Category Archives: Design


Early in the planning of your garden you should determine how plants will fit in to the overall design. They can be used in a number of ways, for example for giving structure, adding height or even as a focal point in the garden to name but a few. Plants can also be used as barriers to define areas and create ‘rooms’ and you can highlight important points in the garden by using unique plants. Different sizes, textures, colours and contrasting shapes will help to capture your attention and direct it in a specific direction. All year round colour, structure and interest should be your aim and it will take thought, consideration and research to pull your plan together.

Floors Castle Gardens 010


So where do I start?

The place to start is with the ‘ backbone’ of the garden and by that I mean the structure. You need to get that in place before you get carried away with adding in the pretty flowers! It can be hard to be firm with yourself on this but it really will pay dividends in the end. I’d recommend starting with some evergreen shrubs and also any trees you may want. In my blog next week I’ll look at a selection of ornamental trees for your garden as ideally you should try to pick ones that will give you three seasons of interest.


Look for winter flowering evergreen shrubs or one that have leaves with interesting textures. If you’re wanting fairly quick coverage then check online the growth rates of various evergreens and choose the ones that say moderate to fast growth. Shrubs like Fatsia japonica, one of my personal favourites, is a quick growing shrub with tropical looking leaves and white flowers in September and October.

I usually add in some deciduous shrubs next and one I particularly like is Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’. Although it has leaves in the summer, its particular season of interest is the winter when beautiful pink/white flowers appear on its stems. Other great winter flowering evergreens are Viburnum tinus ‘Eve Price’ with pink winter flowers, Mahonia japonica with bold foliage and scented early spring flowers and Choisya ternata with glossy foliage.

Frosted Hydrangea Leaves

Ornamental grasses

After that, I tend to look at any ornamental grasses I might want to use. Not all my clients like grasses and quite often they are banished from my planting plans, however personally I think they are a fantastic addition to most gardens for a number of reasons. They allow movement in a garden and are perfect to harness the wind we get in Edinburgh and many other areas of Scotland. We can’t change the windy conditions we have so let’s utilise it!

There are ornamental grasses available in many sizes and colours. The great thing about grasses are the sounds they create from rustling to swishing and they give structure for about 11 months of the year. Many grasses only need to be cut back in February with the exception of grasses like Phormiums which have much stiffer leaves. Some of my personal favourites are Stipa tenuissima, a fantastic and versatile grass that can be planted in amongst herbaceous perennials to great effect. When the wind catches them they swirl around and look fantastic. Some of my favourite coloured grasses are Festuca glauca which is blue, Imperata rubra ‘Red Baron’ and Panicum ‘Squaw’ which changes colour from green to pink to wine red from spring through to autumn.

There are lots to choose from often changing colour through the seasons which gives a lot of variety and interest throughout the year. Phormiums also come in a variety of colours and look great as a focal point in the garden with their stiff leaves adding great texture to the border.

Do check the height and spread of all the plants you are thinking of using and make sure that they are planted in a way that one is not obscuring another. People often forget to check the final height and spread of plants which often means that they buy far too many. The plants then just try to out compete each other with the end result being an overcrowded messy border! It is such a waste of money too so it really pays to do your research.



‘The Pretties’

Last but not least are the herbaceous perennials, the fun bit that we all want to start with first but mustn’t! Unless you have a very large garden I’d recommend you go for perennials with long periods of interest. Choosing too many short flowering perennials will result in lots of green leaves and not much colour in large swathes of your garden. Try your best to pick perennials that say they last for 3-4 months, there are many that do.

Some perennials are deciduous and others are evergreen. Some good evergreens to include in your plan are the winter flowering Hellebores. They give year round evergreen structure and the prettiest flowers from February to April when we all need to see some colour in the garden. Other useful evergreens are Liriope muscari which flowers a pretty blue from August to October and Bergenia which flowers In March and April in lovely pinks and whites. Some of the Bergenia have leaves that turn coppery in winter which adds a lovely touch of colour to the borders at that time of year.

