How to Design a Garden – Stage 3

Hey there lovely people. sorry there was a short hiatus in my garden design series. However, today I’m back with Stage 3. In this stage I’m going to chat to you about your soil type, putting the right plants in the right places and my four garden design principles. All of this should then get ready for next week, when we start to talk about what you want in your garden and what you want it to look like. It’s all getting very exciting!

Now, I know that on Instagram you are used to accounts giving you quick hacks, but to be honest, in most of those there isn’t a lot of detail, particularly if they are 15 second reel. I’m trying to give you proper foundations in the simplest of terms. I do hope you’re finding it helpful. If you missed Stage 1 and Stage 2, then you can find them here.

The garden of @kbgardensnhomes
The stunning garden of @kbgardensnhomes and my main inspiration for my new garden.

Know Your Soil.

I made the mistake of not doing any research into my soil type in my first garden. Thinking about it now, I knew so little back then. I just presumed that if I planted something in the ground and watered it that it would flourish. Wrong! We spent a fortune on plants I loved only to find that they withered away and became either diseased or died. For example: if you plant allium bulbs in heavy waterlogged clay soil, then the chances are they will rot away before they even have a chance to grow. Just as, if you plant something like a Delphinium in extremely sandy, nutrient free soil, then it will just give up the ghost.

Please don’t waste your money. Do a little research first on your soil type, then once you know, you can do things to make the soil as good as it can be. If you’ve got that down, then choosing the right plants to suit that soil will be easier and you won’t be throwing good money after bad.

Soil type

The easiest way to tell what type of soil you have is to roll it around in your hands.

  • Clay soil is as the name describes. If you imagine wet pottery clay then you get the idea. It is sticky when wet and is easily moulded into a shape. Roll it between both hands to see if it creates a sausage shape. The easier it moulds into a shape the heavier the clay soil is.
  • Sandy soil is gritty and if you splay your fingers it should fall through. It cannot be moulded like clay soil.
  • Pure silt soils are rare, especially in gardens. They have a slightly soapy, slippery texture, and do not clump easily.

If soil bubbles up when placed in a bowl of vinegar, then it contains free calcium carbonate (chalk) or limestone and is lime rich.

Soil pH level

The PH levels of your soil are also important in order to find out whether you have acid or alkaline soil. A PH soil testing kit is the easiest way to check this. Knowing your soil’s pH level will tell you whether it is acid or alkaline. the result will affect how well things grow. The perfect level is 6.5, where the highest number of nutrients are available for plant use. The scale runs from 0 to 14, with 7.0 being neutral. Measurements between 0 and 6.9 are acidic and those between 7.1 and 14 are alkaline. a level of 6.5 is particularly perfect for growing vegetables.

If your soil is too acidic then it can be amended with lime. The exact amount of lime you need can only be determined by a soil test. However, if you want to grow lots of acid loving plants, such as Rhododendron, Azalea, or blueberries, then you may need to lower your soil level to be more acidic using sulphur.

Once you know all this information then your armed with the knowledge to choose the right plants for your soil. That leads me on to my next tip.

Right Place Right Plant

Find out about the plants that you like. For example, there is no point planting exotic plants that die in a frost if you have nowhere to put them in the winter for protection. Just as, there is no point planting something in the shade if it likes full sunshine. What direction does your garden face? Is it a shady garden? Does the sun stream in all day long? Once you’ve worked this out then buying plants is so much easier. Almost all garden centres and nurseries place information labels on their plants. They will tell you what type of soil the plant likes, how much sunlight it needs and how to care for it. If you put the right plant in the right place and care for it then it will thrive, simple as that.

This can be annoying though. Because, if you like whimsical cottage garden plants for example, but you live by the sea, then the English country garden look isn’t going to work as there is too much salt and breeze. So you may find that you need to adapt your style and taste to suit your garden and surroundings.

Knowing your soil and aspect sounds a bit dull doesn’t it? But, if you don’t get these right then however beautiful your design is, the garden won’t be a success and you’ll have wasted a lot of time and money.

