How to Design a Garden – Stage 2

Well, hello there budding garden designers and welcome to Stage Two of How to Design a Garden! If you missed Stage One, or my introductory post on our garden plans, then click on the links here. So, are you ready? Have you done everything you were supposed to do in Stage One? If not, then don’t worry. You can soon catch up and there’s plenty of time. That’s why I started this for you in January! In this stage you’ll learn how to measure objects within your garden, all about plant identification and getting your drawing ready for Stage Three, which is much more fun!

A man measuring his garden
Yes, I bought a new measuring tape! The vintage one is beautiful, but not long enough, quelle surprise!

Adding all the “fixed” things to your design drawing

This is the last part of the garden design process that’s a bit dull, yet imperative to get right. First of all, add any down pipes and drains that are attached, or near to your back elevation. Then, it’s time to add any trees, or shrubs that will definitely be staying in the garden. If your garden isn’t very big then it’s quite easy to take a straight line from a fixed point of your back elevation to get a measurement of where a tree might be. However, if like me, you have a very long garden, then you will need to use something called triangulation. It sounds super complicated, but it’s really not. I know it sounds boring, but just think, at the end of this post you’ll have learnt something new and you’ll be able to use the word triangulation with confidence. Get you!

Remember your fixed points on your back elevation, running from A to whichever letter you finished with? I had points A to E, A being the corner end of my house and E being the other end. You already know what the measurement is between A and E, we did it in stage one last week, right? Start at point A with your tape measure and go to the centre point of the tree you want to measure. Take down that measurement. Then go to point E and take the measurement from there to the centre point of the tree. You now have three measurements: from A to E, from A to the tree and from E to the tree. These three measurements create your triangle, hence triangulation. While you’re there take a measurement of the width of the canopy of your tree. See, that wasn’t hard!

J.P, please tell me this isn’t going to get more complicated and hello, where’s the fun stuff?

I promise you it all gets very exciting soon! Promise! Now take your measurements, make yourself a cuppa and perhaps a few crumpets and settle down at a table with your drawing. You’ll either need a drawing compass (for smaller gardens), or you can use a pencil and some sewing thread. I’m going with the latter as the compass won’t be able to reach the lengths in my garden. I promise this is easy, so stay with me! Take your measurement from point A to the tree, mine is 23.5 metres, which is 23.5cm on my scale of 1:100, one centimetre for each metre.

Cut a piece of thread about 30cm long. Hold one end of your thread near the tip of your pencil. Hold the other end at the beginning of your ruler, where it says zero. Measure with your thread 23.5cm, or whatever your calculation is. Then, simply hold the end of your thread on point A on your drawing, keeping the thread tight to the pencil tip, draw an arch where 23.5cm is.

Then do exactly the same for your measurement from point E. You will then see that at one point your two arches cross. This point is exactly where your tree is in the garden – cool, right? Mark where your tree is, rub out the arches and then using the measurement of your tree canopy, let’s say it’s 4 metres, so 4cm, draw a birds-eye view of the canopy. That’s it. You can now do this for all other trees, shrubs and structures you are keeping. Once you’ve done this, you are nearly ready to start designing.

Finally, well, kind of finally!

Pop back into the garden and make a note of particularly sunny spots, any views, shady places and any other notable features and then write those down on your drawing. Earlier this week on Instagram, I discovered a well in our garden. Nowhere, I say nowhere on the garden drawings we had from the ‘90s, was there a mention of a well! Great bloody survey that designer did! That’s going to be such a headache!

You, however, do indeed, now have the basis of a correct garden design on paper. You have just completed your first garden survey. Congratulations!

You might have noticed I have not gone into slopes in your garden and how to measure them. I’m not going to either. It’s too complicated and I haven’t got the energy, quite frankly. Sorry not sorry! However, there are loads of YouTube videos on it. If you have different terraces in your garden, then I suggest splitting your drawings up so that you have a new drawing for each level.

First things first: know which plants you already have!

In the throwaway world that we live in, it’s so easy to want to get rid of everything in your garden and have a clean slate when creating a new design. However, plants are expensive and mature specimens can take a long time to grow. So, why wouldn’t you do a little research into what you already own? Perhaps there are some great plants you didn’t even know you had? It’s so important to try and be more sustainable too. We only have one world to live in and we can all play our part.

You may be able to lift and divide (this is when you dig up a plant and split it up) some things in order to create more free plants. It might be that you quite like some of the plants that are already in your garden, but don’t like where they are. Many plants, particularly herbaceous perennials can be moved. These are plants that die down each year, but whose roots remain alive and send up new growth each year.

But, how do you tell what they are?

The problem is, how the hell do you find out what everything is? If you have perennial plants then you are going to have to wait till the spring if you don’t know what’s in your garden already. The only evidence above the soil will look dead and will be almost impossible to identify. There may not be any evidence at all and then you might be digging up and throwing away something prized and beautiful. Another reason why I say wait a while to see what grows in your garden.

I have learned how to identify a lot of plants just through years of gardening and experience. Most of the time, I can work out what it is by looking at its structure and leaves. But, if you’re new to gardening then you won’t have that. Luckily, nowadays there are all number of ways to find out what a plant is.

Plant identification

The first is the easiest, by using a plant identifying app. I use SmartPlant, which is excellent and real experts come back to you in a jiffy with the answers. However, it’s not free. There are many others such as Picture ThisPlantsnapPlanta and Garden Answers.

There is always the good old fashioned way too, by looking at all of a plants attributes and then making a decision. There’s a great blog post about it, which I have read from Gardening Know How: Top ten ways to identify plants.

Using your original rough sketch of the garden and not the one on graph paper, roughly draw out any flower borders you already have. If you have identified plants that you want to save, but may not keep them where they are, then write the names of these plants down and a rough position in the border. Before we start the physical work of creating a garden you can move these plants to your nursery bed, or pot them up for safe keeping.

Homework for Stage Three of How to Design a Garden

Next week it starts to get exciting. We will be testing our soil, so you may want to buy a pH soil testing kit in advance. We will chat about shade and dry shade and we’ll also start to talk about what you actually want in your garden. I’ll be telling you all about my four design pillars, or principals for garden design. I know! Fancy, right? Can’t wait for next Sunday!

JP Clark signature


  1. Emma B
    January 23, 2022 / 11:17 am

    So interesting and inspiring. Lavender all the way! E xx

  2. Beverly Rigden
    January 30, 2022 / 8:55 pm

    Loving all the insights to your garden design! Thank you x

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