A lot goes into garden design, which is why those who can afford it can pay thousands for the perfect garden – one that is both practical and pleasing to the eye. If you want to do it all yourself, however, there is a lot of planning to undertake and lots of different elements to consider. Here, sustainable gardener Kevin W Gelder explains the fundamentals of design for a new garden.
Autumn and winter are the perfect time to research, plan and begin implementing your design for an outdoor space. Before you rush ahead however, there are some essential elements you should get to know intimately to get the best from your new garden. Making the most of your plot is a balancing act between what the land has to offer and what you want from that land. In this post, we’ll look at the first point.
What the land expects of you
No two gardens are the same, and spots within a single plot will often vary. These differences arise from a range of factors. It’s vital you spend as much time as possible observing and analysing these factors before embarking on any great changes. The temptation is to develop and use your garden as soon as possible, but patience is a virtue. It will help you avoid costly mistakes and demoralising events.
The sun’s path through your garden
You’ll want to work out the aspect of your plot – does it face south, east, west or north?
Once you know the aspect, you should map the sun’s path across your garden. This changes over the 12 months of the year, casting light in some spots and keeping others in shade. Sunny corners might turn dark in winter as the sun lowers in the sky, turning much colder. This is why the received wisdom on analysing a new plot is to observe for at least one whole year first. A lot can change over that period.
The movement of air around your space is another key influence in how to proceed when planning. Sometimes whole gardens are calm and sheltered, whereas others like mine are on exposed hilltops. We’re hit by the UK’s prevailing south-westerlies. This has slowed the growth rate of young hedging and jeopardises the success of taller perennials.
Winds, even if cold, are extremely drying. Their movement over foliage causes plants to lose moisture more quickly. Hairy or waxy leafed plants tolerate such conditions more easily.
The lie of the land
Tied to the exposure of your site is how it lies. Is it sloping or level? Are any slopes steep, requiring some degree of earth movement to level, or gentle enough to still plant up with minimal strain and soil erosion? Level land also brings its challenges: it can lack interest without changes in heig and could be prone to flooding.
An additional consideration is whether slopes lead down to tall, thick hedging, solid fences or walls. Cold winter air will sink to these spots, become trapped and form frost pockets. These frosts can kill less hardy plants, so watch out for them and integrate these points into your plans.
Your soil conditions
As with other elements, soil can vary even within the same garden. It’s worth digging samples from three or four spots around the space. You need to check your soils pH level – around 6.5 is best as all essential nutrients are available at this stage. Acidic or alkaline conditions call for more specialised plants, such as heathers or rhododendrons for the former.
Also important is the type of soil. The three main categories are clay, sand and silt, all of which have their pros and cons. The Soilscapes Viewer at Landis gives a great overview of your local soil if in the UK, and the RHS provides a soil analysis service. There are also quick and easy tests you can do yourself.
Essential to life, yet unpredictable. There are two things to bear in mind when it comes to water in your garden. Firstly, what is the water content of your soil? The plants you choose will depend on the bogginess or drought of your plot as much as its light levels. Waterlogging can come from a high water table or springs in the ground. These are costly to try and amend, and can be a losing or frequent battle.
Secondly, how will you provide water in prolonged dry spells? Using tap water is proving an outdated and unsustainable practice. Do you have high rainfall which is worth capturing in water butts, troughs and pools? Or can you afford to install efficient drip irrigation as part of your landscaping?
If you’ve taken on an older plot, such as an unkempt garden, look out for the plants growing there already. Trees and shrubs will be immediately obvious, although deciduous varieties won’t show their potential until spring, summer and autumn. Herbaceous perennials and bulbs will emerge as the months pass. Some of these will be in your way and have to go, but you might appreciate others and decide to keep them. Perennials and bulbs can usually be dug up and relocated. Trees and shrubs prove more difficult when well established, so you might opt to rejuvenate and leave in situ.
Work with your land
Take the time to observe your plot, working out what your land has to offer. Avoid a fight against nature; instead embrace those inherent factors. They will give your garden its unique personality as you develop it.