You’ve just moved into your first home and are toying with the idea that the garden should be as much of a showpiece as your new house – or after years of looking out into an urban wilderness or your children’s muddy and scarred soccer pitch you decide enough is enough – you might actually try to grow something out there.
The first step in planning your garden, you will be glad to know, does not involve digging, weeding or hoeing – just thinking. Your garden should reflect your dreams and needs. So first you must decide what you want from your garden.
- You might start with just a file of gardening ideas. Learning a little about landscaping and gardening will help you come up with ideas that are practical for your small space.
- Whether you decide to hire a professional or decide to design the garden yourself, the more knowledgeable you are the more informed your decisions will be. So visit an arboretum, read some gardening books or even take a class in landscape design. You may decide doing it yourself is worth the effort to create your own gardening vision.
- You must consider the scale and complexity of your garden project. If you have moved into a newly-built house with mud fields front and back or if your site has problems such as bad drainage, steep hills or an unusual shape, you might need to consult a professional.
- If you are redesigning an already existing small garden, adding a deck or reworking the planting beds – these are rewarding projects you more than likely can do yourself.
Define your needs
What do you want from your garden? List in order of importance: a play area for your children, a romantic idyll to while away the brief Irish summer, a tableau from your living room window, a bird sanctuary, a source of kitchen produce, a supplier of flowers. Add to these possibilities the more prosaic necessities that are part of modern living: the garage, clothesline, fuel storage, parking space, compost heap and tool shed. These need to be easily accessible and preferably hidden by hedges, climbers or walls.
Many people, without really thinking it through, make a lawn their first priority. They simple equate a garden with having a lawn. But unless you really need a lawn for a soft, play surface think twice before devoting a lot of valuable space to something that takes so much maintenance.
And speaking of maintenance, once you have listed your small garden needs, decide on the desired level of maintenance. Do you want to spend all your leisure time in your garden, making it look its best? Or would you prefer a garden that needs minimal care?
In a small garden every weed or unpruned bush is conspicuous. Be aware that certain elements require more upkeep than others. The following list ranks common garden elements in order of maintenance demands, from the least care for structures and paving to the most (usually) for flowers:
- Structures and paving
- Trees and large shrubs
- Ground covers
- Perennial, annual flowers, vegetables
Start by taking your camera and photographing the garden from as many angles as possible. Include photos from the main windows of the house because for most of the year that is how you will see your garden.
Next, draw a ground plan of your garden as near to scale to possible on graph paper. With the photos and the plan you will be able to plan much more exactly, for example, where might be a good spot to hide the compost heap!
This done, you are in position to decide what to do with the remaining space.
Choosing a garden style
In a small garden only a simple style will do. There is no room for a confusion of styles if you want your garden to work. But you don’t have to let the small size restrict your vision – even in the smallest area, it’s possible to suggest a style. A tiny pocket of ground planted with a leafy surround and blanketed with ferns is enough to suggest a woodland garden. A small space can be perfect for a riotous cottage garden, a neatly structured knot garden or formal Japanese rock garden. You get the picture.
Many garden styles can be interpreted either formally or informally depending on your taste. An informal garden is characterized by a lack of symmetry and by flowing lines, curves and natural-looking plant forms; a formal style is typically symmetrical, featuring straight or geometrical line and plants trained or clipped into unnatural forms (sheared hedges and topiary).