Garden Design featuring a sunken garden and water rill.
Picture of one of my designs for a garden in east Cheshire featuring a sunken garden and water rill.

Garden Design Masterclass Part 1 by the Multi Award Winning Garden Designer, David Keegan.

In my work as a professional garden designer I hear the same story time after time when I first meet with prospective clients.

“I know what to do and what I want when it comes to inside the house but when it comes to the garden I just don’t know where to start”

Although the UK is recognised throughout the world as having a very strong tradition of gardening and garden design this fear means, that for many, the garden remains a dull unloved space beyond the house windows. With maybe a few shrubs, a bit of patchy lawn and some fencing. But it doesn’t need to be like this, even for those who don’t have green fingers, nor the ambition to become keen gardeners. Added to this, a simply designed garden space can lift the look of any house, home or dwelling, and in so doing improve both living environments as well as benefiting mental well-being in the process.

Planning Your garden part 1

When setting out to create a garden design for your outdoor space the first step is to measure up the plot, making sure to include the location of any services such as inspection chambers drains and existing features. The drawing of the plot should also include the footprint of the house as well as any outdoor structures, such as sheds, garden rooms, or garages, that will fall within the garden design areas of the plot. This plan should be dimensioned with the locations of any doors and openings clearly marked. The location and dimensions of windows to the lower floors of the house, which may potentially look out onto the garden, should also be included. You should note the aspect of the garden, is it north facing, south facing for example? Are there areas of the garden that are in permanent shade, or areas that are in constant sun? Are parts of the garden shaded by neighbouring garden trees, shrubs, or structures? If so, note them down on your plan as these details will impact both how you design the garden, but also where to position potential hard standing, and terracing for  seating areas, as well as  the best type of plants for each location.

Surveying the plot.

The sample picture below shows a professional topographic survey from one of my garden design projects to illustrate the points made above. As can be noted it has a key with symbols denoting various pointers on the plan as well as aspect marker to the top of the plot, indicating due north. In a professional topographic survey the levels within the garden space, internal floors, and openings will also be marked on the survey. It your garden plot, or landscape, is quite large or complex with varying levels et al you may well want to employ the services of a professional surveyor to carry out your topographic survey. Garden and landscape designers will usually carry out the survey themselves, or on more complex and demanding projects employ professional surveyors.

Illustrative image of a sample Topographic survey as referenced in the blog-post.

Once you have an outline of the plot the next step is to take some pictures of the space. Yes I know its outside your house and you look at it every day, but taking pictures of that space can open up a different perspective. This can also change the way of looking at your garden and its relationship to your home and surroundings. Whilst taking pictures be sure to go to the corners of the plot and looking back at the house take some snaps from these viewpoints too. It is also a good idea to take pictures from inside the house looking out onto the garden from windows and doors that directly overlook the garden areas. Print a few of the best of these off on A4 paper that provide good cross sectional views of the garden areas landscape, you wish to design. Looking out from the house it’s also important to note any adjacent areas of the garden and house that may be overlooked by neighbouring gardens and houses.

Soil testing & site conditions.

At this point you should also be looking to take a soil sample to ascertain whether your soil conditions are Acidic or Alkaline, as well as noting what type of soil you may have. For example is it a heavy clay, or a sandy loam? There are a couple of ways that you can test your soil conditions. You can either buy a simple ph. kit online. If you happen to have an RHS membership, they offer a more detailed testing service for a fee. They will not only test the soil ph. but will also test for nutrients, soil types, as well as an outline of plants suitable for your particular soil conditions.  All of these questions and answers will help to determine the amount of prep work that might be required as part of your design process. This could include elements such as additional drainage, where water-logging is a potential problem. Down to the type of plants you will eventually choose for your designed garden. It may well be that having completed your proposed garden design you will want to call in professional landscapers to carry out the landscaping works for you. In which case all of this information will prove invaluable. 

Preparing to design you garden.

By now you should have quite a bit of information and be ready to start the next part of the process of preparing to design your garden. At this stage its best to write yourself a design brief listing things like what type of garden you want, for example, will it be low maintenance, or is it your plan to create a space that involves you getting more involved with the finished gardens as a hands on gardener? Will the garden be purely ornamental and aesthetic, or do you want to use part of it to grow some fruit and vegetables.  These are some of the first questions I ask all my prospective clients too prior to setting out to design their gardens, or landscapes, depending on the size of the project.  This is the point when you really want to begin to analyse what type of garden you will attempt to create. For example, will it be a contemporary garden, or a more traditional garden, a cottage garden perhaps, or a wildflower meadow, if space allows an orchard even? Will the garden be wildlife friendly with areas set aside for insect and wildlife habitat? Will you look to use recycled materials, or buy everything new?

Planning for the future

Do you plan to take into account the possible impacts of climate change when choosing the types of plants you want and how they will be watered and sustained in an ever changing and unpredictable climate? Speaking of water, will your plans include water features, and if so, will it be a self-contained off the shelf feature, or something a bit more elaborate and custom made? What about rain water harvesting systems?  If the space allows these can also provide for washing machines and toilets within the house, as well as irrigating the gardens. In a smaller garden do you plan to install rain water butts that can be used to manually water the garden during dry spells? This can also be a great way of not only reducing the amount of fresh water you use but will also help to cut down on water bills for anyone on a water meter for example.

Creating a mood book/mood board for your garden.

If all this seems a little daunting, don’t panic, it’s time to create that mood book. Simply put this will involve the creation of  a collection of ideas, pictures and references of both materials, styles, and plants combinations, that you like and want to incorporate into your vision for your garden designs. A good starting point for this part of the creation of your designs can be to purchase some books on gardens and garden designs, or perhaps even consider a subscription to some of the quality garden related UK published magazines such as Gardens Illustrated, The English Garden, or Homes & Gardens. Each is sure to be filled with inspirational stories and pictures of gardens and plants that will help you to develop a clear idea of what can be achieved.

Part 2 of this design master class series will be published in February 2020.

In part two we will begin the process of designing the basic outlines of the garden.  So make sure to subscribe to the blog and look out for further posts.

© David Keegan Garden Design January 2020.

To view more of Davids garden & Landscape design work click this link to visit the portfolio section of his website.