Garden design ideas: How to design your garden like a pro

How to design your garden like a pro

Spending time in our gardens and outdoor spaces is one of the few pleasures we can indulge in at the moment. And this indulgence comes with a host of benefits. Not only are you burning calories, which is good for general health and those looking for ways to incorporate more exercise into their lifestyles, but you will also be able to better manage the effects of stress. I spoke to Colum Sheanon, Landscape Architect and partner at Murphy + Sheanon about how to tackle a garden project and his garden design ideas on how to create the perfect outdoor space at home.

Make a list of needs and wants.

Do you have small children that need a space to play or kick a ball? Do you want a space to dine and entertain outdoors? Do you plan on cooking outside? It’s a good idea to compile a list of priorities to help you come up with a few garden design ideas and then to roughly sketch out how you would like to use your outdoor space. This is a great way to play around with ideas without any significant time or financial commitment. It will help you to quickly identify what works and rule out what doesn’t.

Plan for change

You might have specific needs when children are small but will want something different when they are older and no longer need a space to play. How can you plan a garden that will easily adapt over time without incurring a huge expense?  The trick with creating a scheme that can quickly evolve is to focus on garden design ideas that allow you to ‘Keep it simple’ says Colum. ‘You can achieve a simple multi-functional and elegant garden by doing as little as installing a central rectangular space that can be adjusted an adapted over time, planting the borders with trees, low shrubs and herbaceous perennials.’

Having a central space like this means you can treat it in many ways. It can be grass, paved or covered in a play-friendly surface, or indeed depending on the size, can be a mix of several surfaces. These surfaces can easily be changed as your needs change over time without touching the surrounding planting scheme, allowing it to mature nicely.

Design your garden like a pro

Be realistic about how hands-on you want to be.

‘There is no such thing as a no-maintenance garden’ says Sheanon. There are, however many ways to create a low maintenance space, ‘but if you want your garden to look its best, you need to be prepared to work on it for at least a couple of hours every month’.

To make your garden easier to manage, avoid herbaceous planting and opt instead for feature trees, and ground covering shrubs. Keep planted borders shallow – a 2-3 metre-deep flower bed, for example, is going to need a lot of upkeep.

Artificial grass is an excellent option if you are not keen on mowing lawns and think about your hard finishes.  ‘Avoid softwood decking,’ says Sheanon. This kind of surface requires a lot of upkeep to prolong its lifespan. While it might seem like a cost-effective solution, it is going to need a lot of commitment to ensure it lasts.

Think carefully about your orientation

When planning the layout consider your orientation, wind direction and the times that you are most likely to use or be in your garden. It’s also essential that your plan takes into account what the sun and wind do at different times of the day and year.

When will you be spending the most time in your garden? ‘It’s is essential to consider whether you like to be out in the morning or the evening,’ says Sheanon and to note ‘where the sun hits in the morning and the last place it lies in the evening’.

Working all of this out may mean that you will need to live with it for a while. Coming to quick conclusions can lead to choices that don’t work in the long term. By spending time, you will start to discover that there are specific areas where you want to go and sit that might not have been apparent at first.

You might discover that the best of the light is actually in the front garden. ‘Ireland traditionally has no culture of sitting out in the front garden,’ says Sheanon, so as a result ‘Irish people don’t tend to consider the possibility of creating usable space in the front garden’. In many cases by planting mature hedging you can quickly ‘create a more private space in the front garden’ which will allow you to think about using this differently.  

Don’t ignore the practicalities

Things like the location of washing lines, garden sheds and other non-decorative garden design ideas need to be factored into your plan. If you don’t have a home for things like bikes, lawn mowers and somewhere to hang washing, not only will your space not look great but it won’t function well either.

‘Consider using a temporary or retractable washing line to dry clothes’ recommends Sheanon. The design of removable washing lines has improved hugely in recent years, and the key to them functioning well is to ensure that they are  correctly installed. The beauty of these kinds of clothes-drying solutions is that they can be easily removed when entertaining or when sitting out, or during the colder months of the year where they are not in use.

If budget allows, treating your shed as an extension of the garden with a material that ties in with the wall covering, for example, will mean that the shed blends into the fence and create the illusion of it not being there.Painting a shed to blend in with the surrounding boundary walls is a more cost-effective way make it less obtrusive, or merely using planting to obscure things that you don’t want to see is a simple way to keep your garden looking at its best.

Finishes

When it comes to selecting your hard landscaping, ‘the key to creating a timeless and elegant space is to steer clear of any vibrant tones or colours for paving or surface materials,’ says Sheanon. ‘The paving should be very understated and should complement the style of the planting and the colours and aesthetic of the surrounding buildings,’ he advises.

Concrete pavers are a great budget alternative to granite. Both Kilsaran and Tobermore stock excellent reconstituted granite products, essentially concrete slabs that closely resemble granite.

‘A very underrated surface finish is a striped lawn,’ says Sheanon. ‘If you enjoy mowing the lawn why not invest in a lawn mower with a weight on the back,’ he suggests. Having a striped lawn creates a lovely feature in a garden and gives a high-end finish to the lawn. ‘Be sure though to mow in different directions every time. Achieving perfect stripes will soon become an obsession,’ he warns.

Don’t forget about your wall finishes, exposed block walls or mismatched fencing will take away from your newly completed garden. ‘Rendering and painting is a good option’ suggests Sheanon, but you need to be careful with your colour selection. Dark greens and greys work well as a backdrop to planting and suit a more contemporary scheme. Softer sandy shades work in any setting and lend themselves well to a more traditional garden. A simple way to cover walls is to plant some flowering climbers or trailing ivy. Some plants will be self-supporting, and will require some structure such as wire or trellis to grow along. `

How to design your garden like a pro

Planting

‘Your planting scheme should be planned in advance,’ recommends Sheanon. If you are unsure about putting a colour scheme together consider layering with greenery. ‘Varying shades of dark greens looks great together,’ he says. If you are planning on bringing colour into your garden, it’s important to have consistency in the scheme. ‘Whites and reds, or all pinks and blues are classic combinations that work well.’

When setting out your plants, keep scale and spacing front of mind. This is how you will achieve a really pulled together look. Use tall plants against buildings or walls to draw the eye through the planting. Make sure to repeat some elements, whether it’s a certain plant, a common color, or even a shape, so there’s a sense of cohesion.

Create a focal point. It may be a tree, a striking plant, or a series of shrubs. The idea here is to have something that draws the eye and encourages you to move it through the garden.

Take your time

Patience is key to landscape design. Plants need time to establish and may behave differently in different locations so start with what you already have. Some of your existing trees or shrubs could be given a new lease of life. ‘If a tree has become overgrown and is taking up too much space, consider removing some of the lower branches and foliage to give it a more attractive shape by doing some selective pruning,’ suggests Sheanon. Consider lighting the tree from below with a simple light and what was once an overgrown eyesore is now a stunning feature.

Most importantly give yourself some time to see how things develop. That’s the beauty of gardens – they literally have a life of their own and while you can control the hard landscaping and placement of things the planting will evolve in its own way. So keep it simple, be patient and most of all have fun.

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Denise O'Connor

Author Denise O'Connor

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