Creating a new garden is much like building a new home, in that planning and design are important steps for a quality outcome. So how do you plan for a garden, and what steps should you take to get there? We believe asking yourself the right questions upfront is the important first step, as it helps clarify what it is you want for your garden, and how you are going to use it. From there you can work on a design - either a basic concept on paper or CAD - that integrates your ideas into a cohesive plan.
To help you on your way, we've listed below some of the questions we ask our clients in the planning phase of their gardens. Like any industry there are many factors to consider, so use these questions as a guide, and if you think of any others we should include please drop us a comment in the comments section below.
Questions to ask yourself when planning your garden:
Do you want an entertainment / braai area?
If you want to entertain family and guests with a braai in your garden, then you'll want to include an outdoor entertainment/braai space, often referred to as a firepit or boma. This is one of our most popular requests, and usually combines seating, paving or gravel, a firepit, a built-in table, and perhaps a wood storage or cushion storage box. Additional features such as lighting, planter boxes, or an adjoining water feature can be included to add to the aesthetics of the space and help turn an ordinary entertainment area into a beautiful one. As for the firepit itself, you'll want to decide whether you want a built-in firepit, or space for a portable one, as well as whether you want a separate or integrated fire-making box, sometimes integrated in a so-called 'keyhole' firepit. As for the size of the entertainment area, you'll need to decide how many guests you want to entertain versus how much space you have. Proportions here are important: a firepit that is too small may get lost in the garden, whilst a firepit that is too big might take up the entire space and not leave you enough space for planting. Stand back from the area and consider your proposed entertainment space in the context of the garden. And remember that planting behind your firepit is as important as the surrounding garden, so resist the urge to push the firepit back against your boundary wall, and rather bring it forward, leaving yourself enough space behind to frame it with plants.
A firepit designed to integrate with the garden. Features include: a fire-making box, pizza oven, wood storage and table-top combo, electrics and a water tap (hidden at the back), planter boxes, a second cladded table-top, seating for about 8 guests, a portable firepit, as well as lighting and a dry-riverbed in front with two bridges to cross. And don't forget the plants!
Do you want a swimming pool, and if so, a chlorinated / saltwater one, or a natural one?
If you want a swimming pool in your garden, then this should be one of your first considerations in the planning process. A swimming pool is a large expense and usually takes up a significant portion of a garden, so planning for one is important. If you do want a pool then take the time to plan its position, size, shape, and what type of pool it is - chlorine/saltwater or natural (more on this below). Budget is obviously important too; Swimming pools can add value to a property if they are installed professionally and fit within the aesthetics of your home, but pools - especially chlorinated ones - are high-maintenance, and require frequent topping up, so keep this in mind when budgeting for one.
When it comes to swimming pools there are many options, but as plant and wildlife lovers our favourites are natural/eco pools. They are initially more expensive to install than conventional chlorinated pools, and might take up a bit more space due to the regeneration/wetland zone, but over the long-term natural pools are lower maintenance, which eventually saves you costs. More importantly natural pools can be integrated seamlessly into your garden - the aquatic plants merging with the rest of the garden. And they add a new biodiversity hotspot - a water garden - so they are the perfect addition to an indigenous, wildlife-friendly space.
Do you want a water feature?
If you install a natural swimming pool in your garden (as above), then you automatically have a water feature. However, if you want a water feature in your garden without it necessarily being a pool to swim in, then you'll want to decide what type of water feature it is and where you want it. Natural pools, koi ponds, garden ponds, precast fountains, water walls, and even dry riverbeds that collect rain water and flow during the rainy season are all examples of water features that can be added to your home.
When it comes to a water feature, one needs to decide whether it should be custom-built or purchased ready-made from a garden centre or DIY store. If you have a small space, or require a focal point, then a ready-made water feature will be a cost-effective option - they come in all shapes and sizes, and you can choose your material, e.g. fibreglass/concrete. If, however, you are wanting to integrate a large natural looking water feature into your home then you will probably need to opt for a custom-built design. Here your only limitation is your creativity, and if designed and installed correctly a custom-built water feature will add a beautiful new element to your home.
