Designing a new garden or giving the old one a facelift doesn’t have to be difficult or daunting. The main thing is that you don’t have to do it all at once, like on TV makeover programmes. We moved to a large mature garden 14 years ago and had a five-year plan for renovating worn out fences, jaded, uncut hedges, digging a pond, laying a patio and building pergolas and a greenhouse. Even attacking one major feature a year, it took nearer ten years, and plans changed a lot in that time. When we moved in, our son, then 14, only wanted one thing: a football goal. Fifteen footballs and several panes of glass later we dispensed with the goal, which stood in front of a holly hedge, opposite my first ever greenhouse. Then we dug up the pitch to grow more vegetables.

Staggering Work

Some jobs can be tackled quickly with little cost, whereas others require major work and a great deal of planning, materials and manpower. It makes a lot of sense to stagger the work and expense over several years, unless you’re in a real hurry and moving on soon. In that case, why bother?

Decision Time

  • ask yourself what you want from your garden.
  • how might things change over the next few years?
  • who will use it?
  • what do you want to use the garden for?
  • which plants and features do you want to keep?
  • what special features should it include?
  • how much time do you want to spend gardening?
  • how much can you afford to spend?
  • will it be safe for young children, elderly relatives, or even for you?

How much sun does the garden get? Which way is it facing? If the answers to most of the above are ‘I don’t know’, then consider waiting until you’ve tried some of these ideas:

  • visit gardens of family and friends;
  • visit shows and garden centers with demonstration gardens;
  • watch TV makeover programmes to see which bits you like;
  • use a garden design CD-ROM.

Look at design books for ideas. You don’t have to use all of a design, but something might spark off your ideas.


Some people find it hard to visualise 2D and 3D changes and need some help. If you need to explain your ideas to others you will definitely need to get something down on paper. Even though you’re not going to tackle the whole garden all at once, begin by measuring the dimensions of your plot, starting from the house. Walking around the garden at different times of the day and, preferably, at different times of the year will give you changing insights into periods of sunlight, shady patches, wet or dry areas. Stand at windows or doorways looking out, as if through a picture frame. Is the ‘picture’ pleasing? What would you like to see instead?

  1. Make a scale drawing: something like 2 cm to represent 1 metre should do. Mark in the compass directions.
  2. Mark the house walls, showing windows and doors. Show boundaries and features you plan to keep, such as trees, shed, pond, etc.
  3. Lay a sheet of tracing paper over your drawing, or make several copies of your plan to try out different arrangements of borders, paths, or other features. You can make models if you really need to, in order to clarify your thinking.
  4. Come up with two or three completely different ideas to kick about and discuss. Take your time; you can’t do it all at once, and you’ll have to live with the outcome for some time.
  5. Prepare lists of materials you will need and get an estimate of the cost. It might help you to make up your mind where to start, or change your plans to suit your budget.
  6. Use hosepipes, sand or ropes to define paths, seating areas, beds, etc. in the existing garden.


Remember, you don’t have to do it all at once! If your house or garden is also a building site, don’t get carried away and start too soon, while the workmen are still on site. It’s not worth the hassle and misery of seeing your newly dug beds or brand new pathways covered in concrete, muck and machinery. It’s far better to hold fire for a few weeks, believe me!
Designing a whole, large garden can be overwhelming. Most of our French garden had been levelled to remove a huge derelict pigeon/rabbit shed by a helpful builder in a bulldozer. We had grass seed put down for the first couple of years, just to keep the weeds in check and give us time to decide how to use the space. This has saved a considerable amount of time and money, because plans for refurbishing outbuildings changed (when they fell down) into the construction of a swimming pool instead. For a gardener, this has been totally frustrating, because the challenge of starting new planting with different soil and climate conditions is an exciting one, and waiting for successive seasons for structural work to be completed has been unbearable. Now, finally, the boundaries are secure, pergolas and fencing for climbers are in place, and tree and hedge planting can proceed.

Front Gardens

If you have a back garden you are unlikely to spend much time at the front of the house, where you are open to view from every passer-by. What you want is something that is easy to maintain and in keeping with the character of the house or neighboring area. You won’t win many friends by being over dramatic with planting or design, or for example filling the plot with garden gnomes and babbling brook. In fact you might generate the unwelcome attraction of others who don’t share your sense of style or humor!
Another aspect to consider is deliveries to the house. Stepping stones or a windy narrow path up to the front door might look attractive, but have pity on the postman or delivery drivers, and if you don’t want footprints or bike tracks across your new lawn all winter, provide a proper path. The shortest route is a straight line, and human nature drives us all to take shortcuts at times. Old pathways or gaps in hedges need to be firmly blocked to prevent visitors, welcome or not, continuing to use your flower bed as a stepping area.
Using screens of shrubs to prevent people looking straight into your living room can be useful, but beware of fast-growing varieties that need regular pruning, or you’ll find it getting very dark and gloomy before evening. If these shrubs are deciduous, you’ll have a bit of a problem in the winter, and if the dreaded evergreen leylandii is used as a fast-growing fix, you’ll be sorry sooner rather than later.

Tricks of The Trade Mystery

You obviously want to be able to look out on to attractive views from the house, but don’t plan for everything to be on show from the same place. You want people to go outside and explore.

Long Gardens

Make the most of a long, narrow garden by dividing it up into several ‘rooms’, using trellis, planting shrubs, small hedges or trees. Each area can then have its own character or function, and make visitors curious enough to want to visit the end of the garden. Another trick is to create a curved path which touches both sides of the garden, giving an illusion of width.

Sloping Gardens

You can terrace part of a sloping site to make a series of mini gardens leading into each other. If the slope is steep and the area small, make wide steps which can be used to show off pots as well as provide access to lower down. These steps don’t have to be complicated engineering achievements. Railway sleepers and gravel are a lot easier than using concrete and bricks. Alternatively, if space permits, a ramp with wide hairpin bend can provide gentle access for wheelchairs, prams, wheelbarrows, etc.

Multi-purpose Gardens

Family gardens should have plenty of grass for summer, paving for winter play, barbecues and sunning yourselves (when you’re not busy gardening), borders of resilient shrubs that grow back quickly and don’t have thorns or sharp leaves. Avoid fragile or fussy flowers or anything poisonous. Some very popular plants have poisonous seeds, so be careful and check first. Play areas such as sandpits can be planned with restyling in mind as the children grow out of them (not as soon as you think!) when they can be turned into planting beds. Ponds must be securely covered and supervised when young children are around.


Plan to put a pond close to a large overshadowing tree, which will drop its leaves all over the pond in autumn.

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