As a Landscape Designer, I’m often asked for tips and advice on outdoor living and garden design. The single biggest tip or piece of advice I can give is to arrange an on-site consultation with a qualified Landscape Designer.
But, if you want the satisfaction of doing it all yourself, here are my top tips for designing the garden of your dreams…
Whatever and wherever the setting, landscape design should be thought of as the art of beautifying functionality.
A well designed garden needs to balance the aesthetic with the functional. It needs to reflect and complement the home, the immediate surroundings and, above all else, reflect and incorporate the style of its owner. It needs to: frame the spectacular; hide the unsightly; meet the practical needs of its users; create interest, imagination and enticement; evoke feelings of relaxation, romance, sophistication, elegance and wonder; and add value to the home. It needs to be a highly sensory sanctuary – visual, perfumed, acoustic and tactile.
So my very first consideration when designing any new garden is functionality. Think about how you want to use your garden (i.e. year around outdoor entertaining, play area for the kids, a shady spot to read, a veggie & herb garden, putting green, etc, etc). You then need to workout how much room you need for furniture, pools, spas, play equipment, clothes lines, sheds, compost bins, etc and where you’re going to put every thing. The size and dimensions of your furniture, play equipment, the views from the different windows of your home and the way the sun and shadows track across your yard is largely going to dictate the size, shape and positioning of the different elements in your garden.
Now that you’ve created your garden’s functional skeleton, it’s time to release your inner garden designer. This is the point where looking at magazines that showcase beautiful gardens will help you draw inspiration. It is also at this point that you need to consider the financial and, if you’re thinking about a D.I.Y. installation, the labour investment that you’re prepared to make.
Your choice of materials and construction methods can make a significant impact on how far your investment will take you. As an aside…if you are considering D.I.Y., remember to apply the Universal Law that is somewhat lesser known than Newton’s Law of Gravity, but equally unquestionable – ‘The Factor of Three’. Once you have calculated how much you think your project will cost and how long you think it will take you, multiply each of these by 3 – for what is likely to be your actual project cost and project timeline.
Regardless of the particular style of garden that you choose (i.e. tropical, native, Japanese, cottage, Mediterranean, etc), here are a few tips to help you beautify the functional:
• Try and incorporate recurring themes – carry elements from the front garden into the back garden and use similar colours and textures from inside your home in your garden.
• If your garden is awkwardly shaped, circles and curves work really well to create interesting transition zones and fantastic garden features (studies have also found that curves and circles also evoke feelings of relaxation, calm and tranquillity).
• If you’d like to make your garden feel larger, use large format pavers laid in a simple pattern; espalier climbing plants to produce lush green walls, without sacrificing space (try espaliering citrus trees for a Mediterranean courtyard); paint a bright feature wall and use mirrors or hanging wall art.
• Redirect or divert attention – if you can’t easily screen something unsightly, divert attention from it by creating/placing a feature near by to draw the eye. Use the sound of trickling water or soft music to distract attention from road noise.
• Use lighting and music to set different themes and moods – connect the lights in your outdoor entertaining area to a dimmer switch or install separate mood and functional lighting; soft garden lighting guides visitors through and creates another dimension for your garden; subtle speaker placement means music can be enjoyed from anywhere in the garden (much better than opening the lounge room windows and turning the stereo up).
• Try not to incorporate too many feature elements – apply the ‘less is more’ principal. If there are too many features clamouring for your attention, you probably won’t really notice and appreciate any of them.
• Make sure that any built structures (i.e. walls, fences, pergolas, decks, ponds, etc) comply with local Council Regulations, Building Codes and, in the case of grey-water re-use, Health Department Regulations.
• Before planting, incorporate a good quality composted topsoil (that is suited to the plants you are choosing) into your garden; add bentonite clay and zeolite for moisture retention; test the pH of your soil and remediate if necessary (most plants will grow in pH neutral soils); and apply a good quality wetting agent.
• Make sure the plant is right for the spot, before you buy it. Read the plant labels carefully and match the plant to the location it will be happiest in (i.e. part shade, well-drained soils), take note of its growth habit and plant accordingly.
• Apply about 50mm of good quality mulch to your garden (a good rule of thumb to use is – if you can walk on it in bare feet, it’s not mulch), making sure you keep it 10mm – 20mm away from the base of your plants. Note – while rocks and stones look nice in garden beds, they store heat and may cook the roots of your smaller plants in particularly sunny spots.
• Regular maintenance is then the key to ensuring your dream garden doesn’t become a nightmare – doing a little bit often is much better than doing a lot rarely. It also helps you connect with your garden and you’ll enjoy it even more.
• A garden is like any living creature, it takes time to grow and develop, so don’t be afraid to plant some ‘sacrificial’ plants that fill space while the garden’s more permanent plants fill out.