Do you want a food garden?
Food gardens (vegetable/herb/fruit) are wonderful additions to your home, allowing you the convenience and enjoyment of growing and harvesting your own food. They are wonderful spaces to explore, and can be simple or grand depending on your requirements and the available space. Even if you have limited space a few well-placed vegetable planters can add a new and practical element to your home.
A newly planted food garden
For very limited spaces there are vertical garden products that can used as food gardens, and provided they are installed correctly and in a relatively sunny spot these work well.
A newly planted vertical food garden, interplanted with colourful annuals
Do you want children's play areas?
If you have young children, consider designing play areas with sand pits, artificial lawn, swings and slides, as well as Wendy houses, or perhaps even a tree house if you have an established tree. Remember that not all play areas need to be dedicated play spaces. Kids love exploring gardens, so adding pathways, stepping stones, fairy gardens or simply an informal seating area to your existing garden will all enhance the enjoyment for kids.
Artificial lawn with swings, designed into an existing garden
Stepping logs are great additions to a children's forest garden
Do you want to use your garden for reading, relaxation, or intimate moments?
If you'd like to use your garden for reading, relaxation or intimate moments, you'll most likely want to incorporate benches and seating areas in your garden. When planning your garden search your local suppliers (garden centres/DIY stores/outdoor furniture shops) for benches and seating that appeal to you. You could of course also build a custom-made outdoor seating area, with a built-in braai (as above). If you are going to use your garden for relaxation and reading, it's worth considering a water feature (as above), which adds the sound of flowing water to your outdoor experience, and will help drown out extraneous noise from the surrounding neighbourhood.
Do you want lawn? And if so, how much?
As indigenous landscapers we try to encourage our clients to find a balance between lawn and indigenous garden beds. Usually a 50:50 ratio is a good mix, but one could just as easily have a lawn-free garden with pathways and/or stepping stones for access. Lawns though are great spaces for sports, play, or just for pets to run around on, so they do have their place. If you're going to have lawn, remember that some lawns are more sensitive to heavy traffic than others, and most have specific light requirements. In Gauteng, Kikuyu is often the first choice for homeowners, and is a good choice for sunny areas. Kikuyu, though, can be high maintenance, and may require more watering to keep it lush and green. It also does not do well in the shade, so may quickly die off. In this case you're better off investigating other grass species, such as Berea/LM. Berea lawn is a good choice for semi-shade areas, but is high-maintenance initially (once established it is low maintenance), and does not handle heavy traffic very well, so keep this in mind if you have pets or children.
Lawns are great for sports, play, or for pets to run around on, but they don't need to take up all your garden space. Here a 50:50 mix of lawn and bedding makes for a more rewarding garden overall
Do you want to attract wildlife?
It's wonderful to know that your garden is a haven for birds, animals and insects. If you live near a nature reserve then having an indigenous garden will help attract the local wildlife. Perhaps the most important design element to attracting wildlife is to ensure you include as many indigenous plants as possible, specifically locally indigenous species. If you use plants that simulate your surrounding environment then you will likely attract local insects, which in turn will attract predatory insects and birds. Essentially, you'll be creating a haven that all these creatures 'recognise', and will be extending the natural green belt of your area. So, if attracting wildlife is your goal, make sure you include as many locally indigenous species as you can in your design. Other important design features for attracting wildlife include natural water features, well-placed perches like rocks or logs, and even 'bug hotels' - available from garden centres or DIY stores.
Dry-form Garden Inspector butterfly, feeding off the nectar from Scabiosa incisa. This garden also has plectranthus species, which are host plants for the larvae of this butterfly
Do you want to hold weddings in your garden?
This is not a request we get very often, but it is something to consider. If you want to hold a wedding(s) (perhaps yours?) in your garden sometime in the future, then consider including features such as a gazebo and/or water feature, 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 account a possible location, and consider planting trees. 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).
Do you want to use your garden for sports?
