How to design a garden
This post will explain how to design a garden if you’re not a garden designer?
Not only do you want the most beautiful garden possible, but you also need to avoid making expensive mistakes.
A good garden designer can really make all the difference to your garden. But if you want to try it yourself or you don’t have the budget, then what do you really need to know?
I asked award-winning garden designer, Polly Wilkinson of Pollyanna Wilkinson Garden Design to tell us the most important points.
I first noticed Polly’s gardens when she won the People’s Choice Award at RHS Hampton Court Garden Festival 2019. It’s a particularly special award because it’s the garden the show’s visitors loved the best, not anything to do with a formal judging process. You could consider it ‘the garden we’d all most like to have.’
She also won the People’s Choice Award for her Mothers for Mothers show garden at RHS Chelsea 2022, as well as a Silver Medal.
If you prefer to watch a video rather than read a post, see my interview with Polly here.
Start to design a garden with a plan
Polly says that many gardens are not exactly the size and shape you think they are. She suggests you start to design your garden by looking at your home on Google Earth.
Then go outside with a tape measure and measure it up accurately. This is particularly important in smaller gardens.
‘Then draw it out, it doesn’t need to be a fancy plan – just use a piece of paper,’ she says.
Look at the sunlight when you design a garden
‘Look at where the sunlight falls,’ says Polly. ‘Maybe you like sitting in the sun, maybe you prefer to be in the shade. It’s very important to know where the sun is when you design a garden. Then you can plan where the seating areas are going to be.
You also need to know where the sun falls and for how long, so that you can plan which plants can go where.
How much gardening do you want to do?
‘The next thing to think about is maintenance,’ says Polly.
You need to be realistic about maintenance when you start to design a garden. This is where a garden designer can really help, because you may not know which plants are more work than others.
Broadly speaking, however, shrubs and trees are low maintenance. Shrubs are plants with woody stems that stay in the ground for years.
Perennials are plants that live in your garden for three years or more. In winter they often disappear, but they reappear in spring. They need more care than shrubs, but give you glorious flower colour. For more about choosing perennials, see Perennials Made Simple.
Annuals are plants that grow, flower and die in one year. They’re the most work because they have to be grown from seed again every year. But they add wonderful flower colour.
So if you want low maintenance, don’t plan a full herbaceous border. To give you an idea of some of the work it takes to have an amazing flower border, see Frances Moskovits’ garden here.
But you can also design a garden beautifully with mainly evergreen shrubs, like this one here.
And this post on 10 low maintenance plants shows that you can have pretty and low maintenance plantings. But you have to choose carefully.
Decide where the most important elements go first
Some people advise you to position the largest elements in your garden first, then fill in around them.
Polly suggests placing the elements that are most important to you first. ‘They may be large, but they may not be.’
Important elements include your seating area, your garden shed and any play areas, such as the trampoline or swings.
How to decide the overall garden style
‘First and foremost, it’s your garden and you have to love it,’ says Polly. ‘It has to be a style that makes you happy.’
There’s a post on 12 garden styles here, plus another with 10 more garden style ideas. It’s worth checking them out – you may find you already have a garden style, but haven’t analysed it yet. The same principles apply, no matter how small your space, even if you’re planning a balcony garden.
And Polly says that your house and garden are ‘in conversation with each other.’ When she’s picking materials for a garden, she’ll look at the colours and textures used in the rooms next to the garden.
Her own kitchen floor, for example, is a pale tile. She’s echoed the shade – although not the material – on the terrace outside.
This is helpful for those who feel that their houses ‘don’t really have a style of architecture.’ There’s more about connecting your interior style and your garden in this post.
Choosing landscaping materials
When you’re thinking about what pavers, decking, walls or fencing, look at what is in the rooms adjoining the garden.
Most urban gardens have fences, but few fences are beautiful. When you’re thinking about fencing for urban gardens, Polly recommends painting it dark. ‘It helps the boundaries recede and the colours of the planting really pop,’ she says.
And when it comes to paving, think about how it will wear. ‘It’s really worth doing some research before deciding on what pavers you’ll use. Natural stone will age – it’s more porous, so it will change colour. Porcelain will carry on looking the same for years, after a jet wash.’
When choosing gravel, think about its size and colour. ‘Very small gravel will get stuck in your shoes, but the largest gravels are more suitable for driveways,’ says Polly. ‘If you’re going for gravel, I’d really recommend laying it on a stablisation grid.’
How to structure the plants when you design a garden
Polly says that you need to decide on the evergreen shrubs and trees first. ‘It’s tempting to think about the glorious summer flowers, but if you don’t have evergreen shrubs and trees, your garden will look very boring for six months of the year.’
Then she adds in the perennials. ‘Annuals are wonderful for filling gaps and I wouldn’t be without cosmos,’ she says. But she points out that if you want a low maintenance garden, then annuals are probably not a good idea.
In terms of colour schemes, Polly thinks about different colour schemes for different seasons. The colours of spring are different from those of summer or autumn.
