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Module 4: Introduction to Garden Design – Pt 1

If you have a decent-sized garden available to enjoy, then a bit of planning and an understanding of some key garden design principles will help you create your own private oasis.

Garden design sketch

As a garden designer, I am often surprised by how often I will visit a client who owns a beautiful house which they have lovingly decorated and yet their garden is an absolute mess.

For some reason, homeowners often ignore any design principles they may know when selecting any items in their garden. Homeowners seem to consistently visit garden centres at bank holiday weekends and buy anything that catches their eye. This sporadic buying leads to a selection of unrelated garden items and an uncoordinated garden that are often eyesores.

As part of the beginner’s gardening course, we have three modules dedicated to garden design. These three lessons will not all be added together, but they will include:

  1. Undertaking a site survey (this module)
  2. Understand garden design elements and principles (Module 6)
  3. Garden design and planning (Module 8)
Garden design
Garden designer in action

Lesson Objectives:

  • Undertake a site survey
  • Understand the garden dimensions
  • Identify the microclimates of your garden

Step 1: Site Survey

The starting point for any garden design is to fully understand your own garden space and the gardens / exterior elements that influence the look and feel of your garden.

Understand the garden dimensions.

As your first task, you want to create a sketch of the garden drawn to scale, so get outside and measure up your garden. You will likely need a decent-sized tape measure – possibly up to 30m.

If your sketching skills are not quite scratch, you can try free software such as myGarden by Gardena.

Start by identifying and getting the dimensions of the main boundary lines. Note what type of fencing has been used and its state of repair. The style of fencing plays a big role in defining the

Mark the house on the plan and the main doors, windows and side access.

Key plants and features that will remain part of the design should be noted.

Look at external features beyond your boundary lines, such as a neighbour’s garden trampoline or overhanging trees.

Pro tip: To ensure your diagram is accurate, measure the distance to any garden objects from two points, i.e. from two corners of your house. This triangulation method is far more accurate and should save any problems in the future.

Garden survey
Measure your garden carefully.

Identifying microclimates – the importance of aspect and orientation

Next up, identify which way your garden is facing and mark out how much sun the different garden areas receive. This will influence where you may want to sit in the garden and which plants will thrive there.

Pro tip: The time of year you undertake the site survey is important to remember. Trees and shrubs may have lost their leaves during winter, and the sun will stay much lower – factor this into your design process.

Understanding your soil type, structure and pH

Understanding your soil type is vital to ensure you select the plants that are most likely to flourish in your garden. Here are a few key pointers about the importance of understanding your soil.

  1. Most plants prefer a pH between 6.0 and 7.5.
  2. Check for organic matter content. A high organic matter content can improve soil structure, nutrient retention, and water-holding capacity.
  3. Observe plant growth. Different plants grow better in different soil types. If certain plants are thriving in your garden, it may indicate the type of soil you have.
  4. Look for the presence of rocks and gravel. Sandy soil may contain more rocks and gravel than clay or loam soils.
  5. Check for the presence of earthworms. Earthworms can help improve soil structure and nutrient cycling.

It can seem daunting to start with, but soil assessment is not that complicated. Follow our list of steps below to get going.

Garden soil test kit
Testing soil for ph and nutrient content

How to Identify your soil type and texture.

  1. Soil texture can be determined by taking a small amount of soil and rolling it between your fingers.
    • If it feels gritty, it may be sandy.
    • If it feels sticky, it may be clay.
    • If it feels smooth and crumbly, it may be loam.
  2. Check the soil’s colour.
    • Dark brown or black soil is usually high in organic matter
    • Lighter soil colour indicates a lower organic matter content.
  3. Test the soil’s drainage.
  4. Dig a hole about 6 inches deep and fill it with water.
    • If the water drains quickly, the soil may be sandy.
    • If the water drains slowly, the soil may be clay.
    • If the water drains moderately, the soil may be loam.
  5. Test the soil’s pH. Use a pH testing kit to determine the soil’s acidity or alkalinity. Most plants prefer a pH between 6.0 and 7.5.
  6. Check for organic matter content. A high organic matter content can improve soil structure, nutrient retention, and water-holding capacity.
  7. Observe plant growth. Different plants grow better in different soil types. If certain plants are thriving in your garden, it may indicate the type of soil you have.
  8. Look for the presence of rocks and gravel. Sandy soil may contain more rocks and gravel than clay or loam soils.
  9. Check for the presence of earthworms. Earthworms can help improve soil structure and nutrient cycling.
Soil test kit
Soil test kit

How to identify the pH of your soil.

  1. Dig a small hole in the soil about 4 inches deep using a trowel or a shovel.
  2. Take a small amount of soil from the bottom of the hole and put it into a clean container.
  3. Repeat steps 3 and 4 in several locations where you want to test.
  4. Mix the soil samples in the container.
  5. Remove any stones, twigs, or other debris from the soil.
  6. Put a small amount of the mixed soil sample into a soil test kit tube.
  7. Add the barium sulfate powder to the tube according to the instructions.
  8. Add distilled water to the tube, filling it to the mark indicated on it.
  9. Shake the tube vigorously for 30 seconds.
  10. Allow the tube to sit for 5-10 minutes until the soil settles.
  11. Observe the colour of the soil in the tube.
  12. Compare the colour to the colour chart in the instructions for the soil test kit.
  13. Record the soil’s pH level and repeat steps 8-14 for each soil sample taken from different locations in the garden.

Pro tip: Choose a day for testing when the soil is dry for the most accurate results. Avoid testing after rain or watering.

Task:

You are now ready to get on and undertake your own site survey. Identify different microclimates in your garden and check the soil type in different areas.

Coming Next

That’s it for today. Hopefully, you have more of an understanding of the different plant types and how to mix them in your garden. Keep referring to this page if you ever need to understand and identify a plant type.

The next module in the design series is on Design Elements and Principles.

Updated on March 5, 2024

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