Garden Design for the novice

Horticulture enthusiast Becky Martin has been a resident garden design expert at the Duchy of Cornwall Nursery for over fifteen years. 

Known for her innovative gardening demonstrations and design displays for the nursery, she’s become a go-to customer contact for garden design. Here she offers her top ten tips to try at home…

1.  Define your objective. What does your garden need to do for you? Is it a wildlife haven, an outdoor entertaining space, a food producer or a just somewhere to grow your favourite flowers? Probably a mixture of all these, and more. How much time and effort can you commit to? How much money can you spend? Thinking hard about this at the outset will enable you to make a viable plan.

2.  Understand your site. You need to consider influences within and beyond the boundaries of your flower beds. Make sure you know where the wind comes from, where the water accumulates in a wet spell, and the corner that never gets any sun. Note any structures you would like to obscure, and any vistas you would like to enhance.

3.  Know your soil. At the very least you need to know whether you have an acid, neutral or limey soil. You should also look at your soil type. Is it clay, sand or a lovely crumbly black loam? Remember that soil can vary in different parts of the garden. Knowing your soil will enable you to buy plants suitable for your conditions, and avoid expensive disappointment.

4.  Collect pictures of gardens you like. This will help you work out what style appeals to you, and how you would like the finished garden to look. Try to isolate the key elements you are drawn to. You might like the profusion of a cottage garden, or you might prefer a more contemporary look with hard landscaping and restrained planting. Planning is a lot easier if you know what you’re aiming for. You may also find it useful to take a look at our inspiration pages and see what appeals to you.

5.  Make good use of your boundaries. Make them work for you as part of your design. A garden fence can support shrubs or climbers. A wall is always an opportunity for planting, whatever its aspect. A hedge can be a key feature of the design. It can unite the garden with the landscape beyond, or provide a bold structural statement at any time of year.

Know your soil. Is it clay, sand or a lovely crumbly black loam?

Don’t be limited to the plants you know. If you want something tall, white and frothy put ‘tall white frothy’ on your plan.

6.  Think upwards. Height does not only mean trees, shrubs and house walls. Use structures such as arches, pergolas or obelisks to create height and divide the space. Temporary height can come from bamboo wigwams for sweet peas, or tall see-through plants. These can be useful short-term solutions whilst waiting for a strategically placed shrub to grow.

7. Remember winter. When the weather is vile the garden is seen mostly through the windows. It is not difficult at the planning stage to work out where to plant an early flowering shrub or two to provide interest from indoors. Similarly, the journey between the car and the front door may be our only trip outside in winter, and this could be made interesting with a little forethought.

8.  Use sympathetic hard materials. When choosing a material for paths, patio or other features make sure it looks comfortable with surrounding buildings and existing structures. Try to use the same look through the garden to give a cohesive design. 

9.  Don’t be limited to the plants you know. If you want something tall, white and frothy put ‘tall white frothy’ on your plan. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know a plant like that. Any good garden centre or nursery will be able to suggest plants to fit the bill. Our online Plant A-Z also allows you to sort by colour, rather than simply searching plant names.

10.  Restrain yourself. Don’t buy your plants until you are ready, or nearly ready, to plant them. We’ve all done it – bought plants and left them languishing in pots for months on end. They lose vigour, deteriorate and often die. Besides, your final plan may not be the same as the original idea. Some years ago Dan Hinkley gave a talk at Boconnoc House. A member of the audience asked for his best single piece of gardening advice. He answered “get it in the ground” and went on to point out that it will have at least doubled in size by the time you are ready for it.