Basic garden design principles

Please read pages 56 – 61 in RHS How to Garden.

A generation ago, gardeners would have stared at you blankly if you’d talked about balance and palette in the garden. Most of our parents and grandparents planted flowers they liked (or could grow) and didn’t ever think about design.

These days we’re more interested in design ideas for our houses and gardens. Some people have an instinctive feel for what looks right. For the rest of us, it’s more difficult to know what works well in a garden – or why something seems wrong. You may not aspire to have a Chelsea medal winning garden, but knowing a few garden design principles is useful in making the most of your garden.

1) you can get away with a lot with a strong structure:

Why do we enjoy visiting a well-designed garden even in winter, when the colours are gone and the plants are mostly dormant? It’s all about the structure – strong shapes and outlines. Think about the shape of your beds and the lawn, for example. A definite shape – whether it’s a rectangle, curves or whatever, will pull the planting together and give a much more satisfying effect. You can add emphasis with features such as garden art, obelisks or rose arches.

A strong structure can help bring a garden together

A useful concept when thinking about structure is The Golden Ratio. It can be helpful in understanding how to make shapes in your garden ‘work’. You can find out more about the Golden Ratio here – and how to apply it to garden design here.

The Golden Ratio

2) keep it simple:

Less is more when it comes to gardens! Fewer different kinds of plants in a garden look so much better. Monty Don says you should be able to plant any garden with no more than seven different species. I wouldn’t go that far, but hopefully you get the idea.

If you limit yourself to a restricted number of species, not only will your garden have more impact, and hold together better, but it will be easier to care for, because you’re not trying to get to know too many different plants with their different needs. Plants tend to look better planted in blocks – so go for groups of, say 3, 5, 7, 9 plants in a big group, rather than scattering individual plants throughout the garden. Designers recommend choosing odd numbers, as these look better. In general, I’d agree, except that some plants merge together. For example, if you plant a group of hardy geraniums, you won’t know how many you’ve got after a couple of years. I think it’s better to plant the right number to fit your space, rather than worrying too much about odd and even numbers.

Most garden plants come in different varieties of cultivars. For example, you can find ornamental elders, Sambucus nigra, in a range of leaf colours, from purple through green and golden. This means you can add variety (while keeping to the seven species rule) by using the same species but choosing cultivars with different flower or leaf colours.

Other ways to achieve simplicity is by repetition: repeating patterns or shapes, and using the same or similar landscaping materials throughout the garden.

Blocks of colour in the borders at RHS Wisley

3) Think about Colour:

The colour wheel is a device employed by many designers. Different effects can be created by combining colours in different ways. Whatever the effect you want to create, it’s worth thinking about the colours of the flowers in your garden. You’ll achieve a stronger design if you stick to a more limited range of colours.

Remember that different flowers bloom at different times of year, so you could, for example, have a scheme of yellows in spring, moving to other colours in summer. Colours are also affected by the different light at different times of year so, in the winter and early spring, when light levels are lower, paler colours can disappear.

If you want to read a bit more about colour, there’s an interesting chapter here (which you should be able to read for free on Google Books) in the RHS Encyclopedia of Garden Design.

Yellow and purple are contrasting colours

4) Focal Points, Eyesores and “Borrowed Views”:

Most of us overlook, or are overlooked by, our neighbours’ gardens. This can be a blessing and a curse!

What should we do if our view is of an ugly brick wall, or some other eyesore? It’s tempting to try and block an ugly view by screening it with a fence or trees. The problem is that the screen can be as intrusive as the eyesore itself, and it’s very difficult to block something out from all the different viewpoints in your garden.

An alternative approach is to create focal points – something else to draw the eye. A lovely tree, a pond, a piece of garden art, for example, will break up the view and draw your eye away from the back wall of your neighbour’s house.

Focal points also lead our gaze around the garden, and create a sense of movement and direction.

If we’re lucky though, instead of an eyesore our neighbours might have a beautiful trees, which we can encorporate into our design. Look around your garden and what’s beyond your fence. Is there something you can ‘borrow’?

If you’re interested in garden design, there are lots of useful resources online. Some are listed below:

Ultimately though, it’s your space and the right design is what works for you and makes you happy!

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