Garden design: 11 steps to plan and design a garden

From budgeting for a garden design, to hiring a professional or learning how to design a garden yourself – this is everything you need to know

Garden pond
(Image credit: Garden pond)

Perfecting a garden design no matter what outdoor 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 planning project. 

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.

1. Plan a garden design brief

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)

Establishing a design brief ahead of landscaping a garden is essential and should be the first stage of your garden planning process. 

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. This will help you determine whether you should need to employ a professional garden designer or complete the work yourself

For instance, if you're renting a house but want to redesign the garden to enjoy your outside space for a definitive amount of time you may want to consider mainly cosmetic changes to ensure that whatever you spend will be able to come with you to your next home. Think container planting, moveable garden lighting, storage and any portable features within an outdoor kitchen for example. Whilst if this is your forever home, you should be prepared for a bigger change that will be more work and more costly but, completely worth it.

2. Decide what to change and what can remain

natural swimming pool by Jo Thompson for the RHS flower show

(Image credit: Jo Thompson)

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.

Remember that 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.

3. Understand garden design costs

town garden in Stockwell by My Landscapes

(Image credit: My Landscapes)

A totally new garden can 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 landscape 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.

4. Then, set the budget for your garden design

cottage garden with a path running through the centre

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

A new-look garden can be very expensive, especially when it comes to contemporary design, where a clean finish is essential. Some garden designers will recommend spending 5 to 15 per cent of the house value on the garden, 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.

Work out how much you can afford to spend and see our cheap garden ideas to see where you can make savings easily. 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 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, you will mainly want to go for 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. 

If you are designing a garden yourself, then you can be more frugal, and you can look to budget garden ideas to put a garden transformation together even on a low budget.

Finally, 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. Maintain the balance. 

For simple garden ideas see our guide. 

5. Decide whether to hire a garden designer

Pergola decorated with lights from Lights4fun

(Image credit: Lights4fun)

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).

6. Or, learn how to design a garden – yourself

Glass extension to a victorian home

(Image credit: Malcom Menzies)

Designing a garden yourself is a good and 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.

7. Get to know garden aspects

Building raised beds in the garden creates the perfect spot for growing your own

(Image credit: Getty Images)
  • 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

8. Consider garden maintenance

walls covered in climbing plants

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

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 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.

9. Find your garden design inspiration

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

(Image credit: Zeterre Landscape Architecture)

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.

10. Consider the timescale

cottage garden roses and clematis around back door

(Image credit: Clive Nichols)

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 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. 

11. Check whether your garden design requires planning permission

garden design: colour blocking

(Image credit: John Lewis & Partners)

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.

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