Garden design – Be careful of the ‘gap trap’!

When I do garden design consults there is one sentence I hear over and over again:

“Oh we just put that there because we had a gap, it doesn’t have to stay there”…

What the ‘that’ is, can be anything from a summerhouse to a birdbath or anything else you care to imagine. To most people, the assumption that an awkward area they don’t know what to do with (or somewhere they have a gap) the obvious and most logical solution is to put ‘something’ there.

But if you REALLY think about it – is that really a GOOD reason to put something in the garden? If you were starting the whole garden from scratch – would you still put that ‘something’ there? If the answer is ‘no, it would be much better in the other corner where ‘it’ gets the sun’. You have your answer.

If your answer is I don’t know, then that is the same answer as above, you are just hedging your bet with uncertainty!

The Ultimate Designers…

Imagine if Mother Nature was looking at us and saying to Father Nature – “You know what honey? I think that forehead is a bit empty looking, how about if we put an extra nose or two each side of it?”

Then Father Nature adds his bit and says “Great idea but what about the gap in the middle? How about an extra ear?! How cool would that be? Think how much more they’d be able to hear…”

Now if the above conversation sounds silly – just change the word forehead to lawn, nose to tree and ear to pond and hopefully you’ll start to see where I’m going with this…

Any garden that is well designed is thought about, in detail, from conception to creation. Just adding bits as you go along (if there is no master plan to follow) doesn’t usually work.

The reason additions don’t usually work is because if you had planned for something, you work everything else around it and it works with everything else a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle.

How to Successfully Design a Garden

When you create a really successful garden design, features line up with viewpoints from the house or other parts of the garden. So if you are adding something at a later date, unless it lines up and is in the right place, it will never look right.

Now before I totally put you off ever adding anything ever again to your garden – there are exceptions to this, well not really exceptions, just good luck. Sometimes there really is a gap at the end of the garden that is perfect for a seat or something. It just happens to line up perfectly with the patio doors so will make a great focal point from the lounge and the addition makes the whole area come to life.

So look carefully at your gap before you put something in it (I probably could have phrased that a little better). Make sure you would still put the same thing in the same place if you had a blank canvas.

Do NOT under any circumstance put something somewhere just to fill a gap unless it really works with everything else in the garden! RESIST the temptation to add that extra ear!

If you’ve got to this point and still don’t know why there are ears mentioned in a garden design blog, you skim read too fast!

COMING NEXT WEEK – the long awaited set in Spain series on how to survey your garden!

If you’d like a step-by-step course to show you exactly how to design your garden, visit our online garden design course page.

If you would like the Successful Garden Design cheat sheet and video on how to add the WOW factor to your garden  please add your email address below (don’t worry we don’t spam and will NOT pass on your address to anyone else!).

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How to visualise your garden design (especially if you can’t visualise!)


I was discussing garden design with Alison Kerr from Loving Nature’s Garden the other day, specifically about how tough it can be to visualise how the garden design changes you want to make will look.

The sentence “I just can’t visualise” has been muttered into my little ears more times than I care to remember from my garden design clients. But Alison’s remark got me thinking….

How do you visualise a finished garden design?

Whilst creating the beginner’s Garden Design Course I have had to think back a lot in the past months about what problems I encountered when I first started to design gardens and how I got past those problems. One thing I hadn’t really thought about, though, was visualisation…

Now that I have taken the time to stop and think about it, something quite shocking occurred to me. I couldn’t visualise at ALL when I first started. More shocking than that, I’ve only really started to be able to ‘see’ how something will look in the last 5 or 6 years!

So how on earth did I manage to be a successful, professional, garden designer if I couldn’t visualise for the life of me?

That is an excellent question – one I was very surprised to be asking myself! When I think back, it all comes down to the way I was taught at college. We started and finished the whole design process on paper.

Looking at your garden design on a plan, will help you see what works and what doesn’t without the need to visualise.

To explain that further – garden design is about shape, proportion and movement through the garden. It’s much easier to see that from above (the plan view) than it is whilst you are standing in the garden.

One of the most important things I learnt is – if a landscape design works on paper it will work in the garden. Because I was working mostly with shapes to get the key design principles working and because I understood how the design principles worked, I didn’t need to visualise.

I do remember when my first few garden design plans were built, how anxious I felt during the process. They were right though – it really does work in real life if it does on paper.

My cheat

However, I’m not totally comfortable to just rely on the plan, I like to know that something will definitely work. So the trick I use when I have finished the rough design is to do a little 3D sketch of the layout.

Before you tell me you can’t draw to save your life – neither can I actually. My perspective sketches look like I’ve drawn them standing on a roof, so they are not much better than the plan view!

Here comes the cunning cheating part…. Take a photograph of the garden (several if it is large – join them together to form a panoramic view). And trace over it and incorporate the shape of your design as best you can. It will help you to visualise how your design will look. And most importantly, you will have the correct perspective and scale thanks to the photograph!


