What are the things to think about when designing a garden ?
Literally the ‘spirit of the place’, what is the prevailing character or atmosphere of the location ? Landscape architects and garden designers use the principle that landscape or garden designs should be adapted to the context in which they are located. As an example, a Cotswold cottage garden in the City of London might look out of place !
Form follows function
Deciding what the garden should be used for is key to the design: should there be a childrens’ play area, an evening relaxing space with a firepit, an area for growing vegetables ? A swimming pool ? Sheds ? A compost heap ?
Although every design for a garden is intrinsically different, there are lots of different styles that can be an inspiration for the design: cottage, contemporary, country Mediterranean, Japanese, urban etc.
Regulating line from a feature
This helps visualise the way individual pieces or parts of a design will relate to the other parts and to the property. Any number of features can be used to establish a regulating line, such as the edge of a building, the property boundary, a doorway, a prominent tree, etc.
Proportion and balance
Getting the sense that a garden has the correct proportions is important. If the proportions are not correct it impairs the visual appeal of the garden and, more often than not, it creates problems in using the garden e.g. plants outgrowing their allotted space or outdoor dining furniture unable to be correctly positioned. One way of helping to define proportions is to use the golden ratio - a ratio of proportion that’s been observed in everything from the Great Pyramids at Giza to the Greek Parthenon and has been used throughout history as a guide to a pleasing sense of balance and order. Another is to use a prominent feature of the property to define proportion e.g. the dimensions of an extension.
Enclosure and movement
Whether large or small, with or without views, a garden is, in essence, a form of enclosure. From the earliest days of settlement, humans have used enclosures to protect, develop and enjoy their land and gardens by putting bounds on a property. This theme can be extended to create enclosures within a garden: secluded spaces or small bounded areas from which to view the rest of the garden. Combined with this can be a method or way to move around the garden: paths leading to secret spaces or an enticement to go to a focal point from which there is a stunning view.
Height and mass
A garden with very little structural height, whether plants or otherwise, can be very unappealing whereas a garden full of tall trees, shrubs, planting and large structures can be overwhelming. Obtaining a balance with respect to the height of structural items and the mass of planting is important. A golden rule is to plant big to small: start with trees, then shrubs, then perennials, then ground cover. Include other tall structural items to help break up the spaces if necessary with e.g. a pergola or arch.
A garden should be a relaxing space. When there is a ‘mish mash’ of materials, plants or colour it can be very unsettling. Keeping the number of materials down, planting in masses with repetition and having a consistent colour scheme helps to provide a sense of unity and provides a degree of calmness.
Design needs to be matched to available budget. There is no point designing a Ferrari when there is only budget for a Mini !
What is a garden ? Although the tendency is to have more manageable outside spaces in our very hectic lives I would suggest we all like to have the opportunity to step out into a space more ‘connected’ with nature. Most of us would think of a garden as an adjunct to a house, a place to sit and relax in sunshine (if we get any !), a lawn for children to play on, borders full of splendid colourful plants, beds to grow some vegetables or fruit with perhaps some running water to soften the din from outside. But where did gardens originate ? Why are they important to us ? How have they developed over time ?
We can trace the history of gardens, certainly in Eurasia, back several millennia to the area known as the ‘Fertile Crescent’. The ‘Fertile Crescent’ is the name given to a crescent-shaped region containing the comparatively moist and fertile land of otherwise arid and semi-arid West Asia between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in the east to the Nile Valley and Nile Delta of northeast Africa. Often also called the ‘Cradle of Civilisation’, this area is commonly associated with a number of significant historical developments such as the birth of agriculture, irrigation, writing and counting, the wheel and glass.
This region may have been occupied by Homo Erectus migrants from Africa about 1-2 million years ago with a further wave of Homo Sapiens migrants about 100,000 years ago. Hunting and gathering would have pre-dominated as a method for obtaining food until about 10,000 BC when people started practicing loose agriculture by herding animals, harvesting wild grains and living in small communities. Larger scale urbanisation followed between 5000 and 3500 BC in Anatolia and the East Mediterranean coastal plain. Early urban homes may have included been simple compounds whereas later ones would have been built with rectangular yards or gardens to keep animals and plants. As time passed, the enclosures would have become more elaborate in terms of design and use of planting. Interestingly, the word ‘paradise’ is derived from the Persian ‘pairidaeza’meaning ‘an enclosure’. The first ‘pairidaeza’were probably fruit and animal gardens. Significantly, these enclosed outdoor spaces started to become associated with perfection. In Greek ‘pairidaeza’came to mean ‘heaven’ and was later adapted in Biblical accounts to mean ‘the Garden of Eden’. Later, in the Koran, paradise is seen as a reward for the faithful symbolised by a perfect garden having shade, water and pavilions.
