Design A Garden Successfully:
How To Think Like A Garden Designer

Trying to design a garden? The secret of success is to think like a professional garden designer. So throw away your preconceptions and learn how to see and think about your garden space in a different way.

Years ago I asked a very talented garden designer how she went about designing a garden and she replied, 'Well it's really very simple: to design a garden you need to think like a garden designer.'

At first glance this may not seem a very helpful answer, and, at the time it wasn't because she was unable to fully explain what she meant!

However, later that evening I got a phone call...

'It's like this: when I design a garden I design it as a whole. I don't design individual features in isolation instead I try to create connections between each element so that they form a pleasing and coherent whole.'

She went on to outline some of the most important techniques she uses - techniques that can be learnt and used by you and me as we create our perfect garden.

1 Always look at the 'Big Picture'

When most of us look at our gardens we tend to focus on individual problem areas such as the worn bit of lawn under the washing line, the broken fence or the ugly, bramble covered shed in the corner.

The professional garden designer on the other hand, sees things rather differently.

They look at the size and shape of the garden space as a whole, the direction it faces, and the style of the house and the neighbouring area.

It is by looking at the big picture that they are able to design a garden as a whole. A garden that is in sympathy with its surroundings and is a delight to use.

2 Never be afraid to 'Shape the Space'

We are naturally rather conservative and fearful when it comes to making dramatic changes to our garden space.

Most gardens are roughly rectangular and our natural tendency is to maximise the available space by keeping the central area as empty as possible and pushing flower beds and other features to the outside.

An experienced garden designer knows that this does not work. All it does is emphasise the boundaries by laying bare the central space. You only need to take one look at such a garden for your mind to see it for what it is. Such a garden has no sense of mystery and hidden surprises.

Instead the garden designer will employ a little trickery and deception by dividing the space within the boundaries into different areas or 'rooms'.

This instantly makes the garden seem more interesting and inviting, and turns us from passive observers into explorers drawn further and further into the garden by our human curiosity.

3 Look for opportunities to create 'Interest and Surprise'

We are by nature curious and the very best gardens are those where it isn't possible to see the whole garden at any one time.

A path that turns a corner out of sight invites us to follow it to see where it leads. An archway beckons us to step through it to the garden beyond.

Think of your garden as an invitation to take a journey.

Perhaps a path curves out of view only to reveal a charming bench surrounded by fragrant plants.

Sit on the bench and you may be rewarded with the sight of a delightful water feature creating a focal point in the opposite direction.

The possibilities are endless and all it takes is a little creative thinking.

4 Aim for a 'Balanced Design'

Getting the balance right is crucial when you are trying to design a garden. In an unbalanced design one part of the garden is busy and cramped whilst another part is empty and lacking.

To avoid this, the professional designer will check for balance throughout the design and planning process.

You can easily do the same by taking care to visualise your design every time you make changes.

Try to picture your design as it will appear in three dimensions and think about such factors as seasonality when you design the planting.

For example, if you plant evergreens down one side and herbaceous perennials down the other, the garden will seem balanced in summer but quite the opposite when the perennials die down in winter.

5 Use 'Scale and Proportion' correctly

Scale and proportion are related to balance and in general larger gardens demand larger features that are in scale with the space.

A small tree in a sweeping expanse of lawn will look insignificant and possibly rather ridiculous. A large tree with an impressive spreading canopy, on the other hand, will look as if it belongs in it's surroundings.

Similarly, a vast tree in a smaller garden will not work, a smaller, more delicate specimen is needed.

All perfectly logical so far...

... but something interesting happens with very small gardens. If you fill your tiny garden exclusively with tiny furniture, plants and containers the effect will be to emphasise the lack of space. Instead use a small number of large pots and a limited range of bold plants.

This is where the technique of visualisation really comes into its own - so use it throughout the garden design process.

6 Take advantage of 'Vertical Space'

Every garden designer knows the importance of vertical space. Think about it: no matter what size your garden is in square footage, the vertical space above it is practically limitless so take advantage of it.

Vertical features draw the eye upwards and can make your garden seem much bigger.

Again the trick is not to confine such features to the edges of your garden. Use pergolas, obelisks and arches to punctuate the central space, and enliven low planting with the addition of taller specimens that act as vertical accents.


If you keep these techniques at the forefront of your mind when you design a garden, the results will be more aesthetically pleasing. A well designed garden is always a delight to look at and a delight to use.

For more information visit these related Garden and Landscape Design pages

Further garden and landscape design ideas and tips can be found on these pages:

Cottage Garden Design: How To Recreate This Romantic Garden Style

Contemporary Garden Design: 10 Must-Read Tips

Design a Garden For Outdoor Entertaining

Raised Bed Garden Design: Tips and Ideas

Patio Ideas: How To Plan The Perfect Patio

An overview of the garden and landscape design process can be found at the 'Garden and Landscape Design Guide'.