Kaye-sketches_0001If you are feeling more adventurous than that, you could make a clay model or even a cardboard one. It took ages and I’ve vowed never, ever to do it again but it was effective – amazing what you can do with a shoe box, some cardboard, plastic plants & a few fairy lights!

The sketches and models are for reassurance but they aren’t totally necessary if you draw the garden to scale and work on a proper plan. I’ll be doing a series of how to measure and draw up a plan to scale, coming soon on the blog (yes the infamous set in Spain videos will be coming soon!).

In the meantime if you want to learn more about all the tricks garden designers use, then check out the Great Garden Formula.

If you would like the Successful Garden Design cheat sheet and video on how to add the WOW factor to your garden  please add your email address below (don’t worry we don’t spam and will NOT pass on your address to anyone else!).

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Plant passion v precision (or when it all goes wrong for a garden designer…)

Picture this – you’ve designed a lovely garden. Everyone is happy with it. Even the builders have followed the plan to the letter, no one has changed or accidentally botched the design! It’s almost finished. You know on completion it will look great…

All that remains is to complete the garden design is to put in the perfect planting scheme and viola! It’s done! (Yes I know I’ve spelt “voilà” incorrectly but as you will see, my version is more relevant!).


I’m commissioned to do a garden design in Spain. It is situated in a stunning location. Beautiful house, beautiful scenery. Awkward shape garden (the type I love to design) and the potential to create a lovely courtyard garden. And it’s in SPAIN, did I mention that? They have sun there!

I get the call to go out and do my thing at the exact point I’m beginning to set up the Successful Garden Design website to help show people how to design their garden. In order to help people understand about garden design, it helps to show examples. So with permission from the owners, I video the whole process from garden survey to the build.

Super – my first set of garden design video tutorials will be set in a beautiful location (with sunshine). Much nicer for viewers, much nicer for me. The garden is built, bar the paving (that’s being shipped over next Spring). It’s November and a good time to get the plants in.

Falling Flat on Face Time…

Garden Design Plan

Here’s where it’s turning into a bit of a drama/unmitigated garden design disaster (depending on how melodramatic you are feeling). Now it’s come down to plant choices I’m tearing my hair out. Mr Client wants to bring half of England out with him…

Going back to where we are, in Spain, with its Mediterranean climate, the sentence “I want to bring out a load of winter flowering pansies” wasn’t something I was expecting to hear. EVER! At first I thought it was a joke and laughed. Big error on my part – it is no joke. Seriously pansies! I asked “Why?” and the answer was “Because it’s not something they have out here”… No kidding!

And the list of unsuitable plants for this garden design doesn’t end with pansies. Normally I’m very good when it comes to client wishes. I am very aware that it’s their garden. I don’t let client changes upset me, I work with them. So what’s happened this time? This time I’m emotionally involved. I’m passionate about this garden design because I’m making the FATAL mistake of viewing this as ‘my’ garden.

The full picture…

There is one more piece of information you need to have the full picture. The clients I’m working for are my parents. They say never work for friends or relatives and now I see why. I’m incapable of being impartial. I thought I could be but I can’t.

I think the main issue is coming at the garden design from two different perspectives. I want the garden to look good and work from a landscape design & location perspective –  I see exotic, Med planting with palms and Bourganvillias. A wonderful opportunity to grow all the plants we can’t grow well in the UK.

My father, on the other hand, is a plantsman, garden design isn’t his first priority. He loves plants as much as I love design. He is passionate about individual plant characteristics. He loves each and every plant and views them as living, breathing beauty. He’s not a plant snob. If he likes something, he likes it – including winter flowering pansies.

He also wants the palms but he wants to put them with everything else on his list. And I’ve not yet mentioned his love of  colour – bright daffodil yellow and shocking pink together have been past favourites…

The Key to a Successful Planting Scheme

I am beginning to feel like the cruel daughter as I write this but the designer in me knows that you can’t just put all your favourite plants together and have it look good. It’s not as simple as that. Good planting design is about shape, form, colour and control.

Can you imagine what a disaster it would be if you were cooking and put ALL your favourite ingredients into one dish! And I mean everything – every single thing you love to eat in one dish. Imagine the conflict on your palette!

Designing a garden planting scheme is no different to cooking a good meal – you need to be disciplined with the ingredients or it will be disastrous. Too many random ingredients and your visual palette will get indigestion.

Even if you cut down on the ingredients, you still need to have harmony with the flavours you are creating. Mustard and marshmallows for instance, are going to be an awful combination. I feel the same is true about palm trees with pansies.

Not entirely sure how I’m going to resolve this situation – I may have to face facts that I can’t and let my father get on with it – it is his garden after all…

Have You Had Garden Design Disasters?

Out of all the gardens I could have chosen to spend months filming from start to finish, the one that’s meant to promote the Successful Garden Design Course and show hundreds/thousands of people how best to do a garden, could turn out to be my worst design nightmare!

Do feel free to laugh/commiserate or offer pearls of wisdom – leave your comment in the box below. In the meantime I have hair to pull out!


