How to: Get Started With Your Garden Design

Your step by step guide to getting the basics right

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So many gardeners fall into the trap of designing their garden as they go, skipping the planning part. The drawback here is that you may end up with a garden that doesn’t offer the best use of space, is awkward to maintain or just not as easy on the eye as it could be.

When it comes to designing your garden, time spent with a tape measure, paper and pen is never wasted.

Start with a list

Begin by writing down all the decorative and practical features that you and every member of your family would like to see in the garden. What’s your priority – do you want to attract wildlife to the garden, or is a water feature top of your list?

Remember to consider the needs of all your family – a garden will work well only if everyone’s happy, so take your children and pets into account too.

Don’t forget things like washing lines, bike store, trampoline, wheelie bins and parking, if you need these. Get those down first, before you drift into dreams about hammocks, colour schemes, treehouses and fountains.

What will you use your garden for?

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Once you have your first list, write another that focuses on what you really want to use the garden for. If you want breakfast rather than tea in the garden every day, make a note. If you want a lawn for children to play on, write that down. If you plan to have chickens in the future you’ll need to consider their needs.

When making this list, be sure to look ahead to the future so that you can avoid replanning the garden every time you have those football-mad boys to stay!

Follow our step-by -step guide to getting started. These are the questions to ask yourself so you can work out a design that really meets your needs and is achievable.

What do you want in your garden? 

Begin by writing a list of all the decorative and practical features that you and every member of your family would like to see in the garden.

This should be a practical list as well as a note of all the decorative features you desire, so don’t forget things like washing lines, bike store, wheelie bins and parking, if you need these.

Some things may be negotiable – for example, if your children are clamouring for a trampoline but you can’t bear the thought of it taking over the lawn, you could suggest a Wendy house that can be camouflaged by plants instead.

Get those down first, before you drift into dreams about hammocks, colour schemes, pergolas and fountains. Equally, though, think about:

Would you like a themed space?

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A theme can really help to tie a garden together. Why not create a plot that reminds you of that idyllic Spanish holiday, or what about focusing on a colour?

If you’re stuck for a theme, let the style of your house help you. An old cottage obviously sits well with a cottage garden, and a modern house with sleek lines would look at home in a contemporary plot.

City gardens are ideal places for more tropical looking plots as they’re often very sheltered.

Whatever theme you choose, take a tip from professional gardeners and plan for every season of the year. It’s good to have something of interest in your garden all year round.

Lastly, don’t forget that fashions change, so make sure all members of the family are invested in any theme you go with.

Are there any permanent features you need to work with?

There will be features in the garden that you can’t lose, or don’t want to remove. You’ll need to consider these in your design. There’s no point planning a garden of tropical, sun-loving plants if your garden is north facing and in shade. Before you get your heart set on planning a patio at the end of the garden, consider telegraph poles and underground services, which can’t be moved without spending a fortune.

If you have large trees on the plot you’ll need to check whether they have a tree preservation order on them – if so, you won’t be able to touch them.

What type of soil do you have?

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If you’re new to a plot, it’s a good idea to do a very simple pH test [link to soil testing product here] to find out more about your soil.

Acid soils are perfect for acers, rhododendrons and camellias. Neutral soils are ideal for most plants and alkaline soils for clematis and lavender (visit your nearest Dobbies Store for advice on plants for your soil).

You’ll also need to assess if your soil is well-drained, boggy or free draining. Poor soils can be improved by digging in homemade compost or well-rotted farmyard manure. Or, very boggy soils can be improved by digging in horticultural grit.

If you’re new to an area, you could walk around to take a look at what plants are thriving in the neighbourhood – or ask a friendly neighbour what plants they have had success with.

If you’re not sure which plants are best for your type of soil, call into your local Dobbies store, where our planting experts will be happy to advise you. They’ll be familiar with the area and be able to tell you what will thrive in your soil.

Which way does your garden face?

Or to put it more technically, does it have a north, south, east or west aspect? Each has its different advantages and disadvantages. A north-facing plot is not going to offer hours of uninterrupted sunshine like a south-facing plot. On the other hand, you might have to design in some shading in a south-facing garden.

