How to design a garden

Create your ideal outdoor room

Think of your garden, or any outside space, as an extension of your home. An outdoor room. And this outdoor room can be whatever you want it to be.

This might sound a little daunting. Perhaps your garden’s overgrown and wild; bare and uninspired or designed for one thing and you'd rather use it for another. Maybe it’s your first garden or you’re stumped for ideas and don’t know where to start.

Whatever the current state of your garden, with a bit of inspiration, thought and planning, it can be transformed into your ideal outdoor space.

And that’s where we can help. We’ll take you through everything you need to think about – from getting inspiration to choosing a new look; from learning about your garden to starting a plan. We’ve got it covered with our expert gardening advice. So, let's get cracking with your garden's makeover…


How to design a garden

How to design a garden

What sort of outdoor space do you want?

Is it for the kids to play in? Somewhere to eat and drink with friends and family? Or maybe one that's all about growing plants and fruit and vegetables?

Deciding what you want to do in the garden is the first step. This will help you allocate space accordingly. You don’t want to create a large area for relaxation if the kids will need room to run around in. And this doesn’t mean choosing just one focus for your garden - it’s a space for all the family. It’s more about dividing it up to accurately suit everyone’s needs.

To help, check out our articles on how to design your garden based on your needs.

How to design a garden

Get inspired

With the focus of your garden decided on, it’s time to seek out a little inspiration. The good news is that there are countless ways to do this. You might find that you like one method only, or a combination of many. There’s no right or wrong way to start collating your garden ideas.

Why not try:

  • Magazines and catalogues – it might be a gardening magazine or a feature exploring the garden of your favourite celebrity; a shopping catalogue or a Sunday newspaper.
  • Visiting outdoor places. From local parks to the garden of friends and family, trips to stately homes to favourite holiday destinations; look around and identify what you like about it. Take photos (if possible) and create a shortlist. These ideas might not be possible to recreate in your garden, but nothing’s off limits at this early stage.
  • Going online. Use online search and social media, such as Instagram and Pinterest, to find images of real-life gardens and more professionally photographed options.

From these, create a mood board to bring together all your ideas and images. This can be a collection of magazine cut-outs or photos; or a virtual pinboard on Pinterest.

How to design a garden

Choose a garden look

Examine your mood board to identify an emerging look that you like. Perhaps you’ve chosen a lot of one colour or favour a particular style. By pulling out these common elements, it will help you streamline what you’re looking for and see what might not suit this. Or maybe these contrasts don’t matter – you still want to keep them, or have a large enough garden to fit several different looks.

We find that it can help to think of garden looks as being either formal (geometric and orderly with straight lines) or informal (free and easy planting with no regularity). Interestingly, the clean lines of a symmetrical, formal garden can be restful on the eye, as the brain doesn’t have to work hard to analyse the image. However, formal designs tend to emphasise boundaries, so if you want your garden to look bigger, consider an asymmetrical design.

We’ve put together a few of our favourite garden looks to offer more help on achieving your dream design.

How to design a garden

Make a plan of the garden

Grab a piece of paper (we find that graph paper is best when drawing to scale) and draw a plan of your garden. Use a tape measure to take accurate measurements of all the basic dimensions and components of your garden, including any fixed structures or points.

Don’t forget to mark the location of any pipes or cables - you’ll want to avoid them when landscaping, but will need to know where they are to ensure access. Rent a CAT (cable avoidance tool) to check their whereabouts. You may also want to pick up a laser level to measure the rise and fall of your garden too.

Include everything that needs to be considered and take your time - being thorough now will help you avoid making any expensive mistakes later.

How to design a garden

Know your garden

Of course, there’s more to your garden than just it’s measurements. And it’s essential that these factors are also considered at this early planning stage. Here are our top tips:

Understand the climate and local geography

The healthiest and most manageable gardens work with the natural environment, including plants that would naturally thrive there. And even if you live in a particularly adverse spot (be it exposed and windy, or by the coast with salty breezes), there’s plenty you can do to make your garden more habitable to a diverse range of plants.

Understanding these local quirks can be especially challenging if you’re new to an area. So, get chatting to neighbours to learn more about your patch.

How to design a garden

Suss out the soil

Good soil is crucial for a healthy, beautiful garden. There are many different types - chalk, clay, sand, peat and loam – with loam the best of all. Knowing which type of soil you have will help you decide which plants you can grow, as well as how well they’ll grow once planted. It can also be important for landscaping projects, as some are harder to work with than others.

We also recommend testing your soil to find out its pH (the acidity). Some plants prefer ericaceous soil (acidic) while others like lime (alkaline) soil. And test the soil in various parts of your garden, as its pH might vary.

Consider your garden’s aspect

Which way is your garden facing? North, south, east or west? Whichever direction, or ‘aspect’ you have can help you choose where you want things to go. There’s no point having a decked area for enjoying the sunshine in the shadiest corner of the garden. Sketch the arc of the sun onto your plan, so that you can see where the shadows will fall.

And look out for micro-climates. All gardens contain a series of micro-climates that are partly determined by the compass direction each area faces. These offer different levels of light, warmth and moisture.

How to design a garden

Start sketching the new garden design

Now’s the time to start sketching your new garden layout. We recommend laying tracing paper over the original plan and adding the new features – playing with their shapes and sizes to see what works where.

Start with any garden buildings, structures and large items (like water features). This will help you see what space you have left and how they’re going to affect the rest of the garden.

Then it’s landscaping. This could be hard landscaping (such as paving or decking) or soft (like grass - real or artificial). Maybe you have space for a combination of options or pick just one. And then it’s everything else – beds and borders, kids’ play areas and more.

Look to achieve a balance. Pay equal attention to all areas to avoid one part looking busy while others look empty. And choose features that suit the space available. A giant structure or tree would swamp a small garden, whereas bigger spaces may need something grand and imposing to avoid getting lost.

How to design a garden

Check the regulations and talk to neighbours

Planning regulations vary from area to area, but there are usually very tight restrictions on what may be done to listed buildings or properties in conservation areas, and that includes their gardens. Even new housing is subject to some regulations, so it’s always worth checking with the Planning Department of your local council to make sure that what you want is allowed.

And even if you’re not doing any major work, it’s worth having a sit down with your neighbours to discuss any, and all implications they may experience. In most instances, chatting about any possible knock-on effects for them will help prevent any complaints or issues further down the line.

How to design a garden

Schedule the changes

If you’re making a lot of changes, consider breaking the project down and completing it over a period of time to make the expense more manageable. Prioritise the jobs that need to be done to make the garden a usable space over the ones that are just nice to have.

Don’t be tempted to economise on soil preparation, especially when creating new beds or if you’re landscaping the garden of a newly-built home (where there’s a tendency to scrimp on topsoil). Invest in the best grit, soil improver, topsoil, mulch and any other improving products that you can – the boost these give to new plants is invaluable.

Even if you’re planning on doing as much as you can, remember that some jobs must be handled by professionals. Installing or moving gas, electricity or water pipes must be done by a registered engineer. And before you begin any outdoor electrical work (other than minor repairs and replacements) you must notify your Local Authority Building Control Department, which has responsibility for ensuring that this work is inspected and tested.

And that's our top tips for planning your garden - let's get outside and make your makeover a reality.