Planning your garden

Welcome to the first of our landscaping DIY articles.

Before designing and creating your garden, I recommend you undertake a short planning phase to clarify your requirements and gather ideas. In this, the first of our DIY how-to’s, I’ll take you through some questions to ask yourself before you begin, and give you advice on gathering ideas. Every garden is unique, so my goal here is not to give you ‘the answer’ to what your garden should look like, but rather to have you asking the right questions up front. Try not to skip this step, even if you feel you know what it is you want, as there may be ideas here that you have not considered before. Good preparation is the key to a great garden, so if you’re going to spend time and money on your garden take some time to plan it.

What do you want to use your garden for?

  • Entertainment & Braaiing
    If you want to entertain family and guests with a braai then you’ll need to decide whether you want to purchase a mobile braai such a Weber (that can be rolled into place when needed), or whether you want a custom-built braai. Custom-built braais fit seamlessly into your garden design, whilst mobile braais give you the flexibility to move them around as and when needed.
  • Children’s play areas
    If you have young children, consider building play areas with sand pits and artificial lawns. You could even include playground objects such as jungle-gyms and rocking horses. For safety reasons you should always use playpen sand beneath your playground objects, and leave a space of 1.5+ metres between these objects and any hard landscaping elements such as paving and pots.
  • Swimming
    There are many options when it comes to adding a pool to your garden. New eco-friendly options called eco-pools are popular, as they essentially serve as a combination pool and natural water feature – and require less maintenance. A swimming pool is a separate service to landscaping, and I recommend that you choose your preferred pool supplier and pool location before moving on to the design of your garden – if you are still building your home then you will likely already have the pool drawn up in your architectural plans. Once your pool has been placed and installed, the additional work on your garden can begin. Just remember to ask your pool installer where the piping is, so you don’t find yourself rupturing pool pipes whilst installing your garden.
  • Reading and intimate moments
    If you’d like to use your garden for reading or for romantic, intimate moments, you’ll most likely want to incorporate benches and seating areas in your garden. Search your local suppliers (DIY stores/outdoor furniture stores etc.) for benches and seating that appeals to you. You could also build a custom-made outdoor seating area, with built-in braai as above. If you are going to use your garden for relaxation and reading, I recommend you include a water feature, which adds the sound of flowing water to your outdoor experience, and will help to drown out extraneous noise from the surrounding neighbourhood.
  • Use by pets
    If you own pets, then you should take their needs into consideration, and include some pet-friendly elements. Consider using lawn or a hardy ground cover around the kennel instead of placing your pets directly onto paving. Soft-landscaping materials will also help reduce the temperature of these areas, especially in summer. If you’re going to use lawn in your garden, remember that some lawns are more sensitive to heavy traffic, such as dogs. In South Africa, Kikuyu is often the first choice for home owners, and certainly this is an excellent choice for sunny to lightly shaded areas. Kikuyu however does not do well in the shade, and combined with heavy traffic from pets may quickly die off. In this case you’re better off investigating other grass species such as shade-over. LM lawn is an excellent choice for shady areas, but requires good irrigation and does not handle heavy traffic very well, so keep this in mind if you have pets or children.With regards to plants, consider using pet-friendly species that are not poisonous. (This goes for protecting small children as well) Conversely, if your pets are prone to jumping up against walls – to fight with the neighbours dogs, for example – consider planting protective plants with spines.
  • Attracting wildlife
    It’s wonderful to know that your garden is a wildlife haven for the birds, animals and insects. If you live near a reserve or park then having an indigenous garden will help to attract the wildlife living nearby. Perhaps the most important design element to attracting wildlife is to ensure you include as many indigenous plants as possible. Ideally, the plants you choose should be LOCALLY indigenous, not just indigenous to the country. If you use plants that simulate your surrounding environment then you will likely attract indigenous insects, which in turn will attract natural predators such as other insects and birds. Essentially you’ll be creating a haven that all these species ‘recognise’, and extending the natural ‘green-belt’ of your area. So if attracting local wildlife is your goal, make sure you include as many indigenous species as you can in your design. Other important design features for attracting wildlife include bird baths/ponds, bird feeders, and ‘bug hotels’!
    landscaping for wildlife
  • Wedding
    If you plan to hold a wedding (perhaps yours?) in your garden sometime in the future, then you might want to include features such as a gazebo and/or water features, and space for seating for your guests (preferably beneath the shade of some indigenous trees!). Perhaps you will only install the gazebo at a later date, in which case take into consideration a possible location, and then consider planting trees or possibly paving that area with quality pavers. Remember that a gazebo can be used year round, so consider including some outdoor furniture so that you can use it every day (and not just once-off).
  • Sports
    If you have a sports-oriented family, then provide sufficient space for sporting activities (provided you have sufficient garden space to begin with). A large area of lawn can be used for all manner of sports from football, cricket, putting & chipping, and kids games, whilst owners of large properties may want to include a tennis court or mini-tennis court.

