designing a garden from scratch, family garden, cottage garden

Factors to Consider When Designing a Garden from Scratch

Designing a Garden from scratch is exciting and challenging at the same time. Whether you’re a school dropout aiming to become the next Joe Swift, a working family member who has just acquired a new garden or either one of the above with an aim to re-do your existing garden, you’ve come to the right place.

To give you a little background about how I designed my garden from scratch,

We inherited a medium-sized garden in a Georgian London property. Believe you me, I was petrified (read about our big move here). From Monty Don to Piet Oudolf, I googled every famous name in the gardening world. I looked for gardeners near me and tried to find garden landscape designs online. Needless to say, I soon became obsessed with the likes of Beth Chatto and Piet Oudolf almost wanting to quit my job as a doctor and enrolling in gardening school. Kew Gardens are frightfully close to me, so it is still an ongoing struggle.

If you haven’t read my previous posts, below is a glimpse of the horror that greeted us when we moved in:

Garden landscape design is a tricky business (I have learned the hard way). Breaking the bank was the only option after I spoke to a few local designers. Getting the garden done on a budget was key but some inherited plants were planning world domination which we didn’t find out until the summer came and the bamboo grew taller than all the surrounding buildings! However, it was, overall, a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

I am a firm believer in the fact that experience is the best teacher. But, I don’t necessarily believe that you have to go through each and every ordeal yourself to learn. I’m certainly no sage of the gardening world but I believe I have a wealth to share since I learn a lot, the hard way, from this inherited and overgrown garden. You could say it wasn’t necessarily designed from scratch since I had a lot of inherited plants. However, some of these were extremely invasive species so I eventually had to get rid of them to get to a blank canvas.

I first had to get to know my garden and figure out what design and plants would do well here. Next, I began to think of how to decide what designs would suit.

Here’s what I jotted down to try to organize my thoughts – I hope it helps you as much as it helped me designing my garden from nothing (as you saw above)!

1. The rate-limiting step when designing your garden from scratch: Your budget!

Let’s not shy away from the fact that this is the main rate-limiting-step (apart from weather and location, which should be ‘decided’ by now – given that you’re reading this post). I achieved my garden with a lot of inherited plants (2 large trees, 3-4 mature shrubs and about 25 % of the planting in the beds -all of which only accounts for about 20 % of the total plants in my garden). You need to think about turf/landscaping choices, rockery, water features, garden paths, new plants, tree surgery (if needed), seating, play area/facilities for children (as required). Grass is obviously the bare minimum followed by the traditional layout of a turfed lawn with flower beds in all corners with low-maintenance shrubs, etc. It can be as magical as you want it to be, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be high maintenance.

Once you know what your budget is, you can pencil down any items/design features that you could add (for example a bird feeding station or a pretty water feature) if you have spare money. However, I would strongly recommend overestimating your costs to avoid running out of money since landscaping, labor etc can prove to be quite variable.

Boiling Question: How much should your budget be?

Most designers recommend contributing 5-15 % of the price of your house for the garden budget. This eventually adds to your house value. Plants, design fees, building materials, additional features such as ponds and sculptures, lighting, contractor’s fees, and irrigation systems are the main factors that take up your budget. It is quite difficult to design even a small garden from scratch, without putting in at least £6000-£8000. The plants usually don’t take up the bulk of the budget, unless you’re thinking of splurging on mature trees. Building materials and labor along with any machines that need to be rented and sloping gardens take up a significant chunk of the budget.

Although not an absolute necessity, try to incorporate an irrigation system into your garden. Here is an example of a garden planner with an irrigation system and here is one of a sprinkler planner (Impressive, right?). One of the perks of designing a garden from scratch is that you can leave the foundations for a few things to be added in the future. Irrigation can be one of them.

Although this may not sound as ‘designing a garden from scratch,’ but it is frugal to use existing plants and materials from your space, if at all possible.

2. What type of garden do you wish to create and what amount of maintenance are you willing to put into it?

Some people might argue that these are separate factors but I have felt that the amount of time I can give to my garden plays a huge role in its design. For example, maintaining a cottage garden or a formal English garden would need more maintenance as compared to maintaining an urban garden with mainly hard landscaping and low maintenance shrubs. I am not saying that that is the general description of an urban garden, just that that may be how some of us interpret and implement it.

If you’re a relative novice like me but are excited to put your own mark into your garden with your years of dreaming of being an artist or landscape designer, you have had a whole mush of ideas in your head, which may not be coherent.

With a full-time job and a family to look after, I was willing to put in all my free time into my informal and almost cottage, family-friendly garden..

Piet Oudolf’s style appealed the most to me but I also wanted a family-friendly space with a bit of lawn for football and swings. I envisioned a few focal points in the garden, drawing inspiration from Oudolf’s style and mixing it gently with an informal cottage garden style – sounds crazy doesn’t it? A pond, a rockery, some large patio pots with standard roses and an antique-looking set of chairs and table went next onto my list. I even wanted a wooden children’s playhouse!

Shockingly, I have managed to have a little of all of those, with the main theme being that of a cottage garden but still nodding gently to Oudolf’s style in the way of planting.

