Redesigning Your Outdoor Space

Plan a new look for your garden with useful advice from gardening expert Matt James on how to draw up detailed plans for your garden redesign and what to consider when deciding on style and layout.

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Matt JamesMatt James

Plan a new look for your garden with useful advice from gardening expert Matt James on how to draw up detailed plans for your garden redesign and what to consider when deciding on style and layout.

The first step to successful garden design is looking at your space and making considered judgments – both positive and negative – on what is in it before you implement any changes. You’ll often find that pulling out everything and starting from scratch isn’t essential or desirable and, in most cases, you can save money if you don’t do that. Ask yourself: how much change is necessary?

It’s easy to get used to looking at your garden without actually assessing how it works, so it’s time to take stock. Armed with a notebook, wander round the space on a sunny day and be critical. Identify what has made you feel dissatisfied and what you want to alter, but note what’s good about it too.

Draw up four columns headed ‘Must Remove’, ‘Should Remove’, ‘Could Remain’ and ‘Must Remain’. With those specific headings in mind, walk slowly and comment on everything, from the boundary fences and planting to the shed. Identify why you’re making particular judgments or decisions – is it out of necessity, or simply because you don’t like the look of them? Note how you and your family use the garden: where you sit, relax and play, and also the shortcuts you make to get from one area to another – it might mean moving or creating a path later.

Maturity is an asset – always keep trees if you can. Cutting one down usually exposes a gap that will be hard to fill. They also provide privacy and block unattractive views. So, note what might be revealed behind a tree and not just how much shade it casts or the space it swallows. A large evergreen by your house may need to go if it’s blocking out the light, but one on a boundary, for example, may be masking a pylon.

Large trees also bring instant character to a garden. A mature tree is often the inspiration for a new design, so think carefully while you compile your list.

Be particularly critical about the hard landscaping, as this is difficult and costly to replace once the planting is done. If walls and paths are in good condition, consider keeping them unless they don’t meet your needs.

Grass can be a wonderful foil for planting and a great surface for children to play on, of course. Defining a lawn by giving it a simple bold shape – like a sweeping curve – brings unity to disparate elements, in turn helping to create a cohesive new look. It will cut down on awkward mowing too.

Even a blank canvas offers design opportunities – it just takes a little more time to tease them out. A simple slope might inspire the idea of terraced outdoor rooms, with each one subtly screened from the next. An all-lawn garden requires no costly clearing either. By simply cutting into the turf with an edging iron, you can create new shaped beds and borders as you see fit.

Try not to see your garden in isolation. Take into account the surrounding landscape and the gardens on either side. Overhanging trees are part of your garden and can be ‘borrowed’ free of charge, making your own space feel bigger.

Do you have a wonderful view that could be incorporated? A church spire or a cityscape could be framed by pencil junipers, making this feature an important part of your design.

Don’t forget to record your soil type and aspect. Although thick, wet clay is much maligned, it offers the perfect opportunity for dramatic bog plants, while free-draining sandy soil is great for fragrant plants such as rosemary and lavender. In terms of aspect, where the sun hits a garden is an important consideration. It won’t just determine the types of plants you can grow, it also affects where you sit or entertain outdoors.

If you’re struggling to see the potential in your space, it might be worth calling in a garden designer for a day’s consultancy to help identify problems and offer solutions. Find garden designers in the Real Homes directory, search online, or try the Society of Garden Designers – its website at sgd.org.uk offers a designer search function.