What theme(s) would you like your garden to have?

Now select some themes that relate to what you want to achieve with your garden. I generally find it best to select only a few themes, as selecting too many will create a “liquorice-all-sorts” garden that doesn’t have any theme at all. To this end, try to choose/mix a limited number of themes that encapsulate the vision you have for your garden (I’ll list them in no particular order):

  • Indigenous
  • Low-maintenance
  • Water-wise
  • Wildlife-friendly
  • Modern, clean-lines
  • Lawn-free
  • Ponds
  • Pots
  • Rocky
  • Tropical
  • Forest
  • Oriental
  • Country
  • Formal
  • Mediterranean
  • Contemporary
  • Practical
  • Arid

Are you refurbishing the garden with the intention of selling the property?

If you are selling your property in the coming months, then refurbishing your garden will help to raise the property value – sometimes by up to 30% or more. In this case it is a good idea to first gain an accurate assessment of your property’s market value, which can be done by asking a property agent or property valuation company. Once you have this value, budget how much you’re willing to spend on the garden. As a rough guide you should look to spend between 5-10% of the value of the property on a garden refurbishment, because anything less and you might end up asking yourself whether anything has really changed. Your primary costs for a refurbishment are usually the labour and supervision. If you consider the fact that an experienced team of four can get through the same amount of work in a day as a once-a-week gardener does is a month, then you’ll appreciate the benefit of having a large team to do the work for you.

Once you have a budget for your refurbishment at hand, you then need to decide whether this is a DIY job or whether you need to hire a landscaper to do it for you. If your sale is not urgent, and you have the necessary skills available, then a DIY job might be the right option. On the other hand a landscaping team will be able to complete the project in a relatively short space of time, and will provide you with the added confidence that they are completing the job professionally. They will also be able to handle any secondary issues that may arise from a refurbishment, such as an accidently punctured water pipe, or attending to the irrigation, etc.


Finally, you’ll need to decide how ‘full’ you want your garden to look. If it’s soon to be on show then you may not have the time to wait for it to establish itself, and thus may want to create an semi-instant look by purchasing larger plants and lots of annuals for colour. Don’t overdo the planting though – once the plants start to grow the new owner may end up having to REMOVE some of them, and if you haven’t already sold your property by then then this will be you!

What plant types do you prefer?

Decide what types of plants you prefer – everyone has their preferences and tastes, so tick off a few concepts that appeal to you. Once again as with the theme, try to limit your selection to only a few to ensure your garden has a unified look and feel. You may also choose to have ‘rooms’ (see below) in your garden – sections that each have their own theme and plant types:

  • Fine-leaved
  • Large-leaved
  • Tropical
  • Evergreen
  • Cycad/Cycas
  • Lawn
  • Natural grasses
  • Fynbos
  • Desert
  • Succulents
  • Bushveld
  • Highveld
  • Roses
  • Acacias
  • Palms
  • Ferns
  • Bulbs
  • Climbers

Using colour ‘rooms’ or a colour wheel

If you think of your garden as an extension of your home, then you’ll be able to grasp the concept of ‘rooms’. This is a simple technique that can add value and variety to your garden, and is something we’ve used to great effect in our clients gardens.

'Red room'

‘Red room’ which includes Diasca, Amaryllis & Arctotis

The principle is simple: Begin by choosing an area of your garden – say the area around your patio – and plant plants based on their place in the colour spectrum. So, for example, the section around your patio would contain predominantly white flowering plants. The next section, e.g. around the pool, would contain predominantly yellow and orange flowering plants…or perhaps blue, and so on. If your garden is smaller, then you can use a similar concept known as the colour-wheel, where you groups plants around the garden based on their colour – again following the colour spectrum beginning with white and ending with dark blues, purples and ‘blacks’. This design technique provides a wonderful flow to your garden, and is a simple way to give your garden a great spread of colour whilst still keeping to a specific theme.

