Changing a ‘nice enough’ garden that isn’t nice enough!


A ‘nice enough’ garden, but could it be made better?

A few years back, a friend of mine asked me to redesign the garden of a house she’d just bought. I was happy to help as I could see there was lots of room for improvement.

Her family were all keen gardeners, and by the look on their faces, they were somewhat aghast at her getting a garden designer in! The garden was perfectly ‘nice enough’ as it was, surely? It only needed a few extra plants and it would be great. Getting the whole garden redesigned was unnecessary and might ruin it!

I can only imagine what horrors were running through their minds of what a designer might do…

A very common problem

If you have a garden that is already quite nice, the concern is often that you might ruin what you have now. One thing I can absolutely promise you, is that a good design will never ruin what you’ve got, it will only improve it.

The average garden can and should be so much more than average. So please don’t settle for the average boring and bland backyard!

You don’t have to spend a lot of money to create great looking garden

Really, you don’t. Of course, you can spend a lot of money if you want to, but you actually don’t have to. The trick to creating an amazing looking garden is all down to how you arrange the space. That basically is what shape lawn/patio area you put in. If you already have a patio down, then it’s just the shape of your lawn that will need to change.

Just reshaping your lawn to get a lovely looking garden might sound far too good to be true, but it really is the key to creating a great looking garden. The reason it is so powerful is because you are controlling the shapes within your garden.With the right shapes you can make a garden look larger and more interesting.


Most people do it the other way round. They add the plants and then the space that is left is an odd shape lawn. By doing it in reverse and choosing the correct shape lawn first, the areas that are left are where the plants go. It will also help prevent you from having a random lawn shape that is disjointed and doesn’t help the garden to flow visually.

A ‘nice enough’ garden case study

The key to transforming my friend’s garden came down to getting (you guessed it) the right shape lawn in!  A very simple oval shaped lawn with a brick edge surrounding it was the basis for the entire garden. The old concrete patio was dug up and replaced with natural stone paving laid in a random bond style (lots of different sizes mixed together).

The sizes of the paving was quite small to make the space look larger, and the different sizes works well with the modern cottage garden style that we were aiming for to match the house and owner’s tastes. The same paving is also used in the raised patio at the far end of the garden.

A timber planting rail, to match the neighbours fence, was added to the top patio, making it more enclosed and creating an interesting area at the end of the garden.


Design does make the difference

If we had just added more plants in the garden, it really wouldn’t have looked much different. My friend loved the new look to her garden and thankfully, so did all her family. Phew! It would have been rather awkward if they hadn’t!Oval-Garden-mature1

Need more help?

If you’d like to learn more about exactly how you can transform your garden, then check out the online garden design courses I run here at Successful Garden Design.

I particularly recommend signing up for our FREE web class… 

Learn how to design your garden – Attend one of our FREE Fast Track Garden Design online classes…

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[DESIGN SHOW 1] Californian garden design plan and how to place feature lighting

In this Garden Design Show Episode…

Rachel will show you how she has designed a wide garden, near LA. She’ll discuss how to get the most from your landscaping materials, to enhance the space in your garden.

How you divide the space in your garden, no matter what shape it is, holds the key to successful design. The garden featured in this episode is a wide garden shape. If your garden is long, just imagine turning the plan around and you’ll get an idea of how dividing the space will work in your garden.

How to Correctly Place Feature Lighting in Your Garden

Rachel will also show you the best way to use feature lighting in your garden. Good feature lighting will really give your garden the wow factor. They do tend to be dearer than traditional garden lighting, but you don’t need many to really liven up your garden at night. Correct placement is critical in order to get the most from your lighting as Rachel demonstrates in the video.

Here are the feature lights she highlighted in the show:

The Havana Pendant lights can be seen here:
The less expensive Pod Lense light 
The Mia Serata floor light
Good quality, standard garden lighting

Your Chance to Win the Garden Design Workshop

Just answer this question in the comments section below: What is it that Rachel didn’t discuss much in the video, that you would expect her to talk about in a garden? Why didn’t she discuss this particular thing?

What Would You Like to See Covered in Future Shows?

Leave a comment and let Rachel know what topics you’d like her to delve into in future episodes! If you’d like your garden to be featured for the quick sketch design challenge, enter your details on the Successful Garden Design Facebook Page. Subscribe via the Successful Garden Design YouTube channel (iTunes coming soon).

Want to Learn More Top Tips on Transforming Your Garden?

Take a look at the online garden design courses that we run here at Successful Garden Design.

And attend one of our FREE Fast Track Garden Design online classes…

Register on this page:

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!).

Download the ‘WOW Factor’ cheat sheet & video

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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

Enter your best email address in the box below

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