The Basics of Garden Design – Part 1
With all of us spending more time in our gardens this year than perhaps we have in the past it is possible that thoughts have turned to making some changes either to the garden as a whole or to just one or two areas which are lacking in some way and need some attention. For many of us just adding a few new plants or replacing some old ones is enough to give that part of the garden a new and refreshed look. However, there is a danger that with this sort of piecemeal approach the garden loses its sense of what is known in the design world as ‘harmony’. This is the idea of fitting all the parts together to form a connected whole. This can apply equally to the whole of the garden or to the whole of a bed or separate section of the garden. There are lots of fairly simple techniques used by garden designers which can help to achieve harmony and I will discuss some of these and other design ideas in the second part of this blog next month.
Before this can be achieved, however, it is necessary to do some thinking and planning before rushing into anything and the summer is a great time to do this with the longer days, better weather and more time spent in, and looking at, the garden. This leaves the harder work to be done in the autumn and winter ready for the finishing off work next spring at the beginning of the new growing season. Firstly it is important to consider what you want the garden or section of garden to provide for you. When I was working on garden designs for clients I would always start by asking them to produce three lists for me so that I could discover a bit more about their requirements. I called them the “Must Have”, “Might Like” and “Don’t Want” lists! The “Must Have” list could include for example a lawn, a view of distant hills, a patio in the sun, a second seating area in the afternoon shade, a shed, a greenhouse or an existing tree to remain. The “Might Like” list could include a water feature, a pergola or a sunny seating area in the evening. For some people the “Don’t Want” list might include a greenhouse, a vegetable bed, a play area or an old existing conifer. Many people have in their minds what they want from the garden but putting it down on paper really does focus the mind and helps enormously with the next stage. Why not have a good look at your own plot over a glass of something this evening and start some wish lists of your own?
Having established the basic requirements of the plan you can then start to consider the type of garden which you prefer. At a simple level gardens fall into one of two main types- Formal and Informal. Formal gardens are based on geometric shapes and symmetry. They are often enclosed by walls or hedges which can vary in height from a Box hedge of as little as a foot high to a Yew hedge of over 20 feet plus! They also tend to have straight paths, a limited range of plants and an emphasis on topiary and statuary. Informal gardens, on the other hand, have all the opposites of curved, flowing lines, asymmetry, informal hedges or none at all, winding paths and a much greater range of plants. The choice of Formal or Informal is obviously one of personal preference as they give the whole garden a different ’feel’ but often the style and architecture of the house can lead toward a choice. An old cottage lends itself more to the more relaxed Informal style whereas a house with more geometric patterns and symmetry such as a Victorian or Edwardian property is probably better suited to a Formal design especially in the front garden.
The next stage is to produce some form of site survey to determine the important physical features of the plot. Size, shape and slopes are obvious features which need to be taken into account. Aspect and micro-climate are also important in any garden, for example where is North? what is the prevailing wind direction? are there any frost pockets? where and when are the areas of sun and shade? The third crucial physical aspect of the garden concerns its soil. What is its depth? how fertile is it? does it drain well? what is its pH ie. acidity or alkalinity? The other physical features of the site are those which already exist in the form of structures and plants, particularly large shrubs and trees. Hopefully your “wish lists” will have identified those to be retained and others to be removed or hidden from view. Finally don’t forget that the house is the dominant feature of the site and one which cannot be fundamentally changed. Consider the views from windows and which need to be retained or improved, shade cast by the house onto the garden and access points to the garden from the house. Many of these questions can be answered by observations within the garden or by existing knowledge from experience of the site. Others might require the use of a compass or a soil testing kit and the size and shape of the plot will require some form of measurement or estimation. The simplest way of doing this is to sketch a plan of the garden boundaries from upstairs windows to give a rough idea of the shape of the plot and then to add some approximate measurements by the use of pacing or measuring with a tape or known length of rope. This will also allow for the rough placing of the house and other features within the plan. Once a base plan has been produced it can be covered with a sheet of tracing paper and you are ready for the next stage- the design, which I will cover in a second blog next month. If you are happy to work from an approximate plan in this fashion then you don’t need to read on and you can spend your time making a start!
The basic sketch plan is always a good start to any design project but if you want to produce a detailed plan drawn to scale on which to base your new design you will need to have a go at some basic surveying. This is not as complicated as it might seem, doesn’t require a great deal of equipment and might even be a fun project for all or some of the family! It is certainly easier to do with a second person for tape holding and even a third for noting down the measurements. If you haven’t got a long tape then you can manage with lengths of rope of known measurements or several DIY tape measures. However you do the measurements I would strongly advise the use of metric units as it makes it much easier to scale the measurements down to a suitable size for your sheet of paper, for example the simplest scale to use is 1 cm on the plan represents 1 metre on the ground. More on the subject of suitable scales later.
The basic method is to start with the sketch plan of your house and any other buildings within the boundaries of your plot on which you can note down all the measurements. Make the sheet quite large because by the end it is going to be covered in a lot of measurements and the easier they are to read the easier the next stage will be. You can reasonably assume that house and other building corners are right angles unless they obviously aren’t but don’t assume that any garden corners are right angles even if you think they are! Slopes are best ignored at this stage and can be added in to the final plan at the end of the process. Slope measurement is a much more complicated matter and as most gardens don’t slope a great deal it is best avoided.
