How to start a successful garden from scratch
Starting a garden from scratch is both a challenge and a privilege.
When Sarah Langton-Lockton bought her 1920s house, the garden was overgrown to the point of dereliction. It all had to be cleared, except for one camellia and one small tree.
Within two years, it was good enough to open to the public, and now, just three years on, it’s open for the NGS Kent on June 2nd, along with two other local gardens. That’s quite an accolade And it’s been achieved in a remarkably short time.
If you’re creating your garden from scratch, you may also be faced with a garden is just a plain lawn, either because it’s newly built or because the previous owners weren’t interested in gardening.
A garden from scratch means you can start at once
When you move into a new home, garden experts always counsel you to wait a year to see what’s in the garden. It’s great advice because trees and shrubs planted years ago can give a garden maturity and texture. If your predecessor was a keen gardener, then you will undoubtedly have some gems that you won’t want to get rid of.
But if it’s clear that nothing is there, you can start immediately.
Although, to be fair, you’ll probably take a year to move in and ‘do’ the house, which is what Sarah did.
What shape is your garden?
Garden planning starts with your garden shape. Is it long and thin, rectangular, square or wide and shallow?
Sarah was particularly excited about planning the garden, because it was a double width plot. ‘All my life I’ve gardened in long, thin London gardens, so having the extra width was wonderful. But I had to think about how to break up the space differently.’
She decided to have one ‘long border’ on just one side, but to make it deep and generous. She is influenced by Great Dixter, where the Long Border looks good all year round.
‘I wouldn’t compare myself to Great Dixter,’ she says. ‘But I hope there is a Great Dixter-esque feeling about this border.’
Break up the space
The way you break up the space in your garden is key to how spacious it looks. My mother always used to think that a room or a garden would look bigger if you had as much open space as possible, especially in the middle.
But, in fact, the opposite is true. When you break up a space, the eye pauses before moving on. It’s more of a journey, so it seems bigger.
And last year, I went on a one day garden design course with the KLC School of Design. The tutor explained that you need to think about mass (ie sheds, trees) and void (lawns, terraces) in your garden before planning which flowers to plant. There’s more about designing your garden in this video.
Sarah took the brave step of running the vegetable beds across the middle of the lawn. I think this is something of a growing trend, because veg beds are beautiful in themselves.
Once again, if you start a garden from scratch, you can do what you like with your veg – you’re not constrained by where your predecessor has decided to put them.
What materials to use?
You will have to decide between brick, stone, gravel, seashells, lawn etc – and how much of each you want.
‘Lawns aren’t very fashionable these days,’ says Sarah. ‘But I think they are a good foil for plants and flowers, so I wanted open areas with lawn.’
She added a brick path down one side of the garden, to the greenhouse. She has lovely old brick walls, so has used similar style of brick for the path – in small gardens, it’s important not to introduce too many different elements or it can feel fussy.
How to choose plants when creating a garden from scratch
Sarah is a great believer in ‘right plant, right place’. So she chooses sun-loving plants for her sunny border and shade-loving plants for the end of the garden.
Many perennials will plump up in just a year or so. And you can fill gaps with annuals.
Sarah’s combination of annuals and perennials meant that the garden looked abundant even in its first year. We opened it for Faversham Open Gardens & Garden Market Day just four months after it was a muddy puddle, and it was picked for the NGS in just two years.
Behind the gates of more private urban gardens:
You’ll find more Kent town gardens for ideas and inspiration in this video: