As the daylight hours stretch out and we anticipate the spring forward to British Summertime, many householders will be peering through their rain-smudged windows at their long-forgotten gardens. Every spring, garden centres ramp up their offers and lure gardeners of every level of expertise into their emporiums. In a frenzy of sun-dazed optimism or chocolate-fuelled sugar rushes, many will fill their trolleys with the prettiest plants of the season, along with equipment they may never use and ornaments to be randomly placed.
As a bit of a generalist, garden planning sits on one of the chequers of my multi-coloured curriculum vitae. This self-taught skill was prompted after an enforced shift of residence, from country garden to suburbia, some years ago. Gloomily I stared out my kitchen window at an empty slope of lawn, a whirly washing line my only focal point. Surrounded by a gaudy, spray-tanned wooden fence, as I washed my dishes I felt imprisoned.
Never one to be beaten by circumstances, I retreated to the comfort of books and soon had the local library stripped of anything related to garden design. In those pre-web days, Alan Titchmarsh and his Groundforce team were my inspiration and Gardeners’ World became requisite viewing. Soon I was wielding my spade and delving into plant catalogues, transforming my prison yard into a suburban oasis. Once finished with my own plot’s transformation, I turned to those of others and this pleasant pastime has provided a side-line ever since.
So, if you have found yourself blinking in recent sunshine at a vaguely familiar outside space, vowing that this year will be the one you take charge and beat Mother Nature in the race to overtake your patch, here are a few simple rules to help you master the gardening challenge:
1. Plan. Take a good look, from an upstairs window sometimes helps, and see what works and what could be better placed or is past it’s best. Measuring and drawing to scale can be helpful if you are tackling a large project – it looks totally different from the eye of a bird. Take note of the sun’s movements, what aspect you have dictates where you’ll want to sit and what plants will thrive where.
2. Plan the main features first, even if they may not be built for a few years. Look ahead. Don’t plant trees and bushes where you may build a conservatory or place a patio, for they will not take kindly to being uprooted once established and it will have been money poured down the drain. Note the sun’s movements all day, so you can decide where seats will be best used. Don’t forget to use the whole garden – the perspective from a seat at the bottom of the site may open up a whole new vista.
3. Make the patio big enough for your tables, chairs and anything else you plan to place on it. Three metres square is the bare minimum. If you want to sit in the sun, then build it in the bit of the garden that gets the sun when you want to be out in it. If you are away at work all day, only sitting out in the evening, then there is little point in building a main seating area where only the morning sun warms the flags.
4. If there is to be a lawn, plan it as a simple shape for easy mowing, the remaining awkward corners and odd shapes will be simple to fill with plants. Working the other way, with a lawn filling the space around carefully shaped flower beds, will make for a very unhappy lawnmower!
5. Plants are like people. Find out their likes and dislikes and try to please them. Those that prefer similar conditions will be happy together and look well in your garden. So, if you have a boggy patch, plant those that like having their roots in moist conditions, if its dry shade there is plenty that prefer that too. Don’t just buy the prettiest thing in flower at the time, plant for all-year colour, including evergreens and something of interest in each season. Too many gardens are stuffed with Easter bloom, the result of the annual, spring spending spree, then languish neglected and almost colourless for the rest of the year.
6. Screen utility areas, siting out of main view when possible. Clever use of lattice fencing and climbing plants, or large shrubs, may hide a multitude of out-of-flower pots, sheds and water cans. Essentials such as washing lines should not be your main focal point, from any window, and if they can be stored when not in use, all the better.
7. And finally, don’t forget the finishing touches. Ornaments and lighting are a matter of personal choice, reflecting one’s individual taste in the same way as indoor furnishings. Pieces of sculpture, follies or wind chimes, whatever your preference, place things carefully where they will draw the eye to where you wish. Do not place these focal points anywhere you wish to hide something, such as a drain cover, fuel tank or similar eyesore as it only draws attention to what you are trying to hide! Use lighting with reserve too, pinpointing a focal point or illuminating steps or paths for safety.
This may, on first reading, seem like a lot of hard work. But do not be put off. Like any project, a little planning and effort goes a long way and you will reap the benefits when you can relax in a beautiful, low-maintenance garden. No garden is ever “complete”, continuously evolving and changing with the seasons, so with a little love and care it will reward you for many springs to come. Happy Gardening!