Archives for July 2015

[DESIGN SHOW 17] – Roof Terrace and Small Garden Ideas

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In this episode Rachel and the Successful Garden Design team look at how to create a stunning roof terrace garden. How to choose the right plants and how to correctly plan a small space garden.

To visit Casa Aire de Lecrin guest house the episode was filmed in go to:

Small Garden Secrets Video Series

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Being Awkward…

There’s always one, isn’t there! In this episode Designer Ali Conway tackles a REALLY awkward shape garden and how you take your eyes away from awkward angles in the garden.

Travel Segment!

A bit of a departure from what we normally do here at Successful Garden Design but we thought we’d share some of the lovely locations Rachel visited in June during her month of travelling around southern Spain.

In the travel segment Rachel visited Genalgaucil for garden sculpture ideas. And Jüzcar for the smurfs!

Recommended places to eat:
near Gaucin and Genalgaucil. near El Chorro (gorge and lakes) for the Caminito del Rey walk (you’ll need a good head for heights!).

Sorry if the video quality is a bit poor – computer had a major issue and wouldn’t render it so it’s a screen recording of it playing!

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Garden Design SOS – Design rescue, AFTER the landscaper had finished…

Now, before you accuse me of unfairly knocking landscapers, I’m not. If I am knocking anything, it is what happens when there is no clear design process involved with creating a garden.

Something that people often don’t take into consideration, is the part a good design plays in creating a stunning garden.

A lot of people incorrectly assume that if they call in a landscaper, that they will take care of everything.

There is a heck of a lot of a difference between what a landscaper does and what a designer does. One builds, one plans. I wouldn’t dream of trying to build a brick wall for a client – I’m not trained in it – it would be a D I S A S T E R  darhling!

To their credit, a lot of landscapers do try to design. If it’s a choice of losing work or coming up with something, they will do their best to come up with ‘something’, but if they haven’t been trained in design, their efforts will often fall flat.Landscaped-Garden

Or vertical as in this case…

This newly built house had a small sloping back garden. So, they called in a landscaper to terrace it for them. He did an excellent job of creating a level area at the back of the garden and building a beautifully constructed wall with in-built lighting.

As beautiful as the workmanship was though, and as much as he had tried to be artistic, the end result really didn’t do the garden any great favours. The new wall accentuated the width, making the garden feel shallower and smaller.

So, by the time I was called in, the majority of the budget had already been spent on the hard landscaping.

My job was to try and tie the garden in and get it to work as a whole unit and try to blend in the curved wall as well as add interest to take away the wall’s dominance in the garden.

Salvaging what’s already been done

The ‘artistic’ elements that the landscaper had incorporated, i.e. the curved wall and planter, caused a lot of problems. The circular bed at the top left of the garden created an awkward lawn shape and clashed with the square patio at the top.

So the main thing I had to do here, was to soften all of the straight edges and get them to work with the curved wall. No easy feat in such a small space.

Normally, when you start to design a garden, the first thing you do is control the shape of space, namely the lawn/patio areas. Since this had already been done, it was more a case of damage control and forcing what was already in place to work as one whole entity.

You can always work with whatever is there in your garden already. In this case though, it was one of many incidences where the design is thought about after the main event – the hard landscaping (the most expensive part).


Garden ‘Makeover’ Plan

Make it work

  1. The 1st thing I did was to try and make the brick wall look like it belonged there. This was done by shaping the lawn space to coincide with the dominant curves of the brick wall.
  2. The next step was to try and take the eyes away from the dominant wall. This was done by adding vertical elements such as the pergola and the upright timber posts in the circular border.
  3. The final step was to try to disguise the wall by planting tall grasses in front of it.

Disguise it when all else fails!

You’ll notice 3 steps above were basically all about the wall, rather than the garden as a whole. So much more could have been done with this small garden had it been designed from the outset.




