Garden planning – expert advice for a successful garden design

Create the best garden design for whatever type of outdoor space you have using our garden planning know-how. From planting to layouts, costing and more, this is everything you need to know

John Lewis garden table set
(Image credit: John Lewis & Partners)

Planning a garden or designing whatever outside space you have, requires a fair amount of thought and care. Fear not, as we've put together a savvy guide to help you succeed in your garden design, whether you're working with a small space, balcony or are fortunate enough to have a spacious garden. 

Keep scrolling for everything you need to know on how to design a garden – yourself or with the help of a professional – to ensure that you set your space up for success. From garden planning, to costing and budgeting for your new garden design, we have you covered. And, be sure to visit our garden ideas feature when you're ready to start rounding up your garden design inspiration.

world-inspired garden with a japanese-style garden gate by Zeterre Landscape Architecture

(Image credit: Zeterre Landscape Architecture)

Planning a garden: the basics

Establishing a design brief for your garden project should be the first stage of your garden planning process, and is essential whether you intend to employ a professional garden designer or complete the work yourself

You will need an understanding of any problems that need to be solved and, of course, of all the goals you want to achieve with your garden project. 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.

town garden in Stockwell by My Landscapes

(Image credit: My Landscapes)

Designing a garden yourself

Designing a garden yourself is a great option, especially if you're working on a tight budget, and there are so many resources and even garden design apps available right now, to help you bring your outdoor space to life. Whether you're working with a small garden space, beautifying a balcony or making the most of a courtyard garden, apply the following techniques to get started.

  1. Head outside with a measuring tape, notepad, pencil and rubber.
  2. Measure your garden or other outdoor space: 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.
  3. Visit your garden at different points during the day to understand its 'aspect' (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!
  4. Draw up a garden plan (to scale if possible).
  5. Bring together all your garden inspiration from online features, social media, magazines and the likes.
  6. Think about the planting you want to include in your garden, whether you want to grow your own, encourage wildlife or both. You could even pick a theme and create a Mediterranean garden, while it may already be clear that container gardening will work best in your outdoor space.
  7. Consider any additional features such as garden rooms, orangeries, sheds and the likes. If you have a balcony or small courtyard garden you could consider a cinema setting, better garden storage and more to help enhance the space you do have.

Garden aspects: explained

  • North-facing gardens: will usually have shaded spots for the best part of the day
  • South-facing gardens: will enjoy all the sunshine
  • West-facing gardens: enjoy shade in the AM and sun during the afternoon, through until the evening
  • East-facing gardens: enjoy morning sunlight and evening shade

When to hire a garden designer

Many people view professional fees with scepticism, but 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 – 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 remodelled 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, at the very least consider a day’s consultancy to help steer you in the right direction (from £275 to £750 per day).

Should you DIY or hire a garden landscaper?

Typically, labour costs amount to 50 to 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, adding a new gravel path or lawn, laying decking and garden 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.

natural swimming pool by Jo Thompson for the RHS flower show

(Image credit: Jo Thompson)

Garden design costs

When planning a garden it's important to find out costing information on materials, so do 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. 

Garden landscaping costs: know what's realistic

If you own your property, some garden designers will recommend spending 5 to 15 per cent of the house value on the garden/landscape, which, in turn, will add a similar, if not larger amount, to the value of your home. Others talk about allocating at least £100 per square metre of garden, although some will double this figure.

If you are renting, you will want to consider mainly cosmetic changes to ensure that whatever you spend will be able to come with you to your next home. This will mainly include container planting but also moveable garden lighting, storage and any portable features within an outdoor kitchen for example.

A totally new garden does cost more than you think, even if you keep some existing features. It’s very hard to complete even a small garden with a relatively simple design for less than £6,000 to £7,000 once design fees, materials, plants and employing contractors (which normally amount to at least half the budget) are factored in.

Most new garden designs cost in excess of £10,000, and that’s for a small garden. A suburban garden will probably be in the region of £17,000 to £25,000. This might seem a lot, but consider what you might spend on a quality kitchen or bathroom and how much this adds to the value of your home and quality of life.

