Designing a garden from scratch can seem extremely daunting. Where the hell do you even begin? I’m going to break it down for you and show you in small stages. What’s more, I’m actually designing my own garden at the same time, so I can show you what to do as well as write about it. Between my Instagram account @jpslifeandloves and my blog, I’m hoping to cover all the bases. So, you can design your own garden with me and we can learn as we go along throughout the year. Sound good?
Now, I’m no expert, I must make that clear! I have no formal training in garden design, other than 24 years of experience in designing our own gardens and for friends. So, everything I am going to tell you is what I have learned over the years and what works for me. I started knowing nothing about gardening at all, other than what I picked up subliminally from my mother.
Which way does your garden face?
This is called the aspect of your garden. It sounds so ridiculously obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people have absolutely no clue which direction their garden faces. Most phones have a compass app on them. Launch the app and place it on a flat surface with the top end of your phone facing the back of your garden. Either that, or stand against the back wall of your house facing the back of the garden holding your phone as flat as you can. Within seconds it will tell you exactly which aspect your garden has. If your compass says it’s pointing south-east, then your garden is south-east facing. Ours is 239 degrees, slightly more west-facing than south.
Take a piece of plain A4 paper and a pencil and, just from eye, draw out the rough boundary of your garden. It doesn’t have to be arty and you don’t need to be able to draw. If you were able to draw stick men as a child, then that is good enough, I promise! On the edges of your rough boundary lines write where north, south, east and west are.
The aspect tells you so much about what you can plant successfully in your garden and potentially what style of garden you opt for. There are other things to consider, such as the amount of shade in your garden, what it is casting that shade and whether it is dry or damp shade. Don’t worry about all that now though. We’ll deal with that in the next stage of how to design a garden.
So, this is the step that I did this week in my garden. I used a vintage leather-bound measuring tape, naturally! You don’t have to be quite so eccentric when you do it. The best thing you can buy yourself is a 30m measuring tape. You can buy one quite cheaply from Amazon and many other retailers. I also used a clip board, a pencil and a rubber (eraser), a plain A4 paper pad, some graph paper and a ruler. If you can buy an architects/scale ruler, even better.
Take your clip board with your rough drawing on it into your garden, along with a pencil and the measuring tape. If you can have one other person to help you, then that is ideal.
You now need to draw fixed points in your garden. I suggest that you use the back elevation of your house and take a linear measurement (straight line) of the whole thing. Start at one end of the back of your house and measure to the edge of the first window, or door. Then measure the width of that opening and write it down on your pad. Then measure from the other edge of that opening to the next window, door, or corner. Keep going until you have measured everything on the ground floor of the back of your house and written it down on your rough drawing. See above.
You now have your fixed points. What’s next?
Your first fixed point on you drawing is the corner of the back elevation of your home. The point that you started measuring. This is point A. Then, choose 3-4 other points along that elevation till you get to the other end of the back of your house as points B,C,D and E. Point E is the other end of the back elevation of your home. Points A and E are the most important as they will allow you to measure other fixed things in your garden later on using something called triangulation. That all sounds very fancy, but I promise it’s easy and I will go into that in another stage.
Take your tape measure and starting at point A measure to the other end of your garden in a straight line. Write down the measurement. Do the same for the other fixed points. The chances are, the back boundary of your garden isn’t square. You may find that you measure 8m from point A, but 9m from point E. Once you have 4-5 measurements from your fixed points you can then draw a line between those measurements to get the shape of the back of your garden. You now also know how long your garden is.
Stay with me!
Now, you just have to measure the width of your garden. First of all, measure from point A to your boundary, then if you live in a detached house, do the same from point E to its nearest boundary. You now know the distance between the exterior walls of your home to the boundaries. Standing as close as you can to the back of your house, measure from one side of your garden to the other. Then go to the back of your garden and measure from one side of the boundary to the other to get the width of the back of your garden.
Just by eye, split the length of your garden into quarters. Go to where you have decided is your first quarter and then measure from that point to the other side adjacent to it. Do the same for the rest of your quarter garden points until you have all the measurements. Then you can draw a line on your paper between those measurements to give you the shape of your garden. Confused? Hopefully not, stick with me! Please keep referring to my rough drawing above.
Take your rough drawing, go and make a cup of tea and then get out your graph paper. Take your time and plot the measurements of your garden boundaries and all the fixed points of the back of your house onto the graph paper. Do use a ruler! I used the easiest scale, which is 1:100. That’s 1cm for every metre. You can do feet and inches, but that is way harder and slightly beyond me! The graph paper helps as it will be set out in millimetres and centimetres already. Take your time and don’t get stressed. This is going to be fun, I promise! So, that’s it! You now have the shape of your garden boundary, its width and length and the beginnings of a garden design on paper!
Hold your horses! Don’t get the spade out just yet!
If I could give one piece of garden advice to someone who has just moved house, I would say wait and do nothing! By all means follow the steps above, but just hold back after that. Spending a year watching your garden is one of the best things you can do. If your house is brand new, then the chances are, there is nothing in your garden. So, that exercise would be pointless. But, if you have a mature garden, then winter can be misleading, as most of the leaves will have fallen and many things will be hidden under the ground. So, wait! Take your time. Breath. You could find you have some stunning specimens throughout the year. If you take a digger to it all now, then you’ll never know!
We viewed our new house and garden a few times in early spring last year. I clocked pretty Hellebores, Tulips and Narcissus. There is a tall mature Pittosporum, a Mimosa Tree and I believe there is a cherry tree too. Our purchase completed in June 2021 and from then on I was able to witness some utterly beautiful flowering plants. There were even a few things I had never ever seen before, which was thrilling.
Give yourself time
By giving myself that time, allowing my myself the chance to just stop and take it all in, I have saved so many plants from the skip. I’ve also saved a lot of money! So, if you can and if you can bear to be that patient, the chances are you will reap the rewards.
If you really can’t wait, then why not create a nursery bed at the back of you garden? This is, more often than not, a temporary area where you can plant things that you don’t know where to put yet. Or, that you are not ready to plant out. I’m definitely going to do this. I pretty much know what’s in my garden, but much of it needs to be moved. So, I can move things to my nursery bed until I need them.
Now, I have already written the next section, which is all about knowing what you already have in the garden, plant identification, soil type and plotting the things that aren’t going to change in your garden. However, I think this first post would be way too long if I included them. So, I have saved them till next week. I know, I’m such a tease! Happy measuring my friends. Let me know how you get on.
If you liked this, then why not read the first instalment in this series: Garden Design For Beginners.