To celebrate RHS Chelsea Flower Show, Garden Designer Susan Begg shares her top design tips to transform your garden.
Chelsea is widely regarded as the best flower show in the world but it should come with a warning – the merest glimpse can lead to serious feelings of inadequacy about one’s own humble patch.
Dramatic garden makeovers are a common symptom of post-Chelsea syndrome and are to be encouraged – a well-designed garden can utterly transform the way you live and enjoy your outdoor space. It can also add considerably to the value of your home.
However, before you leap into action take a moment’s pause to plan – even if you’re just adding a few plants here and there.
Structure is the backbone of your garden and might come in the form of trees, hedges, paths, walls and fences, ornaments or sculpture. Basically anything left when the garden dies back for winter counts as structure and you want enough of it to ensure your garden has height and interest through the gloomy season, plus something to contrast with the general exuberance of a garden in mid-summer.
Most gardens have multiple functions, seating areas, lawn, planting, play, maybe a pond, veg patch or greenhouse. Give each a distinct identity, but retain one or two features that are common to all, this could be pots, paving, edging, planting or overall style. This will help unify your garden.
Paths are functionally important, they can also be deployed to add interest or create a journey. A path without a visible end can be enticing. Whilst paths in formal gardens draw defining lines establishing the geometry of the space.
Play with the boundaries of your garden. Adding height in the form of trees and climbers at the boundaries of a small town garden will lift the eye and distract it from the limitations of the boundary. Blending the planting with the landscape beyond the boundaries of your garden in a garden of any size blurs the boundaries and can make it tricky to tell where the garden ends and the landscape begins.
Use pots, ornaments and garden sculpture to create focal points in key locations. Think about bringing water into the garden. Not everyone can have a pond but everyone can have a water bowl. Even if your garden is no more than a balcony.
Relate the Garden to your Home
Relate the garden to the house in terms of the scale of the features, terraces and borders. Taking lines from key points on the house or garden buildings will give a space a sense of proportion – it will feel right. Use materials that are sympathetic to the materials in the house – is your home stone, brick, wooden, harled; do you have a slate, pan tile, or zinc roof? Keep it simple. Don’t mix too many different materials.
Give careful thought to the views from the house and views from the garden to the house. Bringing planting close up to the house creates a feeling of intimacy and establishes strong links between the inside and out. Alternatively create long views by framing distant features.
Plant Densely For Low Maintenance
Don’t skimp on planting costs. It might seem counter-intuitive but more planting means less maintenance. The aim is to deny weeds any bare soil. Planting generously, using lots of ground covers to meander between plants will go a long way to achieving this goal (be careful which ground covers you use, some vigorous ground covers can out compete neighbouring plants, if in doubt seek expert advice).
When there are so many beautiful plants out there it can be hard to resist buying one of each but this will dilute the effect. The eye will simply read this as jumble and all your efforts will be wasted. Adopting a restrained choice and planting in multiples of 3, 5, etc. dependent on the size of your garden, and repeating the same plants across the garden, will achieve a much more cohesive look with greater impact. If it’s a struggle to think like this, try to think of it like putting cushions on a sofa. How would 7 cushions of completely different colours and patterns look? Not great.
Think about how colours, size and form relate to each other and remember not every plant can be a star – you need plenty of understudies (plain cushions) to tie the look together.
Right Plant, Right Place
You may have heard this mantra before but it is the most vital piece of gardening advice you will ever receive. Before buying any plant think about where it will go – this is where the cushions analogy falls apart because plants are dynamic, living organisms that all have individually specific environmental requirements. They can’t just be thrown like cushions on a sofa.
A good designer will plant communities of plants that not only look good together but grow well together. It can be hard as an amateur gardener to replicate these very sophisticated plantings but it is critical you consider the light, hardiness (extent to which a plant will tolerate cold, wind and wet) and soil conditions when buying plants. The spread, lifespan and competitive zeal of plants are also a factor.