Rachel Mathews is garden designer from the UK, with over 20 years professional design experience. In that time, she has designed hundreds of gardens all over the world. Her speciality are small, contemporary style, gardens. She has designed gardens of all shapes, sizes and styles, from traditional, urban, cottage to edible, modern food gardens.
It doesn’t matter how attractive your planters are – they need to be ‘designed’ into your garden layout in order to look right…
An SGD reader recently wanted to know “how to plant around raised garden beds and structures within a walkway border bed and keep it visually appealing and cohesive“.
The short answer is you can’t (well, not easily)…
A garden with lots of unconnected elements never looks right. They need to fit into the overall design layout…
For instance, notice how the metal planters above seamlessly work with the proportions and shapes of the path landscaping materials. That did not happen by accident. The planters were designed into this scheme from the outset…
An overall design layout is key
ANYTHING in the garden and I do mean absolutely anything, needs to be placed within an overall design layout first, if you want it to be appealing and cohesive.
A good garden design is not a series of unrelated parts. A garden is a whole entity and MUST be treated as such…
The raised beds are an intrinsic part of this design – they are not an addition to it
The problem is rarely one area that’s wrong – it’s usually the whole garden!
I know, that’s really not what you wanted to hear… but all is not lost…
Landscaping around existing raised beds
If you already have raised borders in place, you need an overall design layout that incorporates them into one flowing design.
You’ll just have a few more bits and bobs to design around.
Get your garden measured as accurately as you can and onto paper
Plot all the things that are fixed in place that you want/need to keep
Design a layout that seamlessly incorporates all those elements
If that sounds daunting or too much effort, in the long run, it won’t be.
Just imagine the time you will otherwise spend trying to make the area look right, in a neverending cycle of shifting, purchasing and planting.
If you’d like to know exactly what you’ll need to do to achieve a great layout, do attend one of my free garden design web classes and I’ll walk you through the process.
So whilst I haven’t been able to give the answer that I suspect most people would want – ‘just add X’ and all your visually woes will immediately disappear, I will still give some tips that will hopefully help when it comes to incorporating raised bed…
Try not to make beds too high (left image) and use willow screening to enhance basic timber or block built planters (right image)
Designer tips for raised borders
Try not to make your raised beds too high because the higher it is, the harder it will be to incorporate.
If the construction material isn’t visually pleasing, try to clad it in something that is, like willow.
Proportions – make sure the planter isn’t too large or small for the area you’re putting it in. As a rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t put it that size if it were at ground level, don’t do it raised!
If your raised beds are seasonal like tiered strawberry planters, forgo some strawberries and plant some trailing flowering plants so that the planter looks good for longer.
If a planter is just for veg, placing it at the end of the garden behind screening is probably a better option than on the patio.
These raised veg beds are far too shallow and large – you can’t reach easily into the middle!
How to incorporate practical elements like coldframes and greenhouses
Paint practical elements to blend in with other garden features
Another reader asked this and it can be tricky, especially in small gardens. If you have space, create a special area at the end of your garden or wherever it won’t be in full view.
If not, try painting the frames to match other elements as they have within the image above with this garden shed, raised bed and pergola.
If painting isn’t an option, then try to disguise the greenhouse or coldframe as best you can with a trellis in front of it and have other things around it that will distract your focus away from it.
There are raised veg beds and a garden shed hidden behind this trellis!
Want to learn more about creating great garden design layouts?
Most of us love a colourful garden, but the good news is, you don’t have to rely on just flowers…
Painting walls and features is a really simple way to brighten any garden all year.
What colours should you choose to paint your garden walls and feature items?
The exact colours you paint a wall will depend on the following:
Light intensity levels
Surrounding architecture/ building materials
Local planning rules
The gorgeous Moroccan blue walls of the famous Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech (pictured above*) would not work everywhere. A colour this strong needs a high light intensity. Dull, overcast skies would make the colour look oppressive, making an area feel smaller and dark.
If you love this shade of blue and don’t have a high light intensity then the safer option is to use it as an accent colour.
