. What plants would grow well and which ones wouldn’t! Nowadays, it is very easy to find tomes of information on all aspects of garden design from books, magazines and the internet, but there is a problem.

All seem to show you how to design a garden using images of finished gardens that resemble this one….which is all very well but

your little patch of loveliness usually looks more like this one below, and the available garden budget has far fewer noughts! So most of us end up having to resort to digging out a couple of borders, filling them with plants from the garden centre and hoping for the best!

There are some basic guidelines to follow that will help you get garden that works.

If you haven’t time to read on, there are lots of articles and advice here …‘How to Design Design a Garden If….’ or please do have a browse through our Blog, The Plotting Shed.

Sort out the Essentials:

All gardens have the same fundamental requirements, however large or small. So we all need:

  • A place to sit and enjoy being outside
  • A means to get to the place you sit all year
  • Somewhere to store all the stuff that goes with having a garden
  • A place for the bins
  • A washing line that is easy to get to

Depending on the size of the garden and personal preference, the relative importance of these essentials may change. For example, in a very small garden the issue of storage is more tricky to solve. The stuff that needs storing does not shrink in size just because the garden is smaller — so the relative space it takes up is larger. The design needs to consider storage and how you could maybe integrate the storage with the seating before you start any work changing the garden.

The mathematical principle of pareto comes into play with garden design. This is the idea that 20% of the garden is used 80% of the time, the other 80% is only used 20% of the time. So it is really important to get the 20% right.

In terms of space, paths don’t take up much space — but you use them a lot, getting to the washing line, the patio, the bins etc. So in a small garden you need your path to be hard wearing, easy to walk down and usable all year. Stepping stones, little windy paths may seem a lovely idea, but they are not practical enough. Paths need to be at least the width of the back door and you need to be able to walk along it without tripping over plants or getting whacked by overhanging branches. This doesn’t mean that your path should be a concrete strip though, there are lots of lovely path solutions to use.

See Low Maintenance Paths

Rank your ‘Garden Desires’:

Every garden is different, as is every gardener, so there is no right or wrong garden style, design or planting scheme. The design is only wrong if it does not meet your needs.

This is a lovely garden, however it would not be a great garden for young children to play in for example.

To design the garden then, you need to think about what you want it to do and how you want to feel in the garden. It maybe that creating a part of the garden that is not overlooked by anyone is really important, it may be you need space for the children’s toys or that you want to be distracted from the noisy traffic.

Obviously we can’t say what’s important to you, but if you rank those factors by importance, the design will begin to evolve. You know what the garden should be doing for you.

Know your own dislikes and restrictions:

This is very much ‘what is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander’. It is going to be your garden, but more importantly you are going to be the one maintaining it. Identifying the chores you really don’t want to do along as well as knowing how little time (or energy) you will have for the garden is really important if you want a garden you can enjoy. If you only have an hour a week for everything in the garden, then lawns, climbing plants, vegetables, bedding plants and hanging baskets are all going to cause you more work than you have time for.

Similarly if you absolutely loathe weeding and messy untidy gardens, planting ornamental grasses or a wildflower meadow will not be the right garden for you — no matter how pretty it looks in the pictures!

We have some free guides on what plants grow best where!

Write your checklist:

Ok by now, you will have some idea of what you are looking for, not based on a notion of a contemporary or a cottage style garden, but based on the garden fitting around you and what you want it to do. It may look something like this:

  • Want place for a sun lounger / BBQ
  • Hate mowing
  • Need to hide the neighbour’s upstairs window
  • Love scented plants
  • Normally use the garden at the weekends only
  • Don’t sit in the garden in the winter at all
  • Can’t stand the bins by the back door — smelly!
  • Have nowhere to store garden compost or greenery — trip to the tip required
  • Know absolutely nothing about plants!

So what does this tell us and how to design the garden then…

The requirements this garden must have then are

  • As large a seating area as possible to hold the BBQ and eat outside in comfort
  • A place to store the BBQ in winter and a storage spot for the bins
  • All the plants must be as evergreen as possible
  • Maybe there should be no grass here at all
  • Avoid fast growing plants or plants that need regular trimming (topiary)
  • One part of the garden needs to have tall plants for privacy
  • Most of the plants should be fairly tough easy care and tolerant of neglect

Avoid the negative and you create a positive:

It is much easier to start creating the garden as you now really know what the garden should do for you. If you know what plants NOT to get, it directs you to the ones that would work better. You have made a decision about not having a lawn, because you know you won’t want to look after a lawn, so now you can explore what other landscaping options to use, and so on.

See also:

Garden Design for Beginners

Creating a Low Maintenance Garden…

Part 1

Part 2





How to Design a Garden if:….

It’s all weeds

It’s a city garden

The garden is really narrow

Small! — you couldn’t even ‘swing a cat’

I still have no idea where to begin

I would like the garden to be less boring!

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.