P.S. I will be answering your garden design queries in the next post –  if you have trouble visualising your finished garden design, we will look at how you can use that to your advantage…

In the meantime, if you would like the Successful Garden Design cheat sheet and video on how to add the WOW factor to your garden  please add your email address below (don’t worry we don’t spam and will NOT pass on your address to anyone else!).

Download the ‘WOW Factor’ cheat sheet & video

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Do you suffer from the phobia that affects new gardeners?

Designing your own garden is great to do but you must be careful that you don’t fall fowl of one of the most important aspects of garden planning

There is a worrying condition that threatens to thwart good garden design…

The condition is called tapemeasureaphobia. A bit of a mouthful to say, but it’s no laughing matter, there are some fairly serious consequences to the condition that doesn’t always become apparent immediately…

In layman’s terms this affliction, is simply known as an extreme fear of tape measures, results in sufferers being unable to measure their garden. I once suffered from the affliction myself. The first garden I ever designed BEFORE I was properly trained (my parents garden) I didn’t measure… I did put a LOT of time and effort into the design though… shame it didn’t fit when we came to build it! Now before you start thinking bad things about me, I was only 19 and I had read, nearly, one whole book, on garden design and had skipped the bit about measuring as it looked really dull, boring and not that important!

I wasn’t wrong with the dull and boring part – it is. BUT I was WRONG about it not being important!

Why is measuring the garden so important? Won’t an educated guess do?

In a really well designed garden,  the design works as a whole entity – every aspect is interlinked, even if it is divided into different sections. If you change one part of the design it has a knock on effect with everything else. A bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle – you can’t fiddle with one bit and have it not effect everything around it!

So what have jigsaws got to do with measuring a garden?!

I’m getting to that bit now. Imagine you are building your jigsaw in a frame – the frame is solid and has fixed dimensions (pretty much like your garden fence or boundary). Now for argument’s sake, you have guessed that the frame is square and of a certain size… bear with me… and you have made a jigsaw according to the size you THINK the frame is… Now imagine trying to get that jigsaw to fit in that existing frame…

Even if you are REALLY good at guessing, what do you think the odds are that your jigsaw will fit perfectly into that frame are? Obviously you can’t alter the frame to make the jigsaw fit, so your only option is to make the jigsaw fit the frame….and that of course will affect the overall look, shape and feel of it.

How easy do you think that will be?

The honest answer is it depends on the design, some designs are more robust than others and can take a bit of altering without any major casualties. But you will most likely find (like I did with my first garden design) that the garden wasn’t quite the shape and size you thought it was. Therefore your design and all that TIME you spent on it has to be re-done, on site. NO easy task, not even for a professional garden designer!

If you are going to spend the time and effort designing your garden (and I really hope you are)… Trust me, trust me, trust me on this one – you really do need to measure the garden properly BEFORE you design it! If you want to learn exactly how to survey there is a free garden video tutorial on measuring which is ideal for easy shape gardens or there is a full survey course.

And if you’ve had any measuring disasters you’re brave enough to share – please tell us about your experiences in the comments!

If you would like the Successful Garden Design cheat sheet and video on how to add the WOW factor to your garden  please add your email address below (don’t worry we don’t spam and will NOT pass on your address to anyone else!).

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Why Having a Garden Plan Saves Time & Money

Why would you want to design your garden, you have better things to do with your time – right?

Well only you can answer that but if you want a really good garden then, I’ll answer it for you – YES, you most definitely do need to plan a garden!

Still not convinced landscape planning is worth all the effort?

OK, let’s go with the assumption that you have a zillion other things you should be doing and spending the time to sit down and design a garden, just isn’t on the agenda, or if it is, a 5 min scribble will do….

That’s a big pile of…

Bricks! Imagine having a big pile of bricks delivered and building yourself a house. No plan, just build!  What are the chances of you getting the rooms the right size, the right function and flow in the building… in fact, the right anything? Pretty slim I imagine, especially if you aren’t an architect and have never built a house before! Thankfully NO one does that (at least I hope not) but when it comes to building a garden…. vrrooomm – straight down the garden centre, buy as many pretty things as possible, come home and plant them, build a patio or two, wherever the creative muse bids!

Has the notion of a ‘garden in a weekend’ seduced you too much?

I know it’s VERY tempting just to get on with it one weekend and hope for the best but… if you can think about things and plan it properly in advance, it’s got to be better, right? Think about it, how many things have you done in your life that turned out great on your first attempt? Maybe you are an exceptionally talented individual that can turn your hand at virtually anything… but even so? If you plan a garden on paper or your computer first, you can change things that don’t work with the click of a mouse or a squiggle of your pencil.

£££ It’ll cost you! $$$

Or to put it another way – it is SO much cheaper, if you get it wrong, to change your mind on paper than it is once you’ve built and planted your garden.

If you would like the Successful Garden Design cheat sheet and video on how to add the WOW factor to your garden  please add your email address below (don’t worry we don’t spam and will NOT pass on your address to anyone else!).

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