Later in the process when you come to accurately drawing the boundaries and features of the plot it is necessary to also include a scale plan of the house since many of your measurements will have been taken from the house corners. To do this each side of the house needs to be measured and to produce a full plan of the house the positions of all ground floor windows and doors also need to be noted. This is best done by a series of running measurements from one corner to another as shown in Diagram A.
There are three basic methods used in measuring and drawing the plot itself- by extensions from the house walls, by triangulation and by plotting curves using a base line and offsets.
Measuring by extensions from the house walls.
This is the easiest method as long as the plot has four straight sides as shown in Diagram 1 below.
Having first completed the house survey, measurements can be made from the house corners to the boundaries making sure to keep the tape in line with the side of the house. This will give you a series of measurements from the house corners to points A to H. Once the house has been drawn to scale on the final plan points A to H can be plotted and lines through A-B, C-D, E-F and G-H can be drawn. Where these four lines intersect will give the corners of the plot.
Measuring by Triangulation
Unfortunately many plots do not have four straight sides such as the plot in Diagram 2.
For plots like this it is necessary to use the method of triangulation but don’t worry, it is not complicated geometry! Basically plot corners are positioned by measuring to them from two different known points ie. from two different house corners as shown on the diagram by the dashed lines. To plot these plot corners on the scale plan requires the use of a pair of compasses or a carefully held or pinned piece of string. To plot point A the two measurements G-A and H-A are drawn as arcs on the plan and where the two arcs cross is the plot corner A.
Plotting a Curved Boundary (or a curve within a plot).
As shown in Diagram 3 some plots have one or more curved boundaries.
The plot corners A and B should be plotted by the triangulation method so that they can be located on the final plan. Then on the ground a tape is laid out between points A and B to form a base line. Ideally this would be a second tape but it could be a rope with marked lengths along it, usually every 0.5 or 1 metre. From these marked lengths along the base line measurements (offsets) are made at right angles from the base line to the curved boundary. Once these points C-H are plotted on the final plan they will give a series of points which can be joined together with a curve to give the curved boundary. The more measurements made along the base line the more points there will be and the more accurate the finished curve.
Plotting the outline and position of features within the site.
This is done by a combination of the triangulation and curve plotting methods as shown in diagram 4. These can be used to plot the position and outline of any feature within the site, including garden buildings.
Adding Slope details
Once the house and all the existing features of the plot have been drawn to scale on the final plan slopes can be shown by using lines running up and down the slope with notes about the direction and degree of gradient as shown on Diagram 5.
Drawing the Plot to Scale.
By this stage your sketch plan will be full of measurements which hopefully you can still make some sense of! Don’t worry if you can’t read some measurements or you have missed others out as it is easy enough to go back to the ground to check them or take them for the first time- this is very common.
The next stage is to choose a scale and this will depend on the actual size of the plot and the size of the paper on which it is to be drawn. Plans for smaller gardens or sections of gardens can be drawn on A4 paper but I always preferred to use A3 just to make the plan larger and easier to see and work on. There are three scales which I suggest you choose from and I think you will see straightaway why I recommended you to measure in metric rather than feet and inches!
The easiest scale to use ie. to convert the actual measurements to the plan measurements is 1:100.
This means that 1 cm on the plan represents 100 cms ie. 1 metre on the ground
So a measurement say of 3.6m on the ground simply becomes 3.6 cms on the plan.
A second possible scale is 1:50 which means that:-
1cm on the plan represents 50 cms ie 0.5 metre on the ground.
So the measurement of 3.6m on the ground becomes 7.2 cms on the plan.
This obviously gives a more detailed, enlarged plan but will require a larger piece of paper. It is most suitable for small gardens or just sections of a garden.
The third possible scale is 1:200. This means that:-
1cm on the plan represents 200 cms ie. 2 metres on the ground.
So our measurement of 3.6 m on the ground becomes 1.8 cms on the plan.
This scale gives a less detailed plan but requires less paper and is more suitable for large gardens.
To decide which scale to use look at the largest measurements of the plot ie. from one boundary or corner to the opposite boundary or corner and see what scale is necessary to fit these large measurements onto the paper size you would like to use. Try to make these measurement just fit onto the paper so that you can produce as large a plan as possible on that size of paper. For example, A4 paper is about 30×20 cms so on a scale of 1:100 you can fit on a plot of up to 30m x 20m. If your plot is larger than this you would have to use the 1:200 scale or a larger piece of paper! If at this stage I have lost you and you are muttering that you gave up Maths years ago with good reason then I apologise for wasting your time and suggest that you can always go back to the sketch plan method from the upstairs windows!
Once you have drawn your house and boundaries on the scale plan it is easy enough to add all the existing features within the garden. This represents what you have at the moment and this is the time to look back at your three “wish lists” in order to start playing around with ideas. Try these out on tracing paper overlays rather than spoiling your beautiful plan which you have spent so long producing. At this point you may need no more help and you are happy to proceed and start to put your new plan into action. If, however, you would like some tips on garden design to get you started on the next stage then look out for the second part of this blog which will come out during August. Until then you have a month in which to produce your base plan. If all this sounds a bit like homework it won’t surprise you to know that in a former life I was a Geography teacher for 30 years and setting student projects was always a great delight- marking them less so!
You will be pleased to hear that the next blog will require much less effort on your part and that will be “The Garden in August”, out at the beginning of the month.
Until then, keep well and good gardening. Keith.