Working out how to design a garden can be tricky – after all, getting your garden design right, no matter what size yard space you have, requires a great deal of thought and care. Whether you want a simple tweak to include raised beds, or if you want to know how to design your garden yourself on a budget, we can help you succeed in your garden planning project.
From decorative garden ideas and planting inspiration, to what to consider when hiring a professional, and the tools you'll need if you go solo, we've all the know-how you need to help plan your yard's garden space to perfection – whatever climate you're working with and whatever your budget may be. All you need then is some of the best garden furniture to relax in...
The approach you take ultimately depends on what you want and need, within budget. We spoke with Mark Lane – Stannah’s Gardening Expert and BBC Gardener’s World presenter – about planning your garden design and how it can shape your backyard ideas and entire outdoor space.
'There are thousands of images online showing different garden styles. Start collecting them and produce a mood board. Sometimes it might be the smallest detail of a handcrafted door handle that you like — the shape, the craftsmanship and/or the material might appeal. This, in turn, could steer you towards an ‘arts and crafts’ style garden, for example.'
Getting started on your garden design early on in the year is crucial if you want it ready for landscaping, planting out and enjoying the warmer months in. Depending on your climate, ideally, you'll want to avoid working in the rainy season also. 'January, February and even March are the perfect times to sit down with a cuppa, a blank piece of paper or your laptop and get your thinking cap on. Sometimes, paper cut outs in different shapes, representing a table and chairs or a shed, can be moved around until you find the right balance' adds Lane.
How to design a garden step-by-step
Designing a garden yourself is a satisfying, pocket-friendly option that will allow you to get really creative. There are so many resources and even garden design apps available to help you bring your outdoor space to life, whether you need ideas for a small veggie patch, looks for a bigger plot, for a courtyard or balcony garden.
Lindsey Hyland, gardening expert and founder of Urban Organic Yield says, 'One of the keys to designing a great garden is to make sure the garden plants have plenty of room to grow. When planting, leave plenty of space between each plant and don't be afraid to use tall plants in the back and shorter plants in the front. Consider adding trees, shrubs or hedges as well – they can add drama and structure to your garden.'
1. Analyse your existing garden space
Head outside and measure up. You'll need a measuring tape, notepad, pencil and rubber. Measure, starting with the biggest areas, followed by small sections including nooks and crannies, finally noting down the dimensions of any existing garden rooms or outbuildings. Lane says 'Take measurements of the garden, patio or balcony — especially the width and length.' This will help you know what you're working with, whether you're planning your garden layout yourself or reaching out to a professional.'
This is also the right time to establish your garden's aspect. Do this by visiting your garden at different points during the day to understand the direction that your outdoor space faces, and make a note of any shaded garden spots as this will determine any planting and your final garden layout.
This is best done with a compass but you will be able to figure it out without also! Lane says 'If the garden leads off the back or front of the house, sit back with a coffee and biscuit (or two). Then, watch where the sun comes up and where shadows fall in the garden; will the area close to the backdoor be in full sun all day, or be in partial shade?'
Depending on which way your garden faces, the light will fall:
- North-facing gardens: These will usually have shaded spots for the best part of the day so you'll get the best look from shade garden plants.
- South-facing gardens: South-facing spaces will enjoy all the sunshine all day, so you can go to town on Med plants and your herb garden will stay looking fine too.
- West-facing gardens: Here you will enjoy shade in the AM and sun during the afternoon, through until the evening. You will find lots of hardy plants like roses, tulips, geraniums and more to add interest,
- East-facing gardens: In an East-facing garden, plants will enjoy morning sunlight and evening shade letting you choose more shade-loving but flowering varieties if you wish like Anemones and Viburnums.
2. Plan for what you want and need
Establishing a design brief of what you want and need from your garden space is essential and therefore should be done early on in your garden planning process.
You will need an understanding of any problems that need to be solved – such as a bumpy lawn, waterlogging issues, lack of colour and the like – and, of course, of all the goals you want to achieve with your garden project, like starting a kitchen garden, or creating a space for cutting flowers.
