Take an insider look at the essentials of garden design

Posted By: Alexandra Campbell On: November 6th, 2016 In: Garden style & living

Can you really cram the essentials of garden design into one day – let alone one blog post?

I was invited to join the KLC School of Design on their excellent one day ‘Experience Garden Design’ workshop at Hampton Court Palace. It really made me think differently about how to look at gardens.

I can now see the weaknesses and strengths in my own garden – and other people’s gardens – much more clearly. Being able to see the good and bad points of any design is a vital step towards developing your own successful style.

The essentials of garden design apply to all sizes of garden

The essentials of garden design

Garden design used to be the preserve of great gardens. Capability Brown and Gertrude Jekyll worked over many acres. Now, however, ‘much of our work is in urban gardens’, says the KLC workshop tutor, garden designer Catherine Heatherington.

That’s middle-sized in my book. However, she added, whether your garden is a courtyard, a grand estate, or something in between, the same essential principles of garden design apply.

Geoffrey Jellicoe garden

This traditional country garden (Shute House Garden) designed by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe is harmonious. It is symmetrical, has a largely green structure, a focal point and strong vertical lines. Photo by Catherine Heatherington.

These essentials of garden design are unity, harmony, balance, scale and proportion. Whether you are designing a Mediterranean courtyard or an English country idyll, these principles remain the same.

East Ruston Walled Garden.

This is East Ruston Walled Garden. It, too, is symmetrical, with strong vertical lines, a focal point and a mainly green structure. It uses the same design principles but is a completely different garden to look at. Photo by Catherine Heatherington.

These core principles of design are the same in architecture and interior design, too. But that doesn’t mean that interior design, architecture and garden design all work in the same way.

‘In a garden, for example, steps are part of how you live in the garden – they’re a place where you stroll, or enjoy views. In a house, stairs are mainly just a practical way of getting from one floor to another,’ explains Catherine.

‘Gardens need shallow steps, which are easy to walk up, while stairs in houses can be steeper, narrower and more utilitarian.’

Sometimes a house is renovated by architects or builders who also construct the terrace and steps outside before the garden designer is involved. ‘We often find that the steps are too steep, and wish we’d been called in earlier,’ she adds.

The importance of themes

Catherine explained that a garden needs a ‘theme.’ Themes can include cottage garden, Italianate, Mediterranean, prairie, English country,symmetrical, contemporary, exotic, wildlife…

We then paired up in twos to go through garden magazines. Catherine asked us to pick out a garden we liked, and a garden we didn’t. We had to explain what the theme was, and why we thought it worked or didn’t. It’s a great exercise – do try it at home!

Assess the essentials of garden design in different gardens

The KLC garden design workshop – going through magazines.

Balance equals mass and void

We learned about the importance of mass and void in garden design.

Mass is three dimensional – planting, borders, sheds, trees. Anything which adds bulk to your view is probably mass.

In contrast, the flatter areas of the garden are voids – lawn, terracing, paths and even open water. ‘Before you start thinking “I’m going to have lavender there, and roses over there, you have to think about mass and void,’ says Catherine. ‘You need to realise that you are working like a sculptor. It’s not just about what you put into a garden, but also about where the empty space is.’

This was a revelation to me. When we first created the parterre below, it was too flat and open.

Understand 'void' is one of the essentials of garden design

A view of our parterre early on. It was very flat and open – too much ‘void’. We had just added the lavender beds around the central pots to break it up.

Over the years, we have added mass by adding my beloved large spiral topiary and four chunky lavender beds. But I would have got there far more quickly if I’d done this workshop at the beginning.

Balance is important in garden design

Although it’s taken at a different angle, you can see that filling the void with mass (several pots of various sizes) has made the garden better balanced. Although a bit scruffy – it needs a good tidy-up.

Harmony is about detail and repetition

Harmony is about how you link your house to your garden, and how you link the various parts of the garden to each other. The key here is to avoid having too many different elements.

For example, if your house is made of red brick, then it’s a good idea for any brick in the garden to be red brick, too. ‘Don’t have too many different elements or colours,’ advises Catherine.

That doesn’t mean that everything needs to be the same, because a certain amount of contrast is essential to garden design. ‘If you took the grasses out of this picture below, the planting would be boring,’ says Catherine.

Contrast different shapes of flower head.

In this planting, the colours are harmonious, but large flowers contrast with small flowers and vertical grasses. Photo by Catherine Heatherington.

The commonest mistake in planting is probably having too many colours or different types of plants. ‘Restrict the number of colours and plant varieties,’ advises Catherine. ‘It’s better to plant drifts or groups of plants than placing just one or two specimens of each around the garden.’

How to plan your own garden

Although it’s not possible to become a garden designer in a day, Catherine showed us how to use the essentials of garden design when thinking about your own garden.

First, you start with a brief. What do you want to achieve with your garden?

The next step, if you were using a garden designer, would be a site survey. This is a plan which shows the dimensions and lists what you already have. This would include walls, trees, any eyesores, any views you want to keep, etc.

Plan your garden design.

Starting to plan your garden…

Do your own ‘site survey’, including an arrow towards north. Knowing where the light falls is essential in planning and planting a garden.

Then a designer would do a rough plan, with approximate ‘bubbles’ showing where things might be. It’s best to use tracing paper, which you can put over a map of your garden, so that you don’t have to keep rubbing things out.

After the ‘bubble map’, it’s time to think about the concept or theme (there are some ideas in the video below.)

The next step will be a Masterplan, or drawing to scale, showing where everything will be. This includes borders, any sheds, terraces, large trees, water features and so on.

And it’s only now that you plan the planting! The time to decide whether you’re going to plant lavender or roses is when everything else is in place.

Who would benefit from a one-day garden design course?

It can take a year or more to become a garden designer, so who would benefit from a one-day course? I think we were probably a pretty typical group.

There were interior designers considering an expansion of their careers into garden design or wanting to be able to work more effectively with garden designers. Two or three were planning longer garden design courses and wanted a taster to see whether garden design suited them.

Others knew a lot about plants but wanted to understand more about the design side, or were just curious to know more about the subject. I also think that a one-day workshop like this would be good if you were considering using a garden designer, as it would give you a better idea of how to brief and work with them.

Above all, I think it is hugely helpful about planting and landscaping your own garden.

Contact Catherine Heatherington for garden design or KLC School of Design for course details.

And see here for more middlesized garden design ideas from Andy Sturgeon, or join us every Sunday morning for inspiration and tips for your garden. Subscribe in the box on the top right of this page. Thank you!

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