This gorgeous Moroccan inspired courtyard garden in Spain has used the blue as an accent colour. If they had painted the whole wall blue it would have dominated and made the space feel smaller. The contrast with the dusky pink, however, works well.
If you’re lucky enough to have an alcove in your wall then that really adds visual value. You can not only paint it a different colour to contrast but also add features, as shown above.
No alcove, no problem! You can create contrast with other objects like the chair and window frame in the image below.
Pay attention to your planting!
One important thing to note is the planting. When you have such dominant colours in the wall, the planting needs to be sympathetic to it and not clash or be too busy. The image above shows a really successful combination, the flowers are a similar shade to the walls and the rest of the scheme is mostly green, which lets the wall do all the talking.
Choose your wall colours wisely
Make sure, above all else, that whatever colour you are painting in the garden goes with the architecture of both your house and any houses nearby. You don’t want it to stick out like a sore thumb.
By all means be adventurous, and bold, but with care! So for example, one of the hardest colours to incorporate is a vibrant purple – it screams modern, slightly ‘New Age’ – not many properties will get away with it.
Look to nature for guidance. The Moroccan blue matches the Mediterranean and African skies and therefore looks right in those regions. The terracotta wall matches the surrounding soil of the Med region. And the pinky red also has earth tones and looks right on the uneven rendered walls, reminiscent of ancient mud homes.
If you really want something bright, like the yellow in the first garden, do it as they have, as an accent colour.
It’s all about continuity of location, materials and structural elements
The wall in the garden above is painted the same colour as the terracotta pots and its shape mimics the swimming pool, so it ties in perfectly with the surroundings. Creating continuity with elements you add to the garden helps takes your design to the pro level.
Here’s another example of continuity with colour and shape. This was a Chelsea Flower Show garden, so a little over the top, but you get the idea!
What if you’re not allowed colourful walls in your region?
There’s a little trick they use in Spain, where pretty much every Andalucian village has white walls. So instead of painting them bright colours, they do it with pots and features. Cordoba is particularly famous for its ‘patio’ gardens as they call them.
The photo above was taken in November, so it just goes to show how effective adding colour to elements other than plants is!
But beware, colour alone does not make a great garden, the design does. Colour is just the icing on the well-designed cake!
There are many different styles of materials that you can use for paths. Garden paths can be made from anything from gravel to paving, pebble mosaics, brick, timber to recycled church floor flagstones!
Before we get going on what type of materials you should use, we need to look at the most important part and that is getting the path in the right place.
How to make sure your path in the right place
This might seem like a really odd thing to be talking about because your path goes from point A to point B, so surely it is obvious where it needs to go!
It might be obvious where you need the path, for example from your patio to your garden shed. However, just because that’s where you need it to go, it doesn’t mean to say that a straight route is the best option visually.
If you can get a slightly more interesting shape into the path, or have it over to one side of the garden, rather than just having a straight line, it will make your garden much more interesting to look at.
Yes, you may have to take a few extra steps each time you go to your garden shed, but that’s a small price to pay if the position of your path improves the overall look and flow of your garden. Let’s face it, you will look at it a lot more than you will walk on it!
When you add anything into the garden it has to work with the whole garden, so it’s really important you take into account everything else that is there.
The biggest mistake that most people make is just to add things. First, they had the shed, then goes in the path, patio etc. This makes a very disjointed and uninteresting looking garden. If you take a little bit of time to plan the shape of all of these elements together, even if you don’t put them all in at once, it will make for a much better-looking garden.
A well-designed garden is like a jigsaw puzzle, everything has to fit in its place or doesn’t work. Great looking gardens are not a series of unrelated features, everything ties in together and have been thought about.
So consider sweeping your path from one side of the garden to the other, or having it curve around a circular lawn to get you to the shed or the other end of the garden.
What materials should you use for your garden path?
This will all come down to your tastes, style of garden and budget. Traditionally, brick paths have been very popular. If you’re going to use brick, do not use house bricks because they are not frost proof enough and will crumble over time. You need to use clay brick pavers which are specially designed to cope with the frost. Pavers are solid and do not have the indentation underneath them that house bricks do.
