Garden Planning: Look At What You Have – Can you move comfortably from the house to the garden? It’s not as common as it used to be to find the only door to the back garden is from the kitchen. Do you have a door from the living room; would it be desirable to have one from the utility room, or even a main bedroom if you live in a bungalow?
Replacing a window with a door isn’t a major job for a builder, and it might allow you to step out on to a terrace or deck, maybe into the sunshine, perhaps with a pergola overhead for shade. If there is already a patio, is it adequate for your purposes, or should you think of making it more generous?
If the ground is flat, you may be able to walk out at the same level as the house. In many cases, there will be a slope, however slight this will need to be taken into account, and if the house is old and sits a little above the ground, steps will be needed. Should they be at the door, or do you want to create a terrace leading to it?
Paths and pavements are another matter. If they fit your purposes, fine, but if they don’t – and some builders seem to have a genius for putting them in strange places – the cost of replacing them will be money well spent.
A sloping site may call for the movement of soil to create level areas for outdoor living, with banks and possibly retaining walls and steps to link it all together. Here you have another garden design theme, one that can be so effective that people have been known to create level changes where they weren’t really needed, just for interest. But remember that earthworks will mean either spending money on a contractor or backbreaking work – a level site is easier to develop.
On the other hand, a steeply sloping hillside site may offer fine views, and you will want to ensure that your plants frame them while, at the same time, masking visual distractions – which usually take the form of neighboring houses and telephone poles.
Are there trees growing in the garden? There is nothing like trees to give the garden a head start, and you should think very carefully indeed before deciding to remove any. Even if a tree looks a little scruffy now, a few years’ care may turn it into a beauty. Judicious pruning may be needed to reveal handsome trunks and branches. However, if you have doubts about pruning or the safety of any tree, consult a tree surgeon.
Soil and drainage
What sort of soil do you have to work with? If it’s not the ideal deep, crumbly loam, don’t worry, as beautiful gardens have been made with all soil types. It’s almost always better to work with what you have than to import topsoil (unless the house builder has carried all your natural topsoil away or buried it irretrievably under subsoil and rubble). Any soil can be improved by cultivation and the addition of as much organic matter – compost and the like – as you can manage.
Check the drainage. Simply dig a couple of holes about half a meter deep and fill them with water; if it has drained away after 24 hours, you have no worries. If it hasn’t, you might think of laying land drains or creating a number of raised beds.
It’s essential to know whether your soil is alkaline or acid, as this will determine many of the types of plant that you can grow. For example, many heathers and rhododendrons require an acid soil to flourish. If you can wait until summer, look at the color of hydrangeas growing in your area; if they are blue, the soil is acid, if pink, it is alkaline. Although this will give you a rough idea of local soil type, to check your garden accurately, you can use an inexpensive soil testing kit available from garden centers.