Lane suggests mulling over 'Do you like a particular style of gardening, such as cottage, prairie, sensory, seaside, tropical or modern? Understanding the look and feel of each is paramount for getting it right.'
Spend time talking with family and friends about why you’re taking on this project, ahead of diving into and drawing up your specific garden design aims. This will help you determine whether you should need to employ a professional garden designer or complete the work yourself.
Other factors to consider also are whether you are renting a house, or if this is your forever home. If you rent or aren't planning to stay in your home for a really long time, you may want to consider mainly cosmetic changes that will be able to come with you to your next home – favouring container gardening and planting annuals, or perennials that are easy to take cuttings from, so that none of your gardening work is lost.
And, if this is your forever home, you can prepare for a bigger change and for a garden that will come into its own over the next few years, and that might even add to your property value. You might want to establish a cottage garden or add sculptural features that you will be able to upkeep for a really contemporary outdoor space complete with a vegetable patch and the like. This will naturally be more work and more costly to begin with, but very much worth it.
3. Sketch out your initial design
Hyland continues, 'You should draw an outline of your garden on graph paper and make a list of plants, flower beds, paths and other elements you would like to include in the design. A drawing can also help visualize what areas may not be ideal for garden placement.'
At this point, you can decide what you are willing to change and what can remain. While a complete makeover often results in a more coherent outcome, it can be very expensive and demanding of time. Making subtle tweaks inevitably costs less, but this approach has a more limited scope.
Henry Scott of Pehrsson Scott adds, 'Design is a discipline which takes years of practice and dedication. Keeping things simple is always my advice where possible. Paying attention to the site context, existing features and understanding how the space needs to function will help design a successful landscape scheme. It is important to understand what a good ratio is between the hard and soft landscaping and this will vary from site to site. Good design starts with a thorough site analysis!'
Spend time looking critically at the garden at both its good and bad points before developing a new ‘masterplan’, and before you carry out any of the landscaping work. You might want to swap out a tired patio, but keep other features, like an attractive decking area or mature trees.
Hyland adds how 'It is important to have routes in mind before actually planting any flowers or trees so that you can easily get around your garden. Paths can be made of brick, stone or concrete and should be at least 18 inches wide so you can comfortably walk on them.'
Establishing privacy needs should come into play here also, 'Draw lines leading off from windows and doors, as these will become sightlines.' Once you know this you'll be able to find the most suitable garden screening ideas for your space's needs. This is then the perfect time to 'Pull in your favourite garden features or desired theme. Bring together all your garden inspiration from online features, social media, magazines and the likes.'
Consider any additional features also. This includes garden rooms, orangeries, sheds and anything you'd like to incorporate into your outdoor space in general as it will contribute to the overall feel of the space. If you have a balcony or small courtyard garden you could consider an outdoor cinema setting, better garden storage and more to help enhance the space you do have.
A hand sketch is fine, but rendering a garden design on your computer, to scale will make your plan super clear.
4. Consider the main elements of landscape design
Ronnie Collins, professional woodworker, passionate gardener with an MS degree in Botany is the founder of the Electro Garden Tools blog advises considering both hard and soft landscaping features early on to get your garden's layout on point. ‘The key to a nice-looking garden is thorough planning. Regardless of your garden size, you need to plan where the trees will grow, what type of paving will be used, what zones need to be screened with plants or structures, where the smaller plants will be, etc. Your planning should be based on the main elements of landscape design, such as balance, unity, scale, simplicity, sequence, variety, and emphasis.'
Lane advises to think about the materials you want to use. 'Natural materials — such as stone, gravel and wood — lend themselves to traditional styles. On the other hand, clean-cut, porcelain tiles, a monochrome palette or strong architectural features and modern sculpture are better for modern or contemporary gardens. Remember, there are no rules other than your own. You may even like to mix up materials and aim for an eclectic look.'
5. Familiarize yourself with garden design costs
Even if you keep some existing features, hiring a landscaper to work even on a small or simple garden design, can be costly once design fees, materials, plants and employing contractors (which normally amount to at least half the budget) are factored in.
