Assessing your plot - Realising Your Design - Garden Design (2015)

Garden Design (2015)

Realising Your Design

Assessing your plot


You can create your own garden design, or call in a professional designer, who will undertake a site survey, present solutions for your plot, and produce a detailed plan such as this one.


BEFORE YOU START designing, take time to evaluate your site carefully to ensure your proposals will suit your garden’s aspect and soil conditions.

First things first

If you are designing the garden yourself, first identify what you want to achieve and note down the features you want to keep and those you would like to change or remove. The most uplifting thing to keep in mind is that all plots have potential and some of the most beautiful gardens have been produced from the most challenging sites.

Important factors to take into account include the garden’s aspect and soil type, which will determine the best sites for sitting areas and the plants suited to your conditions. Assessing these factors is not difficult, but if you need advice, a professional designer can conduct a full site survey.

Aspect and climate

The geographical location of your garden will steer the options open to you. Record the way the sun tracks across the sky during the day, and how the prevailing wind and rain impacts on the site. While you cannot change the garden’s aspect and the climatic conditions, you can mitigate their effects. A hot and sunny south-facing garden, for example, can be enhanced with shaded areas and drought-tolerant plants, while features that increase light levels, such as reflective walls or water, offer good solutions for north-facing plots. Also consider the influence of buildings, structures and trees, and note how much shade they cast and shelter they provide, and try to use these features to benefit your design.

Soil quality

Your soil type has a significant bearing on the plants that will thrive in your garden, since it supplies moisture, nutrients, space to develop and anchorage for the roots.

The chemical balance of the soil affects the availability of nutrients and the plants you can grow. It can be assessed using a soil testing kit, which determines the soil’s pH value, a scale that measures acidity. Neutral soils have a pH of 7, acid soils measure pH6 or below and alkaline soils have a value up to pH8 or above. Acid-loving plants include rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias, while clematis, hebes and lavender like alkaline soils, others are not too fussed, but check plant labels for specific requirements. Soil testing kits usually indicate pH with a simple colour chart, and test the soil across your site as it may vary from area to area.

Soil structure is another important factor to check. Heavy clay soils are dense, difficult to work, and prone to waterlogging in winter and baking hard in summer. However, they are also moisture-retentive and have a high nutrient content. Sandy soils are gritty and free draining; they lose water and nutrients very quickly and many are acidic in nature. Thin, highly alkaline chalky soils are also prone to drying out; gardens on chalk are best designed with plants adapted to the conditions.

Soils in urban and new build gardens are often compacted and degraded with building rubble. These and heavy clay soils can be improved by breaking up the compaction with a fork or rotavator, and adding organic matter, such as well-rotted compost or manure. This will improve the soil structure, reducing waterlogging and allowing you to grow a wider range of plants. If your soil is badly degraded, raised beds filled with good quality top soil from a reputable supplier may be the answer. Sandy soils can also be improved with organic matter, which helps increase their capacity to hold water and nutrients. Although all soils can be improved, for long-term success, select plants that suit their basic characteristics.

Create a scale plan

If you are designing your own plot, rather than employing an expert, you may find a scale plan useful. Use a scale that enables you to work up a design on an A2 or A1 sheet, depending on the size of your plot. You can obtain a scale rule and paper at professional art shops. Alternatively, if you are proficient on computers, try a garden design software package. You may also be able to lift the general shape of your plot from an OS map, from shots taken from upstairs windows or even from Google Earth. Alternatively, create a simple plan by measuring your site and noting its dimensions. For more complex sites on different levels, or with unusual features, call in a professional designer to conduct a full site survey and draw up a detailed scale plan.


To prevent infringement of local planning and environmental laws, you may need to seek planning permission for a new development, particularly if your redesign involves major changes to the landscape or your property is listed. Check the deeds to the house for any clauses governing changes in use or structural alterations. Changing access to the site from a main road will also need planning permission and may incur the costs of local authority contractors to undertake the work. Excavations and significant alterations to the ground level may also require council approval, or the services of a civil engineer. Trees may be subject to preservation orders - approval for work on them will be needed in advance and significant financial penalties incurred if it is not. Permissions may take time to obtain, so factor them into the schedule; designers can advise you and may help seek approvals on your behalf.