||The value of good garden design
To look its best, a garden will usually need to be designed. It’s perfectly acceptable, of course, for a garden to evolve, but the end result will probably be a hotchpotch of styles, with little in the way of cohesion. This is even more true of gardens that have natural restrictions, such as being near the coast.
A garden situated close to the sea is almost certainly one of the most demanding in terms of design because shelter, wind protection, exposure to salt and, of course, the planting options all need special consideration.
Before you start designing your garden, you need to look at the things you cannot alter. For example, if you have a garden on a slope, you will need steps or sloping paths; once these are in place, the rest of the garden can be designed around them. Similarly, a garden predominately in the sun will need to have some shade introduced (for the owner to enjoy some respite during the hotter months). Conversely, a heavily shaded garden will need to have a lawn, patio or deck put down in a spot where the sun does fall, and there will be certain plants to choose or avoid.
Formality v. informality
In the context of garden design, ‘formal’ means the integration within the garden space of borders with straight edges, ponds in regular geometric shapes (circles, squares, rectangles and so on) and, of course, the use of clipped evergreens such as box (Buxus spp) and yew (Taxus spp). Flower beds in summer are quite likely to have straight rows of plants (in the style so beloved of parks the world over), and the mixed herbaceous borders will be traditional, with taller plants at the back, shorter at the front, blocks of colour and a straight edge.
People often assume that formal gardens are very labour-intensive; this is likely to be true if you have lots of sizeable evergreen hedges that need to be trimmed at least twice a year to keep them looking neat; otherwise a formal garden need not be any more time-consuming to look after
than an informal space.
A lawn will generally have straight, well-kept edges, and the garden owner is likely to take pride in its appearance; a cylinder mower may well be used to cut it, resulting in that familiar stripe effect caused by the different directions in which the mower’s roller has travelled. Informal gardens tend to have bed and lawn edges which are curved rather than straight. Paths may be winding and look quite natural.
Plants will be grouped by shape and height, rather than in straight rows. And there are usually many more colours, with pastels mixed with stronger primary shades. Plants are often used to break up the hard lines of path and bed edges too.
Part of an informal garden may also be a wild, or ‘natural’, garden, a style of gardening that is currently very popular. The idea is to establish a community of plants that will coexist happily, look natural, encourage insects, birds and wildlife, and quite possibly consist of native species.
Size and shape
The size and shape of a garden, over which the gardener generally has no control, will dictate what you put in it and how you create your ideal space.
With regard to size, these days gardens are generally much smaller. As town and cities spread, land becomes more valuable, and developers are constantly striving to put more dwellings on given patches of land, which means that gardens – if they are provided at all – are diminishing.
But what is a ‘small’ garden? It’s not easy to say ,but it is quite likely that perception of size is directly related to the experience of the gardener. For example, beginners may find that a plot measuring some 20 by 30ft (6 by 9m) is quite large enough for them to cope with. More experienced gardeners, on the other hand, may not be satisfied unless they have something 10 times the size.
One of the secrets of success in designing a small garden is to make the best possible use of the space. The garden’s different elements do not want to look crammed in and crowded, and the old adage of ‘less is more’ is usually true. Large gardens usually have the luxury of sizeable lawns, some big specimen trees and plants, water features and patios, and as a result are often easier to design.
Having a small garden invariably means that neighbouring gardens – and houses – are close by, which means that access points, pathways and boundaries take on a greater significance than in a large garden where a large tree or two, or a shrub border, can act as a screen.
The shape of the garden is also something over which the gardener usually has no control. A garden may be long and narrow, or short and wide. It may have two sides and a front and back, or it may have many ‘ins’ and ‘outs’, giving the opportunity for lots of interesting nooks and crannies. Or it may be a triangular shape, usually when it is at the end of a road where sides of the garden join others at obtuse angles. Or the garden may be mostly at the side of the property, with little in front of or behind it.
The ‘aspect’ is simply the direction in which your garden faces. One of the first questions a keen gardener should ask when looking for a new house to buy or rent is: ‘Which way does the garden face?’
Ideally you should go for a garden that faces the sun. In fact, even if you are not a gardener, but you do enjoy sitting out and relaxing in the sun, you will want a garden that faces towards it.
The direction towards the sun will vary according to where you live in the world: in the northern hemisphere the garden should face southwards, and in the southern hemisphere it should face northwards. If your plot faces east or west, wherever you are on the planet, you will have early morning or late afternoon sun respectively.
Having a sunny garden means that, particularly in the summer months, the major part of the garden will bask in the glory of full sun. During the longest days, when the sun is at its highest in the sky, your garden could – if you are not careful – become a desert. If you plant the wrong types of plant in a sunny position, or if you fail to give the plants the correct amount of moisture to allow them to thrive, at worst you could be consigning them to an early death and at best they will become very poor specimens. And, of course, it would mean that your garden will be baked and barren.