Hiring a landscape designer according to HomeAdvisor by Angi will cost anything between $1,958 and $7,037, depending on your zipcode. Suburban gardens will typically come out more expensive and although this might seem like a lot, a well-designed garden space can add value to your home. Not to mention it will improve your quality of life, so consider it an investment much like fitting a new kitchen or bathroom.
Remember that a sloping garden will have insufficient drainage, and that any structural elements may need to be removed, such as walls, garden rooms or old paving, which will cost more to redesign as the initial outlay for the preparatory works will be higher than when dealing with a plain, flat area.
6. Then set the budget for your garden design
A new-look garden can be very expensive, especially when it comes to modern garden designs, where a clean finish is essential. Some garden designers will recommend spending 5 to 15 percent of the house value on the garden, which, in turn, will add a similar, if not larger amount, to the value of your home as mentioned.
Work out how much you can afford to spend and see where you can make savings easily. Unfortunately, setting a simple rate for meters squared or percentage of house value isn’t the most reliable way to work out the cost of your garden design if going through a professional, as there are so many options and it will largely depend on your chosen design, the state of the plot when you begin, and the elements you wish to include.
Other high-cost practices include the desire for instant impact, such as complex shapes and curves in garden borders; requirements for extreme accuracy; fixed design details with no ability to adapt on-site; and hiring specialist tradespeople that have to travel some distance. Moving underground services, drainage works, demolition and site clearance work will also add to the cost, especially if access is tricky or there’s a need to work by hand.
If you are on a tight budget or upgrading a rented garden, you will want to go for high-impact, but budget garden ideas. Reclaimed and recycled materials generally cost less than new, while ‘fluid’ materials, such as gravel, are cheaper than paving. You should also opt for plants over hardscape. In many gardens, it’s possible to cover or clad rather than remove – a sound concrete pad, for example, might be the ideal sub-base for attractive paving.
Remember to DIY what you can, making raised beds yourself and the like will also help keep costs down.
With that in mind, always have a contingency fund. Between 5 to 15 percent of the total budget is ideal, but the higher the better, especially if you are tackling the project yourself. While savings will be made in some areas, inevitably you will make mistakes in others. Maintain the balance.
7. Plant for success
Collins further highlights, 'While you can place the elements of your garden based on your understanding of style and utility, you should never forget that the lowest plants should be placed in the front, while tall plants should stand closer to the back of garden beds. This is a key to proper daylight illumination and good visibility of all the plants.'
Incorporate planting accordingly: Whether you want to create a tropical jungle, a thriving veg garden or a pared-back cool modern garden space, you'll need to get the planting right. Chris Bonnett from GardeningExpress.co.uk says 'Once you’ve thought about the theme and style of garden you want, be sure to choose plants that fit closely within this so that they won't look out of place. If you have opted for a jungle approach, add big leafy plants. Those with a Japanese-style garden may want to focus on natural elements or add a water feature. Mediterranean gardens are perfect for summer because of how bright and colorful they are. Have fun picking out bold shrubs and ornamental grasses. However, it is a good idea to consider the times of year you will frequently be out in the garden, so that you can ensure the choice of plant will thrive when you can enjoy it the most. If it is a space you use all year round, look for plants that will flower at different points and shrubs that will keep their color over winter.'
8. Consider garden maintenance
Specific wants and needs vary from person to person, but ask yourself, ‘how do I want to feel?’ and ‘who is the garden for?’ along with considering how much time you have for garden maintenance. Together with a particular style or theme in mind, the answers will determine the layout and design details. Consult all family members, even the kids and understand that a little compromise is usually necessary!
For instance, if you want to include a veg patch, this will require general upkeep throughout the seasons. While if you'd like to include a beautiful rose garden, you'll need to ensure that you're happy to prune them when needed.
9. Think about the timescale
This depends on the scale of your project, however, not everything needs to be completed at once, and with a tight budget it’s unlikely that it will be. Instead, phase the project, completing elements from the masterplan when finances are available. Unfortunately, the most important parts, which need finishing first, are usually the most costly. These include building retaining walls, steps and ramps, boundaries, patios and terraces, and paths. Semi-mature specimen plants to screen nosy neighbors are also costly. Tempting as it may be, leave design details such as ornamental planting, pots and furniture until after the bones of the garden have been completed.