If you’re looking for a budget path option, then gravel is going to be the cheapest option. It is not always the most comfortable material to walk on, so if you hate walking on gravel, then adding a few steppingstones through it will make it nicer to walk on.
If you want a contemporary feel to your path then smooth natural paving will work well.
Pebble mosaics can look fabulous, though they are very time-consuming to do, but if you’re feeling creative you can have a lot of fun with them.
Garden Path Styles
You can create so many different styles of path, depending on the materials you use. Anything from modern, to natural, rustic and contemporary stepping stones to solid paths and everything in between. As always, pay attention to the shape, texture and size of the materials you choose for your path. Make sure they will be practical for your needs as well as look good.
Construct your path properly
A lot of times people think that they don’t need to use concrete when they build a path because it only has foot traffic on it and sand will do. Unfortunately, you can’t just put paving stones directly onto the soil or sand, because they will move and then become quite a dangerous tripping hazard. Brick paths can be laid on sand, but they will have a consolidated hard-core base underneath the sand and the edge bricks will be concreted into position to hold everything in place.
So, I encourage you to get creative with your path but do put it on paper first and check that it’s going to work with the rest of your garden.
BUT do be warned, nice paths alone will NOT give you a stunning garden – you have to get the design layout right first. If you don’t know how to do that then…
Attend one of our FREE Fast Track Garden Design online classes…
So although I’ve never met you, the chances are high I can guess where you’d stick a focal point or garden feature…
Where there’s a big hole… in your planting! ;o)
Would I be right?
I may not of course, but it’s what most people do.
Makes sense – can’t get plants to grow well, might as well put a statue, birdbath, or attractive feature of some description there.
As much sense as that makes, it’s a really bad idea unless your…
Focal point lines up with key viewpoints
So what do I mean by that?
Well, the sightline down your garden from the house ie the main window or doors you look out from the most.
Or at the end of a path or patio.
Wherever your eye would naturally come to rest is a great place for a focal point as shown with FP in the image below.
Now, if you’ve created a design layout for your whole garden (something I highly recommend if you want success without wasting a ton of cash), then you can get a bit more adventurous with your focal point placement.
Use focal points to draw the eye to where you want it to go
You might think that goes against what I said earlier, but it doesn’t when you strategically place them in a good design layout.
With a good design, the shapes you use within it do one thing – control how the garden flows. This is a fundamentally important part of landscape design that’s rarely talked about.
With the right shapes, you can make wide, shallow gardens look longer. And vice versa, long, narrow gardens can be made to look wider. Small gardens, larger, and awkward gardens can completely lose their awkwardness.
A lot of the time the shapes you use to counteract adverse garden sizes steer the eye away from the problem so it’s helpful to have focal points (red dots on last 2 images) leading the eyes from side to side as a visual journey with a final one for a visual full-stop at the end of the garden.
Doing it this way is a world apart from plonking an expensive work of art wherever there happens to be a gap in the planting!
Strategic placement enables you to get the most from your garden and your focal points!
What makes a good focal point/garden feature?
Anything with a good solid outline.
It can be something simple as a pot, bench, topiary, statues, gazebos, upright timbers or more adventurous sculptures.
Unusual things can also be used like ornate gates windows, mirrors, (the focal point is what it reflects back, not the mirror itself).
Literally, anything solid as that gives the eyes something definitive to rest on.
You can put a focal point in a border but equally, they can look good just on their own if they are in the right position.
The three heads below are positioned at the end of the garden before a woodland area, and the group make a big impact. I like how it looks like three friends are contemplating life and the slight angle each one is turned makes it feel intimate, rather than a row of soldiers lined up!
How many focal points or features should you have?
This is one of the hardest to advise on. It all depends.
I know, horrible answer, but it really does!
Here are a few guidelines though:
At the end of paths
At the end of the sightline from the main window or doors
Every time a design shape changes direction (see image below)
Weird rule – small gardens can often take a lot more focal points than larger gardens.
I’m not entirely sure why smaller spaces can get away with more focal points, but they just seem to. If you try to put a lot of focal points in a large garden, it immediately looks cluttered (if you can see them all at once).
