Garden ideas: ‘Seven main principles’ to plan ‘perfect’ gardens

When considering the planting for your garden first think about what it is you want to achieve, what colours you would like to use, what shapes and how much time you want to spend in the garden, both actively gardening and passively enjoying the garden. All these considerations can be done from the warmth of your sofa but thinking them through will help you make a garden plan. It’s extremely important to think about the location, the aspect, i.e. does it face north, south etc, is it in full sun all day, deep shade or a mixture of both? This will result in the “right plant, right place”.

I recommend that you sit in the garden and watch how the sun moves across it, taking note of where it’s in full sun and where there is either deep shade or partial shade. I would also suggest that you pop along to the garden centre and buy a soil test kit.

This is very simple to use and will tell you whether you have acidic, neutral or alkaline soils. It’s essential to undertake several soil tests around your garden as you’ll probably find variances from one area to another. This will help determine what plants to grow.

With all this information draw out on a piece of paper the shape of your garden/outdoor space with a black marker pen. Take measurements and transpose these onto your drawing. Then using another sheet lay it on top, sketch out the boundary and start playing with shapes and create your borders. The size of your border(s) will dictate how many plants you’ll need.

The colour wheel is a great place to start, where colours next to or nearby a single colour will blend effortlessly, while colours on opposite sides of the wheel will be in complete contrast to each other or will clash terribly. Colour is personal, it can bring back memories of loved ones, places visited or simply change your mood. Bright colours like red, orange and yellow will enliven you while pastels such as pinks, blues and whites will soothe you.

If you want to make a garden look longer use brighter colours nearer the house and cooler shades further away. This will give the illusion of additional depth. Think about a landscape that you’ve seen – the colours close to you will be clear and possibly vibrant, but in the distance the colours start to merge into each other and are paler in comparison.

Whenever I design a new garden, I always look at the neighbouring countryside, the urban environment or the larger setting as design clues can be seen quite easily, i.e. what plants are growing nearby, what materials are used for paving, etc.

Each time you do this you are building up a picture or a visual mood board for your garden. Once you’ve taken all the above on board it’s time to start thinking about the plants themselves.

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When I put a planting scheme together I think of these seven main principles. By following these seven principles you can start combining plants.

Seven principles of planning your garden

  1. Colour of plant – flower, leaf, stem
  2. Shape of plant – flower, leaf and overall shape
  3. Size of plant – flower, leaf and overall size
  4. Habit of plant – clump forming, groundcover, columnar, bushy
  5. Texture of the plant – flower, leaf, stem
  6. Season(s) of interest
  7. Scent – you need to be careful not to overdo it on scent and overwhelm your senses

This can be done quite easily by copying and pasting copyright-free images of plants into a document and seeing what works well together. It’s great to have different shapes and textures flowing through the border and don’t be afraid to use taller plants close to the front.

Plants such as Verbena bonariensis, Anethum graveolens, Ridolfia segetum, Rudbeckia triloba ‘Prairie Glow’, Isatis tinctorial are great tall plants to have near the front as they’ve a fairly open habit, so you look through them to the rest of the planting. The same can be said for ornamental grasses, such as Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ and Calamagrostis brachytricha.

Look closely at the colour of plants and mix accordingly, for example the purple / red branches of Stachyurus praecox, pick up the purple in Cardamine pratensis or Erysimum ‘Plant World Lemon’. Also, the deep shades of Loropetalum chinense var rubrum ‘Fire Dance’ work brilliantly with Anemone coronaria ‘Bordeaux’ and Fritillaria persica.

For texture, ferns are a great choice of plant coming in varied shapes, sizes and ‘frondiness’ (a made-up word I know, but it seems to reflect the different shaped fronds). Plant some next to the ‘woolly’ leaves of Stachys byzantina ‘Big Ears’, or the soft leaves of Senecio candicans ‘Angel Wings’ and the filigree leaves of Selinum wallichianum and you’ll want to go out and rub your palms across the different textures and feel them between your fingers.

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Every plant has an optimum height and spread, so consider this when planting. If the label on the plant reads ‘40cm spread’, space them 30-35cm apart. This way they’ll merge into each other beautifully creating a larger-looking plant.

It also means that weeds will be kept down to a minimum as there will be no room for them and the merging plants will block out any light to the likes of common daisy, dandelion and white clover. Yet, sometimes it’s good to leave space for some weeds as they are great for pollinators.

When it comes to the height of a plant you can of course cut back some perennials the third week of May, around the time of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, known as the ‘Chelsea chop’ to prolong flowering. Good examples are phlox, aster, achillea and echinacea. The flowers will not be as high as those left uncut, but the variance in height gives a much more natural feel to the garden. Shrubs can be pruned to size, but if it’s a flowering shrub ensure you don’t cut off the flowering branches by mistake.

For me a border and a garden need to evoke an emotion. Whenever I consider planting, I think in layers, both horizontally and vertically.

Horizontal layers are easier to picture in our minds, i.e. bulbs as the first layer, groundcover next, perennials and low shrubby perennials as the third layer, with shrubs and trees following as the next two layers. When it comes to thinking of vertical layers, it’s all about how the border will be viewed from any direction.

Most borders have a back and a front, but if you’ve a border in the middle of the garden or a large pot and you can make your way all around it then you need to think about vertical planes.

A lot of the time, people will place shrubs and trees in the centre, with a cascading effect to the lower plants at the front, but this can block views through a border, making it feel static and heavy.

Play around with plants and think how the border will look from a seated position, from a standing position, when lying down, and if viewed from an upstairs window – an aerial viewpoint. A shrub might look in the right place from ground level, but when you view it from above you might want to move it closer or further away.

This might all sound rather complicated, but the wonderful thing about gardening is that it’s ever-changing. If a plant doesn’t look right in a particular position, then dig it up, move it to another position and plant something else in its place. Also, all the above advice can be translated to a pot, window box, allotment or community space. Just because a pot may be smaller than a border doesn’t mean you cannot show off your creative flair.

Wildflowers can be used in a pot to represent a wild meadow, ornamental grasses mixed with annuals such as cosmos, ammi and scabious can give a naturalistic look, while a formal pot can be put together using a flowering shrub and bedding plants.

It doesn’t matter what size border or pot you have. Think about the layers, texture, colour and overall feel and have fun.