We did our best and managed to improve it a bit – that’s all you can do in these situations. It’s always been one of those jobs that has stayed with me as a ‘if only we could have designed it at the beginning…’.

So, don’t do this at home folks…

Call in a designer 1st, not the landscaper! OR better still learn about design yourself. It’s not as hard as you may think… We have a great range of online courses right here: Online Garden Design Courses that are guaranteed to teach you how to create a perfect garden all by yourself!

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Garden Pergolas pt 2 – Styles and materials: What should you choose for your garden?

Last week, we looked at how to know if your garden needs a pergola, and if so, how to place one correctly, so that it looks good. This week, we’re going to take a closer look at the details of styling option available, of which there are many…

Timber-PergolaThe material types and sizes you choose for your garden pergola will have an enormous impact on how it will look. It’s really, really critical to get the right materials and especially the right size of materials in order for the pergola to look right.

A pergola needs to look good even if it’s not covered in plants. Whilst plants will hide a multitude of sins, they do take quite a while to become established and unless you’ve chosen evergreens, you’ll see everything in the winter months. So let’s make sure you get it right, so you don’t have to wait years for the plants to cover it up!

How to get the right size pergola for your garden

In order for a pergola to look good, it has to be both the right width and height. The right height is fairly easy, approximately 7ft high (2.1 m) is a good starting point. Pergolas can certainly be higher than that, but they shouldn’t really be any lower.

A 7ft high pergola allows someone that’s under six-foot tall to comfortably walk under it without feeling like they need to duck their head down. It also allows for the plants to hang down a little bit. Obviously if you are taller than six-foot then the pergola definitely needs to be higher.


It’s important to get the correct width to height ratio

When it comes to having the right width pergola, that gets a little bit trickier.

If your pergola is 7 ft high and you have a path underneath it that is 2 ft wide, then if you were to put the pergola posts at 3 ft apart (1 m) that might sound about right, unfortunately it won’t look right.

Having the posts that close together will make the pergola look very tall and skinny. So visually, in order to look right, the posts would need to be at least 4 – 5 ft apart, width-wise.

If you require a pergola that is over 7 ft tall, then you’d need even more width, to make sure it looked right.

Also, the larger the pergola both in height and width, the chunkier the materials need to be, in order for it to look right. So if you want a really wide pergola then brick pillars or really big bits of wood would be required.

Now we’ve covered the height and width, what about the length?

Thankfully, when it comes to the length of a pergola, you have a lot more flexibility and freedom. It can be as long or short as you need it to be to suit your situation.

Also, the spacing between the posts or pillars for the length, can be different from the width. Unless you are planning on an L-shaped pergola, then they do need to be equal so that the corner works. So, for example, you can have a pergola that is 5 ft wide with the posts for the length every 6-8 feet apart etc.

Choosing the right top for your pergola

Just to add to your array of choices, the timber you use for the top of your pergola can be, and often is, a completely different size to the timbers you use for the rest of it. Again, a lot of the choice comes down to the overall size of the pergola. The bigger it is, the larger the top sections of timber or metal need to be. It tends to look better to use wider but narrower sections of wood for the top to the posts.


Pergola example using 4 x 4″ posts with 6 x 2″ tops

A combination I use quite a lot for medium-sized pergolas is 4 x 4″ posts with 6 x 2″ tops. For small gardens I use 3 x 3″ posts with 4 x 2″ tops. For larger gardens 6 x 6″ posts and 8 x 2″ tops works well.

Pergola styling

Yes, there’s more! It doesn’t just end with choosing the right size pieces of timber, brick, metal or whatever materials you’ve chosen to construct your pergola from. The real detail to pergolas comes in how you finish the ends.

It’s the ends of the timbers used on the top of the pergola that dictate, often more than anything, the overall style of it. Your choice of end will make the difference between the pergola looking very traditional or modern, as shown in the examples below. Basically, the more ornate the end, the more traditional the pergola will look.


Pergola timber ends from traditional to modern and contemporary with no end at all!

