The Master Plan

“Of course there is a plan!” I declare.

I’m referring to how I’m going to lay out the new garden with borders, paths, structure, trees, plants and shrubs. I’ve been in the garden for a few months now and watched it since late winter/early spring. We’ve had the ornamental cherry blossom, the camellias, rhododendron, hydrangea flower… and that’s about it. If it wasn’t for the clematis trugs at the front and patio plants that we brought with us in the back, I’d be looking at next spring for the next flowering, very meagre indeed.

What I do have to look at everyday is a large expanse of grass, the great blank canvas. My mind has been mulling over how to carve up, divide and conquer this large and monotonous sea of green. There are all sorts of design ideas, schemes, plans, some are easy, some are hard, cheap, expensive, modern, traditional, fussy, relaxed, high maintenance, low-maintenance. The trouble with a blank canvas is that the possibilities are unlimited and as a result, I’m suffering from paralysis through choice.

To make it even more fraught, the master garden “plan” will determine how the garden will look, work and “feel” for the next umpteen years. Although plans can always be changed, it’s a lot of work, is demotivating, time-consuming and can be costly so there’s a lot of pressure to “get it right” from the outset.

Of course, there isn’t a right or a wrong way to create a garden, it’s all down to personal taste, but the worst feeling to have is to be thinking mid-way through that somehow, if the plans had been a little different, then it may have looked much better than it does, but it’s too late because you’re already committed. This isn’t a very helpful philosophy though, it’s like saying that perhaps if I didn’t stick with my current partner, I’d be able to upgrade and find one better. The trouble with this is that there isn’t a defined endpoint, you can keep going and going and not get anywhere.

One methodology is to do a little part of the garden at any one time, but there’s a chance that without an overall picture – a plan, if you will – those individual parts may not complement each other when they come together and so fail to create a cohesive garden, giving a sense that the space was stitched together in an ad-hoc fashion and that something important linking it all is missing.

Bold, daring ideas can look contrived and without any garden design experience, chances of success in creating a highly designed garden – the type that you see on TV makeover programs – are low. Highly designed gardens typically come with highly expensive features and are not always practical. While “safe” designs (e.g. borders round the outside, lawn in the middle with a sundial at the centre) are synonymous with “traditional” and there is a risk of the garden looking boring, lacking character, quirkiness and charm.

I can bring someone in to design the garden for me, but where is the fun in that? I know myself and if I went down this route, no matter how beautiful the resulting garden, I would always have a nagging feeling in the back of my head that this isn’t “mine”, it’s my ideas translated by someone else and I’m not sure I could easily overcome that just as my wallet couldn’t easily overcome the cost.

I’ve been here before, the previous garden was also a blank canvas of sorts but the difference is that the previous garden already had much of the structure present, I simply filled in the gaps and brought it all together. The existing planting there lent itself very well to being connected by borders and the final look and feel was almost dictated by it. There weren’t many ways to skin the cat – if you will. It’s small size also greatly limited the options available. This new garden doesn’t have that structure, it has some awkwardly placed shrubs and bushes and a large expanse of grass, there isn’t much that can be used as a starting point to build out from and the existing planting actually jars.

With all this to consider, it seems as though the odds are stacked against me, but that’s not the case because,

  • I’ve got some good experience: the last garden has prepared me well, I’m not a complete novice anymore worrying over little plants
  • I know what I like and what I don’t like: there’s countless ideas and inspiration available online, on TV, in books and in other people’s gardens and for the most part, I either like it, or I don’t.
  • I know what I want: I have a list of things I want, such as, “I want honeysuckle growing through a tree”, “I want a long line of delphiniums” and “I want clematis and roses growing together”. These are specific “things” and so easy to fit into a plan. They also help define a garden style e.g. voluptuous borders or rigid, formal planting.
  • It’s hard to create an ugly garden: while there are gardens that I can appreciate but are not to my taste, I don’t think there any gardens – looked after by keen gardeners – that are downright ugly. I don’t think it’s possible to do.
  • I’m a man, and therefore stubborn. If I’m not happy with it, I’ll just redo it until I am satisfied or dead.

This is all I need in order to make a good start on an overall plan.

So what does that plan look like? Well, give me a drumroll because here it is:

Scan

Yes that’s right, this scan of a crumpled, mud stained, scribbled A5 page is the Master Plan. Isn’t it amazing? If you look you’ll recognise the border for squash has already been put in place in the lower left corner.

Let me guide you through this work of genius. Actually this is mainly for my benefit as I’m likely to forget what this scribble is and throw it out by accident.

The back garden is a rectangle, the “L” inverted and on its side at the bottom is the patio area, you can see how the borders curve and meander, leaving wide grass paths with a larger area for sitting and eating on the middle-right. Dotted lines are narrow bark chip paths through the borders, like shortcuts or hidden trails. The top of the page is the far end of the garden, the squares in those corners are the two sheds. Since the back is lined with large trees, the rear part of the garden will be woodland and is not really defined yet. The curvy ladders are possible arches and pergolas (as seen from above). Though I have rear borders marked out on paper, I have a feeling they wont turn out that way, woodland gardening isn’t amenable to having imposed borders.

This momentous scribble is not measured, nor to scale, nor designed, nor peer reviewed, nor evaluated, just drawn from experience, a gut feel of what I want and more importantly, what “fits” the garden. For example, a highly designed, modern garden wouldn’t fit the 1950’s house or the classic rhododendron hedge that runs along the left hand length. Lots of hard landscaping and fancy structures would jar with the romantic, loose cottage garden feel that I want to create. Decking would not be appropriate either, for many reasons.