Or you can have one colour theme for your garden. ‘Some people want an over-arching colour scheme, such as green and white, or they love purple,’ she says. However, this looks best if you stay flexible and add some contrast or unexpected colours into it. ‘For example, if I’m doing a purple and white garden,’ Polly says, ‘it can be really nice to add a few pops of orange to offset the purple.’
Think about your boundaries
Even if you’re not responsible for all your boundaries, they are a major element in your garden. Polly says that when space is limited, such as in urban gardens, then fences are often the best choice. ‘
Polly says that if you have a small urban garden with a fence, ‘paint it dark’. This was also one of the top 5 garden design tips from leading garden designer, Charlotte Rowe. Dark colours recede so it’s less clear where the boundary is. And plants and flowers ‘really pop against a dark background’, says Polly.
If you have a larger garden, then hedges are a really good choice. ‘Not only do they look beautiful,’ says Polly. ‘They’re good for wildlife.’
And hedges are often the best choice for the environment as they can even help muffle sound or improve air quality. There’s more about how to choose the right hedge for your garden here.
Garden path ideas
Polly believes that a garden path should have a function. It should be about ‘the journey’ through a garden. ‘For example, if you’ve got an office at the end of your garden, think about whether you need a proper path to it in winter to stop your shoes getting muddy when you cross the lawn.’
Paths can also be hidden or partly hidden. You can run them behind a hedge, put stepping stones into lawns or planting or even mow a temporary path over a lawn in summer.
There’s more advice on garden paths here.
Choosing a water feature for your garden
Although it’s wonderful to add water to any garden and it’s very important for wildlife, it’s important to remember a few things. ‘Firstly, water features need maintenance,’ says Polly. Ponds and mini-ponds also need maintenance, but they’re less likely to break down if they don’t have mechanical parts.
It’s also important to consider safety if you have very young children. ‘If there are young children in the garden, you don’t want a big open body of water,’ says Polly. This is because toddlers and babies can drown in just few inches of water.
Should you add garden lighting to your garden?
Polly says she loves adding garden lighting, because it eliminates the ‘black mirror effect’ of winter. You look out into your garden on a winter’s evening and all you can see is your own reflection.
‘But be really tempered with it,’ she says. ‘Less is more. And really consider the impact on wildlife.’ Garden lighting should face downwards or be on a timer, so that it’s not on all night.
How to find a good garden designer
You may decide to invest in a garden designer. This will cost more, but often repays you later. ‘Having a garden designer is an investment,’ says Polly. ‘But it can save you money later on in avoiding costly mistakes.’
One of the most common garden design mistakes I’ve seen this year has been around garden steps. I’ve visited a few gardens which were landscaped by builders without using a garden designer. The steps have been done to interior house proportions, rather than garden step proportions. This makes them steep and difficult to access without a hand rail. There’s a post here on what you need to know about garden steps.
Polly also says that other common mistakes include laying a terrace for a dining space that is just a few inches too small, or making borders too small.
She also explains that if you get a garden designer to design a garden, they will do a very accurate brief to give the landscapers. This means very detailed measurements and specifications for materials.
This means you’ll get accurate quotes, with less chance of the project suddenly costing too much halfway through or you not getting the effect you wanted.
Polly says that it’s worth spending time looking at garden designers’ websites and portfolios. ‘Many of us have a “signature style”, she says. ‘So pick someone whose style you like. Have a chat, too. It’s a very collaborative process. So you’ll be spending quite a bit of time with them, so it’s important you feel you can get on.’
How much does a garden designer cost?
Every job is different. So much depends on where you live, how big your garden is and how complex the design is. It’s impossible to be specific.
But estate agents estimate that a properly designed garden can add 10-15% to the value of your home. So you may consider it worth spending up to around 10% of your home’s value on a major garden re-design.
The garden designer’s fee is a percentage of that – usually between about 8% and 20%. But that is all a very rough estimate.
A smaller garden may have a higher design fee, in terms of a percentage of the total job. That’s because you’ll be buying fewer materials and will probably pay for fewer days labour, but the design process is often no less complicated and time-consuming than for a larger garden.
There are ways to save money on garden design in this post. Re-vamping your garden is almost always a big financial investment, but if you know why some things cost more, it’s easier to decide where to make savings.
What if the garden is overgrown?
All these principles apply equally to a completely bare garden space and a garden that has already been created but has got very overgrown.
However, to get an idea about what to keep and what to change, you will have to start by clearing at least some areas. Read ‘where do I start with a neglected garden?‘ for ideas and tips.
More about Pollyanna Wilkinson Garden Design
You can find Polly either on her Pollyanna Wilkinson Garden Design website or on her very successful Instagram profile. As well as being a garden designer, Polly is also an ‘influencer’. Her Instagram profile has tips on gardening and garden design, and showcases the progress of some of the gardens she designs.
Polly designs courtyards, small gardens, country gardens and larger commercial works. Many are in London, Surrey, Kent and the South West as well as some larger national and international projects.
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