Drawing a site plan
When you are planning to design or redesign a garden, it helps considerably to draw a complete scale plan on paper first. Begin with a site plan, showing the outline of the house, the positions of the boundaries or existing fences and any special features, such as a beautiful tree, that might play an important part in the ultimate plan.
When drawing the plan, work either in the metric scale of 1 cm on the plan being equivalent to 1 m in the garden (1:100), or if you prefer Imperial measurements, work on the basis of 1 in on the scale plan representing 1 ft of ground in the garden. Mark the direction of North on the plan. Finally, photocopy the plan three or four times.
The cleared plot
The plot may be completely barren, partially cultivated or a well-established garden that you nevertheless want to change. If it is barren, the best to be hoped for is that it is a clean, level piece of meadow-land which requires little in the way of clearing. More usually, however, it will comprise an area of wasteland, either littered with all manner of rubbish, or submerged in almost impenetrable undergrowth. In such cases, the first step, of course, is to clear the ground to get a better idea of what lies underneath.
Any brick rubble, stones or similar material that comes to light during the-clearing operation can usefully be set aside for making foundations to paths and paving. Everything that is combustible should be burnt; anything that is indestructible should either be carted away or, if you can manage it, buried in a fairly deep pit. If possible, do this in a place where you plan to make compost, for example.
Once the site is more or less clear, it will be easier to sum up its virtues and disadvantages, with a view to turning it into a lovely garden. The main factors to be considered are outlined below and, where possible, they should be positioned or indicated on one of the copies of the site plan. This will help considerably later when you are positioning other features in the garden, by helping to ensure that they are placed in the most favourable situation. It may help, too, in excluding some plants for which the garden is actually unsuitable.
The soil is the most basic item in a garden, so it is very important to determine its nature and distribution. First, there should be a good layer of dark coloured top soil. If this is not in evidence, find out whether it has been buried by the builder under the subsoil from any excavations, by poking below what lies on the surface. If you can find no top soil, it will be necessary to import a few loads into the garden. The alternative is to work at conditioning the existing soil but this might take several years.
The nature of the soil in any garden naight fall into one of a number of categories. It may be sandy, clay, loam, acid, very old and sour (often found in town gardens), chalky or alkaline. Soil will be discussed in greater detail later, but as it is such an important factor at this point in planning a garden, a few hints on how to determine its type are given here.
Several simple physical tests can be carried out on the spot. A handful of sandy soil, for example, feels gritty to the touch and even if it is moistened it fails to ‘ball up’ together. Moistened clay soil, on the other hand, can easily be moulded in the hand. If a dilute acid – hydrochloric acid, for example – is poured carefully on to a chalky soil, it will effervesce. Good loam falls between sand and clay soil in its properties.
Marking an existing feature on the site plan
Many plots, particularly those containing an existing garden which the owner may wish to redesign, will have some attribute, such as a beautiful tree or an ornament of some kind, that could be used as a feature in the newly planned garden. On the other hand, there might be some less attractive item, such as an old shed, which is difficult to move and must therefore be concealed by the new planting scheme. Whatever the object, beautiful or unsightly, it will help to have it pinpointed on the site plan.
Assessing the site
Assessing the characteristics of the site is one of the first and most important things to do when planning or re-planning a garden. All plots are different, however; even if they are the same size and in the same road, the conditions found in each one will demand differing approaches. One plot may be bathed in sun for most of the day, while, next door, a tall tree or building may plunge part of that garden into deep shadow. Winds might make it necessary to install a windbreak in one garden, while in another further along the row, breezes may be hardly noticeable.
Such points prove that if the best possible design is to be achieved, each plot must be judged on its own characteristics and plans made accordingly. Certainly it is possible to gain valuable hints from inspecting a well-made garden, but it does not necessarily follow that its design will suit a similar plot. It is seldom satisfactory to design or replan a garden wholly by example: it usually has to be a complete ‘do-it-yourself exercise from the start.
The type of vegetation already growing can often be a good indicator of the nature of the soil. If gardens are lush with Rhododendrons and Azaleas in the spring and there is an abundance of Heathers throughout the year, it is probable that the soil is acid. On the other hand, if the surrounding countryside is supporting luxurious growths of Traveller’s Joy (Old Man’s Beard), whose botanical name is Clematis vitalba, the soil is definitely chalky. The countryside gives another clue to the likely nature of the soil: if the garden is situated fairly near chalk downs, it is quite possible that its soil will also be chalky; if it is in heathland country, the soil is most probably acid.
It is possible, though, that the nature of the soil can differ in various parts of a garden. If this is so, mark them all on the site plan.
Sometimes a barren site will have a small area where water collects, so that the soil remains permanently wet and water-logged. If this spot is covered in vegetation, it may not be too easy to detect, but a preponderance of marsh plants – Rushes, Reeds and Se*dges – among the wild flora will give a good indication of such a problem. If the whole plot shows signs of being wet, it is obvious that the ground will need drainage. Such a spot in one part of the site, however, could provide the opportunity to have a marsh garden or natural pool as a special feature in the over-all plan. Mark any such wet areas on the site plan.
It is also important to mark the position of any places where the soil appears to be exceptionally dry so that planting can be carried out accordingly.
