Country Gardener

Widely regarded as the authority on gardening in the south west

The first tentative steps in designing a garden

Garden designer Alan Dodge’s experience tells him the ideal solution for a new garden doesn’t always leap off the page and “pictures speak a thousand words”

As a designer you tread a very fine line creating someone else’s garden, at the end of the day you are a facilitator, getting your client from A to B using your experience, knowledge and judgement to crystalize their ideas into an attractive garden.

As I drive to a new project I am taking in the geography of the surrounding area, the property’s setting and noting the type of planting that is used and thriving locally. It is important, but not essential, that a new garden fits in.

My first meeting is all about looking and listening, looking at what we have to work with and listening to the ideas my client has.
This is where a folder of images and ideas is so useful, “pictures speak a thousand words” and it can be a great insight into, not only my customer’s likes but also dislikes.

Knowing what you have to work with in the baseline for your design. There are companies who will survey your property for you with all the latest satellite gizmos but I prefer to do this myself using a tape measure and optical level. The reason is simple, by scrabbling around the garden you get to know it much better, you discover all the nooks and crannies and invariably find one or two points which need clarifying.

A set of photographs from various angles are invaluable when you may be 30 miles away in your studio, a compass reading of where north lies and it’s off to the drawing board.

Yes, I still use a traditional drawing board, Computer Aided Design (CAD) packages for garden design do exist and are great for making changes to existing designs, reproduction and even e-mailing around the world, but having been taught to use pencil and paper as an engineer, understanding the geometry of the design helps me visualise what is going on and, more importantly, how it will be put together.

Once the findings of the survey have been marked, I usually work to a scale of 1:50 or 1:100 for larger gardens, and the position of all relevant features, i.e. existing trees, walls, gates etc. are plotted, and the fun begins!

Where do you start? A question which I have asked myself many times in my formative years but less so now as experience has taught me that my own Computer Aided Design package, “my brain”, has already been working on the design in the background!

The first consideration must be what overall “style” of garden you will be creating; this decision will be partly dictated by the style which suits the property and its setting, and of course your clients own personal taste. Styles range from formal, country, cottage, Mediterranean, tropical, Japanese, woodland, town, modern, contemporary, or a combination, at one time it was thought rigid boundaries existed but today elements of several styles can sit comfortably within the “main” style, the secret is of course, in the design!

To start with do not get too hung up about detail, think on a very broad scale and don’t be afraid to sketch basic shapes of various elements onto the plan.

If working to a formal style sketch formal shapes, squares, rectangles and circles, if it is a more relaxed style, use free hand curves as well.

This will be a testing time! You are putting together a multi-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of length, breadth, and height as well as colour, texture, seasonality and exposure to the elements, to name but seven! Viewing the garden in “plan” view helps reduce the conundrum temporarily to two main variables, width and breadth, providing of course the rest, and particularly height, are eventually considered, especially where there are level changes.

If you are designing your own garden don’t expect the solution to leap off the page at you straight away, you cannot force creativity. I find on some days ideas pour onto the paper yet on others nothing seems to work, in which case, leave it for a while and research some inspiration…..only one glass mind!

Alan and his wife Susan run Bailey Ridge, a design, landscaping and nursery business near Leigh, Sherborne, Dorset.

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