As you can see in this tiny garden, there are 5 focal points (6 if you’ve counted the topiary in the pot twice as it’s reflected back in the mirror!).
This was a display garden at a garden centre so there was a lot of product placement in an area that was 4 x 5m. But even though there’s more here than you would probably do at home, it does go to show how small spaces can take a lot more than you’d imagine…
Don’t waste your money, design first!
This garden was designed by the very talented Hay Joung Hwang
The key takeaway I want you get from this article is the importance of design. When statues, gazebos or any garden focal point or feature is designed in at the outset it makes a heck of a difference.
It really doesn’t matter how many thousands you pay for a garden feature, if it’s not part of the design, it will never look right. Ouch!
If you’d like to learn more about design then do attend one of our free garden design web classes. They are approx 40 mins long and I will cover exactly what you need to do to successful design your garden without wasting time or money.
You’ve read the books. You’ve gone online and researched which plants to put in your garden.
You may have even colour themed your planting border and put the design on paper…
But after all that effort and time spent researching, planning, purchasing, placing and planting, your garden still doesn’t look as good as you hoped.
Planting Border Design Failure Reason No.1
A fair chunk of the time, the reason a garden doesn’t look great, isn’t actually down to the planting, it’s down to the overall design layout…
As strange as it might sound, the shape of your borders plays a big part in how good your planting schemes will look.
A good design layout will give you 60-70% of the success – even if you do a really poor job with the planting scheme, design will save the day!
If you’ve not yet designed your garden layout (it’s not too late to do something about it, even in quite established gardens) head on over to my garden design web class (it’s free) and I will walk you through the simple key to great garden design.
Planting Border Design Failure Reason No.2
Most plant borders look messy.
Plants by their very nature tend to be all over the place unless you spend hours pruning them into shape.
Who has time for that?!
It doesn’t matter how careful you’ve been with your colour scheme, getting the right heights etc. Unless your eye has something solid to focus on, the planting will tend to blur into one big messy mass.
With correct plant design (which I teach over at the Plant Design Formula website) there are ways to make sure this doesn’t happen…
But there’s also a quick and easy cheat you can use that will salvage an existing planting scheme.
Here’s one simple tip from our Plant Design Formula Course that will instantly fix a messy border
There’s no rule that says the ‘clarity’ within your planting borders has to come from the plants (though that does of course help!)…
Which means we can cheat!
Take a look at this Chelsea Flower Show garden – on first glance it’s gorgeous… but look what happens when the structural element is taken out…
One small structural element removed and suddenly things have got a bit messy!
Here’s a garden by the brilliant Matt Keightley in his 2014 Chelsea Flower Show Garden – Help for Heroes.
Now Matt’s planting scheme is wonderful regardless of the structural elements, so on this occasion, the structure is icing on the expertly designed cake!
Here are some more photos of Matt’s inspired Help for Heroes garden so you can see how he’s skillfully incorporated the structural granite blocks throughout the scheme.
Notice how he’s mirrored the shape of the granite blocks into the clipped Buxus (box) bushes.
How to incorporate structural elements to your planting schemes
The trick to adding in structural elements are not to overdo them. You can choose a single shape and repeat it as shown above, or simply have different structures at strategic intervals.
When using different elements you won’t need many, so space them out like the example below:
A simple pot and bench really help bring clarity to this very busy planting border.
And see how much a simple willow animal sculpture can improve a very dull and uninspiring border!
So have fun with it and let me know how you get on. And remember, if you’ve not yet created a good design layout, that is paramount!
If you’d like me to walk you through ALL the elements to creating a gorgeous planting scheme as well as provide you with a searchable plant database that you can organise by colour, flowering season, size, shape, growing conditions etc. then take a look at the Plant Design Formula online course.
Gardens can be pretty costly these days – Horticultural Week says in the UK around 4.9 billion pounds per year is spent. In the USA, Garden Research report people spend 47.8 billion dollars!
So why isn’t the world full of amazing gardens?
It’s not how much money you spend on your garden that makes the REAL difference…
Obviously, there is a minimum you’ll need to spend, which will depend on:
where you are
what you’re building
what size garden you have
But once those costs are factored in, spending more than the basic amount won’t help, unless you…
Do the one thing that most people don’t!
