Garden design – a starting point

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.

A sense of arrival - but keep it in proportion to the size of the property and the house

A sense of arrival - but keep it in proportion to the size of the property and the house

Garden design is certainly all the rage these days, but if you can’t afford or don’t want to pay a professional designer, where do you start? Without for one minute pretending that a brief column can do justice to design, I would suggest three principles as a starting point.

  1. A sense of arrival.
  2. A sense of journey.
  3. An underpinning principle of logic (with some common sense).

Stand back and look critically at your property from the point of entry or roadside. If you look at good gardens or handsome properties, most will convey a sense of arrival. You know you are in the right place and you can see clearly where you are to enter the property and which direction to follow. This is usually achieved by way of hard landscaping or structures – a fence or hedge (which rates as a green structure), maybe gateways, a driveway and paths. But those arrival features should be in keeping and appropriate to both your house and to the scale of the property. If your lot in life is a tiny, town section with in-fill housing, putting up an imposing gateway and fencing is more likely to make your place look like a prison. And if you own a little wooden cottage, tall brick or plastered walls will just look incongruous. So keep the scale appropriate. Materials used should relate to the house and outbuildings, though if yours is a corrugated iron garage, a hedge may be more pleasing.

Set about softening the entrance with plants. Whether you use formal, matched pairs, an avenue or a froth of pretty flowers is entirely a matter of taste. It is the structures and paving that give form, but it is the plantings which make it appear welcoming and give the interesting detail.

The promise of a journey is possible even on very small sites like in the town garden of Thorveton

The promise of a journey is possible even on very small sites like in the town garden of Thorveton

Creating a sense of anticipation, maybe even mystery, is dependent on making sure that the whole garden is not visible at first glance. It sounds simple, but if you walk along any city street, you will see many gardens where all is revealed from the frontage. There is no invitation to explore or sense of journey. What you see is what you get.

The larger your garden, the easier it is to achieve that promise of journey, to hold back discoveries until you venture further. You may think it is impossible to do on a small, flat section. Not so. It takes a bit more skill and thought, but it can be achieved with a mix of strategically placed plantings and maybe some structures.

But it is the underpinning principle of logical sense which we always keep at the forefront of our minds whenever we plan developments in our garden. Too often have we seen design mistakes where people have dropped in a feature because they feel they need a focal point without thinking about whether it has logic to its selection and placement, beyond being a contrived focal point. The most common and reasonably expensive mistake is summerhouses and gazebos. These structures are all about entertaining and socialising which involves food and drink. If you site it more than 20 metres from your kitchen, odds on you will rarely use it. It just becomes a redundant structure with little purpose. Unless of course you have servants to do the fetching and carrying.

The same goes for garden seats though you may carry your coffee mug 30 metres in this case. A seat is for sitting upon – make sure seating is located where you want to sit, not just to look good from afar.

One pet dislike here is contrived water features where the use of a pump has cascading water flowing from a dry hill or mound, magnified by the sound of the pump and the installation of a fake waterfall. Water does not flow from dry mounds and the installation of such a feature is more often unsubtle fakery which lacks any logic. It is a lot of trouble to go to when you are probably better off with a simple pond, whether it be formal (imposed upon the landscape) or natural in appearance. But if you are going for a natural looking pond, logic says it should be at a lower point of your property.

If you have a large garden, it makes sense to have your intensively gardened and detailed areas closest to the house and living areas. As you move further away, a more natural, loosely maintained style is entirely appropriate. It can look very odd to drop in a formal or highly structured feature in the outer reaches of the property. And common sense says you will never maintain it as tightly as you should, simply because you don’t pass it every day.

How you choose to garden within the design framework is entirely up to personal taste, as is the choice on going with straight lines to give formality or looser curves to evoke a more romantic naturalism. But essentially, good design will mean your garden is an extension of your living space and not just a matter of keeping up appearances.