The Basics of Garden Design Principles

Designing your garden doesn't have to be time intensive. Learn a few basic skills for creating the outdoor space of your dreams.
Winding Riverlike Walkway Lined with Slate

Winding Riverlike Walkway Lined with Slate

Winding walkway lined with slate to resemble a rippling river

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Winding walkway lined with slate to resemble a rippling river

Decide on a look for your garden — sleek contemporary, relaxed informal or strongly structured traditional — and base your layout on this. Consider different ways of navigating the garden, where to place various features, and in what direction main sight lines will run.

Shapes and Spaces

Designs work best if there is a good balance between flat, open spaces, such as lawns, decking and patios, and upright elements, such as trees, borders and buildings. The vertical features provide contrast with the horizontal and help to divide up the plot. Overlap bold geometric shapes for a simple but unusual design. Mark out the key zones on a rough plan, designating approximate areas of use, such as seating or planting. Decide whether you’ve given sufficient space to different areas, and try different ideas. If the lawn or terrace is too big relative to the borders, the garden could feel stark and uncomfortably open. On the other hand, lack of open space could feel claustrophobic.

Routes and Navigation

Deciding the garden’s access points and figuring out how to move around it results in a pattern of pathways that will influence the overall design. A straight path forming the primary route down the center creates a formal look. Strengthen the axis further by placing a focal point at the far end. A route that meanders creates a more relaxed ambiance, with the promise of partly hidden spaces to explore. A circular route can provide access to all parts of the garden, linking to different areas, such as a dining terrace or utility area. 

Focal Points 

In a small plot, use one strong focal feature, such as this large slate vase, to draw the eye; for a traditional feel, place it at the end of a straight walkway. Positioned in a corner, it can pull focus along a diagonal axis to make a short plot feel longer. Choose features in interesting shapes, textures and colors to contrast with their surroundings. 

Experiment With Plans 

Place a grid over your plan — by keeping the lines adjacent to the paper's edges you will find it easier to plot the straight-lined grid formation of the first design. Alternatively, rotate this grid by 45 degrees to plot your features on the diagonal, as in the second design. Link features together by plotting them on a curved, swooping line. 

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