If I had any criticisms then I would say this design is rather basic and traditional in the sense that it has large borders, island beds and a patch of lawn, it’s not particularly exciting but it will be the planting that will really bring it to life. I don’t know what form it will take, I just have a feeling that when the plants start to go in, things will really come together and the focus will shift from the shape of the borders to the plants in them.

So this is how I am planning for the garden to look. As nothing is measured, the border shapes will have to stretch or shrink to fit in, but I can already imagine an overall ambience to the garden this scribble will create and I think it will be good.

Finally, just to show that I’m putting my money where my mouth is, I have already started marking out the borders with my trusty lawn edger and a bit of landscape fabric.

The island bed in the middle has been lengthened and narrowed to squeeze in the grass area and that wide border on the left. The border along the right-hand edge has been set straight because I couldn’t make an easy curve there without it looking forced. Even at this early stage, as the paper starts getting transferred to the ground, I am developing a sense of how the part of the garden nearest to the house will “feel” and I know I am on the right track because I like it – and that’s how I do garden design.

 

10 Comments


  1. OK Sunil….. let’s go! I look forward to seeing this develop over the next few years. As you know, it has taken me 12 years to get 3/4 of the way up a 100ft garden, and on one side where there is a right of way through it for next doors access to their own garden, I have only, this year decided on something which is new and unusual. Nothing like my fat filled up borders because they are not seen from either the house nor the top of the garden and can be as different as I like. So the first raised bed has gone in there. Rectangular, and about 18 inches high, in that one has gone a black elder Sambucus Negra, and a dark smoke tree Cotinus coggygria ‘Black Velvet’. The next raised bed will be smaller but higher…. the next a little different again, but all of them flanking the path at the same place.
    I cannot wait to see your garden next spring, there must be loads of bulbs ready to go in?

    Reply

    1. Hello Mrs Mac, those raised beds sound very unusual and the choice of plants is also quite unexpected, but sound lovely all the same with the sambucus and cotinus producing a block of mysterious dark. There are no bulbs yet as those borders need to be prepared first, but once they’re ready, I’ll be planting them in the hundreds.

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  2. I love it! Don’t waste time worrying about how fabulous your design is or isn’t. In the end it just doesn’t matter because it’s your garden. If it makes you happy, then it’s the best design. Design aesthetics are so subjective, anyway. My garden circles an ellipse of grass because that was the best design for my space and needs even though it’s classic and boring. Are you planning on keeping the landscape fabric in place after you’ve planted?

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    1. Hello Tammy, thanks for the advice. I was quite tentative when I first started out with the lawn edger but as I got further into marking out the lines I got more and more into it. The landscape fabric is only there to kill off the grass and weeds underneath. As I start planting out the borders, the fabric will be peeled back to make way and I’ll use it and the fabric pegs to mark out the continuation of the borders.

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  3. You’re off to the races! I think you’ve had a fine start and you are moving forward in the right spirit. Don’t worry about making “mistakes” – if you’re like me you’ll be constantly making changes and the garden will never be finished. Which is half the fun.

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    1. Hello Jason, I’m all too aware of the phrase, “gardens are never finished” but I am hoping that if I make a good start now, then at some indeterminate time in the future, I’ll just be doing the odd bit of tweaking here and there as opposed to major redesign, which after a garden this size is not going to be an appealing option!

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  4. I agree with Tammy and Jason – stop worrying about your design. You have a good plan – implement it over the years and everything will be fine.
    We all think at some point that we should have designed things differently. For instance, I am now trimming my hedge and wonder why on earth I included a hedge in my design when I hate trimming hedges. But it is only laziness. In a couple of days I will have finished trimming and the hedge looks good.

    Just remember your very own wise words: it is not a useful philosophy to think that if if the plans had been a little different, then it may have looked much better.

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    1. Hello Alain, I was very cautious at first, but after having lived with the marked out borders and black landscape fabric for a while now, I like the way they are laid out and how the paths weave around, split and rejoin. I’m still not sure how I’m going to continue the borders and mark out the rear half of the garden but thankfully, it will probably be several years before I have to worry about it.

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  5. OK, I will probably get an ear-bashing should any of my garden design associates see this, but please do not get hung up on it not working. You have already started creating your garden and you are already tweaking those bits of the design which don’t work, so you’re on the way! We are approaching the bare-root season, which is great news for structure. I always feel odd in gardens where the structure isn’t right and since we are approaching winter, you are perfectly placed to get a good strong structure in place from the start. Frame the things you want to frame; hide the things you want to hide. Get friends in to pretend they are trees, shrubs or hedges and move them around, watching how they break up the space; and walk around them again and again, looking at them from your house and terrace, watching where their shadows fall etc. It might help – if nothing else, it’ll be a giggle!

    Reply

    1. Hi Sarah, I love the idea of getting friends in to stand about the garden pretending to be trees and shrubs, I’ll be making cardboard cut-outs next! The structure in the previous garden was very strong and I thought, very well designed so I am a but unnerved about the lack of it in this new garden. As you and others have said, I will stick to my guns, get on with the job and a few years down the line, when parts of the scheme/garden begin falling into place, I’ll wonder what all the fretting was about.

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