Over a period of a week, make a note where the sun is and when. If your sunny spot in the morning is at the far end of the garden, then this is the perfect place to site a patio for breakfast.

And when it comes to plants, some prefer certain aspects, and it’s worth choosing those that have the best chance of success. Again, our in-house experts will be able to advise you on these.

Have you considered the setting?

It’s worth considering what’s going on outside the boundary of your garden. What views or eyesores do you get from your plot? Are you going to want to welcome the views in or shut them out? If you’re lucky enough to see the sea from your garden, then work with this and create a coastal themed garden.

On the other hand, if your view is not to be admired, or you’re overlooked, make your garden secluded and private with plants.

Who will do the landscaping?

How’s your DIY? If you’re not confident, then employ an experienced landscaper to build your patios, decking or install water features. Poorly constructed features could cause accidents or might not cope with the weather.

Retaining walls can be tricky, so it’s a good idea to get a builder’s advice about these. 
If you’re building a patio, it’s vital to consider drainage and to avoid building too close to the house – this can affect your damp proof course.

Note that some features – tree houses, large greenhouse and summer houses – may need planning permission.

If you’re planning to lay a patio, you might find our how-to video useful – watch it here.

What’s your budget?

If you’re on a tight budget, be realistic and don’t get carried away with your dreams. The good news is that there are many garden features available with a sensible price tag, so you may be surprised at what you can afford – but set a budget at the start of the project. Note that all electrical work must be done by a qualified electrician, so factor this in.

It’s only once you have a clear idea of what the space is needed for, and answered each of these questions, that you can head out to measure the plot boundary and mark any permanent structures.

How to measure up your plot for a garden plan

  • You‘ll need a 30m tape measure, clip board, A4 paper, compass, pencil, rubber, ruler, and a scale ruler.
  • Remember, measuring a garden is about being logical rather than artistic.
  • Draw a rough sketch of the garden and house, on which you can put your measurements.
  • Start by choosing two fixed points that won’t move. In a small garden, it’s a good idea to choose each end of the back of your house.
  • Measure the width of the house, making note of the size of each window and door.
  • To plot features and boundaries, measure them from both fixed point A and then fixed point B.
  • Remember to include permanent fixtures such as drain covers and trees or plants you plan to keep.
  • Once you have all your measurements, re-draw the plan using a suitable scale.
  • Photocopy or scan your base plan several times, and then you can use this as a template for creating different designs.
  • When planning your plot on paper, pace and mark it out in the garden to get a real feel for the space. Use a can of spray paint to mark out the patio and put the garden furniture in place to see if you have been generous enough with space.

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Our 12 essential design tips

  • Measure and plot all the permanent features in the garden. Drains, telegraph poles, man hole covers, sheds, and large trees.
  • If you have no idea where to start with a design choose a shape to get you started. A circular lawn and a half moon patio might work a treat.
  • Very narrow flower beds seldom work you would be better designing one larger bed than three very small ones.
  • When planning your plot on paper, pace and mark it out in the garden to get a real feel for the space. Use a can of spray paint to mark out the patio and put the garden furniture in place to see if you have been generous enough with space.
  • Always include a storage area for the barbecue, tools and children’s play equipment, and every garden needs a place to sit.
  • Before settling on a design ask the whole family for their thoughts. Have you made room for that football goal?
  • Is your design suitable for year-round use of the garden?
  • Consider how the garden will look from every window of the house.
  • Never place a patio above the damp proof course of your house.
  • Remember that large garden buildings and tree houses need planning permission.
  • Check that your design will be easy to maintain. Can you get the mower from the shed to lawn with ease, and will the wheelbarrow fit down the garden path?
  • Sloping pots and water features need to be designed with care especially if you have children. Avoid sharp drops and seek advice from a builder if creating retaining walls.


Now it’s time to get started on your garden design – see our tips for small garden, contemporary garden, cottage garden and front garden designs for inspiration.