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Creating the design

Sketch your design and try to achieve a balance of plants, structures and open areas. A well-designed garden will have a strong outline, achieved by using a combination of shapes and patterns. It should look good in its own right, even before you add the plants, which add colour, soften any hard edges, add height and screenunsightly views.

To create the right balance, you need to evolve a pattern using shapes - squares, circles, hexagons, rectangles, arcs and so on, but before you can do this you first need to measure your plot.

The measure of it

Garden design mood boardCareful and accurate measurements are essential. You will need a tape measure and pegs or bamboo canes to hold the tape. Make a freehand sketch of the outline of your garden, marking the position of the house, doors, windows and the position of fixed objects.

Once you have marked everything on your sketch, you will need to measure the distances between the fixed objects in relation to a known point – in this case the house, as it can be safely assumed that it will have 90 degree corners. The easiest and most accurate way to do this is by using a method known as triangulation, which determines the position of one point (C) in relation to two known points (A) and (B).

Tips: When making triangles, avoid acute angles at the apex as this reduces the accuracy. Also, get into the habit of working in metres/centimetres - multiples of 10 are easier and more accurate than feet/inches, and particularly useful when it comes to buying materials, which these days tend to be calculated and sold using metric measurements.


Now you need to reduce your rough measurements down to a convenient scale - usually 1:100 for larger gardens (1cm on the rule equals 100cm/1m on the ground) and 1:50 for a smaller plot and for drawing planting details.

  • Pin a large piece of squared paper onto a board and draw in the house first.
  • Then, using a pair of compasses you can mark off your first measurement. To do this open your compasses and use a scale rule to determine the length of your first measurement.
  • Now place the spike into point (A) and mark an arc to point (C) and repeat this from point (B) to point (C), marking a cross on the paper where the arcs intersect.
  • Do this all around the garden to the other corners as well as to each cane placed along the boundary fences and to any other retained objects/features.
  • You can now complete your drawing by joining up your crosses for boundaries, draw in tree canopies and other objects that may exist.

From this you should have a fairly accurate measurement; although your builder will need to double check all measurements for the purposes of ordering materials.

Using masking tape, anchor a piece of tracing paper over your drawing and you can begin to experiment with your new design without destroying your sketch plan below by working in pencil on the sheet of tracing paper above. You can do this as many times as you wishby using fresh sheets of tracing paper.

Shaping up

This stage has nothing to do with horticulture and everything to do with making space work in a visually satisfying way, so imagine it is an empty space that you can fill with any shapes you choose. Think only of planting in general terms - boundary hedges, internal divisions, feature tree as a focal point - but don’t get bogged down with what plants will go where at this stage.

Look at the house and where possible follow the lines of doors and windows into the garden and evolve your patterns so they imitate these fixed points. The facades of most houses are designed with proportion in mind, so try to use the same proportion so that both house and garden fit well together. Look for the strongest feature on the house, such as a bay window, and then see how its proportions relate to the rest of the fa├žade. If there is no dominant feature, look for the rhythm of doors and windows. 

All garden design begins with pattern and by sticking to simple organic geometric shapes you will be able to create good proportions that sit well within the site. Think of the shapes as being the hard landscaping/lawn/structures and what’s left over - the voids - as planting areas. Let the lines of the squared paper act as a grid and use them to help you draw your patterns and shapes. Use a pair of compasses for circles, arcs and ovals - or you can buy a template of shapes.

Avoid the temptation to draw wiggly lines as they will look fussy and contrived. If you want to include flowing lines go for gentle curves instead. Try to create strong lines and shapes and don’t worry that they will look hard - in reality planting will soften them and perspective will change them completely and will often remove much of the shape from view. Off-set rectangles and squares respond well to perspective and by enlarging the forward area will make the distance appear further away. (See drawing above).

Changes of level, even if only slightly, can alter the whole look, giving the feeling of space, particularly in a small garden - just one step can make a big difference - and where possible, try to take advantage of existing levels.

Raised beds and retaining walls will create the illusion of space as will wide steps, which also add an air of elegance. Ramps are useful for wheelchair access, but beware; they do need more space than steps.

Think big

The above drawing is very simplistic, but does nevertheless do everything that has been discussed already. It illustrates the use of off-set rectangles and squares - the lines of the shapes have been left in to demonstrate this but obviously, in reality, the two sections of lawn will be one whole. You can also see that the forward area is larger than the second section, to give the appearance of it being further away. Notice also that the main lawn area follows the proportions of the house running from the doors on the left to the side return of the house.

A utility area towards the back of the garden is hidden by the use of tall screening plants, possibly bamboo, and to add to the height they are planted in a raised bed. A gate is also provided so the whole utility area is completely enclosed.

The rest of the garden is paved right up to the lawn, which helps keep the plants off the grass and also will make the job of mowing much easier. Paving all around the garden is also useful if you have children as it makes an excellent cycle track and wheelchair users would also find it an asset. Tackling the manhole cover is easy too as you can buy sunken covers into which the same paving stones can be inset, making a perfectly flat finish.

Think big, even in a small space, and abandon your inhibitions. Just because you have a small garden doesn’t mean you can’t have big planting areas. It’s not essential to keep the planting to the edges either - try to create planting voids within the garden, as demonstrated in the illustration, to add a sense of mystery and the illusion of there being lots more garden beyond. Try to avoid complicated designs and keep it as simple as possible and above all, have fun with your design.

Next article: Materials

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