Garden design: Some Basic Principles

Posted by Sarah Jane Humphrey on

Words by Alice Whiting

Many of us have been able to indulge in more time in our gardens over the past year, watching how the colours and forms in our green space change through the seasons, and noticing when different plants take centre stage. Through this newfound understanding and appreciation, perhaps we’ve thought more about the design of our garden or redesigning certain elements. A complete redesign may feel like a daunting task, but there are several simple principles we can keep in mind when we bring new plants into the garden, or give certain areas a design refresh.


The Basic Principles of Garden Design 


Step 1: Getting to know your garden 

The first key to success is getting to know your garden well. How much sunlight does the space get, and in what parts? What soil type do you have? Certain plants have a preference for acidic or alkaline soil - you can find your soil type by ordering a pH testing kit online. Also consider other climate factors in your garden - do you get salt winds, or a lot of rain? Is it exposed or sheltered? All these factors can influence how you select your plants to ensure they thrive.


Step 2: Deciding on the purpose of your garden 

Considering the purpose of your garden - to entertain, to grow vegetables, for relaxation, or as a haven for wildlife for example, can be helpful. Deciding on a desired outcome will help inform your design choices and your plant selection. If you have an idea in mind, find inspiration online or perhaps create a mood board with images of how you would like your garden to look. It’s often helpful to measure your space and sketch out a simple plan on paper first. Be sure to consider the full height and width of a plant to ensure things don’t get too crowded.


The Basic Principles of Garden Design


Step 3: Choosing a theme 

When choosing a theme for your garden it can be effective to consider the harmony of plants and features – do they evoke feelings of a certain landscape, culture or theme? Harmonising the elements in the garden can help to create a sense of unity. Also using repetition in your design can help create harmony throughout the garden, so repeating certain plants or features in strategic places is a useful technique. Perhaps consider symmetrical or asymmetrical compositions and think about how you will travel through the space, the places you will stop to relax or entertain, and what plants will be focal points.


Step 4: Considering Colour 

Colour also plays a large part in gardens, so you may want to consider choosing a colour palette. Colours have an amazing ability to impact our emotions and mood, create atmosphere, inspire movement through a space or slow the pace down. Using either contrasting or harmonious colours can create different atmospheres - cool colours can give a sense of serenity and relaxation, whereas hot colours invigorate and attract attention. Also consider that plant colour is transient and so multiple compositions may be needed through the seasons. Including quite a large proportion of evergreen plants in your design can help to ensure year-round colour in the garden.


The Basic Principles of Garden Design


Step 5: Plant selection

Once you know what you’re working with within your space, it will help tremendously when selecting plants for certain locations in your garden. When choosing new plants, do some research on the plant’s preferences – does it like a shady or sunny spot for example, or need pruning at a specific time of year? Consider how much time you will have to care for your plants, as this will affect whether you go for a low-maintenance scheme or perhaps choose more demanding plants. Understanding a plant’s preferences and the maintenance required will mean failure is much less likely, if they are happy in their chosen spot.

When it comes to the forms of the plants you choose, contrasting forms are bold and eye-catching, such as pairing the thin, spiky texture of a grass against a larger leaved plant.


The Basic Principles of Garden Design


Step 6: Additional Elements

You may want to include some outdoor furniture or outdoor lighting to create atmosphere or consider elements within your design like the sound of water for relaxation. If you have a small garden, or limited space for planting, perhaps edible flowers, a herb garden, or crops in containers would be more suitable.



Creating your perfect garden can take a bit of thought, time and effort, but the rewards are well worth it. If you’re looking for extra support, the RHS website has some helpful in-depth advice about specific plants and how they fit into different design ideas. Learning how to create effective compositions can take a bit of trial and error, but can provide a lovely long-term project as the garden changes over the years with new plants. Following a few simple principles can have a dramatic effect on your choices of plants and the design of your garden.

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