The aspect of the site (i.e., how it is situated in relation to the points of compass) is the next consideration, and there are two main ways in which it has a bearing on the ‘well-being’ of a garden. Firstly, it determines how much sun the garden enjoys and at what time of the day certain parts of the area are in sun or shade. Secondly, the aspect of a plot will in some cases – coastal districts and very exposed inland areas in particular – determine what spots in the garden are exposed to strong prevailing winds and so need to be screened. This point is discussed in greater detail on p. 24.
Although little can be done to change the aspect of a garden, there are one or two helpful things for the new garden planner to bear in mind. Undoubtedly the best aspect for a rear garden (and for a house, for that matter) in the northern hemisphere is south or, better still, south-west. It will get the maximum amount of sun during the day, for if the garden is not overshadowed, the sun will shine on it from late morning until the evening.
The principal drawback to such an aspect is that it could be exposed to strong southwesterly winds, although these are usually relatively warm. However, there is another side to the coin: a house with a southerly back garden necessarily has a front garden which faces north, and this may not be so desirable!
The worst aspects for a garden are east and north. In the case of the latter, the amount of sun that shines on the garden is rather restricted, while a garden that faces east tends to be in shade during the afternoon. In addition, the winds that blow are strong and biting, and if the site is in a very open position, such as on the outskirts of a town, this could have a damaging effect on plants. West and north-west are much more favourable aspects as they provide a certain amount of warmth, shade and moisture.
Sun is beneficial to vegetation, but as plants vary in how much sun they need, shade has an equally important role to play. Because of this, it is important to determine which areas of the site are exposed to sun and for how long during the day, as well as to note the places that are shady for part of the day, partially shady all the time or in continuous deep shade. Mark all these as accurately as possible on the site plan. Such observations help greatly when you come to locate various types of plants, the sun-worshippers and the shade-lovers in particular.
Certain features, such as rock gardens with an open sunny position, can be more easily sited, and so can a paved sitting-out area which is in sunshine for most of the day but is perhaps at least partially shaded by a tree. Those spots that are always in deep shade will have to be filled with deep-shade-loving plants; alternatively, it may be possible to use them for siting one of the utilities, such as the tool-shed or the solid fuel store.
It is useful, too, to record the movement of the sun, plotting it on the plan to indicate how the positions of the sun and shade vary during the course of the day. Remember that as the sun is higher in the sky in the summer than it is in the winter, making the shadows longer, so the shaded areas are larger and the sunny ones are smaller during the winter. If possible, plot the movement of the sun during both summer and winter.
It is important to determine, too, whether there are especially warm, sheltered spots in the garden. These are usually sited at the base of, or against, a warm, sunny wall, and they are often ideal spots to grow some of the more tender, exotic plants that can add so much interest to a garden. It is equally important to plot any places where it is essential for there to be a hard surface, such as a drive, where there is likely to be shade, dampness and permanent cold. Such places tend to harbour frost and snow long after it has disappeared elsewhere and the atmosphere is usually colder. These are all points to bear in mind when planning what plants to grow with the greatest chance of success.
Protection against winds is essential if a garden is to nourish. However, this does not mean screening only those areas in direct line of the prevailing winds but making allowances, too, for winds that blow from unexpected quarters. These may come into various parts of the garden, having been deflected by higher ground, trees or – in town gardens – high buildings nearby. A narrow passage between the house and a high fence can create a ‘wind tunnel’, and the resulting whirlwind can cause devastation in an otherwise sheltered spot. Take note of it now, so that it will not be overlooked in the final plan for the garden.
Different districts have varying amounts of rainfall during the year and it is usually possible to obtain information about this through the local authority. The amount of rainfall is likely to influence the selection of plants you will grow, especially if it is relatively low and the soil is therefore likely to be dry. Make a note on the plan, too, of those places where little rain will fall on the soil, such as in a bed against a wall of the house, or where the ground is protected by a heavily leafed Conifer or evergreen tree.
This climatic condition can seriously affect the type of plants that will flourish in any garden. Bear in mind that in districts recognized as being colder than average, spring usually arrives later than it does elsewhere and summer ends earlier. The local metero-logical office will be able to tell you if your district falls into this category.
It is very important to determine whether your garden is in a severe frost pocket or not. Generally, this is not such a serious factor in town gardens as it is in suburban or country areas, because the surrounding buildings give some shelter. Frost is peculiar in that one garden may be very badly affected by it, while the neighbouring one shows hardly any signs of it at all. If the garden is fairly high, the chances of it being a frost pocket are lessened.
The fact, too, that cold air ‘flows’ downhill can have a bearing on garden planning. In a sloping garden, this incline should be retained as much as possible and planting should largely be carried out at the higher level. Lawns, paved areas, very robust shrubs and the various necessities, such as the tool shed, place for bonfire, compost bin and so on are best sited on the lower level.
If a garden is situated in a frost hollow, there should be no solid barriers, such as fences, walls or tough hedges as these will prevent the freezing air from flowing away. Even on flat ground, possible damage from frost can be lessened by planting ‘staggered’ hedges, rather than in one unbroken line. It will help, too, to site large shrubs and other similar features in such a way that the cold currents circulate round them and are thus kept on the move, thereby improving the chance of survival of tender plants.