Success in the garden? It's all in the planning...
DESIGNING a garden is a skilled job, but if you wish to have a go, here are a few tips, which should be equally relevant to a small courtyard and a large country-style garden.
1. A SIMPLE SURVEY
This does not need complicated equipment, but just your eyes and a notepad. Pace out the dimensions of the existing garden, and note any changes in level.
Ask yourself what you like and dislike about the garden. Where is the sun and shade at different times of the day? Where is the best place to sit? Are there any problems such as being overlooked, too much shade, excessively damp or dry areas? Are there manholes or service pipes you need to steer clear of when building?
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This will ensure you look at your garden objectively, and you will then be in a position to move on to the next step:
2. WISH LIST
This will, of course, be governed to some extent by budget, but think about elements that are most important to you in order to make best use of the space. Your answers provide the bones of your new garden.
Would you like a patio, a shady seating area, a shed or pergola? Are you drawn to curvaceous lines, or do you prefer strong geometric shapes? What style of planting do you prefer: the traditional cottage look, or a more modern approach? What colours would you choose?
3. SKETCH A PLAN
Using squared paper for easy measurement, transfer your paced out dimensions on to the page.
Incorporate the main features of your wish list, and define planting areas.
Think about how you will link the different areas.
For example, do you need a path to link the patio to the lawn, or does a change in level dictate a flight of steps?
Remember that a patio close to the house will be more convenient than one at the far end of the garden, but be flexible depending on which areas catch the sun.
The main principle to bear in mind is that the smaller the garden, the simpler the outline shapes should be in order to gain maximum impact.
4. CHOOSE MATERIALS
You can link the choice of materials to the style of the house, or match existing boundary walls and hard landscaping elements you wish to retain.
In a small garden, I recommend keeping the choice of materials to two or three items, otherwise your garden will be in danger of looking too busy, and won't be a restful place to spend time.
Bear in mind how you will transport materials into the garden. For example, if you live in a terraced house without rear access, choosing to build a heavy stone wall is not the most practical choice.
Compare between different materials and try always to buy from a sustainable source.
Simple tricks, such as painting all timber (fences, sheds, furniture) the same colour, will add cohesion to your design. And if you are using stone for a patio or path, take into account the colour and materials of your house.
5. SELECT PLANTS
It is worth making a wish list before you start planting, otherwise the temptation may be to buy lots of random plants, which do not really go well together.
While making your selection, note where the sunny and shady areas of the garden are, and choose the right plant for the right place.
Choose trees for screening or shade. There are many suitable species for small gardens, but think how fast they will grow and what they will look like in ten years' time.
Use a variety of shrubs: evergreens provide all-year "backbone" and deciduous examples add colour in autumn. In a small garden, try to choose plants with at least two elements, such as those with both berries and autumn leaf colour, or evergreen leaves and scented flowers.
This way, you'll have year-round interesting features to appreciate.
Also include a selection of perennial flowers to add colour throughout the seasons, without the need to plant every year.
Ground cover plants will help prevent weeds setting in, and will cover bare soil rapidly. And add in some spring-flowering bulbs for a blaze of colour from late winter to early spring.
6. MARK OUT THE DESIGN
Using spray paint, mark out the different areas on the ground, so you can see where each main feature will be, and how each area will link together.
This will give a good idea of scale and proportion. This is the time to adjust your design so it fits well into the space and any one particular element does not dwarf the garden.
Set tall canes where any trees and large shrubs will be located, to check sight lines from the house.
Check that areas designed for seating, or table and chairs, are large enough to accommodate the furniture without spilling over the edge. Allow plenty of width of pathways, so that you can easily use a wheelbarrow, and check that step treads are comfortably wide and shallow.
7. WORK OUT A BUILDING AND PLANTING SCHEDULE
This is particularly important in a small terraced house, as you will need to plan carefully at what stage you bring materials in, and how you are going to get rid of any waste.
Note in what order you will build the main features, and at what point you need materials delivered.
Order a skip in advance, bearing in mind you will need a licence if it is on the main highway.
Aim to complete all the hard landscaping and building before you begin planting.
There is nothing more disheartening than having builders stomping all over your new treasured plants.
8. CONSTRUCT THE PERMANENT FEATURES
Depending on the complexity of your design, this can be a DIY task, or you can pay an experienced builder to do the job.
Following your building schedule, erect your chosen boundaries, lay your "flooring" elements and then add structures such as a shed or a pergola. The order in which you do this will be governed by the choices you have made.
Dig out your border shapes, and lay your chosen edgings, for example, railway sleepers or timber strips. Construct any ponds or water features, bearing in mind if you need mains electrical connections for fountains or lights, that you are obliged to employ a qualified electrician. A cheaper alternative would be to use solar- powered features.
9. GET PLANTING
Before you even think about putting a single plant into the ground, you need to prepare the soil well by digging in plenty of compost and adding fertiliser. For clay soils, dig in some fine grit to break up the clods. This is much easier to do with a blank canvas than when the area is full of plants and roots.
Next, set plants still in their pots on the area you are planting, so that you can move them around easily to get the best layout. Bear in mind which colours are going next to each other, and allow plenty of space for taller or more spreading plants. I tend to plant more sparingly, and let the plants fill the space, rather than plant too close, and spend the next few years thinning out over-crowded plants.
Step back from your planting area from time to time, to check the plants look balanced and well-spaced. Once you are happy with the combinations, dig a hole twice the size of the pot, and once planted, backfill firmly with your boot. Water plants generously.
10. FINISHING TOUCHES
This is the fun part, where you can stamp your style on your new garden. Add some plant supports, such as obelisks, decorative stakes or willow structures
Use solar lighting, such as an uplighter to enhance a tree canopy, or a string of fairy lights along a fence. Here you can achieve maximum effect for minimum effort.
Plant up some patio pots for seasonal colour.
Use the biggest pots you can afford, half fill them with polystyrene pieces for insulation, and fill with compost, preferable one including slow release fertiliser. Remember to water and feed regularly.
Transform a blank wall by painting a bright colour, or create an outside gallery with a mix of hanging pots, decorative plaques and perhaps a mirror.