When you are choosing your perennials look for deciduous ones that will give lovely seed heads in the winter if left to dry out and not cut down and cleared away. Achillea, Monarda, Sedum and Echinops are to name but a few. You’ll find ideas of what to plant to give this effect in many books and on the internet. Using a carefully chosen selection of evergreen perennials, ornamental grasses, winter flowering shrubs, and perennials that fade to lovely seed heads you will have the palette to create year round colour, structure and interest in your garden.



Last but not least….

Remember that spring bulbs can fill in areas of the garden where you may be short of colour at the start of the year, until things get going in March/April time. I have previously blogged on bulbs so have a look at that and those spring bulbs that need to be planted between October and December will be all you need to finish off your planting design!


Not everyone can afford to have their garden designed and built and people often ask how to do some or all of it themselves. That’s fair enough, so I’ve put together some hints and tips to help you ‘go it alone’.



Find out more about your garden:-

• Does your garden face north, south, east or west?
• Is your garden battered by northerly or westerly winds?
• Do you have any frost pockets in the garden?
• Is your garden on a new-build estate and does it have poor soil or indeed any topsoil?
• Check the pH of your soil to see if you have any areas of acid or alkaline soil .You can buy soil testing kits from any garden centre. Remember that different parts of your garden can have different pH levels and this will affect your plant choice.
• If there are particularly dry, damp or boggy areas, then that again will affect your plant choice
• Do you have beautiful loamy soil? Most people don’t, so be sure you know what you’ve got! Plants that will thrive in sandy soils will be different from those suited to a clay one. The same applies to the location of the garden. Seaside gardens and town gardens will require the same thought and consideration when it comes to planting.
• Where does the sun fall and at what time of the day? Do you have any areas in the garden where drainage is bad and you notice pools of water?
• Is your garden on a slope? Do you need to think about retaining the soil in places?
• How do you want to use the space and who will be using it? Do you have pets? Small children? Do you plan to entertain outdoors or have family meals outside?


– Know your garden conditions – soil, microclimates and drainage
– Work out who will be using the garden – when and what for
– Consider how much time you will have to maintain your garden or if you are going to take someone on to do it
– Allocate a budget to the project – work out how much you can realistically afford to spend and seek advice if necessary, on how to maximise it.

Yellow tape measure in meters and inches in a spiral


The next step is to measure up you garden so that you know exactly the amount of space there is. If you want to add or change levels to the garden and you don’t know how to do that then try and find a friend or colleague who does know and enlist their help!
Try your hand at a design. In my next blog I’m going to cover how to tackle this. To make sure you’re on the right track though, why not contact a Garden Designer once you’ve finished it and run it by them. Most will charge a consultancy fee of £45-£75 per hour but you’ll probably only need one or one and a half hours with them. It is a much cheaper option than getting a design done and will ensure that any ’mistakes’ you have made are corrected before you spend any real money!


You may want to appoint a contractor to do the hard-landscaping but if you’re pretty competent and want to do it yourself or with friends then a website I would recommend to give help and support is:

This website will give you incredible tips and instructions on the vast majority of tasks that anyone would need to undertake building their own garden.


Once you garden is built the planting plan is the final stage. Do think this out carefully and again use  library resources and the internet to get advice on how to put together a planting plan well. Local plant nurseries will be able to give you really good advice so do take the opportunity and ask. If you are buying your plants from them you will get plenty of help with what to choose. People waste a lot of money on plants that fail quickly for a number of reasons.

If you put a planting plan together yourself, here are some key guidelines to follow:

How much do you want to spend on plants? Be firm with yourself as this is the easiest
place to get carried away and spend more money than you intend!

Do you want a Chelsea Flower Show look or are you prepared to wait? If your budget is
small and you are prepared to be patient buy ‘small’ fast –growing shrubs and 9cm
herbaceous plants.

