3 Easy-to-apply Garden Design Principles to Improve Your Garden

This time of year is a great opportunity to take stock of the garden and decide what changes to make. As much as the colder weather makes it tempting to shelve garden plans until next year, for me, it’s easier to plan and carry out some changes now, whilst what worked and what didn’t is still fresh in my mind. Also, it’s still a good time for new plants to go in the ground, and moving or dividing many plants can also be done in Autumn.

Try applying some of these design principles when thinking of how to redesign your garden.



Whether your garden is large or small, repeating a design element will ensure a cohesive overall effect, and unify the space. This can be done in a number of ways, one of the simplest being to repeat a particular type of plant (or plants) throughout the garden.  Choosing a shrub, tree or type of herbaceous perennial to repeat at intervals across the space, leads the eye across the garden, and ties the composition together. (Whether you are dividing plants now or in Spring, there’s your opportunity to put this into practice without cost.)  This technique can be utilised with a selection of elements; more than one type of plant could be repeated, the same material used in different ways in different locations, or the repetition of a particular form across the garden, perhaps even echoing a feature of the house.

Robert Myer’s Brewin Dolphin Show Garden at Chelsea 2013 shows the ovular form of the stones repeated in the topiary, in the wall reliefs and also the sculpture.




Keep it simple.

Resist the temptation to try and cram too many ideas into a space. Restraint, whilst sometimes difficult to exercise, can make the difference between a garden looking confused, or well-designed. Firstly, limit the range of hard landscaping materials used, a maximum of 3 is a good idea. If in doubt, stick to just one type of material, but vary the size of units to create interest and textural contrast – for example gravel, setts and large slabs all in a matching material. Rather than trying to go for as many different types of plant as possible, plant groups of three, five or more, for a bolder effect, or repeat the same plant amongst others for a slightly different look. Either way, use odd numbers of plants for a more natural feel.

Piet Oudolf’s design at Scampston Walled Garden is effective in part because of its simplicity. Elements are repeated and a relatively restricted plant list is in use.



Think about scale and proportions.

All elements of a garden have to be considered in relation to the size of the space, and also in relation to the other elements contained in it. My previous post here about tree selection for small spaces talked about how many trees end up being removed (or butchered), because the ultimate size of the tree was not considered at the time it was planted. However, the mistake more frequently seen is the undersizing of elements within a garden. Patios should be generous enough to accommodate furniture, people, and space to move around them whenever possible. Big, bold foliage plants in large containers can look dramatic in confined spaces. Don’t overdo it, but going as big as you dare is likely to give a better result than going too small.  It’s possible to add height without too much bulk by introducing plants such as Verbena bonariensis, Foeniculum vulgare or Veronicastrum virginicum. Ornamental grasses  such as Molinia ‘Windspiel” are unbeatable for adding height and movement, whilst still allowing a view through them to whatever lies beyond.

York Gate garden in Leeds. Tall plants and big balls. More effective than short and small.




There are many other design principles and techniques which contribute to the success of any garden or landscape design. Also, these aren’t hard and fast rules – if you like the look of something, do it. There are no rights or wrongs, and part of the enjoyment of owning a garden is trying out different ideas. Some will work, some won’t, but you won’t know until you try.



Lewis Williams, Garden Designer in Shipley covering all of Yorkshire including Bingley, Leeds, Ilkley, Guiseley etc.