Power of THREE: Useful Tips from Garden Designers…


A contemporary garden, with only 3 main materials…

So, as the saying goes; ‘Three’s a crowd’ well, not in my book, and not in the eyes of most other designers. For, ever since the beginning of time, we have understood the power of groupings of three (well, ok, slight exaggeration perhaps, but you get my drift!).

It is the secret weapon of designers the world over. Stop. Take a look. And you will see.  The Power of Three.

Plant THREE Large Containers

There is nothing more pleasing to the eye than a grouping of three large Urns, positioned absolutely exquisitely for maximum impact.  Add to this, the very simple idea of planting with the SAME species – et voila! You have designer-impact in your garden, worthy of Chelsea.

Andy Sturgeon is the master of this – demonstrated perfectly in his 2010 Daily Telegraph garden …. 3 exquisite oversized shallow bowls planted with equally exquisite irises:


The simplicity of 3 beautiful oversized pots filled with irises, and 3 large slabs of limestone.

Of course, for this to work, it must be THREE OF A KIND – the repeat impact is divine. 3 urns, pots, containers…of the same size, material, dimensions…..planted with the same species, same colour, same height. Pure perfection.

PLANT in Groups of THREE


These plants have knitted together beautifully, but started in life as groups of 3!

Planting in groups of three is the perfect scenario for any border.

There is something that just feels ‘right’ about odd number groupings – 2 is too linear and too refined.  4 feels like ‘ducks in a row’, but 3 OF A KIND; planted with enough space to grow, but definitely ‘together as a group’ – sits comfortably with the mind and pleases the eye.

Planting in Three’s allows the group to be ‘staggered’ – free from rigid constraints; just as nature intended.  Plants should sprawl, mingle and intertwine, not be lined up like soldiers or tied up in straight jackets.

Stick to THREE Different Materials


slate, stone and crisp clean walls – that is all!

This is a golden rule that I stick to religiously.  Never, ever, use more than 3 different types of materials in your garden.

3 gives a nice contrast of finishes – you can introduce different texture and pattern to your surfaces. Lovely effect.

Add more, and soon you have a mishmash of materials, a hodgepodge of effects and an assault to the senses.

Stick to the rule of three and you will not go wrong.

 OR, as De La Soul would say, ‘Three..is the magic number’..!

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A back front garden! An unusual garden – Case study

The garden in this month’s case study is a little bit unusual. This is because the driveway ran down the side of it to the garage and parking area at the top. So it was a bit like having a front and back garden combined as one.


So how do you overcome an awkward or unusual garden layout?

Step 1 Your main job is to disguise the part that is unusual, or try to at least turn it to your advantage and incorporate it into the design in some way.

In the garden featured in this case study we simply disguised the existence of the driveway with some careful planting and use of upright timber sleepers to take the eyes away from the driveway.

Step 2 Utilise the space to enhance the area that you’re left with.

The inclusion of the driveway and parking area into the back garden left us with a slightly unusual shape. To take the eyes away from that fact, we put in a nice oval lawn that was angled away from the drive.


Step 3 Create a diversion so that you have something other than the awkward element to focus on.

In the garden in this case study, the slate stepping stone path around the right of the curved lawn drew the eye away from the driveway and up to the top of the garden.

A rendered wall water feature with a cascade fountain into the pond below, created an additional diversion and point of interest.

The rendered wall around the patio area curved out and up to the lawn area. Curving it this way draws the eyes forward and up to the rest of the garden, and makes good use of the available space.

Need more ideas?

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.

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

Register on this page: https://www.successfulgardendesign.com/freeclasses/

Small Garden Case Study – Christine’s Design

This garden case study shows what has been achieved in an incredibly short amount of time (just over 3 months)…

Though, there is something about this one that is even more incredible than that, see if you can spot it and I’ll tell you at the end so you can see if you’re right!


Here’s what Christine had to say about her design process for her small space garden:

I moved to the present house 18 months ago and decided to leave garden for one year to see what came up.  

We have heavy compacted clay with some standing water.  Existing beds only about 12 to 18 inches wide and very hard to put fork in.

My previous garden had been light sandy loam so quite a change and had to re-think what plants would now grow!  Brought some plants with me but stayed in pots for over a year.

Employed a contractor to create path and put in drainage for new lawn, which they also laid.  My husband and I double dug the beds and incorporated Topsoil, compost, horticultural grit and composted manure, which we mixed with the clay.  

We had to remove a lot of builders rubble, even though the house is 16 years old.  After planting, we put down a bark mulch, which seems to have deterred slugs and kept moisture in.


My experience is that I originally trained at Writtle Agricultural College back in 1985 in horticulture as a mature student (now 68)!  Not actively used this but some things are retained.  

I am less skilled in design, although easier when it is not my garden, but love plants, so the Course [Small Garden Formula] really worked for me at many levels.  

I found measuring the site, design criteria and looking at what worked for my square garden really helpful.  It was a real focus to proceed, as I still felt daunted in beginning to design the garden.  

Your video presentations were professional but friendly and not too full of jargon.  Helped me to focus on shape before planting.  Found gallery of designs helpful.

ChrisGdnAfter1I am going to complete the garden in the Autumn with a summerhouse.  Have a “woodland “area under the trees and well as seating in sun and shade.  Hot border and a small barrel pond.

Christine Linley, UK

Have you been inspired by Christine’s garden?

I certainly have been, on many levels. The fact it’s looking so good so early on, is incredible, but not nearly as incredible as a small detail that Chris dropped in to the article…

Did you spot where she said her age? 68, if you missed it! I hope I’m still learning new skills and trying things out when I’m her age!

And I also hope that Christine will keep us posted and show us how the finished garden looks when the wheelbarrow is replaced by a summerhouse!

If you’ve been inspired to tackle your small garden, check out the Small Garden Formula course at https://successfulgardendesigncourses.com/small-garden/

Do leave your comments or questions in the comment boxes below…

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!

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

Register on this page: https://www.successfulgardendesign.com/freeclasses/

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: https://www.successfulgardendesign.com/freeclasses/

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