Do you want a water feature?

Water features add a dynamic element to your garden, allowing you to experience the soothing sound of flowing water in your garden. If you live in an area with lots of peripheral sounds, e.g. road traffic, then adding a water feature will help ‘drown’ out these sounds and help keep your attention (and your guest’s attention) on your garden.

When deciding to implement a water feature, you have two primary choices: ready-made or custom-built.


Ready-made water features can be purchased from your local nursery or DIY store, and come in all shapes, sizes and colours. They allow you to have your feature up and running in a short space of time, and if you’re willing to shop around, allow you to choose a style that matches exactly the look you want for your garden. Depending on the size, you can ask your garden centre to deliver and install the feature as well. If you go this route we recommend that you have your design down on paper first so as to avoid having to move the water feature later if it doesn’t fit where it’s been installed. Some home owners choose to install large, ready-made water features and then design their gardens around them. Either way, having a rough idea of what you’re after will help save you time and energy.

Custom-built water features are ideal for larger projects, where they are built into the design to exactly match the theme of the garden. If you have building and waterproofing skills then building your own feature can be rewarding.

Other options for water features include streams with wooden bridges, koi ponds, and/or a series of ponds which feed into each other. You could also install an ‘eco-pool’ which doubles as a natural water feature – it’s low-maintenance and can be used to swim in.

Do you want lighting?

A few years ago it wasn’t especially fashionable to have lighting in a garden, but nowadays it has become a popular trend. With the advent of LED’s the cost of having lights in your garden is significantly reduced, and you can even have a remote control system installed to turn them on at the flick of a switch. Adding lighting to your garden is a wonderful way to enhance the value of your property, and it makes a significant difference to your garden. Here are some of the benefits provided by well-placed lighting:

  • allows you to use your garden at night
  • allows you to add focal lights for important structural elements such as trees, water-features, pots and statues
  • provides additional security
  • creates a uniquely intimate feel

garden lighting

When it comes to purchasing outdoor lighting, there are many outlets that can help, including garden centres, DIY stores and lighting specialist stores. There are also companies that specialise in landscape lighting, and these products are beautiful to use in a garden. If you’re going to install lighting then you’ll require the expertise of a qualified electrician to trench and chase the wiring along the walls. I also recommend that you link your lighting to a day/night switch so that your lights turn on automatically at night and switch off automatically in the morning, thus saving more energy.

As a final note it is worth mentioning that whilst solar lights/lamps (available at many DIY stores) may seem like an economical choice for a garden, the technology doesn’t yet match up to an electrical solution. Hopefully in the near future this technology will evolve, but for now we usually find ourselves having to replace these lamps in our clients gardens with a quality installed electrical system.

Trees – important considerations

Let’s look at a few important considerations for the trees in your garden:

  • It is always best practice to plant indigenous trees in your garden – the benefits are numerous (as mentioned above).
  • If you want to use exotics, check with your body corporate if this is allowed since many estates have implemented indigenous-only policies and are removing exotic trees from their owners properties. If you’re not sure if the tree you want to plant is indigenous or not then ask your local nurseryman before purchase, or visit our plantbook to select one.
  • Always choose trees with the appropriate height and spread for your garden, and check the aggressiveness of the root system. Removing large trees is a costly exercise, especially if they have already damaged your walls or property (often about R4000+ per tree). A good rule of thumb is to always place large trees at least 3 metres away from the nearest wall, and smaller, less aggressive trees a metre away.
  • You need to decide what size you initially want your trees to be. If you have the budget you can aim for an instant look and purchase trees that are already over 3 metres tall. The price for such trees varies depending on the species – but expect to pay between R2000 – R6000 for one. If you purchase instant trees you will also need to budget for delivery and having them planted for you. Our recommendation is to be a little more patient and purchase 50 – 100 litre trees. Depending on the species, these will usually be between 1 – 2 metres tall, and, again depending on the species, may grow quite quickly once placed in the ground. Expect slow growth for the first year – as newly planted trees need to spread their root systems – and faster growth from year 2 onwards. As a benchmark, the average tree will give you between 0.5 – 0.8 metres growth per year.
  • If you’re looking for a small, fast-growing tree in Southern Africa, consider the buddleja saligna, a grey-green tree ideally suited to small gardens which can grow between 1 – 1.5 metres per year, and reach a height of over 4 metres under ideal conditions.
  • Some tree sellers encourage their trees to grow fast and tall in order to have ‘larger’ trees for sale. Whilst this is sometimes not a problem, you may find yourself paying for a tree that is technically taller, but may be weaker, and will require a stake for a longer time. If you can find a supplier that focuses on growing trees with thicker stems, consider choosing these trees first. In addition some sellers might say that their trees will grow faster because they’ve been ‘trained’ to do so, however in our experience trees with thicker stems grow just as fast, if not faster, once they’re in the ground.
  • Remember to choose between deciduous and evergreen trees, depending on your requirements. Evergreen trees are useful around pools and gutters as they do not lose their leaves in winter, thus saving you maintenance headaches (they still drop leaves however, just not en masse). Deciduous trees on the other hand lose their leaves in winter, and thus allow more sunlight and warmth into your garden at a time when it’s most needed. You might also get the added benefit of additional colour in your garden as the leaves of deciduous trees turn various shades of yellow, red and brown just before they fall off.