When it comes to gardens, at best, most people just ‘Dream It & Do It’.
At worst, they skip straight to the ‘Do It’ part!
But if you want success and a gorgeous garden there’s a VITAL step you must do in the middle…
Before & After Design
Dream It, DESIGN IT, Do It!
Why is design so important?
Very few of us can visualise.
Even fewer can do it effectively.
Even Professional Landscapers Get Gardens Wrong Without A Design!
The garden at the very top of this page is glorious, isn’t it?
Here are a few more images of it… But can you spot the slight faux pas with the formal pond?
As beautiful as it is, a lot of the key elements don’t line up – something that is vital in gardens, especially formal ones…
The leaf fountain centrepiece doesn’t line up with the path or benches, making the pond appear lopsided.
Now, this garden is so beautiful that it doesn’t detract too much.
It’s also highly likely that on this occasion a lot the main elements were already in place because the area used to be a tennis court, so it probably wasn’t possible for the designer to line things up properly.
If a garden is put on paper at the outset, these kinds of mistakes don’t happen. Getting the big picture view enables you to see what’s not working before you spend time and money building the garden.
While we’re enjoying a fire – how about outside too?
This beautiful Morrocan inspired fire basket and grill are great for outdoor entertaining and keeping warm!
Or for those with a larger budget and a love of being up close – a fire table!
For the Allotment-Loving-Shed-Dweller!
So, we all know someone who loves to disappear for hours in the Shed/Man-cave/Allotment. Whether they spend more time drinking tea than digging up the potatoes, show them your love with one of these special gardening-lovers pressies.
Willow Trugs – £29.95 at SarahRaven.com We all love a trug! Perfect for harvesting…and for storing, and stylish in the kitchen too…
If you really want to give a special gift this Xmas…
Rawlinson Willow Gazebo
How about treating your loved one to this lovely willow gazebo? Creating a special place for that cuppa, reading the newspaper or just to unwind at the end of a long day of digging and weeding! This free-standing structure can fit easily into any garden – on a paving area, gravel area surrounded by planting, or simply on the lawn. It will make a real impact. Rawlinson Willow Gazebo – £315 at GreenFingers.com.
Easy on the Purse Strings – funky favourites on a budget!
These gorgeous gifts are all such a STEAL – nobody would know that they came in for £10 or less!
Of course, what better gift for the ‘Green-fingered gardening guru’ in your family, than to arrange a special online course or workshop for them.
Buy your Mum, Dad, Grandad, Auntie one of our Garden Design Online Courses, and they can take part whenever they have time, in their own home, and they will thank you forever!
Any of the online garden design courses can be purchased as a gift and instant access sent to your loved one for Christmas. Instructions on how to transfer a course as a gift are in the welcome email on purchase. And of course, all gifts come with our same 60-day money back guarantee!
Or how about the greatest gift of all… a career change?
If you or a loved one is serious about a career as a garden designer and wants a fast-track way to attain it without spending thousands or years at college, check out our new website Successful Garden Designer. And there’s a special offer until 6th January for the SGD Diploma.
What wonderful garden related goodies have you come across? Let me know in the comments below!
Happy shopping – tis the season for it! ;o)
From all at SGD, have a good one!
Please note: On some of the gift ideas above, we receive a small commission if you purchase through the link, this helps keep me sufficiently supplied with mince pies over the festive season! Please also note, that I do not have direct experience with the companies listed above, so do buy at your own discretion.
I am often asked how to grow fruit and veg in the garden and still have it look good. In this Successful Garden Design Show episode, we take a look at one of the best organic vegetable gardens in the world – Babylonstoren.
The Babylonstoren vineyard and garden is in the Western Cape of South Africa. The garden was designed by the French architect Patrice Taravella in 2007 and in 2010 they finished creating his vision, a stunning fruit and vegetable garden…
3 Top Tips to Create a Designer Fruit & Vegetable Garden
Design layout of the entire garden is key
Create structures within the design that look good all year
Plant in big blocks with long season edibles
Really thinking about the shapes you put in your garden and how you get from point A to point B visually, as well as physically, is the key to creating any great looking garden, regardless of use.
