Getting to grips with garden design


Garden designer, Sally Cunis, looks at where to start when it comes to designing a garden.

Spring heralds a new gardening season and with it the ideal time to reassess the layout of your garden.

If you are planning a redesign of your plot, it may be helpful to have a few guidelines and some inspiration to help you in the process whether you decide to plan the garden yourself or call in the professionals.

I have been designing gardens both large and small for many years and consider time spent in thinking and drawing up the design in advance of construction, time well spent.

When embarking on a new design project, I send out a checklist of garden requirements to my clients to help them set down their thoughts before I visit.

Important issues to consider include:

  1. Budget
  2. Garden users, including pets
  3. Problems – privacy such as overlooking or noise
  4. Elements to be retained or enhanced such as a beautiful tree
  5. Clients’ requirements: patio, shed, greenhouse, utility area, veg/fruit/herbs, play area, pond
  6. What style is preferred – formal, cottage, minimalist
  7. Materials preferred – local stone/ brick, borrow element from house, setts, wood, slate etc.
  8. Other elements such as lighting, water, furniture, pergola, fencing
  9. Planting for all year interest, foliage and colour preference


First, take panoramic photos of the garden, concentrating on problem areas and areas which need a focus. If it is a small rear garden, take a bird’s eye view from an upstairs window.

I overlay the photographs with tracing paper, sketching over them to indicate improvements that can be made. Photos are a useful way of recording a garden before and after changes are made.


Before starting the design of the garden, either use an extract of the OS sheet (sometimes available with house deeds) or prepare a scale drawing. I work at scale 1:50; provided the drawing is roughly in proportion use what scale suits you.

Mark on the North point.

Indicate sunny areas. Mark an area of morning and evening sun. Indicate deep shade from neighbouring trees/trees within the plot or where an adjoining building maybe casts a shadow. Place crosses to represent existing trees.

Mark on features such as paths, paving, sheds if they exist and are to be retained.

Write on where there is a potential privacy issue ie: overlooked by neighbours. Make a focal point of the view of a specimen tree/ building visible over the boundary, known as a borrowed view.

Once the basic plan is complete, make several copies and overlay one copy with tracing paper in order to sketch on elements from the wish list.

Wish List:

This should involve everyone who uses the garden; some aspects are mentioned in the list above

Consider whether the patio needs extending and whether to add a seating area in one of the sunny spots marked on the plan. Perhaps add a built-in BBQ or pergola too.

Plan planting beds around the garden making borders a minimum of 1m deep.

A pond and wildlife area, if space permits, might be located away from the noise of the house.

Does the shed need to be close to the house or could it move? Would it be better painted a soft colour? Could it be tucked away and screened by trellis providing a vertical structure up which to grow plants hiding also the mess of a compost bin and utility area?

Plan paths carefully. It may seem delightful to have a path meandering around the garden BUT people will usually take the most direct route line from A to B, known as the ‘Desire Line’. Position paths to skirt a lawn where they are most useful or encourage people to walk around the garden by designing areas of interest to tempt them in another direction.

If the garden is tiny, a lawn might be replaced by gravel, paving or planting with stepping stones.

Once the list is complete and the rough sketches done, be realistic about what can be achieved. Remember, less is more.

The Layout:

Garden design is a varied and infinitely complex subject so I shall sum up by looking at several options for the layout of a standard new build rear garden.

  1. Overlapping circles make a garden appear wider, creating interesting planting areas. Circles may be of differing scales and treatments ie: a small paved circular seating area in a corner surrounded by planting abutting interlocking circles of lawn edged by paths.
  2. Offsetting squares or rectangles at 45 degrees can make a garden appear longer.
  3. Placing screens and seating areas part way down the garden ensures that the whole garden is not visible at once which can make it more interesting.

The smaller the garden, the harder the design has to work. Vertical structures such as pergolas, screens, trellis and focal points in the form of mirrors and large pots give height and help to blur the boundaries.

Next time we will discuss how to design a border.

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