If you have a bit more money to spend then I’d buy larger shrubs and the 9cm herbaceous. Plant in spring so they get as much growth on as possible before the winter.


Next price bracket up – larger shrubs and 1 litre herbaceous

Finally, larger shrubs and 2 litre herbaceous for a more instant impact. Remember some shrubs will go quickly and others won’t. If you do some research you can find out which ones will give you more impact more quickly!

With regards to trees and deciduous shrubs and hedging plants e.g. Birch, why not wait and order them bare-root (without soil) and plant them between November and March. This will reduce your costs, but the garden needs to be snow and frost free when planting them.

You may feel having read this blog that you don’t feel comfortable doing the whole project on your own. Remember, you can always get a garden designer in for bits of the project or just for an hour or two of consultancy if you need to.

So How Much Does Garden Design Cost?

When you first consider having your garden designed you’re probably wondering how much this is going to cost and whether it’s something you can really afford! I have spoken to lots of people over the years and they all ask me, ‘So how much does it cost to have your garden designed?’

It’s a great question. Let’s face it, who wants to agree to having any work done in their home or garden only to discover that the cost turns out to be much more than expected? Your garden is something that you will be looking at and enjoying for many years to come, so it is essential that you have an idea of how much the project will cost before you begin.

Many Currency


So, let’s look at the  costs and pro and cons of having your garden professionally designed and then you will be able to make the best decision for you.

The things to think about when you’re considering having this work done is what do you want from your garden? Realistically how much do you have to spend achieving this? A good garden designer will come out for an initial consultation. During that time they will assess the site and go into detail about how you want to use the space. How much you have to spend should be one of their questions. This is not to try and take advantage of you financially but simple to gauge if you can afford the kind of garden you are asking for and give you good advice on how best to proceed.


Costs for an initial consultation which lasts about 1.5- 2 hours varies in cost. The cost of this according to a number of factors including travel time. When you first make contact with a garden designer ask how much if anything this initial consultation will cost. If you’re unhappy with the answer you get then asking the question has not cost you anything.

I should mention at this stage, that after an initial consultation with prospective clients where I can advise them on roughly how much they will need as a budget for what they want, there is no obligation for them to take things any further. So for often a very modest amount of money around £50, you can get good advice before you decide whether to move forward or not.

In terms of the fee for the survey and design, that should come in at 10-15% of your total budget. The price of the design is not necessarily more because you have a large garden, rather the price is often determined by a number of factors.

These include:

Type of materials to be used
Access to the garden
Whether there are slopes in the garden
Water features
Maturity of planting required
Outdoor offices or kitchens to be included

My design fees generally tend to range from about £600-£1800 as a guide. Obviously it depends on the scale and/or complexities of the project.

So where will most of your money go? It actually goes to the contractor who is doing the garden build for you. The more walls, paved areas, pergolas and such that you have which is termed ‘hard landscaping ‘ the more expensive it will be. The more lawn and planting you have which is your ‘soft landscaping’ the less you will pay. A good designer will advise you about how to manage costs both up and down the scale so that your expectations are in line with your budget.


If you’d like several quotes from contractors, the garden designer can meet with them separately at your garden to go through the design and additional information required prior to the build starting, if you would like. They will also undertake periodic inspections of the build while it is going on. Different designers will charge differently for this with some agreeing a certain number of visits once you know how long the build will take, like myself and others will charge as a percentage of the overall build. I charge my hourly fee which currently is £50 per hour for each visit. Usually with the good contractors I use, it is one hour per week of the build. But that can be more if it is required.

Finally, you’re almost there, with the icing on the cake being the planting plan which comes next. I offer all my clients fixed fees for their planting plans and once the build is complete and I can see the borders and spaces that need to be filled. Depending on the size of garden from small to large my fees range from around £450 – £1850 and all fees are given prior to undertaking any work. My colleagues will all work in different ways, so do ask at the initial consultation how their fee structure works.