Think about the seasons, too. Most gardening and landscaping work is carried out between spring and early fall, when nights are shorter and the weather is warm. The best planting season is early-to-mid spring and early-to-mid fall. All this needs to be factored into your timeframe. Good contractors will get booked up early, so the quicker you start to develop the actual design, the better.
10. Check if your garden design requires a permit
Adding a pool, building retaining walls and installing electrical lines or tree removal are just some of the jobs that require a permit, so always check your State's regulations. Surrounds Landscape Architecture has a great explainer page going into more detail.
For most garden projects in the UK, it isn’t necessary to apply for planning permission, but you will need to in certain cases. Extending boundary heights, extensive terracing, decking platforms above 30cm and new paving in the front garden are common examples of what you will need to gain permission for. Likewise, if you live in a conservation area then the rules can vary wildly, so always check with your local authority. Usefully, new plants and trees aren’t covered by planning permission, although existing trees may have a Tree Preservation Order to protect them. Contact your local authority to find out.
If you are working on an existing party wall or directly next to a boundary, the Party Wall Act is likely to apply. For detailed information, visit planningportal.co.uk. Details of the allowable height and size of garden structures, such as new outdoor home offices, can also be found here.
How do I plan my garden layout?
Scott advises to always take a number of different factors into account when considering a garden layout:
- The existing architecture of the built environment. How the property functions, what are the key views and openings from the internal spaces. A good designer will design the landscape in relation to the architecture in order to create one holistic design rather than being disjointed.
- The context of the site. Where is it and what is it near? Is it overlooked, does it have any views which want to be framed and highlighted?
- Site analysis. What is the orientation of the garden? A sunlight study will help the designer understand where the sun traps. This in conjunction with the other factors will help to inform the garden layout.
When should you hire a garden designer?
Many people view professional fees with skepticism, but it can be worth it. If you are working with a big garden space and have never undertaken a large garden project before, – or don’t have experienced friends or family to call on when you need to know how to lay decking for example – consider hiring a garden designer. They will help in all areas of your gardening design project, and can save you money in the long run.
If you’re working with a designer, the brief should be developed together before being agreed. Avoid requesting specific design details – ‘decking’, for example – at the outset. Instead, descriptive words such as ‘durable’, or ‘warm’ will evoke a more creative response – the reason you probably engaged the designer in the first place.
Statements in the brief should always be measurable (this is essential when working with others) and specific, to avoid ambiguity. For example, ‘formal dining space for six people with shade overhead between June and September’ is far better than ‘space to sit and dine with friends’. Note that parts of the brief might change, but you still need one, otherwise the project will lack clarity and inevitably cost more than planned.
As many gardens are remodeled at the same time as undertaking a house renovation, so a good designer will liaise with your architect and main contractor to help make sure the combined project runs smoothly. If your budget prohibits taking on a designer full-time but if you aren't that confident flying solo, you could consider just a day’s consultancy to help steer you in the right direction.
Where to find the latest garden design inspiration
When looking for ideas and inspiration, there are so many avenues to explore on social media – think Pinterest and Instagram to find the best of Monty Don and many more great horticulturists.
For more classic garden designs, you may want to use books such as the RHS Encyclopedia of Garden Design, RHS The Urban Gardener, Heidi Howcroft’s Garden Design: A Book of Ideas and John Brookes’ legendary Small Garden Book that can all help you to develop ideas with your wants and needs in mind.
Magazines are also good for inspiration, and specialist ones keep up with key trends at important flower shows, like Chelsea and Hampton Court – useful if you can’t visit in person.
Go to open public gardens that are part of large estates and country homes to see materials and planting combinations. Better still, seek out local plots of a similar size to your own that open as part of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS). You’ll discover everything from traditional cottage gardens to contemporary courtyards.
Now you can enjoy your garden all year round.