How to plan and create your dream garden

Are you dreaming of transforming your garden?  Maybe you want to create a traditional English country garden or a modern space full of urban chic? Planning and creating your dream garden, no matter how big or small, is an exciting prospect. It also requires a lot of careful thought at the outset.  In this blog post, I share my thoughts about the most important questions facing you. This is based on over 30 years of working alongside clients to bring their garden dreams to life. I hope that this helps you to formulate your ideas and inspires you to follow your dream.  The approach you take depends of course on what you want and need from your garden, and on your budget too.  Key questions to ask yourself are:

On a practical basis, what do you want and need from your dream garden?

For some people, it is all about having quality time outside with the family – you might be thinking of dining outdoors, playing with the children and creating areas for different activities.  For others, entertaining friends is a top priority, maybe you picture people gathering around a fire pit or guests flowing from the house onto a stylish terrace.  It might be that you long for a quiet place to relax and escape from the pressures of everyday life and want to immerse yourself in nature and gorgeous planting.  You might of course love gardening yourself and be keen to have interesting plants to nurture to their full potential. The list of needs and wants is, of course, endless.

Lounge area with parasol in garden
© Clive Nichols
What design aesthetic do you have in mind?

This can be hard to define, but it is vital to understand the combination of characteristics that will give your garden a special ‘feel’. There’s a reason that designers talk about a ‘sense of place’.  It may be hard to articulate, but when this works then you will feel an emotional response to the garden. A sense of place is more achievable if you consider at the outset how you want to harmonise your new garden (and everything in it) with your home and its wider setting. For example, do you have a modern home in an urban setting – how do you want your garden to look and feel in this space and how are you going to make sure everything is harmonised?  Preparing a mood board or collecting images that appeal to you can help you to develop your ideas.

What specific design opportunities or challenges are presented by the site? 

To answer this question, and all the others following, you may decide to consult a professional designer. There may be important decisions to make about what to keep and what to lose from the existing garden. The garden may be on a steep slope, it may be overlooked by neighbouring properties, there may be views out to the surrounding landscape that could be used more effectively.  Again, there are always many possibilities and it is important to consider them early.

What’s the best layout for the space?

My first sketches for a new garden are always focused on the flow around the space, where functional areas are required and where we want to create destination points.  I take account of the light conditions, views (looking out of and into the garden) and any ‘hidden gems’ (e.g. areas that have been underused or neglected).  Once functional and destination areas have been identified, it’s important to consider the overall geometry of the whole garden.  This helps me to plan how the areas will connect practically and visually – with each other and with the house itself.

The aim is always to create a cohesive flow. This is where hard landscaping will provide the ‘bones’ of the garden (e.g. through paths, paved areas and stepping stones); in addition, elements such as gazebos, water features and sculptures can be added to draw the eye to the destination areas that are pleasant to spend time in.  A pleasing example might be a paved terrace with a water feature, at a distance from the house, that catches the evening sunlight and provides a sense of sanctuary and rest.

What types of materials will work best?

It is vitally important to consider continuity from the house to the garden. This can be achieved by selective use of materials in the garden.  Each material needs to be carefully chosen to be sympathetic to the period of the house and its architecture.  Careful sourcing can lead to great finds.  For older properties, a local brickworks or quarry may still be able to provide matching materials, or at least products that are vernacular. A sense of harmony can also be achieved with houses that have undergone modernisation.  For example, you might use some of the same floor tiling for a garden terrace adjoining a recent kitchen extension.

As a broad design principle, try to avoid having more than 3 different materials underfoot (e.g. one type of flagstone, brick paving and gravel).  This enables you to repeat textures without the effect being over-fussy.  It’s good to break up large areas of hardscaping with details that signal a different use for an area.  For example, a flagstone terrace may be inlaid with a brick path;  or a dining section may be created through brick patterns. Gravel areas work well for softer ground cover plants and formal trees.

Stone steps with planting

Also, think about materials that will age gracefully (natural stone, brick and wood are our personal preference).  Aim for neutral colours (soft greys and buffs) that will help to showcase the planting and be sympathetic to the planting colour palette.  Avoid bright whites.  Think about practicalities too – will the paths be slip resistant in wet weather?  Will the materials be porous – and therefore tend to get mouldy if laid in a shady area?

