What is my garden for?
The first thing to ask yourself to design a garden is ‘What and who is my garden for?’ That is, what sort of things are important for you and your family that you can achieve outside. Your priority might be to have an outdoor entertaining or dining space that is well integrated to the house. You may have an interest in having a very productive garden with well-crafted veggie beds.
Your family might include children and pets that want to be engaged in the garden. Perhaps a spot in the garden to retreat to? Then, there are the issues of where we put the washing line, storage areas and bins. Put together a garden wish list.
Orientation and Site Analysis
Next, get a good understanding of the physical nature of your site. Which way is north? That will tell you where you are getting most of your light. Where is most of the wind and the rain coming from? Are there views that need blocking? Perhaps there are views you want highlighted. What is the soil like? Is there good drainage or does it get soggy and muddy?
There might be existing structures such as sheds, clothesline, chook house, veggie beds and paths. They may serve a purpose but might be better reorganised into a better arrangement. Is there a slope? Where are the services?
Now you’ve got your wish list prepared and you have a good knowledge of your site. Next, you need to determine the space you want for your activities. That means working out how big an area you need for things like dining, play and entertaining areas. It also includes lawn areas or the space you want to grow veggies. In most cases you are limited by the size of your property.
However, by specifically allocating zones for spaces such as paving, lawn or decking, you are maximising the effectiveness of the area you have. You can then integrate the zones and link them with the house with the least wasted space. These zones are the places you will be lingering and spending time in. So, they are the ‘positive space’ that you want to get the size and shape right.
Planting the garden
The space left over, ‘the negative space’, can be filled with garden plantings. That’s not to say that the plants are not so important. It’s just that you are not spending most of your time in the garden beds noticing what shape they are. The planting arrangement does deserve a lot of consideration. Tree canopies provide shade and shelter from areas that get excessive sun. They can also usefully screen unsavoury views.
Trees and taller shrubs are useful around a fence line to not only screen neighbours but provide your own sense of sanctuary and define the zones or areas you have worked out. The garden also shouldn’t have to be a narrow bed that follows the fence. It can consist of generously sized beds that include a variety of shrubs and ground covers that meet your carefully shaped lawn, deck or paving
What is my garden style?
Plantings and landscape elements will ideally follow a styles or themes. This is generally a personal preference but it is worth considering it at the beginning of a garden design so there is a pleasing consistency. The nature of your site might constrain the garden style. For example, having a tropical garden in a hot, dry, exposed spot could be tricky. The architecture and nature of the house should also influence how the landscape will present.
Your preferred style It could be for a formal, symmetrically arranged garden or alternatively a more informal, natural style. You might like clean contemporary lines or else a more rustic, traditional feel. You might like a minimally planted garden or one that is rich, lush and varied in colour and texture. Garden themes might reflect, for example, Japanese, cottage, English landscape, Mediterranean, Islamic or Australian native inclinations.
Apart from plantings, the garden style will also influence the choice of materials used in hardscapes such as paving and walling. The aim is to find the right balance of space, planting and hard structures within the parameters of your preferred style.
Making it sustainable
Most people like a beautiful garden but don’t necessarily have the time or inclination to spend a lot of time maintaining it. If a garden is not sustainably designed, it can potentially become quickly overgrown or die from lack of care or water. A garden should be built to last, keeping in mind that a garden changes over time.
Plants should be chosen to be appropriate for the position they will be placed in. This is where understanding the site comes in. If you know how much light, heat, water and drainage that your site has, you can select plants that will be happy there. This also helps to determine what the theme or style of a garden might be.
Make sure you know how large a plant is going to grow. A potted shrub in a plant nursery might look like the ideal thing to place beneath your living room window, but when it grows to cover the whole house, it is no longer very appropriate.
Passive solar design is another consideration. Using plants strategically to protect the house and windows from summer sun while allowing winter sun to penetrate will make your fuel costs more sustainable. It’s also nice to include at least some indigenous plants in your garden, even if it’s not trying to be a native garden. It’s a great way to connect with the natural history of where you live and provide some food or habitat to the locals that are still in the neighbourhood.
What is my budget?
This is a question to ask at the beginning as much as the end. The reason I don’t have this right at the beginning is that the most expensive parts of a garden design are not the important parts. The most significant aspect of the design is the arrangements of spaces and zones.
The costs become significant with the built aspects of the garden. The decking, paving, walling and pergola are all landscape elements that will greatly add to the cost of the project. By comparison, the soft-scaping – plantings and lawn areas – will put less pressure on your wallet. However, It is worth considering the cost of a landscape project as an investment to the home. It will improve the sale value but, more importantly, it will improve the quality of your home and how you live in it.
Garden design principles
When getting to the finer points of your garden design, there are a whole range of design principles to consider, within your chosen theme or style. Make sure you are consistent with your theme, so you don’t end up with a mish mash of plants and objects in the garden. Group or massed plantings and some repetition through the site of key plants and materials can partly achieve this.
Don’t use too many different materials but take advantage of contrasting colours and textures of plants and materials where appropriate. Think about your place in the neighbourhood – your ‘Spirit of Place’. Create a landscape that’s respectful to your locale.
Consider important view points, including those views from inside the house. Using striking plantings or sculptural features as focal points that direct your attention to significant parts of the garden might be an effective element. Garden lighting can also contribute to drawing people’s attention to special parts of the landscape.
In the end, your garden design is achieving the right balance of garden spaces and elements so that it just feels right. You should feel drawn out to your garden to spend time in it.