instant tree

An ‘instant’ 450l Lavender tree

Should you use container/potted plants?

Using pots and container plants adds a wonderful structural element to your garden. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you want to use potted plants in your garden:

  • You get what you pay for – Most concrete pots have the colour painted onto them, rather than embedded into them, and whilst this is sometimes not a problem, some paints can flake off in later years. There are however concrete pot manufacturers who embed the colour into their concrete, and whilst these are more expensive the product and paintwork usually lasts longer and is often a better investment.
  • Choose pot colours and styles that match your garden theme
  • Most concrete pots (regardless of quality) will eventually develop hairline cracks; HOWEVER, as with embedded colour, there are pot manufacturers whose pots will not leak when these cracks appear as the pots have be designed to handle this natural process.
  • Some manufacturers create fibre-glass pots which are lighter and easier to move around. If you choose fibreglass make sure that you choose a reliable manufacturer as the paint needs to be embedded correctly.


Once you have selected your pots, it’s time to prepare them for planting, so here’s a trick from the landscaping industry – do not FILL large pots with soil and compost. Doing so simply adds unnecessary weight and pressure on the pot. Instead, place plastic bottles or foam in the base of your pots, before adding a soil and compost mix on top. We recommend a layer of about 50cm, depending on the plants you’re going to use. Keep in mind that the level of the soil will drop in the first few weeks as the soil settles, but thereafter will remain level, so make sure your initial soil level is quite high – perhaps just below the rim.

Remember that every plant needs good drainage, and your pots should cater for this. Outdoor pots should come with read-made holes at the bottom, and use ‘pot-feet’ to raise them slightly if required. For indoor pots you can use a drip-tray, or seal the holes and keep the plant in it’s original container.

Budget for mulch

Raking up leaves and throwing them away is such a waste of good bedding material, not to mention money!

Mulch protects your soil from drying out, which in turn helps to protect all those useful micro-organisms. If you’re going to invest in compost and fertiliser then pay a little bit extra to keep your investment secure. Mulch also helps to prevent dust and soil erosion, a common problem for home owners with dry soil patches.

There are various types of mulch that you can use, including leaves/sticks/twigs, bark-chips, nut-shells, and pebbles – each of which has their pros and cons. You can also cover bare soil with ground-covers such as plectranthus and hen ‘n chicken’s, but in these cases I still recommend that you cover your soil intially with mulch whilst these plants are young.


Planning for wildlife

If you’re looking to attract wildlife to your new garden, keep these basic principles in mind:

  • Choose as many indigenous plants as possible, the closer to ‘home’ (i.e. plants found in your local nature reserve) the better.
  • Choose a variety of flowering and fruiting plants
  • Choose plants that flower and fruit at different times of the year
  • Choose plants that are wildlife magnets! On the highveld in South Africa, such species include, indigofera jacunda, buddleja saligna, leonotis leonurus and metarungia longistrobus (ideal for sunbirds), halleria lucida and kiggeleria africana
  • Some plants, e.g. the kiggeleria, are either male or female. If you choose such species consider purchasing both a male and female to ensure the female is pollinated and will produce fruit


Dark-capped Bulbul feeding on Aloe ferox

Natural vs Lollipops (standards)

Some people prefer allowing their plants to grow naturally, whilst others prefer to have shaped plants. Plants that have been shaped to look like lollipops are called ‘standards’ and whilst these do cost a little more than naturally grown plants, they are a popular choice and excellent structural element. Make sure you budget appropriately for standards and pots.