Conditions in different parts of the ‘Fertile Crescent’ zone led to different ways of developing gardens. The ability to reclaim land from marshes and to irrigate dry areas in Mesopotamia from the adjoining rivers allowed an increase in agriculture. With this increase, the need for hunting was reduced to a sport which subsequently allowed the creation of designated ‘royal’ parks from the newly acquired and irrigated land to contain the hunting grounds. These further developed into more bespoke parks that were designed to contain botanical and zoological specimens. These were not designed in the modern sense but as a means of satisfying a curiosity about the known world. Again, and in my opinion, with the increase of agriculture, the need for settlement enclosures to serve purely as productive and ornamental gardens shifted to focus on gardens for pleasure.
In contrast, further north in Persia, which was predominantly mountainous and riverless, water was highly valued and regarded as the source of life. This, together with Zoroastrianism, which drew contrasts between good and evil, order and chaos, desert and cultivation and, as the Persian religion, predated Islam, influenced the way gardens were perceived and developed. Irrigation and underground canals were built which made cultivation possible. Although no-one knows exactly when first created, the ‘chahar bagh’, or four part garden, was an enclosed space divided into parts by water channels. The geometric style of Persian gardens developed from this four part theme. From a practical point of view, the need for shade and water in a hot, arid climate would have been paramount.
After the great Persian empires subsided the empires of Greece and then of Rome were responsible for further developments in the Mediterranean region. Roman town house and country villa constructions in particular provides many examples of how gardens developed in urban and semi-rural environments across the region. Typically, these were designed to have the main familial buildings accessing courtyard style gardens through to large garden sections perhaps being or leading to orchards. Due to the reaches of the Roman empire this design style permeated many areas and would also have been influential in subsequent developments.
In Britain, medieval gardens for common people were generally small rectangular, well ordered enclosed spaces with a style determined by monasteries and manor houses. They were very functional mainly growing herbs, vegetables and fruit with areas for fishponds and dovecotes to provide fish and eggs. These persisted well into the Victorian period.
For the wealthy, medieval palace gardens were less functional with raised beds for scented flowers and sheltered areas for privacy and shade. Tudor gardens, influenced by the Italian Renaissance, were developed on a larger scale with a greater regularity of design and a more determined relationship to great houses. The most recognised feature of gardens in this period was the knot garden. During the Stuart period gardens became even larger. These were influenced by the great formal gardens of France and designed to be symmetrical with long walks and rides ending in woods and parks beyond – the birth of avenues. Fountains were installed on large areas of water, pleached trees formed boundaries and parterres overtook the knot gardens. The concept of enormous landscape parks brought about by landscape designers such as ‘Capability Brown’ prevailed in the Georgian era and included such delights as grottos and ha-has.
The end of the 19thcentury saw a growth in gardening in Victorian Britain as a pushback against the industrial revolution. Styles for smaller gardens developed for the less wealthy with more focus on exotic colourful species in more natural garden settings. The 20th and 21st centuries has brought about a multitude of different styles, planting schemes and structures based on all the innovations from the previous millennia and more modern ones. The main reasons for having a garden, however, are still the same as when they were first developed: a ‘paradise’, for the person and spirit !
This has been a great project. Planting now finalised, just need to wait for things to take and grow. Great work by Mark Firmin Garden Landscaping (http://www.mvfirminlandscaping.co.uk/about.html)
The Warmington garden is very near to completion now. Bespoke features always need testing. The rill and bubblejet fountain in this case are both working !
Local firm Minster Paving has used one of my gardens recently constructed in Lechlade to show off how their products can work in a well designed situation. See www.minsterpaving.co.uk/products/standlake-smooth/ the garden with the wooden pergola !
The Northleach garden is practically complete...it just needs final planting and a bespoke summerhouse !
In building gardens it's critical to work with very competent (and talented) people that can execute a plan to the highest detail. Here's Nic Yeoman of Hortis Landscapes constructing a garden in Northleach, Gloucestershire with Steve Harvey of SAH Electrical Ltd. making preparations for lighting.
And here's one being started by Mark Firmin of MV Firmin Garden Landscaping in Warmington, Warwickshire
More to come in a few weeks time !
Now the summer holidays are over, looking forward to a busy autumn. First off - Landscape Show in Battersea Park, 18th / 19th September..hopefully lots of new ideas for materials and interesting talks from great industry leaders: http://www.landscapeshow.co.uk/seminar-programme-18
I wrote this small article for the Cotswold Times to help homeowners think about how they could go about designing and constructing a new garden. I hope it's helpful !
I've actually won an award for one of my designs !! Excellent news ! The garden that won is in Long Compton, Warwickshire and was a delight to create. I'm really pleased !
Here's the link to the award feature:
Rob Howard, Garden Designer