design your garden
stage 1 of the backyard garden project

You can design your own garden using green principles. I wouldn’t leave this up to anyone else, but that is because for me it is such a great pleasure. Most of this subsection deals with the layout of backyard gardens, how to find design and planting ideas, and comments and critiques of backyard garden arrangements as well as the stages of my own project, and lastly working with flowers, blue, white and pink, red and orange as an element of the garden without focussing too much sweat and chemistry on them. I also visit publicly viewable gardens and speak to their gardeners to do some very pleasurable raportage, and write on beautiful gardens in my neighbourhood, Goodwood: a succulent garden for example. The next project after my own backyard garden, which is relatively complete for the time being, is the Goodwood library garden. On the design intelligence in 'nature' itself: Bejan's law of thermodynamics.

for me the primary green design principle is:

be real, embrace what you can’t change. Don’t pretend.or be pretentious

from this many corollaries can be drawn.

1)     I’m not pro any imitation of the Gardens of Versailles in my hood, on any scale. It will bring wasteful un green thinking in its wake, great idea in France, great idea in the 17th Century, but look what happened to the owners later !

2)     Work with the hard features your garden gives you, rather than trying to camouflage them. Where possible transform them into positives

3)     work with your climate and accommodate for and tweak for the drought, the rains, the wind, the cold and the heat

4)     work with your soil and its properties, there is advantage in every type of soil

5)     work with the plant ecology of your soil type and region, thousands of years of adaption have done the ground work and prep for you, so why not use it. Use native plants if possible, growing as close to your own locality as possible, with or without flexibility according to your personal ideology

6)     work with your neighbourhood, let it show directions in terms of plantings, observe other gardens in your locality for success and disaster stories

7)     work with the garden’s users, children, dogs, cats and birds, but restrain them from destroying your work entirely

8)     work with your own preconceived notions of what a garden is, but transform them

 Beyond this, like any design job, the principles are the same.

familiarize yourself with your format: your givens, their materials

Familiarize yourself with your format and your givens. Freely create the geometric plan and then ponder on your brush sweeps. In garden design these will be both hard and soft, living and not living, horizontal and vertical. micro and macro environmental, so its complex and thrilling painting you'll be doing.

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familiarize yourself with your givens

Measure up. Measure horizontally with a tape, and vertically with a thoedolite, if you have access, if not, just guestimate changes in level. Also measure the height of walls and garages. Measure up things you should take cognissance of in design, givens like existing trees or hard surfaces you’d like to keep etc. or drains and underground piping.

Map it out. Get all the numbers together and draw a map or plan of your garden space. Don’t sweat this too much unless your building requires enormous precision, like you’re going to build retaining walls, large pools and so forth, but don’t plant a tree on top of your drainage outlets, because of future root damage.

Consider your materials. What materials are already used in the space, for surrounding walls, flooring, and the already existing plant material ? This is especially important the smaller it gets. You would want to work in harmony with these materials, not against them, so you need to think about them right from the start. A mistake I made in this regard can be discussed later where it doesn’t clutter the methodology I’m describing.

Freely Create the garden’s geometric plan

Draw it freely. On top of the plan you’ve made of your garden with its basic givens and its borders and size, lay a fresh sheet of transparent paper. This is because you may go through many versions and you don’t want to mess up all that work you did plotting out the givens. Freely draw in some nice geometric shapes on your top sheet that make a nice design with the plan of the givens you’ve drawn below. You can draw circles in squares, squares in squares, long rectangles in squares, tear drops, spirals and yin yang signs, whatever shapes fit in with your personal aesthetics. Keep it simple is a good principle. I plan to get on to CAD at a later stage, but low tech is perfectly sufficient.

Ponder THE paint strokes OF YOUR DESIGN

Think. This phase of freely drawing in some shapes, and then pondering on them can be prolonged for as long as it still gives you pleasure. You might want to ponder on the following:            

Making the mark. How will I mark out this shape in gardening materials as opposed to a pencil ? in grass, a tree, paving, gravel, a riotous bed of flowers edged by wooden boards ?

Will it grow ? If the major element in making this mark is with plantings, will they survive in this area you’ve marked out, because of soil, macro climate of your region, wind channeling, shade from buildings or trees, waterlogging, dryness, too much sun etc. Here we are getting into the individual requirements of particular plants, which can be discussed species by species in a section on plant requirements and propagation. But for now, look at places where these plants thrive for clues. Look around you in your neighbourhood. Do not forget to think about how it may affect the growth of other plantings, will it block their sun, prevent air movement, or gently protect more delicate plants by creating a microclimate, and will it be a good companion to plants in the same bed ?       

point of view

Point of view. What will this feature look like from the ground, rather than the bird’s eye view on the plan ? How does it work from the place where you most habitually will be viewing it ? For example in famous Par Terre gardens which are generally very flat, the design of swirls and geometries in different colours can be seen from a palace balcony, but at eye level, it is the plants themselves and the vistas along the paths which create interest. This leaves plenty of room for being boring, as these royal gardens often can be, unless you are thinking about viewing the garden from all points of view, the Emperor’s and the gardener’s. If you live in a flat, or high rise appartment, but have access to the garden attached to it, you could lay out something that looks great from above, and then make sure that the plant detailing is interesting too on the ground.