What material should you use to build your pergola from?

The choice of materials comes down to your tastes, but probably more likely budget. As wonderful as the traditional round stone pergola pillars with ornate metal tops look, in reality, that style pergola does cost a small fortune. So timber is usually the most popular option, because it’s the most affordable.


Of course, you can do a combination of brick and timber, but as soon as you are using brick or stone, then the costs do escalate dramatically.

It takes a lot of skill to build a brick pillar pergola because of the time it takes to line up all of the pillars correctly. If a single pillar is slightly out of alignment or skewed at an angle it will throw the entire pergola off and really show up when the top is put on.

I bet you never knew how complex a simple pergola could be! I must admit, I hadn’t realised how much there is to think about until I wrote this. At least it explains why I spend so much time on them when I do put one in a design.

Garden pergola examples

Here’s a selection of pergolas that I have come across on my travels.


A selection of big metal pergolas I came across in Tomelloso, Spain. Though don’t copy the proportions of these – they look like they’ve been designed for giants!


The very traditional stone pillar with timber and metal tops from gardens in Granada and Madrid, Spain.

Finally, a selection of timber framed pergolas from Spanish and UK gardens.


Pergola alternatives

Now, if you’re still unsure if a pergola is right for your garden, or you are concerned about the costs, then there is another option available to you. Planting rails can look incredibly effective in the right settings. I’ll go into more detail on how and where to place the planting rail in the next article in this series.

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BUT do be warned, a nice pergola will NOT give you a stunning garden – you have to get the design layout right first. If you don’t know how to do that then…

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Garden Pergolas pt 1 – How to know if your garden needs one?

Having a pergola in the garden can be a very nice feature as it adds height and year round interest. However, it is critical that they are correctly situated otherwise it could end up looking out of place and a bit of an eyesore!


As wonderful as a pergola can look, they certainly don’t suit every type of garden, so how can you tell if it will work well in yours?

Before we look at the where of pergola placement, we need to cover the why. If you get the why part right, then it will help you place the pergola properly.

So why do you want a pergola in the first place?

  • Is it to help screen the neighbours from viewing directly into the garden?
  • Is your garden flatter than the proverbial pancake and you want to create some height and interest?
  • Or, perhaps, you just really fancy the idea of having a pergola and don’t have a specific problem to solve?

Anything you place in the garden has to have a purpose, even if it’s just a visual one and never actually gets used. So if you chose the last option, be very careful to make sure your desired pergola actually works with the rest of your garden.

How to correctly place a pergola

You need to think, first and foremost, of a pergola as a path. Completely ignore the fact that it has upright posts and roof like cross beams. Just think path. Now ask yourself, would you put a path in the location that you are planning for the pergola? Would it look right? Or would you be thinking, why on earth would I have a path there!


Things making sense visually is critical, as I mentioned earlier. A pergola is really a fancy walkway, so it needs to go to and from somewhere in order to make sense.

If it doesn’t initially make sense, don’t worry, there are things you can do. If a walkway style of pergola doesn’t seem to work, then consider a corner one instead, as shown in the example gardens below.

A corner pergola also works well in small gardens as it doesn’t take up too much space. The other alternative to a corner pergola is one that juts out from the house, usually over the patio doors. If you choose the latter option do be careful about how much light it will block out, especially when it’s covered with plants.


So, if the pergola doesn’t form a specific function, i.e. it’d not really needed to add height as you already have trees or it won’t work as a path and you don’t require shade over a seating area, then I would suggest you don’t go for one.

I certainly don’t use pergolas in every garden I design – I probably only put them in 25% of the gardens I design, because they are not needed.

Next time we’ll look at the different styles of pergola design you can have and the different types of materials they can be constructed from.

BUT do be warned, a well placed pergola will NOT be enough to give you a stunning garden – you have to get the design layout right first. If you don’t know how to do that then…

Attend one of our FREE Fast Track Garden Design online classes…

Register on this page:

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