If you have a sports-oriented family, then you'll want to provide 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, golf (putting & chipping), to kid's games, whilst owners of large properties may want to include a tennis court or cricket pitch. Most of these activities will require large areas, so take this into account from the onset when planning your garden.
What theme(s) would you like your garden to have?
A theme is essentially the 'overarching' plan for your garden - and would normally be the first question to ask yourself when planning a garden. We generally find though that clients have specific requests for their gardens, such as firepits or pools, so we ask those questions up front. But a theme is what binds everything together, and is important to keep in mind when planning your garden. Show gardens or 'open' gardens are often marketed based on their theme: a succulent garden; a rose garden; an aquatic garden; a food garden; a grassland garden. In the same way that you might build your home based on a theme (e.g. contemporary, farm style), you can also build your garden based on a theme. And of course, your garden could have multiple themes, all integrated into the overall plan. There is no set of rules that dictates what makes a garden beautiful, but planning based around a particular theme will help guide you towards a cohesive space.
Below are some themes to think about when planning your garden or garden spaces - and note that as indigenous, wildlife-friendly landscapers, we have a bias towards some of them!
- Indigenous garden
- Botanical garden
- Grassland garden
- Bushveld garden
- Succulent garden
- Aloe garden
- Desert/semi-desert garden
- Water garden
- Forest garden
- Wildlife-friendly garden
- Bird garden
- Butterfly garden
- Bee garden
- Food garden
- Rockery garden
- Potted garden
- Formal garden
- Minimalist garden
- Country garden
- Oriental garden
- Mediterranean garden
- Tropical garden
- Rose garden
A garden based around a grassland theme
More questions, tips and ideas
Now that we've covered some of the important overall planning questions, let's look at some practical aspects to your garden. Here are some more questions to ask yourself, as well as ideas and tips to keep in mind:
Do you want lighting in your garden?
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 (i.e. energy usage) is significantly reduced, and you can have day-night sensors and/or remote-control systems to turn them on. Adding lighting to your garden makes a significant difference to your home, allowing you to enjoy your garden spaces in the evening and at night. Here are some benefits provided by well-placed lighting:
- allows you to use your garden at night
- allows you to add accent lighting for important focal areas, such as trees, water features, planters, or statues
- creates a uniquely intimate feel
- provides additional security
Well placed lighting enhances your garden
When it comes to purchasing outdoor lighting, there are many outlets that can help, including DIY stores and specialist lighting shops. Keep in mind though that unless you purchase garden solar lights, a cabled lighting solution will require the expertise of a qualified electrician.
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.
How is the drainage going to work?
Drainage is an important aspect to any garden, but usually only becomes evident during the rainy season when areas of your property flood. If you have lived in your home for a season or two then you may already know where the drainage problems are, and what needs to be done to correct them.
It is important to keep in mind that drainage water doesn't necessarily need to be channelled into drainage pipes. In fact, it is often better to use contours to channel water, since drainage pipes can only take a certain volume before they overflow, and because they may also get clogged with debris. Contouring is an easy way to move water through your garden, as well as being a way to keep water in your garden, which can be important for the health of your garden. And, contours can be used to enhance your garden, by turning a flat space into a contoured space - with accented features and plants - or by creating a dry riverbed that can beautiful and practical - a seasonal water feature that doesn't need a pump!
A dry riverbed can be used to channel rain water through the garden during the rainy season
What is the natural 'flow' between the various areas of the garden?
When planning your garden, take into consideration the natural 'flow' of visitors through your garden (both human and wildlife). How will people get around? Are all areas of your garden accessible? What paths do you need, and what materials will the paths consist of? Will birds or butterflies be moving around to get to different plants? And 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 as an exclusion zone for wildlife.
Are there structures that can be refurbished to enhance your garden?
It may be worthwhile refurbishing currently existing structural elements. Wooden 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 walls.
Are there alien invasives you should remove?
You may already have alien invasives in your garden that you are not aware of, so before refurbishing your garden think about which plants should stay and which should go.
