In my Ladybird book Talkabout Gardens (circa 1972) there are pictures of a back garden. It has a bit of paving across the back of the house, a lawn with a swing and a whirligig in it, a few flowers along the perimeter fence and an enormous vegetable garden at the bottom, complete with aluminium greenhouse. Times have changed, but I suspect many gardens haven’t – perhaps the veg patch has been grassed over and the greenhouse is a shed now, but the image is still very familiar and badly in need of updating. If you want to create a more dynamic outdoor space, dividing the garden into separate areas, or ‘rooms’ will make your garden more usable and also more interesting.
But before divisions there are decisions – decisions about what you want from the spaces and how and out of what you’ll make them. Cost will be one of the most important considerations, I know, and your budget will ultimately dictate how far you can go to achieve what you want, but there are other considerations too:
Form and function
The shape and size of the garden will have a big influence on its layout – a long thin garden will be easy to divide into rooms, a square space will need a different approach: perhaps playing with perspective and altering expectations. An awkward shape, strangely, may end up being easier to work with than a standard rectangle.
Think about ease of access. When it’s cold and wet outside, it can be more tempting to open a tin of something than go on an expedition to the bottom of the garden to pick some vegetables. Call it the kitchen garden (or if you’re feeling ultra stylish, the Potager) and you’ll be more inclined to site it within reach of your cooker. Crops need to be grown in the sunniest part of the garden and where the best soil is, so in the end that may dictate its position. Think about outdoor dining. Do you want to eat outside on a terrace in the sunshine, or would you prefer to sit in the shade (and privacy) of a pergola or canopy? Spend time working out how the sun moves across the garden, which parts are in shade and at what time of day.
Style and harmony
The materials you use for paths, dividing walls and patios should be consistent with the style and age of your property. Contemporary decking, steel and concrete will look odd in a quaint cottage garden, just as a rustic willow arbour or billowing floral hedge will jar in a garden full of clean lines and straight edges. You may be creating different rooms in the garden but they will work better if there’s a continuity in the design, a unifying link, so use the same type of paving or trellis work, or combination of repeated elements to help the ‘flow’ throughout the garden. Formality will be achieved by using symmetry and repetition, these are then enhanced by keeping lines and edges straight and by using plants in a formal way – think box hedging, topiary and well behaved evergreens. A more romantic, dreamy look will be achieved by blurring the edges of the paths, walls and paving with plants that will meander and drift across them.
How to divide the space
Vertical structures can be permanent like a wall, or a hedge, or temporary and transient – imagine a row of tall annual plants or a line of obelisks supporting climbing beans. Horizontal divisions can be as simple as a change in the type of substrate – from grass to paving for example, or a physical barrier like a water feature. Vertical structures will create a feeling of enclosure, horizontal can be used more subtly and to give the illusion of both space and the division of space. Changes in level will also help to delineate different areas of the garden. Transforming a slope into a terrace, or series of terraces will make the space more usable and interesting.
Walls, fences and hedges
Walls, fences and tall evergreen hedges are substantial and impenetrable and are excellent choices if you need to hide an unsightly view or to prevent the space from being overlooked. Be careful if you are using solid structures to provide shelter from the wind though, as walls can have a tunnelling or eddying effect on wind. Sometimes it’s more effective to have a series of semi-permeable windbreaks – trees/hedges/trellis to slow the wind down rather than force it over or around the wall. Walls will provide a more instant screen than plants (which need time to grow), they can provide a warm micro climate (depending on the orientation – a south-facing wall will absorb warmth from the sun), but they are also a very solid, inorganic presence. Incorporating an archway or gap in the wall will prevent it being forbidding and entice the eye through to another space.
Fences also provide instant screens, but are cheaper and less permanent than a wall. Use trellis, or a combination of trellis and fence, where a continuous solid fence would look stark and oppressive, or ensure that you provide some support along it so that you can grow climbers to soften the look of it. Sometimes using just a small section of fence or trellis is enough to provide a division within the garden.
Planting a hedge doesn’t give you the instant fix that a wall or fence would, but can be cost effective, especially over a long stretch (cost will depend on the initial size of plants you put in and whether you buy them bare-rooted, which are cheaper). A hedge will be good for the environment and, if it is made up from native plants like Hawthorn or Beech, it will provide a useful habitat for wildlife too. Lots of shrubs make good hedges – evergreens will offer more privacy, as deciduous hedges (apart from Beech and Hornbeam) will drop their leaves in the autumn. All hedges need maintaining, not least because plants chosen are often really trees. The Leyland Cypress is a prime example; it’s chosen as a hedge plant because it grows quickly, but that’s because it wants to grow to be a hundred feet tall and left unattended, that’s exactly what it will do. On the other hand, the dwarf box, Buxus suffruiticosa takes years to grow just a few inches. Choose wisely.
Using features like raised beds, channels or rills of water, plant borders, lawns or changes in substrate material – say the transition from gravel onto paving or grass – will visually divide a space, without becoming as secluding and, possibly, oppressive as a vertical division might.
Plans before plants
It’s hard for us gardeners not to start with the plants, but they should be seen as the furnishings in the garden rooms – to be added at the end. There are situations where the plants themselves can be used as screens and ways of dividing a space, but in general try not to let them dictate your design. Use plants as focal points, to add drama and to enhance the mood created by the larger structures.
So if you’re fed up with eating under the washing line or bored with the same old view from more or less every angle, it’s time to get out there and make some changes.
- words: Jo Arnell
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