Monthly Archives: February 2016

Planning and Designing a Small Garden

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I spent a lovely afternoon in July at Cambo Estate Gardens in Fife listening to the advice and wise words of Elliott Forsyth the Head Gardener. There is always so much to learn and a practical afternoon looking mainly at planting design is a great way to get hints and tips on what to do and why, whatever level of gardener you may been.  I enjoyed it so much that I decided to blog about it and share the tips that Elliot gave us all. I should hasten to add that most of the group were novice gardeners so these guidelines are to help and inspire gardening enthusiasts of all levels!

Elliott’s advice and my comments:
Rule 1:  Good design understands both your needs and the conditions in the garden & fits them both.

Consulting the Conditions

• Man made permanent features – things you can’t change
• Climatic & soil conditions in your garden – frost pockets, boggy ground

Considering your needs

• Use & function of the area – how would you like to use your garden
• Maintenance – how much time you have to do this
• Financial constraints – your budget

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Rule 2:  Effective theming is key to creating coherent design.

Aesthetic Criteria – The Look

These are the cornerstones:

• The habitat e.g. themes such as dry grassland planting or cut flower garden
• Colour choices
• Form – the shapes of plants and their leaves
• Timing – when and for how long do they provide interest for
• Naturalistic gradient – how relaxed and informal the planting is or isn’t

Rule 3:  The smaller the garden the more rigorous the plant selection needs to be.

• Ecological fit e.g. all woodland plants or  bog planting
• The 3 stages of a plant :

1. Pre-flowering
2. Flowering
3. Post flowering

Ask yourself what each plant looks like in each of these states and choose ones that look good at all 3 stages. That includes looking at the leaf shape and form of the plant.

• Look at the maintenance requirements of the plants
• Make a wish list border by border of the different themes (habitats) you’d like to create     e.g. woodland.

Rule 4: Less is more with hard landscaping – it must be elegant, simple and functional.

Hard landscaping design

• Opening & blocking views & areas
• Inward & outward looking spaces – low garden wall which requires consideration of the view beyond or walled garden with no real view
• Selecting materials appropriate to the theme and site
• Use of space
• Access & flow
• Viewing angles
• Ease of maintenance

Rule 5:  Any planting area should only be expected to flower for a maximum of 4 months.

Rule 6:  In the small garden form is more important than colour.

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Planting design

• Put in key players first – evergreen plants and winter interest
• Support them with secondary plants –  herbaceous perennials and deciduous shrubs
• Create links by echo and contrasting form and colour
• Consider rhythm and unity
• Always look up plant spacing and measure. Try to group perennials in groups of odd   numbers e.g.  3, 5, 7, 9  to give impact
• Give shrubs & trees a 10 year spacing and infill with perennials
• Avoid putting shrubs too close to paths
• Don’t be overwhelmed and trust your innate sense of taste!

Rule 7:  Don’t rush in but take time to do some research and think things through.

Rule 8:  Look at examples of successful design.

Rule 9: Be very clear on your intention before you begin.

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Making a plan


– 20-30m tape measure x 2
– Square edge for example a biscuit tin lid
– Circle template & compass
– Scale rule
– Calculator
– Clip board
– Range of drawing pens and pencils
– Putty rubber
– Flexi edge


– Scale: 1:20 or 1:50 depending on the size of garden

Rule 10:  Creativity is dealing with a number of problems and trying to find the best response in the face of millions of option. You will feel unsure, which is normal. Just try to make your best effort in the midst of doubt and enjoy the process. You can always make adjustments later.

Elliot’s courses are always great, very informal and relaxed with the opportunity to ask a lot of questions and take great photos. If you’re looking for a practical and fun way to learn more about planting design for your garden keep an eye out on the Cambo Estate Gardens or the RHS websites for details of these days which are fun and extremely good value for money!