Work out how much you can afford to spend and seek advice on how to maximise your budget for the best results from your garden design plans. Unfortunately, setting a simple rate for metres squared or percentage of house value isn’t the most reliable way to work out the cost of garden landscaping, 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.

Decide what to change and what can remain

walls covered in climbing plants

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

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.

Set the budget for your garden design

How much do you have to spend? This is even more relevant to those designing their garden or outdoor space themselves. As 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, 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 your budget is tight and you are looking to save money on your garden design, 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. Check out our guide to exterior cladding and render to learn more. 

Always have a contingency fund. Between 5 to 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.

See our cheap garden ideas to see where you can make savings and for more simple garden ideas, we can help too.

Glass extension to a victorian home

(Image credit: Malcom Menzies)

Sloping gardens: why they cost more and how to cut costs

A garden that is sloped, has insufficient drainage, or structural elements that need to be removed, such as walls, garden rooms or old paving, will cost more to redesign as the initial outlay for the preparatory works will be higher than when dealing with a plain, flat area.

A subtle change in level can help make a smaller garden feel larger, but significant excavations are expensive. There’s the soil to remove, not to mention retaining walls, and perhaps the professional fees of a structural engineer to add to the costs of garden landscaping. This explains why sloping gardens generally cost more, and can be very expensive, especially if you plan to terrace the whole site.

Find out how to make the most of a sloping garden in our guide.

How long will a garden redesign take?

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. 

Does your garden design require 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 planningportal.co.uk. Details of the allowable height and size of garden structures, such as new outdoor home offices, can also be found here.

Garden design tips

When looking for modern garden ideas and inspiration, as mentioned, there are so many avenues to explore on social media – think Pinterest and Instagram. For more classic garden designs, you may want to use 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 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

Once you are fairly certain on what look and atmosphere you want to create in your outdoor space, remember the following key areas to ensure that your garden evolve in a healthy fashion.

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?’ Also consider 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 kitchen garden, 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.

KUNGSHOLMEN

The patio, deck 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. We love this roomy and inviting rattan range from Ikea

(Image credit: Ikea)

Select landscaping materials that will stand the test of time

deck with seat under a pergola

When choosing materials, rustic timber complement both contemporary and period houses. Decking is a good choice where there is wooden flooring inside. Blogger Dear Designer has created this wonderful shaded space with decking and a pergola

(Image credit: Carole King)

Identifying and exploring potential materials is one of the fun bits of creating a garden. When it comes to patio paving, 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. 

To successfully link your indoor and outdoor spaces, choose a similar material to that used in the room linked to the garden – just make sure it’s weatherproof. Look at decking ideas as this can be 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. 

Zone different areas in your garden

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

Zoning can make the best use of all types of garden space: be that in a spacious cottage garden or in a small outdoor setting. Here is how to go about it like a professional:

  • Choose different hard landscaping and floor surfaces to differentiate between the dining, lounging and play areas. Obvious options include a stone material for the dining space, decking for the lounging area, and bark or grass for the play area.
  • Use different colours on fencing or walls to create separate zones. White is a good backdrop for lounging areas that you want to feel bright and sunny, deep greens are good for making play areas blend into the background, while deep shades, such as blue or aubergine, make dining areas feel atmospheric during long summer evenings. Be sure to read more on garden colour schemes in our advice piece.
  • Plants can help define zones too, especially if you go for a strong colour theme by area. So, if your lounging space has a white wall behind it and light-coloured decking, choose white flowers. If your dining space has dark-coloured decking and aubergine walls, go for deep purple plants.

garden sofa set creates the perfect area to lounge in

(Image credit: Shutterstock picture agency)
  • Architectural planting can be used to divide up zones. A line of shapely box plants, set into a low wall, takes up very little space but creates a strong visual divide between the lounging and dining areas. Or, group tall, tropical-looking plants at the far end of a dining space to disguise a play area beyond. Consider growing a vertical garden: Garden Beet sells modular planters that allow you to create a ‘living’ wall.
  • Don’t neglect vertical space: living walls, screens, arbours, pergolas and trellis all provide garden privacy and somewhere to train flowering climbers for visual interest. Paint them to match your scheme; or, if you want your planting to do the talking, choose a neutral, natural paint shade for them, such as olive green or pale grey.

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