This is a common occurrence near the coast, for many properties are used only sporadically throughout the year, meaning that there is not always someone around to irrigate, prune or otherwise tend the plants when they most need it.
Although topography is the posh word for the study of the Earth’s surface, including vegetative and human-made features, in terms of garden design, topography specifically involves the way the ground falls. Does the garden undulate – that is, have bumps and hollows – or is there a definite slope and, if so, how steep? A very large garden can, of course, include all of these things, which makes the design more challenging, but hugely rewarding.
Few gardens are exactly level, even if they appear to be so. The smallest changes of level can be used to advantage with the installation of a few wide steps and/or one or two low retaining walls. These could make a flattish site look much more interesting. You may also decide to create a steeper gradient to make a feature; this will inevitably mean moving a large amount of soil and either strenuous effort or added expense if you bring in the labour.
A steeply sloping garden, either natural or man-made, can suffer from several problems, including poor access, lack of useable level areas, soil erosion and either permanently damp spots at the bottom of the slope or permanently dry spots at the top (or both). Again, steps can be used to reduce or eliminate the problems of a steep garden. If for reasons of cost or practicality steps are not possible, you could consider a careful selection of planting, with perhaps heavy mulching between the plants, to make the garden attractive and low-maintenance.
A gently sloping garden is much easier to cope with; winding paths or ramps can be used to allow access for people with limited mobility or where garden machinery and wheelbarrows need to traverse. They offer much in terms of design potential as well, with raised patios and terraces, and opportunities for water gardens where you may be able to look down on them, and so on.
The word ‘terrace’ is used to describe a flat area in an otherwise sloping garden. Such areas may be linked by steps or ramps, and can be created by the construction of retaining walls. Of course, as the slope increases, the height of any necessary retaining wall increases accordingly, and you may need expert help to construct it.
Rock gardens and water gardens
A garden with a slope provides good opportunities for features such as a rock garden or a water garden, or a combination of the two. In the case
of the former, you should use locally occurring stone for the rocks, and they should be set so as to look as natural as possible. The best-looking rock gardens are designed as an integral part of the complete garden, rather than being a random feature, sited on their own in the middle of a lawn or paved area, as is often seen. A rock garden can be built in association with water features – ponds, waterfalls, cascades and streams – and an existing slope is ideal for this.
A scree garden is one step away from a beach-like feature and is arguably entirely at home in a coastal garden. Screes are found naturally on the lower slopes of mountainous and alpine regions, where small fragments of rock fall from the upper slopes. They accumulate and over time create a special set of growing conditions where tight, bushy plants, often with a cushion-like appearance, are most at home. Scree gardens look particularly effective
at the lower edge of a larger rock garden.
Desirability of views
Without doubt the best coastal gardens, whether large or small, are those that afford a beautiful view. The view maybe out to sea or across a bay, or it could be facing inland, with a scene of rolling fields and far-off hills laid out before you.
Properties with wonderful views always command premium prices, but it is surprising how often you see garden owners failing to capitalize on these views. Views can easily be obscured by overgrowing trees and vegetation, or perhaps you have to scramble to a remote or difficult part of the garden in order to take in the view.
In the case of the former, cut back overhanging branches or lop the tops of trees as necessary. However, this should be done carefully. Some trees have orders placed on them that makes it illegal to remove or substantially alter them without prior approval by the local authority.
A view that can be seen only from a remote or difficult-to-access part of the garden will require a little more planning. Perhaps the access could be improved: this may require the widening – or creating – of paths, and it may also necessitate the repositioning of beds and borders, or even moving around existing plants.
Regardless of any of this, it should be the aim of the garden owner always to install a seating or patio area at the place where the view is best.
It is rare to find a property with a front and rear garden where both seamlessly merge so that they form a continuous ‘flow’ – with the house situated somewhere in the middle. In most cases a front garden will appear quite different from the rear, and is used for different purposes. It may, for example, be kept tidy, as people will see it as they walk by, but because it is on view it can also mean that the gardener does not consider it to be a ‘private’ area, unlike the rear garden which is generally hidden from the public gaze.
A front garden will also need to allow for good access and possibly the movement of vehicles.
In both cases a successful layout comes down to making sure there is space for:
• People to assemble by the front door
• People to get in and out of a car
• Parking and possibly turning for cars.
A garden can then be created, hopefully, in the space that is left after these considerations have been made.
In the front garden, walkways should be simple, straightforward affairs, designed purely to take people from the boundary entrance to the house in the most expedient way. A straight line, therefore, is usually chosen. In some cases the driveway for the car may also suffice as the walkway, but in these cases you should make sure that the driveway has sufficient width to accommodate both a car and people walking alongside it.
In the back garden paths and walkways offer a very different proposition. Here they can wind and meander their way down or across the plot. They should always be:
Wide enough to allow access for things such as wheelbarrows and lawn mowers
Kept clear of dangerously spiky or thorny plants
Have a sound and even base to avoid accidents.