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 honey bees, there are specific plants that attract significant numbers of honey bees and which can be avoided. Keep in mind though that many flowering plants have specific pollinators - not necessarily honey bees - so you can still have a beautiful and colourful garden without choosing honey-bee specific plants.
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 usually get what you pay for. Many concrete pots have the colour painted onto them, rather than embedded into them, and this sometimes results in paint flaking off in later years. There are however concrete pot manufacturers who embed the colour into their concrete, and whilst these are more expensive the paintwork lasts longer and is often a better investment
- 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 been designed to handle this natural process
- Some manufacturers create glass reinforced concrete (GRC) pots which are usually of a higher quality and last longer
- Choose pot colours and styles that match your garden theme and your home
Once you have selected your pots, it's time to prepare them for planting, so here's a trick from the landscaping industry: instead of filling large pots with soil, place plastic bottles or foam in the base of your pots, before adding a permeable membrane and your soil/compost mix on top. We recommend a soil layer of about 500mm, depending on the plants you're going to use. Keep in mind that the level of the soil will also drop in the first few months as the soil settles, but should remain relatively level thereafter, so make sure your initial soil level is quite high.
Remember that every plant needs good drainage, and your pots should cater for this. Outdoor pots should come with ready-made holes at the bottom, and you can use 'pot-feet' to raise them up slightly. For indoor pots you can use a drip-tray, or seal the holes and keep the plant in its original container.
Planning for wildlife
If you're looking to attract wildlife to your new garden, keep these basic principles in mind:
- Choose as many locally 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, as well as host plants for butterflies and moths
- Choose plants that flower and fruit at different times of the year
- Some plants, like Kiggeleria africana (Wild Peach), are either male or female. If you choose such species consider purchasing both male and female plants, so the female can be pollinated and produce fruit
Trees - important considerations
Let's look at a few important considerations for the trees in your garden:
- It is always best to plant locally indigenous trees in your garden
- If you want to use exotics, check with your estate if this is allowed, since many estates have implemented indigenous-only policies. 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 website for options and advice.
- Always choose trees with the appropriate height and spread for your garden, and check the aggressiveness of the root system. Removing large trees is costly, especially if they have damaged walls or paving. A good rule of thumb is to place large trees at least 4-7 metres away from the nearest wall, and smaller, less aggressive trees 1.5-3 meters 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 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 20 - 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 two years - 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 might sound like a good idea because they 'don't lose their leaves', but in reality all trees shed leaves, and some evergreen trees are the messiest of all! Often deciduous or semi-deciduous trees are a better option, because they lose their leaves in winter, thus allowing more sunlight and warmth into your garden at a time when it's most needed. They also only lose their leaves once a year, so in some cases might be a better option around pools. Deciduous trees might also add additional colour to your garden in winter, as their leaves turn various shades of yellow, red or brown just before they fall off.
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, and rather recommend that they focus on a good design and let the plants grow and establish themselves. Creating an instant look is impressive - akin to creating a show-garden - but it is usually better to purchase plants that will fill your garden up in 2 - 3 years, as this saves you money in the long run.
There are exceptions - if you're looking for instant colour, for an upcoming function perhaps, then you can fill your garden with a variety of annuals, available in plugs or seed packs. These are usually cheap and will 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.
We generally don't start our garden designs with a budget in mind, as it limits the creative process and can hinder you with regards to what will go into your garden. A better process is to plan for and design the best garden you can, then work backwards, changing elements, materials and plant sizes to suit your budget. In this way you will have started with a beautiful design, but will have adjusted it based on what your budget allows.
Now that you've asked yourself some questions and have considered most aspects of your new garden, it's time to have fun and get your creative juices flowing!
Below are suggestions on how to gather ideas for your new garden:
- 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 - perhaps you don't even have to stay over, out of courtesy have a lunch or cup of tea!
- Take photos of gardens and designs that appeal to you
- Visit one of our National Botanical Gardens
- Visit home and garden trade shows and exhibitions
- 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 selling some excellent garden design books
- Browse the internet for ideas