How I found my love of gardening

In 1998 I happened to meet a very lovely young man known as Mr C. We had a whirlwind romance and moved in together within three months of meeting. We lived in Fulham, London, in a three-bed terraced property with a small garden. To say the garden was ugly would be an understatement. It was about five metres wide by ten metres deep, laid to lawn with a concrete slab path running up the centre and leading to nowhere. That path offended every creative and artistic cell within my being and its days were numbered! 

One afternoon, Mr C was going out with a friend. Just before he left he casually threw away a passing comment: “We might consider getting rid of that path at some point.” Well, I was like a moth to a flame, a gannet to a tasty morsel. I don’t think you could have counted ten seconds between Mr C shutting the front door behind him and me raising the first slab! And so began my discovery of the joys of gardening.

I soon realised that many of the rules of interior design could be incorporated into designing a garden too. The possibilities were endless. Instead of using paint, wallpaper and soft furnishings my palette would be made up of flowers, greenery and hard landscaping – painting with living things. Effectively, I saw it as another room to design and decorate.

I gradually put together some basic principles for garden design. Here they are:

My four garden design principles

These are: Unity, Balance, Interest and Movement. 

Unity

A sense of unity can be achieved by your planting scheme. Or, this can be done by hard landscaping, which repeats patterns throughout the garden. A limited colour palette such as cool blues and whites can instantly bring unity to a space. Just as reclaimed railway sleepers used for curved raised beds, like the ones in our last garden, can be repeated along the length and breadth of the garden to create that sense of unity. Choosing a style can often be the best way to create unity. A Japanese garden will demand a certain planting style. Repeating deep red Acers, for example, around a water pool, or in a coastal garden you could unify everything by using pebble shingle as your main hard landscaping medium. Another simple way to create cohesive unity is to use a repeated shape: a circular lawn followed by a circular seating area.

Balance

Balance is so important as it brings a sense of order to a garden. One of the biggest mistakes most people make is to have a large expanse of lawn with very narrow borders at the edges. The grass dominates the space and the borders seem miserly and an afterthought. It’s so important to balance out the proportions. If you mainly have low-level planting, then this must be balanced with a tall structure, such as a pergola with climbers, so that planting isn’t all at one level. Topiary balls could be placed either side of a doorway, immediately creating balance. This could then be repeated somewhere else in the garden with round lollipop shaped standards, such as Bay trees. this will provide balance in shape and also in varying levels. Of course, this also helps with unity as you have repeated a pattern.

Interest

You must have something in your garden to attract the eye. Never underestimate the power of a focal point. Interest is key in creating a stylish garden that people want to stay in. A fountain, a sculpture, seating or even a bird bath can create a sense of drama and when cleverly positioned can draw a person closer and make them want to investigate. Architectural specimen plants and containers are another good way of creating interest. More than one focal point can create a sense of movement within a space, urging the visitor to follow a path to see the sights. Don’t go too mad though, I would suggest no more than three points of interest. If you have a view beyond your garden then that is the prize and you must draw the visitor to it.

Movement

Movement in a garden is determined by the shapes that you create to walk through. A large round or oval area suggests a place to stop and look or rest. This can be good for a seating area or perhaps the lawn. A narrow path bordered by tall planting suggests faster movement through the space, leading to the next point of interest. You need to lead the eye through your garden. If it is just an expanse of lawn and the entire garden can be seen from one view point then, first of all there is no need to investigate or venture further. But, it can make someone feel a bit lost in a garden for where to begin.

Creating a journey is essential. Even in the smallest of spaces a journey can be achieved. The vertical elements of a garden divide or enclose spaces. Dividing a garden, however small, into rooms is a great technique that immediately provides movement and interest. This is because you can’t see everything all at once. You need to venture further to see more. Couple that with repeated patterns, hard-landscaping and planting, you will have gone a long way in achieving my four design principles and creating your very own perfectly formed garden.

That’s enough for you to be getting on with this week. next week we delve into making lists of what you want in your garden.

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