Find your garden style
First of all you’ll need to find a garden style you like - whether that be a large expanse of wildflowers that can be left to their own devices or a formal garden within neat boundaries.
Whether you prefer a modern design with crisp, clean lines or a quintessential English style with perennial borders and a mass of colour, the mood of a garden is set by its theme. A cottage garden with its frothing flower borders is somewhat romantic; a contemporary garden furnished for livability may feel like an extension of the home. Gardens are often a reflection of the architecture of the house to which they belong. Strong geometry often typifies the modern design, with an absence of clutter. In cottage gardens, anything goes.
Concrete pavers, for example, may mimic concrete walls and interior floors. This style suits a lot of new homes… though there is always room for adding even more flowers into a contemporary theme if desired!
Formal gardens have balanced design symmetry, and often use evergreen shrubs and trees to enclose and delineate areas of planting. Neatly clipped hedges and topiary frequently appear in this style. Symmetrical planting bordering a path that leads to a focal point such as a statue is the epitome of formal garden style.
Rock gardens can bring a natural, rugged beauty to any backyard, and Mediterranean-themed gardens can make us feel as though we are living in hotter climes. For the latter, drought-tolerant plants such as lavender, rosemary, Russian sage and vines often border gravel walkways.
Urban gardens may see more potted plants, especially where there is more concrete than lawn. Different levels of planting can liven up a small space and make the area seem bigger. Tall plants also help block out neighbours.
While formal gardens thrive on order and well-defined spaces, cottage gardens look almost dishevelled in comparison, with a hotchpotch of flowers spilling over paths and climbing up arches and fences. Trees are not an integral part of the cottage garden, but structures, like arbours, pergolas, trellis fencing and benches, are typically used to divide larger areas into rooms or to act as focal points. The cottage garden is predominantly informal, with old-fashioned flowers that will climb, ramble, creep or crawl over anything in their way. While a cottage garden may look easy-care, a good deal of maintenance is required or it will quickly become an unruly mess.
Digging your soil is only really necessary when you want to incorporate soil improvers, or you feel it has become compacted. The main soil improver is humus or fully broken down organic matter. As well as containing nutrients and feeding beneficial soil microorganisms, organic matter allows air into heavy soils and retains moisture in light soils. Homemade compost is best; add half a barrow per square metre.
Lime improves clay soils by binding the particles into larger crumbs. On acidic soils, add normal forms of lime (see below); if non-acidic, dig in 100-200g of gypsum per square metre. This should only be done every few years; gypsum is a salt and too much will poison the soil.
Hydrated lime (calcium hydroxide) and quicklime (calcium oxide) will raise the soil ph. Dolomite lime (calcium magnesium carbonate) is gentler and contains magnesium too). Dig in lime on a still, dry day, several weeks to a month before planting. Apply between 150-250g per square metre, depending on your soil's ph. Only lime every two or three years and don't mix lime with animal manure. It will react with the nitrogen, releasing ammonia, which can scorch plants.