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Where to start when designing your garden

Garden design basics

Leading garden designer Jack Wallington shares back-to-basics tips on how to design a garden

Where to start

My key bit of advice is to create a plan first, rather than impulse-buying plants from nurseries and randomly planting things. This sounds like no fun – no one likes planning over getting stuck in – but doing a bit of research first will limit the heartache of watching plants fail because they’re in the wrong spot, and will also save you the time and money of having to undo things that haven’t worked.


Planning starts with two things: assessing the garden’s conditions and understanding its size and shape. Grab a bit of paper (ideally gridded maths paper), a pencil and rubber (because mistakes will be made!) and a tape measure. Measure all the different elements of your garden – not just the length and width, but any hard landscaping such as a patio, plus the shed and any walls, paths, beds and trees and plants you plan to keep. Then sketch the dimensions on the paper using a suitable ratio, such as 2cm = 1m. 


Then observe your garden through the day, week or even year to see where the sun does and doesn’t fall. Bear in mind the sun will be much lower in winter, casting more shade, particularly in urban gardens. Mark this on your plan so that you can start choosing the right plants for full sun, full shade and everything in between. Having a plan that’s to scale will also help you to choose plants with the right height and spread for the location – you may buy them in a tiny pot, but it’s their final size that’s important. 


It takes at least a year to truly get to know your garden, even a small one. It doesn’t mean you can’t plant anything before then, but you will make better judgments after that time, leading to more success. People want instant gardens, but consider the long view and the joy of watching things grow, and opt for younger plants that will mature in time.

How to work with wildness 

Many weeds have more to offer than we think – we just become frustrated with them when they take over. Before blitzing the lot, take a closer look and see if there are any that you quite like; often we’ve been brainwashed into disliking all weeds when actually, if we listen to our own minds, we do like some. Let one or two favourites grow as part of your design. For example, scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), pictured, offers colourful orange ground cover and looks fantastic among grasses.


Top plant combo

I love our native foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea), especially the white ones alongside ferns, Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla), pictured, and white deadnettle (Lamium album). In a shady spot this combination has such a free and magical spirit.

Landscape designer and author of Wild About Weeds |


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This article was adapted from issue 7

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