How to start a successful garden from scratch

May 27th, 2018
Posted In: Garden trends & design, Town gardens

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.

Sarah created this garden from scratch in just a year or two.

Sarah created this garden from scratch in not much more than a year or two. Now it’s open both for the NGS on June 2nd and for Faversham Open Gardens on June 24th.

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?

A greenhouse on one side

The extra width of Sarah’s plot meant she was able to put the greenhouse on one side, halfway along. It’s serves as a charming focal point as well as for growing.

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.’

Be generous with your main border

One generous border along one side – a tribute to Great Dixter. Even if your garden is long and narrow (especially if it’s long and narrow!), one really good border on one side is better than two meagre ones on both sides. The pink flowers are Thalictrums ‘Black Stockings’, ‘Elin and flavum glaucum.

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.

A garden from scratch means the veg beds can go anywhere!

Three charming veg beds cut across the garden halfway along. Behind them the back of the garden is wilder, with a still-developing rockery at the very back.

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.

Beautiful plant supports

Don’t you love Sarah’s beautiful plant supports in the veg beds? They’re from Plant Belles.

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.

Use a limited palette of hard landscaping materials when starting a garden from scratch

Sarah has mainly used brick for her hard landscaping, echoing the old brick shed, the traditional green house and the garden walls.

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.

Irises are a good choice for a new garden.

I love this combination of pale blue (Iris pallida subsp pallida) and dark purple irises in Sarah’s border. Irises often flower in their first year and are a good choice for a new garden. They like a sunny spot.

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.

Climbing perennials can take longer to get established, but are good investments

It takes climbers, such as roses and clematis, a bit longer to get established. Sarah’s climbing roses are probably at their best this year. This is Tea Rose ‘Sombreuil’.

A garden from scratch - reflect your own taste in accessorie

Sarah’s garden is uncluttered but there are a few pretty touches, such as this vintage railway petrol container used as a water butt.

You can see Sarah’s garden, as well as Posy Gentles’ garden (which I’ve often written about on this blog) and also 17 Norman Road when they’re open for NGS Kent on June 2nd, 10am-5pm.

Posy Gentles' garden

Garden maker Posy Gentles’ garden will also be open on June 2nd.

Norman Road garden, open for the NGS and also for Faversham Open Gardens

17 Norman Road is also open on June 2nd. All three are walled gardens.

Behind the gates of more private urban gardens:

You’ll find more Kent town gardens for ideas and inspiration in this video:

Pin for reference:

How to create a successful garden from scratch #gardening #gardendesign

10 comments on "How to start a successful garden from scratch"

  1. Roisin says:

    I love this. I do wonder if you have any design tips to minimize maintenance tasks. For example, best way to edge lawn and paths, or deal with bindweed & couch grass. Sometimes I feel I spend all my time on that and have very limited time left for more creative gardening.

    1. Oh, dear, I find that too. It’s very difficult to design out perennial weeds like couch grass and bindweed. The only solution which works, but it does mean clearing a whole bed for the season, is to cover all the soil in something like cardboard or weed suppressant membrane so as to block the light. Then keep an eagle eye out for any weeds emerging. After about four months (!) you can remove the weed suppressant membrane and cover everything with cardboard (which will also block light but will slowly degrade into the soil and improve it). Cover the cardboard with well rotted manure or garden compost and pull out any weeds that escape from that. From there you should have knocked them back sufficiently, but you have to keep an eagle eye out and carry out pulling them out for at least a few years after that.

  2. Amy says:

    How amazing to be opening your garden to the public within four months! I’m starting a much smaller garden from scratch right now and it feels like we’ll be at the muddy puddle stage for ever, so you’ve given me some hope.

    1. It’s amazing how quickly things grow…and grow…good luck with it, such a great project.

  3. Chris B says:

    One thing I always struggled with in our garden is how much to plan. Before we started I had a plan of where the large shrubs, trees, and paths would go. But the large areas of herbaceous borders were mostly planted on gut feel: buy what I like, then find a spot that suits it (sun/shade/moist/dry…). See what works and if not then move it or get rid next year. It’s all very haphazard and artless but I kind of like it. I don’t think I could ever have drawn plans for some of the effects I like due to the density and vertical mixing of some of the plants.

    I realise that more formal gardens need more planning than cottage/wildlife gardens. But did you actually draw out in detail where all the smaller plants were going? Or did you go with your gut?

    1. We didn’t plan the plants at all, and it is a bit disorganised in the beds, but I like it. I have alot of self-seeded plants too, and they just decide amongst themselves where to go, so no planning required. Our hard landscaping is quite formal but our planting is pretty chaotic. It sounds as if you’re doing well, gut feel can be great.

  4. Joanna says:

    What a remarkable achievement, to open a garden to the public just two years after desigining it from scratch. It certainly looks like a beautiful garden, and much more established than one would expect after so little time. Some excellent design tips too. Thank you for the little tour!

    1. Thank you and the photography on your blog is beautiful.

  5. Eleanor Moss says:

    Alexandra, I watched your video on this. Thank you so much for such a useful, practical précis of the things you learned in the one day course on garden design.

    I am buying my first house this summer (with first real garden!), probably in the Progress Estate in Eltham which has twee cottages and roads that follow the contour of the land – it doesn’t feel like surburban London. I’m really excited to design a garden (or hire a designer) and have ideas on the theme and key uses. I know nothing about gardening and growing plants but iI expect to spend a lot of time in the garden and hope to learn a lot.

    I’ve been reading older blog posts. It’s all clear and helpful – very digestible. I just can’t wait to move and get stuck in!


    1. How exciting! Even if you hire a designer, learning as much as you can yourself will help you get the best out of it all. Thank you for commenting.

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