How to Design Your Garden Part 1

Your outside space can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing if you don’t know what to do with it. And even if you do know exactly what you want, how do you go about achieving it? Well, let’s start at the beginning.

Where and How Do You Start to Plan Your Garden?

A few of you smart folks might be thinking that it all depends on what you have in the garden already. You’re sort of right and sort of wrong. In some respects, it really doesn’t matter what you already have there. What matters is your like or dislike of what’s there now and it’s usefulness.

I should explain more about usefulness just in case you are wondering if plants and features need to double up as multifunction devices in their spare time. They don’t. ‘Useful’ refers to what whatever is there now does for the flow and function of the garden – sorry, I’ve slipped into meaningless designer babble. What I mean to say, is everything in the right place?

How Do You Know What Is Right And What Isn’t?

Good question. Glad you asked. Now here’s where we get to the crux of it all. The REALLY important part. Those of you who read my ode to Star Trek (the key to a great garden) will be way ahead – it’s space. That’s the important part, or more correctly, what you do with it.

Specifically, it’s how you define the empty’ areas of space (usually lawn, patio or gravel) in your garden. These ’empty’ areas will dictate how the garden is viewed, how it functions and, most importantly, how good the garden looks. As a general rule, wiggly edged lawn with bits nibbled out here and there don’t look anywhere near as good as big bold shapes like ovals, circles and interlocking rectangular shapes.

Simple but effective shapes


Avoid Wiggly Line Shapes

Here’s How You Plan A Garden:

  1. Work out what you want to have in your garden. Do this by looking at lots of garden pictures. There are some on the garden ideas page of this website.
  2. Measure your garden – if you don’t know how to do that, there just happens to be some video tutorials that show you exactly how to do it. If you can’t be bothered to measure your garden, then read this enlightening article and then decide if that’s quite such a good game plan.
  3. Plot on your base plan all of your existing stuff like trees, shrub borders, patio, paths, that you think you’ll most likely keep. Your base plan will need to be to scale. Scale really isn’t as scary as it sounds and is explained step by step in how to draw your garden to scale video.
  4. Next, pick a shape. Any shape but preferably one you like and preferably an easy shape. Start with a circle or a square and draw that in the centre of your garden.
  5. Keep it simple. How many shapes you use will depend on the size of your garden. To start with, just try one big one taking up approx two-thirds of your garden. Don’t worry if there are things in the way just draw your shape over the top.
  6. Here’s where you decide if things are in the right place. Take a look at the things that are encroaching into the shape you’ve just drawn. Is the shrub border that randomly juts out really working with your newly defined ‘space’ shape? If it isn’t, can you adjust its shape to improve its relationship to the shape you’ve just drawn? If it still doesn’t work, can you take out whatever it is that is encroaching?
  7. Be objective. Try not to get too emotionally attached to the outcome and worry about each plant being right or wrong. If something doesn’t ‘work’, it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to come out. You do however, need to be aware something is ‘wrong’ in order to fix it. So no cheating, be objective. We’ll look at how you get round problems in the next post.

So, that’s where you start. In Part 2 we’ll take a look at how you develop your simple shape into a workable garden design. Oh, and if there is nothing at all in your back garden, then you just do points 1-4, and sit back with a smug look on your face as you have no ‘does it stay, does it go?’ decisions to make.

Don’t Want To Wait To Learn The Next Steps…

If you want to know the FastTrack, step-by-step method that will get you the results you want with your garden quickly and easily, then take a look at the Great Garden Formula Course…




About Rachel Mathews

Professional international garden designer for over 20 years. My mission is to de-mystify garden design and make it easy for people to successfully design their own garden - without needing to spend a fortune!


  1. Ron Wheeler says:

    Oh Rachel…you’ve joined the LAP club. That’s the club of designers who tell people to Look At Pictures for inspiration. The trouble I have though is I don’t really read the pictures in any detail. One designer’s book I have has a little section on how to look at photographs and formulate questions about what the details might mean for the reader’s garden. So, can you please give us some tips on observation skills and perhap suggest how we might add a great caption to the pictures we collect?

  2. Ron – laughing! I wondered what you were going to say with me being a member of the LAP club! ;o)

    Yes looking at pictures is one very good way to go. What you need to look for is commonalities between the gardens you like. Are the gardens you like the most modern, traditional, informal or formal?

