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Garden design ideas

Help with those hard-to-deal-with areas

This area of the site deals with specific elements of garden design and is by no means a series of total plans for a garden because how many ordinary people can afford that?

It concentrates on specific areas of the garden, like hedges (usually based on my own cack-handed experience), small-scale projects, or plants suitable for certain conditions.

New to gardening? First job, do nothing

Before you do anything with a new (or neglected) garden – DO NOTHING. Well, nothing physical, anyway. Focus your efforts on observing all you can about the plot of land you have.

Here’s an example of one area of my garden that sees dramatic changes in just eight months – the pond. If you bought the house in midwinter, you’d be excused for thinking there were no plants there, especially as the huge Rodgersia is so slow to break leaf in spring…

8 golden gardening rules

Establish its measurements, then you won’t plant an oak in a pocket hankie-sized front garden and undermine the foundations.

Where do you live? The east of the UK is much drier than the west; altitude greatly affects temperature, wind, precipitation and snow; built-up areas benefit from a ‘heat island’, so are warmer than rural areas. Coastal areas suffer greatly from salt-laden winds but can be much milder than inland.

I live in Gateshead – it’s one of the driest areas in the country, almost 300ft up a west-facing hill, but suffers from dull, chilly summer days when cloud drifts in from the North Sea.

What type of soil do you have – clay or sandy? Acid or alkaline? If it’s a new house, it’s probably full of rubble. Get a soil testing kit to find out what you’re dealing with, as it can seriously limit what you can grow.

Get to know the neighbours. What problems do their gardens suffer from and how have they dealt with them? What grows well in the neighbourhood? Does your garden sit in a frost pocket (usually at the bottom of a hill) or is it an exposed site?

Which direction does it face? South and west-facing gardens are the warmest and give you the biggest range of plants; north-facing is the shadiest and coolest, while east-facing can lead to problems with early morning frost on tender shoots.

Make a note of where the sun shines during the day. Your garden might be south-facing, but that’s no good if the shadow of a skyscraper blocks out the sunlight.

If you can, observe over a long period of time – in winter, when the sun is low in the sky, hedges and walls throw long shadows – the opposite is true in summer.

Are there any trees? If they’re deciduous, they will give a great opportunity for a winter and spring planting scheme before leaf burst – bulbs, hellebores, etc. If trees are evergreen, that’s a permanent area of dark, dry shade you will have to contend with. If you’ve moved into a house in winter, leave the garden alone until late spring to see what comes up. Bear in mind, herbaceous perennials won’t show their faces until March at the earliest.

Base your plans around what YOU want to do in the garden. If you like to sit out by yourself with a beer (like me) after a long day of digging/pottering, create single seating areas at different points, so you get the sun at different points of the day. If you’re a social being, create an ‘entertainment’ area that caters for more than one disgruntled gardener.

2 options: gardening with money, or without

Once you’ve established these basic facts, make your decisions. If money’s no option (lucky sod), get yourself a garden designer to create your perfect paradise.

However, the rest of us will be on a limited (or non-existent) budget. It’s amazing what you can do with a bit of graft. Hard landscaping’s going to be the most expensive bit, but I managed to cut that cost by digging up the lawn myself and laying gravel paths, edged with old bricks that were lying around. Gravel’s cheap, easy to maintain and eco-friendly, especially if it’s local stone, as it lets rainwater percolate away naturally, unlike concrete.

Plant-wise, hardy annuals fill gaps quickly, as do easy perennials from seed and plug plants. Never miss a nursery or garden centre sale – people are put off buying plants off-season, but that’s where you’ll get tree and shrub bargains to give you a bit of structure.

That’s your basic framework sketched out – it’s up to you to fill in the gaps.