What is the natural ‘flow’ between the various areads of the garden?

Always take into consideration the natural ‘flow’ of visitors to your garden (both human and wildlife). How will people get about? Will the birds be moving around to get to different plants (or are they all stuck in one place?) Are all areas of my garden accessible? If you have a dead-end section of your garden, make sure you have purposefully chosen this, either to create an intimate ‘room’ with a bench or gazebo, or simply to reach the pool-pump or shed etc.

Do you need to keep space for additional parking?

Will you need additional parking space in the future? If so, keep this in mind when designing your garden.

Do you need to incorporate utility areas?

e.g. washing lines, dustbin storage, compost bins

You may still need to use your garden for menial chores, such as drying clothes or storing dustbins. Keep these ‘utility’ areas in mind when planning your garden and think about how you can screen these areas off if they are unsightly. For washing lines it is usually better to pave the area beneath them to ensure your clothes do not get soiled if they fall off.

Are there structures that can be refurbished to enhance your garden?

e.g. repainting a wall, sanding and resealing a wooden fence, replacing old pots?

It is worthwhile refurbishing currently existing structural elements. Picket fences can be sanded and resealed, or painted to give a fresh look to your garden. The same goes for walls and pots, which can be repainted to liven them up. Remember that a garden makeover does not only mean adding new plants and shaping the beds. Take into account EVERYTHING that currently exists in your garden, up to and including the boundary wall.

Are there poisonous plants you should avoid or remove?

e.g. Oleander species

You may already have poisonous plants in your garden that you are not aware of, so before refurbishing your garden think about whether you want them to remain, specifically if you have small children or pets around.

Do you need to avoid plants that are ‘bee-magnets’?

Most flowering plants will attract bees (afterall, they’re flowering to attract pollinators!). However for people who are allergic to bees, or are concerned about small children being stung in the garden, there are specific plants that attract significant numbers of bees that can be avoided. An example is the Callistemon (bottle-brush) species.

Do you want an instant look?

As with our tree discussion above, you need to decide if you want an instant look for your garden, or are willing to be patient and let your garden grow. We rarely recommend an ‘instant garden’ to our clients, because in the end you will be taking plants out. Creating an instant look is impressive, akin to creating a show-garden from your garden centre, but it is usually better to purchase plants that will fill your garden up in 2 – 3 years. This saves significant time and money in the long run.


There are exceptions – if you’re looking for instant colour, for an upcoming function for example, then you can fill your garden with a variety of annuals, available in plugs or as scatter seeds. These are usually cheap and will help provide an ‘instant’ colourful look.

Hint: If you’re buying flowering plants for an upcoming function, choose plants with buds rather than plants with flowers that have already opened.

Allocate a budget

The final step in your planning is to allocate a budget. As mentioned you should be looking at somewhere between 5-10% of the value of your home. For smaller sections of your garden your budgetary requirements will be less, but even with these small projects it’s important to calculate how much you’re willing to spend before moving on to the design phase and purchasing the materials. Also remember that you can split your project into phases – you will be spending more in travel and delivery costs, but the benefit is you will then be able to work on your garden as your budget allows.

Gathering ideas

Now that you’ve answered some of the questions above and have considered most aspects of your new garden, it’s time to have fun!

Below are suggestions on how to find ideas, and to get your creativity flowing:

  • Visit garden centres and browse their gardens on display
  • Visit show gardens, e.g. “Gardens of the golden city” and “Gardens of the jacaranda city”
  • Visit the gardens of hotels and B&B’s – you don’t have to stay over, out of courtesy have a cup of tea!
  • Keep a camera handy and take photos of gardens and designs that appeal to you
  • Visit National Botanical Gardens
  • Visit home and garden trade shows and exhibitions, e.g. Decorex
  • Watch garden and home related television shows
  • Buy a selection of garden and home magazines and cut out designs that appeal to you
  • Browse or buy garden books in your nearest book store. There are also many second hand book stores around selling some excellent garden design books
  • Browse the internet for ideas. A great site for this purpose is