What’s a good balance between hard and soft landscaping?

Every site is different.  In broad terms, hard landscaping provides the foil for a garden’s living parts – its lawns, plants, shrubs and trees. My personal preference is to create gardens that use strong geometry and structural planting to define spaces and compartments, and then soften this with more naturalistic planting that becomes the ‘performing art’ of the space – with changes in colour, texture and appearance not only throughout the year, but also as the weather changes hour by hour.

How can you make sure your new garden is designed sustainably?

Personally, I feel most comfortable putting less hardscaping into a scheme and more planting, along with choosing materials that meet a garden’s needs with the minimum possible environmental impact.  It certainly helps to design with vernacular materials in mind, taking advantage of local resources which are relatively energy efficient and sustainable. Try to choose a design which doesn’t require extreme maintenance techniques (e.g. excess use of fertiliser).

Think about encouraging biodiversity too.  Ways to do this include planting wildflower borders (or whole meadows if you have space!), adding a water feature or pond and/or replacing fences with green boundaries. Save water by reducing the need for artificial watering systems on-site by choosing plants that are as self-sufficient as possible (once new plants are fully established).  It’s good to incorporate some edible planting into the ornamental space, even if it’s a few containers by the kitchen door.  Enjoying some home-grown herbs or vegetables can be a great way to cut back on buying plastic-wrapped products from the supermarket.

How will a garden designer help – do you need one?

Naturally, I’m biased here! What I can say objectively is that a professional garden designer will be able to balance what you need in functional terms along with an overall design aesthetic.  The effect will be to make your dream garden feel natural and uniquely ‘yours’. A successful garden design brings meaning and value to an outdoor space.  It transforms landscapes and can even transform lives by inspiring people to realise the full potential of their outdoor surroundings. Of course, if you do decide to appoint a designer, it is well worth browsing either the Society of Garden Designer’s website for a quality-assured professional or the accredited designers listed by the British Association of Landscape Industries.  The Garden Company is a Registered Practice of the SGD and an Accredited Member of BALI and we pride ourselves on delivering bespoke, handcrafted places of enduring beauty.

What about hiring a landscaper?

Landscaping is significantly different to other types of building construction and requires specialist knowledge – which is why it is worthwhile seeking out a good landscaping company rather than regular builders, who may not be familiar with some of the ‘basics’ of building gardens rather than houses e.g. soil and drainage issues, regulations that apply outdoors, durability of hardscape products and materials.

Professional landscaping work is rich in detail and drawn from years of expertise and experience.  The best landscapers support their clients every step of the way, evolving their approach to suit every individual project’s needs.  They will be committed to interpreting design plans sensitively and paying huge attention to detail throughout the build.  They can often help to smooth the build programme from the outset through long-established partnerships with hardscaping suppliers and nurseries.  If you need help in finding  a landscaper, I recommend checking out the accredited contractors listed by the British Association of Landscape Industries. 

At The Garden Company, we are BALI-accredited.  We provide landscaping craftmanship at the highest industry standards in North London, Hertfordshire and surrounding areas.

Garden pond with seating
© Clive Nichols
How much is this all likely to cost?

Of the three areas of cost involved (design, hard landscaping, soft landscaping) hard landscaping is the biggest.  It usually takes up about 75% of the total project cost. Factors such as site access for machinery will affect the hardscaping cost, along with client choices of materials and features. As a rough guide, hard landscaping for a paved area typically costs around £100/m2. This can increase to several hundred per m2. You need to budge early in the process for bespoke elements (such as water features, summerhouses and fire pits). Their costs can vary widely.

It is possible to create your dream garden without having the full amount available up-front by building in phases. You can acquire advice from experienced designers and landscapers on phasing a build programme and mistakes to be avoided..

Will a new garden add value to your home?

This is the flipside of the last question! Research suggests that an attractive garden can add up to 20% to the value of the home.  Importantly, whatever your budget, you need to avoid the common pitfall of making design mistakes. Make sure that you spend money on your dream garden wisely so that the result is functional and aesthetically pleasing.  When you employ a professional garden designer, your investment in their expertise will help you to achieve this.

More ideas
If you’d like more ideas for your dream garden, you will find our recent residential design-and-build projects here.

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