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May 2011
Design A Garden With Living In Mind


A few readers have asked me for more basic tips in designing their gardens. One of them summed up all the questions perfectly, “It’s all well and good to discuss objectives and styles, but how does one actually begin?”

I laughed because I can empathise easily. The act of creating anything from a blank slate – an empty page, a new canvas, or a bare patch of land – can be daunting. From time to time, even I can stare at an empty plot of lawn and reach a designer’s block. So for this article, I’ll start right at the very beginning.

The first step
Designing a garden is all about people and nature. Planning an outdoor room is essentially how you optimise the space available for you and your family to enjoy nature. You arrange plants, furniture and other accessories for this purpose. Think ahead when planning for your garden. How much maintenance can you bear and how frequently? How long can it withstand the weather? What are the maintenance costs? Can it accommodate your family’s needs in the future?

This will significantly narrow down your choice of greenery and material. I’m going to assume that most people would opt for the lower-maintenance path. This means grass. If you have a large area, most of it will be grass. If you have a small garden, you have more options. You can still have grass, or opt for a timber decking with pebbles with a mix of plants. Now, before you start planting grass or building your decking, ensure that your garden isn’t waterlogged. How to tell? Just wait until after a downpour and check if there are puddles. If it is waterlogged, you need to dig and remove any debris buried under the topsoil.

Sounds like a walk in the park at this stage. But here’s where creativity comes in.

Focal point
One of the easiest ways to start designing a garden is to select a focal point. A focal point is a feature, such as a small fountain, a rock waterfall, or a bonsai tree. That is the first thing people notice when they gaze at your garden. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. For a small garden, a solitary frangipani will do the trick. Once you have the focal point sorted, the rest of the design follows naturally because all the elements in your garden converge visually to the focal point.

You can now map out seating arrangement oriented towards the focal point. Next, you plan a footpath, winding a little here and there, but leading to your seating area. Then you specify the plants around the seating area, as well as to fill out the edges and corners of your garden. See what I mean by design following naturally? And by no means do you arrange your plants in neat rows like a group of soldiers. Variety is the key! The rule of thumb is to have large plants at the back, medium in front, and small ones to fill empty spaces. Also look at the leaf type and colour – in any grouping of plants, try to mix them up as much as possible.

For instance, you can have a potted yellow palm in one corner, with a leafy Alocasia to camouflage the big pot, and a grouping of asparagus in front. Notice the variety in leaf type and colour?


Creative liberties
You could even opt for a more creative topography. At the edges of your garden near the wall, imagine the land sloping unevenly, with a scattering of rocks and pebbles to lend interesting contrasts. These features bring a garden scene to life and cost little to implement. But as always, don’t go overboard. If you’re not sure what you’re doing, you might end up with unsightly mounds instead of the rolling hills that you wanted.

Another tip is to try and make the furniture blend in with the surroundings. For example, you have a fishpond and you want some seating area near it. The easiest solution would be to shop for garden furniture and place it around the pond. But how about seating that blends in with the pond? If you have a rock pond, maybe some large smooth rocks forming a semi-circle around the pond would be better. Or maybe you can build multi-levelled timber decks where you can sit at the edge and dangle your feet into the pond.

For high traffic areas of your garden, do you want to walk on grass or do you want some paving? Arranging stone slabs or concrete pavers is not as easy as it seems. Try planning the layout on paper before you buy the material. Where would your path lead? Don’t make it straight from your door to your pond – let the path curve a little, or zig-zag around a tree.

Remember these tips and you’re off to a great start!

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