How to plan your garden project

Matt James guides you through your options to ensure a successful outdoor design

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Making the plan

Establishing a design brief for your garden project should be the first stage of the process, and is essential whether you intend to employ professionals or complete the work yourself. It starts with an understanding of all the problems that need to be solved and what might affect those problems. Spend time discussing why you’re undertaking the project before capturing this in a set of design aims; these can then be developed and a list of requirements drawn up.

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.

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.


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 will 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 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. Find them in the NGS Yellow Book, or look them up at

a decked garden dining area

The patio or terrace is the focus of any garden, where activities such as eating and entertaining take place. Always make sure you allocate enough space for one. The seat cushions are from Nauticalia

Key considerations

Specific wants and needs vary from person to person, but ask yourself, ‘how do I want to feel?’ and ‘who is the garden for?’ Also consider how much time you have for maintenance. Together with a particular style or theme in mind, the answers will determine the layout and design details. Consult everyone who has a stake in the project, including children. Inevitably some compromise is usually necessary, especially if the space is small or access is difficult.

Material thinking

Identifying and exploring potential materials is one of the fun bits of creating a garden. When it comes to patio stone there are lots of options available – from expensive York stone to concrete imitations. While performance, durability and ease of maintenance are key with all materials used in a garden setting, you should choose natural-looking surfaces that complement your home and design style. Earthy greys, deep honey browns and rustic dull reds suit both old and new houses. For a seamless transition between inside and out, choose a similar material to that used in the room linked to the garden – just make sure it’s weatherproof. Decking is a good choice where wooden flooring is used inside the house. However, this does not suit period architecture. Softwood decking might be cheaper, but doesn’t weather as well or last nearly as long as hardwoods, such as ipe and balau. Material

creative use of colour and garden materials

When choosing materials, rustic reds complement both contemporary and period houses. Decking is a good choice where there is wooden flooring inside, like this garden from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

What to change

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 more limited scope. Spend time looking critically at the garden and both its good and bad points before developing a new ‘masterplan’, and certainly before you carry out any of the work. Perhaps you’ll want decrepit garden pools to be removed, but other features, such as an attractive patio or mature trees, to remain.

Setting the budget

How much do you have to spend? Creating a new-look garden can be very expensive, especially when it comes to contemporary design, where a clean finish is essential. Other high-cost practices include the desire for instant impact, complex shapes and curves; 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 your budget is tight, avoid these choices and go for high-impact, low-cost design solutions. 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.

Always have a contingency fund. Between 5-15 per cent 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.

a small garden dining area and barbeque

This north-east London garden was overgrown, which made the space feel cramped. The owners divided the space into different areas. A barbecue and children’s toys are stored behind a gabion wall, and the storage decking opens out as a daybed. The artificial grass is from Nam Grass

Researching costs

To find out information on materials, use manufacturers’ price lists. Builders’ merchants and plant nurseries are also useful sources. You can usually negotiate good prices direct from the supplier or manufacturer, depending on the quantities. Spon’s External Works and Landscape Price Book is helpful to consult, and is the most common guide used in the trade.

When it comes to costing labour, most landscape contractors will readily give you an hourly or daily charge-out rate, as well as an estimate as to how long jobs might take. For the cost of machinery and plant hire, ask local reputable hire companies to provide daily and weekly prices.

While knowing the individual costs of materials and plants is useful, what you should be most interested in is an ‘all-in rate’ – the complete cost for a particular part of the job, including labour and all materials. This rate will differ depending on the contractor and also the size of the company (the larger the company, the higher the rate). Site overheads and profit aren’t listed, so your best bet is to ask experienced contractors who can advise and could quote for the work in advance. Contractors that are affiliated to either the British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI) or the Association of Professional Landscapers (APL) should be your first choice.

The DIY dilemma

Typically, labour costs amount to 50-60 per cent of a project’s costs, so, with a £10,000 budget – typical for urban gardens – that leaves £4,000 for clearance work and skip hire, design fees (around £1,500), specialist consultant fees, if necessary, and materials.

Know your limits. Planting, installing off-the-peg water features, laying a new lawn or gravel path, and installing simple decking and fencing are within the scope of the keen amateur; however, walling, laying expensive stone pavers, concrete rendering and electrical work should be carried out by professionals for a quality, safe finish.


Considering a water feature?

Style guide: A water feature is a focal point. Rivulets over a reclaimed millstone flatter a traditional scheme. Brimming powder-coated steel tanks or spillways suit modern gardens.

Integrated or off-the-peg?: Store-bought features or natural pools are easy to install yourself. Bespoke features, especially those integrated into paving or walls, need an experienced contractor – which will cost more.

Size: Natural wildlife pools are appealing but need to be big. In a tighter space, a smaller formal feature works best. Consider the height and strength of fountains and spillways, as powerful pumps can be loud in small spaces.

planning a water feature into a garden design

Edge details: Hide pond liners. For natural settings, create a ‘soft edge’ with plants and strips of turf flipped on their backs. With formal features, such as thin rills or channels, have paving with a crisp edge overhanging it.

Wildlife magnet: Attract ‘guests’ with a natural pool. Ideally, it must be at least 50cm deep and on a level site. A semi-shady spot away from deciduous trees minimises algae. Include plants in the water and on the fringes.

Safety first: With young children, avoid even shallow water. Wall-mounted or freestanding features with an underground reservoir are best. Fence off existing pools or fit pond grids (try just below the surface.

Hiring a garden designer

Many people view professional fees with scepticism, but if you’ve never undertaken a large garden project before, or don’t have experienced friends or family to call on, consider hiring a designer. They will help in all areas of your project, and can save you money in the long run. Many gardens are remodelled at the same time as renovating a property, and 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, at the very least consider a day’s consultancy to help steer you in the right direction (from £275-£750 per day).

Planning permission

For most garden projects, 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 being the most common examples. 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 Details of the allowable height and size of garden structures, such as new outdoor home offices, can also be found here.

Scheduling works

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 neighbours 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 autumn, when nights are shorter and the weather is warm. The best planting season is early- to-mid spring and early-to-mid autumn. 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.

Lead image: Stonemarket