            Back to that human on the ground eye view……

soft landscaping with growing plants

If your design elements are plant based and living : Will it grow high and block the view of something else, and is this desirable ? Will it grow and block the light of other plants, and how soon ? Does its growth matter for short term planting for the next year ? Will the view of it be blocked by some already existing feature ? Is this interesting, or a pity ? Does it serve the purposes of shaping your space in three dimensions. Is your overall design’s three dimensional geometry appealing or interesting enough (a mistake I think is made by many people in backyard gardens will be addressed later).  For example, would it provide a nice long view past interesting obstacles, creating what is called lines of sight ? These were used in planning old royal gardens like that at Oranjeburg in the East of Germany, but work their magic on a small scale too. Would it create changing scapes as you move through the garden, that come as pleasant surprises, from seeing an open sweep, to being surrounded by bushes on a small path, from being in the cool shade under a huge overhanging tree, to sitting at the edge of a pond, or listening to water falling ? I think this is part of the principle behind creating garden rooms that is so popular in English gardening. Lastly, will the colouring of the planting work with the rest of your garden ?

hard landscaping with building materials

If it is a ‘hard’ landscaping material : First, let me say, not to scare you, but to help you set a solid foundation, hard landscaping is everything. It is much more onerous and likely to fail design wise (been there and done that) to plant around and disguise an ugly framework, than to start off with a garden that already looks interesting without any plants gracing its beds ! Secondly and very important too, are you working with a material (gravel or slate, woodchips or paving) that works with the already existing materials of the ‘givens’. Here I’ll refer to my big mistake with my garden....again.... in a later posting. It could contrast, or harmonize, that is be utterly different to, or exactly the same as, the same colour, the same material, or have different treatments and different materials. For example you see the combination everywhere, especially in large scale forest landscaping, of long split pole fencing, round wooden stepping stones and wood chip floor coverings. They’ve used everything in the process of cutting down the trees that needed felling, in three different versions of the “geometry” of wood. Green harmony all round…Thumbs up. But NEVER  in my back garden. How will this material affect your garden’s microclimate ? Will it reflect heat or absorb it, protect the earth or smother it ? block air movement to plants that like wind, or create any other disruption of your garden’s ecosystem ? You may have a gyt65 blank canvas before you or you may be dealing with givens that bother you. I’ve  few ideas about those. If you apply the part of the green philosophy that is about being real. Embrace the givens. I’ll illustrate this with my story of garden materials mistake...again.... Lastly, is the material green ? is it recycled, can you recycle it, is it biodegradable or does it have some aspect which justifies its use in terms of friendliness to the environment.

I will move on to discuss adjusting the garden for soil and climate in a “green” way in the post after the next. 

In the meantime, for some information on my garden and materials take a look at my scrap book and photo album website edenfound, and the beautiful planting designs of Gertrude Jekyll and Piet OudolfIn the next post I intend to tell my story about my mistakes and triumphs with materials over the years, because it touches on several of the principles here, and is foundational, before the planting.  TiIl then !

why the colour symbol 'green' is not quite right in our context

Aesthetically I aim to be ‘real’, and avoid incurring the damage that being false does, though that is an onion one could go on peeling eternally, and the critics of the search for authenticity would supply a lot of opposing theory. Reality involves acknowledging that there are imbalances all around us which have to be righted. A true green ideology would involve this on the level of ecosystems and human beings. Thus I do not agree, for instance with the South African Green Party which is against the Black Economic Empowerment program. We need balance and sustainability in everything. We also cannot focus on the economy, and job creation, and neglect ecology, giving it no place in the creation of the economy. Indeed a revolution is under way, in which people who separate the two will be left behind. Not only is sustainable management of our resources fundamental to a sustainable economy, plants are the bedrock of life itself. Plants and their chlorophyl turned a planet that would have been deadly to human life, into one habitable by oxygen breathing land dwellers, they are mankind's... indeed all haemoglobin bearing creatures' second lung. Their colour has a lot to do with this miracle. Yet the very term green itself is not that straightforward, and contextualizing the term seems necessary. 

site map

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green home page 

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vegetable gardening the natural low cost way

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stage 2 backyard garden design project

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stage 3 planting the raised bed

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stage 4 planting out the second aloe pot

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stage 5 laying a simple path and planting for shade

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stage 6 bed preparation and laying more paths 

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stage 7 planting the henhouse garden with succulents

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stage 8 some finishing up, how to plant in a hurry 

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typical backyard gardens

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the radical grey walls square in square design

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more information on gardening

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pink flowering garden in the late summer drought

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We invite you to share your stories, ask questions, because if a thing has bothered you it will bother others too. Someone may have a solution ! No question is too small. There is learning for everyone involved, for you, for me (yes, I learn from every question), for us all. Exciting stuff !

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