Here is a sneak peek of the garden from the summer this year:

If you’re unsure about the type of garden you want, look for garden design advice online and go through sample pictures to get a better idea of your taste. The RHS has a fantastic page to help you through this process and even your nearby B&Q has a helpful guide here. Another helpful but very basic place to see some standard examples of garden types is here.

Depending on how much time you can give to the garden, you may seriously want to consider the garden type and overall look before contacting designers (if you’re not going to ‘amateur your way through’ as I did!). Here are a few basic things to think about:

Do you want/need turf/lawn?

If there is none in your garden to begin with, you will either need seed or ready-made turf rolls both of which need time and effort, along with almost daily watering and careful cutting until it’s established. Depending on where you live, watering and cutting the lawn come with their own expenses which are variable with the weather and the size of the lawn you have. In addition, lawn isn’t necessarily wildlife friendly – it is overgrown grass which is best for wildlife. A regularly cut lawn doesn’t support wildlife as much as uncut grass does, it demands water and electricity along with seasonal feeding. The plus side is, it’s gorgeous and can take a fairly good beating from little feet enthusiastic to play football or jump off and onto their swings! So family-friendly gardens would need either real or artificial lawns to help give the kids a soft play area.

Artificial Vs. Real Grass:

I’m not a big fan of artificial turf since it’s just more plastic which is impossible to dispose of eventually. But it doesn’t need to be watered or cut, and longterm costs are much less when it comes to maintenance.

The obvious choice is an artificial lawn. However, if you’re living in milder climates (like in the UK for example), you will roughly have to cut your grass every 1-2 weeks in the summers and every 3-6 weeks throughout the rest of the year. In my neighborhood in London, we haven’t cut the grass for the last 2 months now, given it’s Winter. Speak to your neighbors and see if lawn maintenance is something you can easily add to your schedule. In addition, some neighborhoods will have teenagers/amateurs who may do it for you for a small fee. Bear in mind that designing your garden from scratch doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have the perfect level surface for either artificial or real turf so this may be another deciding factor!

– Do you want a dedicated barbeque and/or sitting area?

Obviously, most of us do. However, you may be able to have both in the same area rather than dividing up the two. The next thing to think about is – do you want these to be next to the house or further out into the garden? If you’ve envisioned a sleek barbeque area on a modern, shiny patio – a formal English Garden may be tricky to incorporate into that. However, keep a list of these and see what the possibilities are if you’re planning to involve a designer. It may be a garden design faux pas but at the end of the day, if you love it, it’s all good.

– Can you incorporate wildlife-friendly features?

This is crucial. 97% of Britain’s wildlife meadows have been lost since the 1930s. We are just not replacing trees and wildlife habitats at the same rate as we are destroying them. I would urge you to think of the wildlife when creating your garden. A small pond, insect houses, some areas of the garden allowed to overgrow or an area dedicated to wildflowers, bee, and bird-friendly plants – these are small things which eventually have a huge impact if all of us included some or all in our gardens. You will be shocked to find how easy it is to make a small pond in your garden or add a small wildflower area (stay tuned for detailed posts about these!).

Thankfully, all of these are things that can be incorporated into any type of garden and don’t have to come at massive costs so please do look into this or ask your designer about advice when planning.

– Are you planning to use your garden for produce?

Again, as exciting as this sounds, it does need a fair bit of work and dedication of a garden slot for raised beds, etc. There are methods other than raised beds for vegetables, such as vertical gardening so don’t give up if you’ve got a small space.

– Do you need any special permissions for your garden design?

This not only includes councils but also your neighbors. For example, putting up mature trees near a wall thus shading their sunny spot will create a difficult situation. Some properties, for example, are listed and do not allow the planting of anything with deep roots.

– Do you want any additional features?

I would include water features (running or still), ponds, outdoor lighting, greenhouse and/or shed, summer house, arbors, gazebos, pergolas, arches, winding/straight paths, rockeries and stumperies in this list. Depending on your taste and needs, you may need at least some of these (such as a greenhouse or a shed) so having an idea about the additional space and costs these incur is important. All these vary greatly in their prices so don’t let the sound of a greenhouse, pergola or water feature put you off just yet. Remember, you’re just considering the practicalities right now and you may be able to compromise on a few features.

Some people may suggest adding flower beds to this list but I think beds form a basic part of most gardens and should be included in your basic garden type and design.

3. Decide who will design your garden:

Look for garden designers near you or look into garden design apps (here is a helpful list). Not all of us are able to afford designers and with the wealth of information available online, not to mention the various gardening shows, it is tempting to take on this challenge ourselves. Make sure you have done your research before you jump into the mammoth task of designing your own garden from scratch – even small spaces come with their challenges!

A word of caution for those designing their own garden from scratch..

If you are keen to design and implement it yourself, respect the thin line between what work is fit for amateurs and what should be left to professionals. For example, you could google a few youtube videos on how to plant bulbs and trees or how to make a pond but it is crucial that you seek help or get formal training before attempting to install lighting. In addition, you will have to watch for underground pipes, cables, etc.

I wanted to design everything myself, excluding the things I mentioned above. My best friend during this was obviously google. Here is an advanced resource to help you bring that design genius inside you, into the world. Designing my very own garden from scratch has been back-breaking and soul-breaking at times, but I would do it all a million times over for the joys it has brought me.

I might end up deviating from this post to give you more design resources, but stay tuned for more as this is bound to be my next post.

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