Garden Design for Dummies (posted 21st April 2017)

That sounds a bit rude, but I’m not talking about you, I’m counting myself as a Garden Design Dummy.

Give me a room, any shape, any size, any weird features, and I’ll design a scheme to work in it. Give me a property, two bedrooms or seven, in the middle of town or the middle of nowhere, sprawling house or bijou city pad and I’ll work my way round it and design something to fit. Give me any kind of interior space and I’m pretty confident that I can produce a scheme that will maximise and accentuate the space and add personality and interest.

However, give me a garden and some kind of weird design paralysis sets in. We have lived in several houses over the years, and love and attention has been lavished on the interiors, rooms have been designed in their entirety and implemented with an attention to detail that is second to none (we have a LOT of stuff, and bits and pieces, and salvaged-finds, and beach-finds, and eBay-finds and odd collections that we have to “design-scatter” around the house). Make no mistake, we have probably lavished equal amounts money on the gardens of these houses, but the approach for me (my husband might disagree) has been piecemeal and micro, not all-encompassing and macro. We go to garden centres and empty the bank account to buy plants and seeds and pots and trees and shrubs and flowers and wheelbarrows and hose pipes and garden gnomes (OK, not garden gnomes, I’m just checking that you are paying attention), bring it all home and then stand on the archetypal lawn-flanked-by-flower-beds and micromanage the placement of it all. And more often than not, if it hasn’t got a place to be planted in yet it sits in a bucket of water with lots of friends until we forget to water it and it dries up and dies. We literally should have decorated the garden by hanging £10 notes off the trees.

Garden Design for Dummies

Hubby has a plan, I’m sure. It’s just not my plan. So, I nod and say yes, that looks great, and head off to my veg patch (which is the one garden ‘room’ I have designed, if you can call lines of runner beans a ‘design’).

Garden Design for Dummies

Don’t get me wrong, I have Pinterest boards full of ideas for a garden, I want a verandah, I want an orchard, I want raised beds filled with hydrangeas, magnolias and alliums (this isn’t a developed planting scheme, they are just my favourites after wisteria), I want a seating area with comfy lounge seating, a fire pit and Adirondack chairs, I want a pizza oven next to a long refectory table with lights strung from the wisteria-clad pergola perfect for entertaining copious amounts of guests who chat away slightly drunkenly on fragrant, moon-kissed evenings under the stars (is it becoming obvious that I actually want to live in Tuscany not South London?).

Garden Design for Dummies
Obviously not my current garden, but you get the picture.

But where I might have a discerning eye for my interiors Pinterest boards, and can pick and choose images that blend and mesh and merge ideas successfully together, with my garden and exterior inspiration I seem to have no filter. The risks are that I either end up sticking safely with the suburban lawn/kids football pitch, a climbing frame, a bloody trampoline and a flower border down each side or go hell-for-leather with every idea I have ever had and the final look could look like it’s designed more around a Chessington World Of Adventures ethos than Tuscan Idyll. I think I might need to call Alan Titchmarsh in.

Maybe it’s the scale of a garden? There’s so much of it.  Its huge relative to an interior room. So, I try and approach it in the same way I would a large room, I get a plan. I sit and look at the plan. I look out at the garden. I look at the plan again. I get a cup of tea. And look at the plan a bit more. Then I give up and go to the garden centre and buy some more plants to kill off in buckets of water.

Garden Design for Dummies

Maybe that’s it, maybe plants are the problem. They are unpredictable, they grow, they change every day/week/month. I know that’s supposed to be a good thing but imagine designing a room where the sofa changes shape week to week, where the walls look green and lovely and then two months later are bare and twiggy, where the carpet needs feeding and mowing and regularly develops bare patches.

So, this is the other problem, it is such a different way of designing and I am trying to approach it in exactly the same way as I would an interior. I have to accept the inherent chaos of a garden, I must lay down parameters that are able to shift and change. I can zone the overall space and deal with each zone as an individual room but I want to be able to create a coherent vista at the same time.

My approach shifted in one tea drinking perusal with hubby beside me, plans discarded, standing in our lovely new kitchen, looking out of our three-metre span of glazed doors. We decided that rather than just continuing to fill the current beds with more and more plants we will lay down some ‘bones’, a skeleton that moves us away from the lawn-and-two-borders concept, but still links all the elements together. So we stood, and we ‘minds-eyed’ it. In our heads we divided the lawn with raised beds. We made the terrace large enough for my refectory table. We cordoned off an area in the sunniest spot for a sunken seating area with a fire pit. He chose his ideal-world plants, that’s definitely his remit, I would fill a garden with about four plants. We developed an idea that mirrored the interior-approach of rooms put together to make a house, but that retains a fluidity, a continuity and thread. We looked at it with the intention of applying just enough structure that it has an overall cohesion but not so much that it can’t ebb and flow with the seasons. It’s a very different approach to a function-driven interior. It was quite an eye opener but I am feeling like my design-paralysis might just have started twitching its legs.

Garden Design for Dummies
Perhaps the dogs are pondering where best to put a pond, preferably with ducks they could chase?

So, we will get there. We currently still have borders, lawn-football-pitch, a climbing frame and that bloody trampoline but we also now have our imagined ‘rooms’, we have plans for our seating area, our dining terrace is marked out with bits of wood, and our orchard is currently blossoming.

Garden Design for Dummies

All we need now is that Tuscan moon and the sound of cicadas. In London. And then I’ll go back to my day job and leave garden designers to design gardens.