The secrets of good garden design

When it comes to your garden, it’s not just the ‘gardening’ part that forms the look of your outdoor paradise. Garden design is important – so get your planning done early to make things a lot easier for you down the line.

Lee Burkhill of Garden Ninja Ltd is an RHS Feel Good Gardens Competition winning garden designer from the North West. He produces easy-to-follow garden design guides on his YouTube channel, and troubleshoots common problems on his blog. Lee also one of the garden expert panellists on BBC Radio Manchester’s Gardener’s Question Time.

Here on Mr Plant Geek, he takes us through five easy tips to kickstart your garden design now.

The secrets of good garden design: Lee Burkhill

Lee Burkhill

It may be cold outside, but winter is the perfect time to start planning your garden design.

What? But it’s freezing and wet outside?

Which is why it’s an ideal time to spend time in the warm indoors, starting to think and plan what you want to achieve with your garden space when the warmer spring weather appears.

No more mad summer weekend dashes to the garden centre to quickly plant up your space with whatever is available, only to find three weeks later they have shrivelled and withered.

By thinking through my key garden design secrets you can be one step ahead when it comes to having a far more suitable, beautiful garden!

Garden design: Proportion

The secrets of good garden design

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This really is one of the most important garden design tricks.

Often, most amateur gardeners and designers completely overlook proportion in their gardens. I often see gardens where people have planting borders that, in comparison to their house, look tiny and awkwardly spaced.

By taking proportions from the size of the adjoining house you can cleverly connect the garden to the dwelling, making it feel more connected to the overall property rather than an accessory of it.

If space allows, make your borders a generous size. A good trick is to take the viewpoint from a window and use this to start the positioning of borders or features, so you can enjoy the garden as much from inside as out.

A scaled sketch on paper will help with this and enable you to make your mistakes on paper, not the ground! If it looks too small and fussy, you need to increase the scale of the garden features.

Sloane & Sons have a great guide for small garden design on their blog – take a look for some inspiration!

Garden design: Repetition

Secrets of good garden design - planning

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Another key trick is to repeat yourself.

No, not like closing time at the bar, when you’ve had one too many, but in terms of colour, materials, plants or patterns.

By repeating the appearance of a plant throughout your borders you can help bring cohesion to the garden.

In my experience, the biggest flaw in most gardens is the ‘pick and mix’ planting pitfall. Keen gardeners and horticulturalists just love collecting plants, which is fantastic. However, in garden design, this can lead to an array of pick and mix plants that simply don’t work together.

You’re better grouping plants together and repeating patterns to get a really consistent feel. If you are going to have the odd rare find, why not make it a specimen on its own so it really stands out?

Garden design: Extend the seasons

Secrets of good garden design - extending the seasons

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Whilst summer is a riot of colour, carefully consider how the garden is going to look for the other three seasons.

By varying the planting and flowering periods of plant groups, you can extend the season. So when your summer plants are dying back, your autumn showstoppers start, before winter planting takes over, etc.

The RHS website plant finder allows you to see which plants will flower in which months, meaning you can hunt down a whole variety!

Grasses and herbaceous plants that have height can be excellent if left to crisp up over the winter. The dried seed heads and stems provide structure and food for wildlife before being cut back to the ground in late winter.

Garden design: Match your surroundings
Secrets of good garden design - Match surroundings

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Taking inspiration from travels and other gardens is all part of the design process for most gardeners.

Caution is required though, especially if you’ve just been to Santorini and have decided that a Greek-themed garden is a must. Especially if you live in a terraced house in Salford with a North Facing damp garden.

That’s not to say you can’t create something wonderfully tranquil or vibrant.

However, you will need to try to match the surrounding building and aspect. If you stray too far away from the surrounding property and conditions even a designer themed garden can look at odds and awkward.

It may be better to take a theme from your Greek holiday adventures, such as a whitewashed wall and blue colour palette to create an inspired garden, rather than the dreaded pastiche!

Garden design: Inbuilt seating
The secrets of good garden design

The secrets of good garden design

Whilst it’s inspirational to watch garden makeover TV shows – the kind where peoples huge gardens are transformed into multiple ‘rooms’, or that suburbia garden with a 40-strong team which has a custom-built integrated outdoor living space installed which would normally require a second mortgage – most of us will be dealing with a smaller space or budget.

Don’t throw your dreams into the compost bin just yet though! A simple and super clever design tip is to use inbuilt seating in your garden plans.

You can take this to the next level by planting underneath it with shade-loving plants. This gives you two fantastic features. Firstly, the seating becomes part of the design but secondly, it feels like you are part of the garden, as if seated amongst your beautiful borders. It also removes the need for storage over the winter. Winner winner!

So there you have it, five key tips to successful garden design.

If you’re still struggling to know where to start, it’s always advisable to use the services of a professional garden designer, which can save you money in the long term.

If you’re keen to learn more why not check out my YouTube channel for more garden design how to hints and tricks? Got garden design drama? Then why not get in touch with me, the Garden Ninja, on social media?

Happy Gardening!

Visit Lee’s YouTube channel here, or stop by his blog at You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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