If your garden is close enough to the sea to afford
a good view, then a pathway leading to a viewpoint, with a strategically placed bench seat, can become a favourite place.
An important factor in the design of any garden, coastal or otherwise, is being able to identify those spots where the microclimate is suitable – or unsuitable – for particular needs. You can then plan how and where you put your garden structures such as patios, shelters and archways that make the most of these areas.
Patios and decking
A patio is traditionally located near the back door of the house. But if the back of the house faces away from the sun, the chances are the patio is best situated farther down the garden, where the sun’s rays will fall to the ground without being shaded by the house itself. Clearly, this is where the owner of a large garden has an advantage over those with smaller spaces.
If you do need to site a patio some distance from the house, you will need to pave an area leading from one to the other, and this will mean that more landscaping materials will be required and the overall cost will rise. Such patios also frequently benefit from a planted backdrop, so that people can relax and feel at least partly secluded. Patios built out in the open, with no surrounding plants or structures, rarely feel comfortable.
Wooden decking seems appropriate to a coastal garden – it’s probably something to do with wooden beach walkways, wooden jetties and piers, and boat decking. Wood is certainly a durable, attractive and appropriate material in a coastal garden setting, but you should watch out for rotting in salty and exposed situations. Mildew and other deposits which may collect on the deck are best cleaned by scrubbing or low-pressure spraying. Using chemical cleaners is not recommended, as these may harm the wood; like salt, they could raise the grain or alter the colour of the deck – or both.
There are several features in gardens that might be regarded as ‘fixtures and fittings’, that is, things that can’t easily be moved. It is important to choose the right place for them at the outset, to avoid any mess and upheaval in resiting them.
Mostly these are the features that need to be in the sun, such as sitting areas, greenhouses, conservatories, fruit and vegetable plots, most flower beds and borders, rockeries and swimming pools. Ponds and water features do not need as much direct sunlight (although some is desirable), but neither these nor swimming pools want to be near to trees, as the falling leaves can wreak havoc in the water.
If a barbecue area is to be installed, some evening sunshine is desirable; if a greenhouse is to be erected, choose a place that gets good light in the early part of the year so that seedlings can soak up the sun’s rays unhindered.
Shaded areas, such as those caused by walls or fences, are not ideal for growing vegetables, although there are some types that don’t mind a little shade during the day. A very shaded garden will still produce reasonable crops of Jerusalem artichokes, corn salad, rocket, spinach, watercress and even rhubarb.
Areas of least sunlight can be used for siting sheds, compost heaps, general storage areas and the driveway for the car.
Desirability of height
With small gardens very often the only way to go is up! An archway, which can accommodate a climbing plant or two may be desirable therefore, but it may be too small to be effective. Better still, a timber pergola – which is essentially a series of two or more attached arches – could be built if
there is available space.
Pergolas are most often found on a patio and/or close to the house. This is so that you can sit under them, and perhaps be sheltered from the heat of the summer sun. But a freestanding pergola can be placed anywhere in the garden. If it is away from the patio, there needs to be a ‘reason’ for it in design terms, and this reason could be, for example, to walk through it to see a little statue situated at the far end, or it could be a walkway through to a vegetable- or fruit-growing area.
On a patio a pergola could be set next to small raised beds where coastal plants can be grown. Alternatively, if your pergola is over a garden path, you can grow plants in narrow borders on each side of the path.
‘Arbour’ is the name for a sitting area and is so called because it was originally surrounded by trees. Today it usually means a sitting area with a canopy of wood above you, often designed simply to act as a shade from the sun.
Regardless of where and why you erect an arch, pergola or arbour, all are entirely appropriate in a coastal garden, provided the plants growing on them are tolerant of salty winds.
Windy gardens, as we have already seen, can be made more comfortable, for plants and humans alike, through the filtering effects of trees and windbreaks. These also add height, of course, and there are two rules to which any garden designer should adhere: namely balance and proportion. Both will have to be applied to trees and windbreaks so that they end up looking appropriate. For example, take a grouping of three new trees. If they are to be viewed from one side only, it would be sensible to start off with them at different heights, with the tallest one farthest from view.
Finally, in terms of garden design, we must come back to the most important element that affects how we garden in a coastal situation – exposure to wind. In Chapter 2 we looked at the main ways in which wind speed can be reduced. We know therefore how windbreaks, walls, fences and hedges help in this regard.
In design terms, however, there is also the material element. If, for example, you want to put up a wall to provide shelter for yourself and/or your plants, should it be made from expensive brick, less expensive rendered block walling, decorative open-cast screen-block walling, or rustic mortared stone and dry-stone walling? Each type will produce the same benefits, but will look completely different and determine the design of the garden in the immediate vicinity. Similarly, the choice of fencing or natural screen can influence the style of garden around it.