Gardening: Keep designs for new gardens in proportion

A garden border.
A garden border.
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If you’ve had time over the festive season to leaf through those gardening book gifts, or to visit a public garden and walk off those Christmas excesses, you’ll hopefully be awash with ideas on designs to replicate in your own garden in 2014.

If you are redesigning an established garden, you can retain mature features, moving large shrubs and border plants to create an immediate effect. The proportion of plants and features to open space in the garden is all-important and the general rule is one-third planting to two-thirds space. You need that space to properly be able to see your garden and all its features.

Yet the garden can consist of many elements. Even a small garden could incorporate a mixture of different aspects, from lawn and paving to gravel, water and pebbles. If you have a tiny garden, think about incorporating vertical planting, using climbers to bring colour and texture upwards, or make your garden seem larger with the use of mirrors.

Vertical dimension will prevent an otherwise flat area from looking boring. In a large garden, for example, tall trees will take the eye upwards, while in a medium-sized garden pergolas, arches and arbours are useful devices.

Consider using a few bold focal points to draw the eye across the garden at an angle, which can help to overcome the shortcomings of a tiny space. Drawing the eye to focal points elsewhere can also detract attention from an unattractive object or area, rather than attempting to screen it.

If your garden is big enough to incorporate beds and borders, make sure they aren’t too narrow. Too many plants end up cramped between fences and lawn in boring, straight borders which do nothing for the plants or the view. Think about introducing interesting curves to your borders to give them a more fluid feel.

The minimum width for a border should be around 1m (40in) and even with that, you’ll be limited to dwarf shrubs and fairly small perennials. If your design includes three layers of planting in a bed, you’ll need an area of at least 3m squared.

You may think that planting the tallest plants at the back of the border and graduating until you have the smallest plants at the front is the best way to go, but there are certain plants you can use to break with tradition. Height in the foreground, as long as it doesn’t block the line of vision, increases perspective and can make the garden seem longer. For this you can use wispy grasses such as Stipa gigantea, or perennials that produce light flower spikes such as Digitalis lutea, or see-through specimens such as Verbena bonariensis, which don’t block the view of what’s behind them.

Long, narrow gardens can often be improved by dividing the area into smaller sections, using hedges, low walls, raised beds or shrub borders that extend into the garden and prevent the eye being taken in a straight line to the end. Each area might incorporate a different theme, such as scent, water, herbs or flowers.

Before any project can start, consider the type of gardener you are. Do you want a low-maintenance plot, or one you can endlessly potter in? How much time will you realistically be able to spend each week maintaining that space?

Draw up a plan either on a computer or with pencil and (preferably graph or squared) paper, to make an outline of the existing garden and its dimensions. Include existing features you want to keep and potential obstacles such as manhole covers which you’ll need to work around. Mark the direction of the sun, where it falls at particular times of the day and any permanent shadow. Then put tracing paper over the original plan and sketch ideas of your own, experimenting with layout and plantings, bearing in mind what the vista will look like from the house, both downstairs and upstairs.

And don’t make it too complicated. Remember clean lines and simple shapes will always work best – in design, less is often more.

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