    Formal gardens tend to have more straight-lines and if they are traditional, lots of clipped box and yew hedges to define the lines more. Informal gardens tend to have less defined shapes and are more sweeping curves with a looser style of planting, more relaxed.

    What features draw your interest? Do you like water? Do you like hidden seating areas? Basically look at every single thing you see in each picture and go through a yes/no do you like it.

    To speed up the process just do that with gardens you like the look of and then study them further to work out why you like them. Once you know what you like, you can then work out how to re-create it in your garden.

    For a lot of people, looking at pictures is easier than actually being in the garden because they can see everything in one go. You might be the opposite and do better visiting gardens to get an idea of what you do and don’t like.

  3. Kim Gutteridge says:

    I must say that “Looking at Pictures” has certainly given me more confidence in my own garden design. It is generally understood that alot of people struggle to see how a flat drawing translates to the finished garden design in 3D therefore “pictures” or photographs are an excellent resource for gauging size, height, depth and colour in a garden. Whilst I wouldn’t advocate creating a replica of another garden, I believe that “photographs” can give someone the confidence to develop their own inspirations/ideas to carry forth in their own gardens. Where would be without Gardening Books or Garden Design websites etc?

  4. do i get a prize somebody forgot to mention putting h2o gel into the ground before you start planting especially in a small courtyard garden reflective heat etc. Don’t forget 18 month Osmocote.

  5. No daddy dearest you don’t win a prize as you haven’t listed your garden woes! Nice try though! ;o)

    In case anyone is wondering Osmocote is a slow release fertilizer which is great for raised planters.

    R x
    ps just wondering, how many other posts have you read?! I wouldn’t go back too far if I were you!

  6. Joanna Rodwell says:

    Hello again

    I find a stumbling block where I am not sure if circle/oval or straight/rectangle would be better when I actually like both in their right situation …. our back yard is currently a fairly empty square of lawn with things encroaching randomly . I just cant get around a procrastination of whether round or square would be best – to maximise the feel of space but allow for some important shade planting to happen (here in Australia the summer heat from an overhead sun is extreme). The shade needs to be “in” the overall space not just about the perimeters. How can one do “insideout” spaces in the quest for shade??


  7. Hi Joanna,

    If you are having trouble deciding, then work on 2 different designs – really go for it and develop them in full, leave it for a day and take a look with a fresh pair of eyes. If you still can’t decide which you like best, peg them out in your garden and see which one feels & looks right when you’ve lived with it for a while.

    You can create shade using a timber pergola structure over the top of patios and walkways to create shade. Another way is to strategically place trees so that they cast shade in the areas that need it.

    The trees don’t need to only be on the perimeter, you can incorporate them into the garden with the shape of the planting beds – if they have bare stems, so you can see past them, then they don’t dominate the view.

    Hope that makes sense!

  8. Dana C. says:

    Thank you so much for the inspiration. At my last home I paid a landscape architect to design my front garden. Funny thing is, I told him what I envisioned and he put my exact idea on paper and charged me $1,000 to do it! Granted the yard turned out fantastic, but this time around I believe, with your help, I can come up with my own garden design.

    Several months ago I moved into a ranch-style home in Los Angeles with a large garden (at least by L.A. standards) in both the front and back yards. Currently they are just large square lots of lawn and with a few border plants and nothing else.

    I purchased your course on surveying the garden and just today bought my own 100′ tape measure. Wish me luck! I will see how the first phase of my project goes. Despite my vast library of garden and landscaping books, your course has really provided me with the confidence to take this project on.

    • Hi Dana,

      Thanks so much for your feedback, really pleased to be of help! Good luck with the measuring, let me know if you have any questions and I hope you’ll share the results of your garden makeover with us at some point.

      Which part of LA are in? I lived near Laguna Beach for a few months, Dana Point was my favourite place to hang out (best berry smoothies in the world!). I know what you mean about the size of gardens, I landscaped one out there and it was absolutely tiny!

  9. Alison Boocock says:

    I want to spend a wee bit money in my garden, but don’t know where to start! I’m tired of looking at squares but I just can’t seem to get down on paper a design that I could use without spending a fortune on expensive landscaping!

    • Rachel Mathews says:

      Hi Alison,

      Have you tried making your lawn a circular shape? Just changing the shape of your lawn can make a tremendous difference – so start there and then see what ideas follow from that.


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