Written by Peter Shaw

So you’re about to launch into the pleasurable business of designing your garden.  Putting together a garden design checklist, you’ve probably got a scrap-book full of ideas – bits and pieces gathered over time that might (or might not) become a reality. What follows is just as important to add into the design process for the simple reason that it keeps things real. It’s easy to be distracted by something in a glossy magazine or spotted online. The trick to making a great garden – one that works and feels right – is to incorporate the glossy ideas over a solid foundation of honest practicality.  

Here is a garden design checklist…

Garden design checklist

  1. How much money do you want to spend? It’s worth facing the Big Question up front because everything hangs off the answer. As a rule of thumb, between seven and ten percent of the property value is a reasonable amount to spend on a whole garden construction: this amount needs to cover both the hard landscaping (paths, desks, pergolas etc) and the soft (the plants).If you’re calling in some professional help with the design, have a figure in mind to introduce early on in the discussion so that they come up with a design that fits your budget rather than produce something that’s beautiful but is more than you’re prepared to spend. Worse still, they may come up with something that is lacking when you were prepared to put more towards the outcome.
  2. How to work best with what I already have? Or in other words, what are the current strengths of my existing outdoor space? Are there some established trees already screening the neighbour’s ugly garage roof. Is there an existing slope to the block that might help create zones and interest? Is there the potential of a borrowed view – of distant hills or trees – from a space that might be converted from an underused back corner of the garden to a gathering place furnished with a bench. These are all assets to work with – gifts to the garden designer and you as the person who will live and breathe the space. And it’s probably worth making the point here that it can be tricky to introduce something that’s alien to the existing space, like a recreation of the Far North Queenland tropics you’ve just experienced while on holiday. If this type of tropical look is what you want, technically it can be done (with professional help with plant selections). But our approach has always been to work what each site offers naturally rather than impose external themes that don’t fit it necessarily.
  3. Accept what you can’t change. This is about working with what you’ve got: accepting the way things are on your site and making them work better for you. For example, you can’t change the way your house faces and unless you carry out some significant architectural renovations to the layout of your home. Your front door faces where the front door faces so your landscape design will need to work with that. Orientation is the same: you can’t make the north south, and the south north. So if your back yard faces south you may need to come up with a clever solution to avoid making the major gathering place – the patio or deck where the outdoor dining takes place – on the shady south side. It doesn’t matter how nice your landscaping is, people will avoid the prevailing winds and chill, and you may even find them dragging the deck chairs out and around to the sunnier side of the house. If you’re realistic about what you’ve got, there’s more chance you’ll be able to work a solution.
  4. Work out what you’d like your garden to look and feel like. This is sometimes harder to do than it sounds. I find the best way to sort this out is to keep your eyes open and be very aware of other gardens or outdoor spaces. What do you notice and what do you like (or not like) about what you see. How do some spaces make you feel and why do you think that is? This sort of garden stock-taking will begin to show up a few themes: formal layouts with symmetry and organised plantings to informal, asymmetrical designs with loose free form plantings – and everything in between. Make a list or collect pictures of what feels right for you and use it during the design process.
  5. Who will be out in the garden? Who will be using it? Are there young children, older children, pets, extended family and friends at regular gatherings? When you understand how your garden will need to work for you, it’s possible to rough in some detail. For example, if large gatherings are a rarity, the garden terrace needs to be large enough to cope when everyone is there, but it does not need to be dominated permanently with a massive table setting. Instead two smaller tables can be used (one on the terrace and the other elsewhere in the garden, brought together for big lunches) and the surplus folding deck chairs stored until needed. This also about activities in the garden and how these might adapt over the years. A garden with little children may have a play area which can easily be converted into more traditional landscaping when they quickly outgrow it: a sand pit that becomes a teenagers fire-pit gathering point.
  6. How will the garden be maintained? Again, be honest. How much time do you actually have free to look after the garden. And how much gardening do you relish doing or would you rather someone else did it? Whatever the shake-down ends up being, it’s good to know at the design stage, as careful planning can build a garden to suit. For example, a small organised but loosely planted garden may take only three hours a week to look after while a large formal garden that’s quite clipped may need a day a week to keep in shape and maintain the investment.
  7. What about the bits and pieces? The gates, fences, screening, paving options, favourite plants…? All of these things – the parts of the garden that add to the whole – should also be collected and stored in that reference scrapbook (virtual or actual). Be prepared that what ends up as part of your finished garden will often have a lot more to do with the bigger decisions you’ve made along the way (see points 1 through 6). For example, you may have fallen for a solid concrete five-metre long table, spotted in a magazine, but its length, immobility and the fact that it would be needed only on Christmas Day may mean it doesn’t end up in your back yard.

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