It helps to hide the mess and vegetables at some point will always look messy. Having either a formal or informal hedge or a low wall helps screen it and gives the eye a solid structure to focus on, which brings a sense of clarity.
Some vegetables like chard, lettuce, kale, cabbage etc have a longer period of looking good, especially if you are harvesting the occasional leaf, rather than the entire plant. Use these to help hide the messier, quick harvest crops and plant in big groups so they stand out and create a solid form.
Herbs – Bonus Tip!
If you’re a big lover of herbs, consider planting in groups of either medicinal value eg. plant all the ones that good for stomach complaints or colds together. Or, if you simply use herbs for flavour in food, plant your favourite taste combinations together!
Monty Don’s tour of Babylonstoren
Ok, next time I visit Babylonstoren I’ll take a full camera crew with me instead of just an iPhone! The BBC version is a somewhat better visual experience than I managed! ;o)
Monty Don visits Babylonstoren | Full - YouTube
Fancy a Career as a Garden Designer?
We’ve just a launched a brand new website dedicated to helping people become a professional garden designer – alongside the fast-track design training is how to run a successful design consultancy. For more information visit: https://www.successfulgardendesigner.com/
Incorporating a natural landscape (borrowed view) into the design of your garden can be a daunting challenge…
It might surprise you that it doesn’t matter if the view beyond your garden is natural or manmade, the principles of incorporation are the same.
In this latest Successful Garden Design Show episode, international garden designer Rachel Mathews will walk you through the first two principles.
GDS 27 - Borrowed Landscapes - Incorporating Views into your Garden - YouTube
Tip 1 – Copy
In Japan incorporating the landscape beyond your garden is called ‘shakkei’ which means ‘borrowed scenery’ or ‘borrowed landscape’.
One of the best ways to make sure that the surrounding landscape works with your garden design is to copy elements of the landscape beyond. This can be visually or materially, it is a great way to blend your garden with the surrounding environment.
See how the shapes of the reeds in the image above mimic the hill shapes in the background. This continuity of shape helps link the garden with the surroundings.
And the same with the jagged outline of these Leucospermums in the Kirstenbosch Botanical garden in Cape Town – they tie in well with mountainscape behind.
Copy the following in your garden
These can all be used to mimic the surroundings. This also applies to buildings and architectural features, not just natural landscapes.
Tip 2 – Contrast
Contrasting the shapes and colours you add to your garden only really works when you’ve copied elements, so you have something to contrast against.
Look how wonderfully the shape and colour of the Marsh Butterfly Lily (Wachendorfia thyrsiflora) contrast to the surrounding plants and landscape.
This type of contrast causes feature plants to really stand out.
There’s a 3rd way of really bringing the landscape into the garden, but this requires a detailed explanation to get it right, so that will be saved for a new series of in-depth design details videos that will be released late spring/ early summer 2019.
In this Successful Garden Design Show episode, Rachel gives her 3 top planting design tips. She’ll show you exactly how you can create stunning planting borders wherever you are in the world.
This episode was filmed in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden in Cape Town, South Africa.
Garden Design Show 26 - Planting Design Tips for Great Looking Borders - YouTube
Planting Design Tips Re-Cap
Tip 1 – Group Planting
Tip 2 – Power Plants
Tip 3 – Repeat Planting
Tip 1 – Group Planting
Grouping plants together adds immediate impact to any garden. Group planting also mimics nature. Think of the mountainsides covered in proteas or fields of wild poppies.
Tip 2 – Power Plants
When planting in groups though, they are obviously going to take up much more space, so it’s important you choose your plants with extra care. Try to choose plants that are more than a one-hit wonder with a short flowering season.
Choose something that I call a ‘Power Plant’. These will have an interesting shape, tend to be evergreen and have a long flowering period. That gives you the most bang for your buck!
Tip 3 – Repeat Planting
Adding the same plant to different parts of your garden may seem like it would make your planting scheme boring, but it actually does the opposite. Having key plants repeated around the garden helps draw the eye around, which creates interest, as well as continuity and clarity in the planting.