Planning a new garden, especially a complete redesign, can be both an exciting and daunting task. It is important to get off on the right foot.
Establishing a brief for the project is an important early stage of the design process and is essential whether you employ professionals or intend to complete much of the work yourself. A brief starts with an understanding of all the problems that need to be solved and what might affect those problems. So, spend time discussing the reasons why you’re undertaking the project before capturing this on paper. These can then be developed further and a list of requirements drawn up, against which the project can be ‘signed off’ at the end.
Statements in the brief should always be measurable (this is absolutely essential when working with others). For example “formal dining space for 6 people with shade overhead between June-Sept” is much better than merely “space to sit and dine with friends”. Be specific to avoid ambiguity. Note that parts of the brief can and might change, but you do still need a brief, otherwise the project will lack clarity, rarely start well and will inevitably cost more than planned.
If you’re working with a designer the brief will be developed together through discussion, before being agreed. Try to avoid describing specific design details – “decking” for example – at the outset though. Instead descriptive words like “durable”, “warm” and “recycled” are better and allow for a more creative response – one of the reasons you probably engaged a designer in the first place.
Key questions to consider
Specific wants and needs vary from person to person, but ask yourself, how you want to feel, what you want to do, and who is the garden for? And, how much time do you have for maintenance? Together with a particular style or theme in mind, the answers to these questions will determine the layout and design details. Consult everyone who has a stake in the eventual outcome ¬including children. Inevitably some compromise is usually necessary, especially if space on the ground is tight and/or access if difficult.
Change … but how much change?
Whilst a complete makeover can result in a more coherent outcome, it can be very expensive when it comes to time and money. Subtle tweaks are cheaper but this approach is more limited in scope. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, and develop an existing plot. Time spent looking critically at the garden and its good and bad points before developing a new masterplan is vital. It’s likely that decrepit garden pools for example ‘must’ or ‘should’ be removed, but other features like an attractive patio or mature trees providing privacy ‘could’ or ‘must’ remain.
What’s your budget? Creating a garden can be expensive, especially when it comes to contemporary minimalist or modernist design, where a clean, clinical finish is essential. Other high cost practices include the desire for instant impact, complex shapes, curves (particularly curving vertical structures), requirements for extreme accuracy, fixed design details with no ability to adapt on site, and specialist workmen and women that have to travel some distance. Moving underground services, drainage works, demolition and site clearance work can be costly too, especially if access is tricky and/or there’s a need to work by hand. If your budget is modest avoid these if you can and go for high impact, low cost design solutions too. Reclaimed and recycled materials generally cost less than new. ‘Fluid’ materials like gravel are cheaper than paving. Also, favour plants over hardscape for plants are both cheaper and typically have the greatest impact. In many gardens it’s possible to ‘cover’ or ‘clad’ rather than remove – a sound concrete pad for example might be the ideal sub-base for attractive paving.
Always identify a contingency fund. Anything between 5%-15% of the total budget is a good idea, the higher the percentage, the better. I’d certainly recommend a larger fund for tackling a project without professional help. Whilst it’s likely savings will be made some areas, inevitably you will make mistakes in others.
Typically labour costs amount to 50-60% of a budget. So, with a £10,000 budget (see a figure in this area as a minimum for a complete redesign of a small urban garden if you’re not doing all the work yourself) that leaves only £4,000 left behind for clearance work and skip hire, design fees, specialist consultant fees (if necessary) and materials.
DIY is a useful way to save. Planting, installing off-the-peg water features, laying a new lawn or gravel path, sowing a meadow – even simple decking and fencing – are well within the scope of the keen amateur. However, walling, laying expensive patio stone (particularly next to the house), concrete rendering and ‘first fix’ electrical work needs experienced professionals for a quality, safe finish.
If you’ve never undertaken a large garden project before, or don’t have any experienced friends or family to call on, consider engaging a professional garden designer. A qualified designer (ideally at HND/FdSc/BSc level) can help in all aspects and will save you money in the long run. Many gardens are remodelled at the same time as renovation work is done on the house. Good garden designers will liaise with your architect and main contractor to help make sure the combined project runs smoothly. If your budget prohibits taking on a designer, at the very least consider a day’s consultancy to help steer you in the right direction.
With sunken gardens or steeper sloping sites retaining walls and soil stabilisation might be necessary. Drainage is an important consideration too. A structural engineer is often essential here – whether you’re working with a garden designer or not. You’ll find that on all sites with complicated levels, most designers will advise you to engage one for everyone’s peace of mind, including theirs.
Planning permission requirements?
For most garden projects planning permission isn’t necessary, however, it does apply in specific areas ¬– extending boundary heights, extensive terracing, decking platforms above 30cm and new paving in the front garden being the most common. If you live in a conservation area then the rules can vary widely – so always check with your local authority in this instance. Usefully, new plants and trees aren’t covered by planning permission, although existing trees may have a TPO (tree preservation order) to protect them. Again check. If you are working on an existing party wall or directly next to a boundary the Party Wall Act is likely to apply. For detailed information visit the Planning Portal (www.planningportal.gov.uk). Details of the allowable height and size of garden structures – a new outdoor office for example – can also be found here.
Schedule of works
Not everything needs to be completed at once, and with a tight budget it’s unlikely that it will be. Instead, phase the project, completing elements from the masterplan when finances are available. The most important bits, which need finishing first, are unfortunately the most expensive. These include retaining walls, steps and ramps, boundaries (especially walls), patios/terraces, then paths, in this order. Semi-mature specimen plants to screen nosy neighbours come high on the list too. Tempting as it may be, leave design details like ornamental planting, pots and furniture until after the bones of the garden have been completed. Spending £50 every other week at your local garden centre, for example, might not seem a lot, but it’ll soon whittle away your budget and this might mean you either go without what’s really important or end up compromising the specification.
Think about the seasons, too. Most garden/landscape work is carried out between spring – early autumn when nights are longer and the weather is warm. The best planting season is early-mid spring and early-mid autumn. This needs to be factored in to your timeframe. And remember, good designers and contractors will get booked up early so the quicker you start to develop the actual design idea, the better.