As you’re reading this you may well be thinking that all the same this is all starting to sound rather expensive. I would suggest that you think about the following while you’re mulling things over. If you were planning to put in a new bathroom, kitchen or conservatory how much would that cost? For most people who consider garden design, their garden ‘room’ is often bigger than any of these rooms. When you engage a good designer they will guide you through the process advising you on what areas of the project you’d be wise to spend money on and areas where you can save money, helping you from making costly mistakes.

They will give you a well thought out beautiful but functional garden with all that you want encompassed in that. That will allow you to feel confident that you are not making mistakes and wasting money. The same applies to the planting plan. Many people I speak to have spent a small fortune on plants for their garden with the end resulting often being a beautiful ‘May’ garden but no colour in it all by July. I have seen many gardens packed with plants that have grown way too big for the space they inhabit. A good planting plan avoids all this hit and miss over planting and allows you to feel confident that you will have well thought out plant combinations year round.

Design of garden bed

Lastly, the plants themselves. Ask the designer where they source their plants from. Personally, all the ones I put in my plans are grown in the tough Scottish climate that they will spend the rest of their lives in.

Not only will you enjoy using your beautiful well designed garden while you’re in your house but if you decide to sell then not only is it likely to sell more quickly but currently you will be adding value to your home in the region of 12-15% maximizing its value.


Well, now you have heard the pros what are the cons? Well if you have a budget of say under £5.000, which is still a lot of money, you will be struggling to get your garden re-designed and built for that unless it is very small and your brief relatively simple. In these situations my advice would be to pay for an hour of a garden designer’s time and ask them to visit the garden to see how far they think your budget will stretch for what you want. They should be able to give you ideas and good practical advice along with the name of a good contractor who very likely will be able to give you something very nice within your budget.

Being realistic about how far your budget will go is essential. I guess the cons with this are getting a bad contractor who does a poor job or takes the job with no real idea about design and you end up with a garden that disappoints you. Picking the right designer or contractor for you is absolutely essential and I will cover how to do that in my next blog.

However you look at garden design, it is rarely a cheap option, so getting the right garden designer and contractor is the key to it all. Being realistic about your budget is also paramount. If you have £1500 to spend in total, it simply won’t be enough. A certain amount of patience is required and the understanding that having your garden designed will take more than a week or two. Projects generally take from around 3 months to sometimes a couple of years. It will just depend on what you want, the size and complexity of your garden project and the time of year you get in touch with a designer or contractor.

If after reading this you decide having your garden professionally designed is the best choice for you. Read my blog next week about how to find the best designer for you. I’ll also explain the differences between a garden designer, landscape contractor and a landscape architect.

Victorian Glasshouses & a Day at Cambo…..


I was lucky enough last week to be invited to Cambo Estate, near St. Andrew’s, home to Sir Peter & Lady Catherine Erskine, to a presentation of their beautiful new glasshouses. Their walled garden had beautiful Victorian timber framed glasshouses that had seen better days and were needing an upgrade.

They engaged Alitex, mastercraftsmen to undertake this project and I have to say I think the Alitex Glasshouses are simply stunning. Keeping the Victorian style which undoubtedly is the best for this beautiful walled garden, Alitex glasshouses combine the use of modern materials and technologies but retain the elegance of the Victorian style and the same growing experience as Victorian timber frames.

In place of timber they use aluminium which doesn’t have the associated maintenance such as scraping, sanding or repainting and as a result they offer a lifetime guarantee on their products.

My clients will generally be looking to replace a timber greenhouse rather than a larger structure such as a glasshouse and I would have no hesitation in recommending they look at Alitex Greenhouses. They will always ensure that their Victorian Greenhouses will complement your garden and fulfil your growing needs as they have the engineering and structural expertise, especially when it comes to bespoke solutions and flexibility of design.  Browse their website for yourself and see what they have to offer, you won’t be disappointed. I’m sure the Victorian pioneers of glasshouses would be as impressed as I was…..




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

Cambo July 12 003

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!