How to Lay Out a Garden
Stumped about where to start with the layout of your garden? Let the experts guide you
Professional advice from: Georgia Lindsay of Georgia Lindsay Garden Design; Nigel Gomme of Cityscapers; Roberto Silva of Silva Landscapes
Beginning your garden project? Read How to Start a Garden Redesign
“I always start by looking – really looking,” Georgia Lindsay says. “It’s essential for getting the best out of the space.
“You might think there’s nothing to keep,” she continues, “but, when you look deeply, you might discover there’s a borrowed view in the surrounding garden you want to capture, or even just a tree in the distance you might want to frame.”
Consider also, she says, how you want to use the space and how you want your garden to make you feel.
Roberto Silva says he begins with a grid. “It instantly gives me a sense of proportion and measurements. It can be used for a free-flowing layout as well.”
He also thinks beyond obvious boundaries. “A garden, however small, can be a portal into nature, somewhere to surround yourself in plants and scent,” he says. “The Japanese concept of ‘forest bathing’ acknowledges that being among trees is good for wellbeing. The garden doesn’t have to start at the back door – I advise clients to bring plants into the home, too, and think of the whole home as a series of gardens.”
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Of course, this will vary greatly depending on the brief, but Roberto says he’ll generally include a patio for entertaining, the main body of the garden – lawn or gravel – and the borders.
“The more integrated into the home, the better, so it makes sense for the first zone, closest to the house, to be where you dine outdoors or sit and hang out,” Nigel adds.
“Key to getting the right feel is balancing out the hard surfaces – patios, fences, walls, decking etc – with plenty of planting and making it comfortable with seating, cushions, shelter from sun or rain and so on,” he says.
Georgia has a different focus, saying that although every layout varies hugely, she tries to include one universal thing: a sense of mystery.
“Even the smallest garden should have an unrevealed area to create a destination,” she says. “The parameters should never feel finite – you don’t want to see your fence panels in their entirety or you’ll be reminded of the limitations of your garden.”
This has changed since the pandemic, according to Nigel. “In the past, I would have said water features, but with so many people working from home, me included, a garden studio is an attractive investment if you have the space and budget,” he says. “Nestled among planting, they can be a perfect home office, teenagers’ den or workshop.”
Roberto will always include a feature wall, a water feature or some other focal point for the garden.
For Georgia, it would always be a tree – even a small tree if space is tight. “For the footprint they consume, they give the greatest surface area for pollinators to keep our planet alive,” she says. “A tree also adds a vertical pivot point to navigate around, creating division and a sense of journey. They create the most beautiful focal point to enjoy at all times of the year, a constantly evolving reminder of the connection to the seasons.”
“Generally, a north-facing garden will be colder and darker than a south-facing plot, but even north-facing gardens will usually have a sunny spot,” Nigel says. “Place shade- and sun-loving plants in their respective areas, as well as seating, and you have the beginnings of a layout that works with the orientation of your property.”
“Capturing the sun used to be our focus,” Georgia says, but adds that, with hotter summers, the appeal of a cool, shaded area is now a significant consideration. “Try to include spaces for both, to have the choice to retreat from the blistering heat,” she says.
More: How to Design a North-facing Garden
How to Design a South-facing Garden
Referring to what’s known in geometry as ‘the golden ratio’, Roberto says he’s usually guided by design’s ‘rule of thirds’ and the ‘golden spiral’ (Google these and you’ll find lots of examples).
“Nothing beats mocking up the proposed space with furniture and markers on the ground to map out how the space might work for you,” Georgia says. “Study it at all times of the day and watch how the sun moves around the zones. You don’t want to create a beautiful seating space under a tree where birds might perch, for example – it could get quite messy!”
“Small garden design is like designing the layout of a small room – details matter,” Nigel says. “A minimal palette works best – not too many different materials, colours and plants jostling for your attention. Keep the layout simple and practical, but avoid it becoming too hard and sterile by balancing it with planting.”
Conversely, he says, “Large gardens allow you to paint with broader brush strokes.”
The designers say they love an unusual-shaped garden for pushing their creativity and inventiveness. “On the whole, though, most gardens are a rectangular plot,” Georgia says.
So how would they approach the following garden shapes?
“Concealing the perimeter is key,” Georgia says. “There’s a danger with a rectangular plot that it will feel narrow, so breaking up the space into sections will help this. Create a destination and perhaps don’t go for the obvious terrace connected to the house – use the light and shade to your advantage.”
Nigel agrees with both, saying that a long, narrow lawn in the middle and planting around the periphery would only emphasise its narrowness. “It can be transformed by subdividing it into a series of zones or mini gardens,” he explains. “Three seems to be the magic number for this. I use plants to define the different areas and stagger the entrances to each zone from the left to right, to lead the eye and make the garden appear broader.”
More: 5 Ways to Design a Long, Thin Garden
“Where the end wall or fence is close to the house, it’s good to make a feature of it,” Nigel says. “Painting a fence can make a huge difference and panels of different materials can be used to break up long, uninteresting walls. Climbers are often floriferous and scented, and architectural plants such as palms and multi-stem trees look great with a wall close behind to act as a foil.”
Has a garden designer helped you to see your outdoor space differently? Share your garden layout tips in the Comments.