Catherine StewartNine garden design problems and how to fix them

Most gardens have an awkward or difficult part, where the aspect, size, shape or levels just don’t work the way you’d like, or deliver what you need. Sometimes its caused by the shape of modern housing subdivisions and not-so-clever siting of the house of on the block. Or other times it’s new buildings around you that have suddenly created gloomy shade, or being overlooked by neighbours. Here are some of the most common garden design problems and a range of possible solutions.

Design Ros McCully

Design Ros McCully

1. Wide and shallow gardens
Problem: Your garden is much wider than it is deep and from the house, you tend to look straight across the space, making it feel like there’s no garden there.
Solution: Make layers of interest, starting with a low hedge, wall or large-leafed shrub close to the house. Use a focal point in the middle distance, such as an attractive piece of furniture, statue or water feature to stop the eye, and link it around the garden by using the same colour or shape in other areas. Strong foreground foliage shapes or built objects start off your layering, and remember, a single focal point on the back fence will only shorten the view. Small show gardens are a great place to get ideas as they are often this shape.

Design Phillip Withers

Design Phillip Withers

2. Dark and gloomy gardens
Problem: Overhanging evergreen trees or looming apartment blocks cast heavy shade, which can look cool and inviting in summer but dark and dreary at other times.
Solution: Lighten the scene with paler coloured paving or gravel (which you will have to sweep or vacuum regularly), and use golden and variegated foliage plants that thrive in shade, to bring in some warmth and light. Splashes of vibrant colour such as orange, yellow and hot pink on walls and furniture add some life, as do highly reflective, shiny leaves and metallic sculptures. Try reflecting light into the space by careful placement of outdoor mirrors and light painted surfaces.

Gold foliage lightens a shady corner. Design Brendan Moar

Gold foliage lightens a shady corner. Design Brendan Moar

Sculpture by Zhou Jian-wen 'Life and Natural Beauty'

Stainless steel reflective sculpture by Zhou Jian-wen: ‘Life and Natural Beauty’

Path design Paul Bangay

Path design Paul Bangay

3. Narrow side passageways
Problem: You’ve got a long, dark side path beside the house that’s a bit neglected.
Solution: Give it a makeover with some light coloured concrete-based paver stepping stones (concrete is less likely to become slippery than clay-based materials like brick) set in a pale gravel. Mark the end of the path with a focal point statue, or a screen-style gate, which promises interest beyond. Lush plantings of shade-loving clivea, hardy ferns, narrowly upright sacred bamboo and variegated liriope and mondo grass complete the makeover.

Design Andrew Lawson

Design Andrew Lawson

Design by Adore Landscaping and Design

Design by Adore Landscaping and Design

Design Peter Nixon Paradisus

Design Peter Nixon Paradisus

4. Steep, rocky gardens
Problem: Your house block is on a really steep slope and the only place to garden is over solid rock.
Solution: Build up a garden bed at the base of the rock to give some height to lower plantings. Work with the remaining landform by spiralling steps through the stone floaters. Create small connected platforms or deck areas where there is any level space, perhaps covered by a shady pavilion. Plants that thrive in limited soil over rock include many epiphytic plants like bromeliads, orchids, and succulents, and you can also plant shallow-rooted grasses and native creepers. Add pockets of interesting detail along the stairs, with contrasting pebbles, small statues or niche plantings. Ferns will grow in tiny crevices in shady spots.

Design Christopher Owen (with Cynthia)

Design Christopher Owen (with Cynthia)

Design Patricia St. John, APLD, of St. John Landscapes, Berkeley CA for City Gem

Design Patricia St. John, APLD, of St. John Landscapes, Berkeley CA for City Gem

5. Long, narrow gardens
Problem: You have a long narrow garden only 3-4 metres (10-12 feet) wide, which looks more like a path than a garden.
Solution: To give an impression of width and to break up the strict regularity of the space, use rectangular pavers set on an angle, or a busier basketweave pattern in smaller pavers. Circles and sinuous curves also break up long narrow spaces. Create separate garden rooms by using a single, lacy foliaged shrub or an open, decorative screen on alternate sides, only partly obscuring views into the next section. Different floor surfaces can accentuate the change, which are connected by an ‘S’ shaped path. Keep the central section of each area open by having features or furniture to one side. Positioning a canopy from a small tree or pergola in the central section creates appealing sun and shade contrasts.

Design Peter Nixon Pardisus

Design Peter Nixon Pardisus

Clipped Australian native shrubs (Correa alba) adjoin dune vegetation. Design Fiona Boxall

Clipped Australian native shrubs (Correa alba) adjoin dune vegetation. Design Fiona Boxall

6. Gardens near environmental protection zones
Problem: Your garden backs on to an environmentally sensitive area
Solution: When your land borders native bush, grasslands or coastal dunes, you need to be very careful about how you garden to avoid damaging drainage patterns and introducing weeds. Planting a band of native cultivars allows you to create a more ordered and colourful garden as a transition zone, which still blends in with surrounding vegetation. Use more formally clipped native plants closer in, and then include more relaxed, informal plantings as you get close to the boundary. By blurring the transition between your garden and the bush, your garden will seem much bigger. Using local stone and weathered timber gives a naturalistic feel.

Design Phillip Johnson

Design Phillip Johnson

7. A flat, uninteresting garden
Problem: Your garden is dead flat which looks look quite dull, and it has some drainage problems.
Solution: Build up garden beds either as informal mounds to make an undulating surface, or with more formal constructed raised garden beds and planters. Create layers of overlapping levels; including setting raised planters at right angles to each other or planting bands of shrubs that step up in height. Include a deck away from the house set about 30-40 cm off the ground and add to the vertical interest with a tall pergola to cover it. You can even add an unusual landform as a piece of sculpture. Alternatively, you can make a real feature of the ground plane by designing a parterre, knot garden or detailed pattern in paving. Show gardens are a good place to find solutions as they are usually built over flat land.

Landform sculpture

Landform sculpture

We are such stuff as dreams are made of8. No room to make a garden view
Problem: You have a prominent window with a view of a close-by wall or fence, which detracts from the look of the room.
Solution: If the wall is not yours, and you’ve a wide windowsill and an opening sash window, or it’s low enough for ground access outside, make an instant garden with a planted windowbox. Use a self-watering planter trough and secure it with a railing so it doesn’t blow away. If the wall is yours (or the neighbours agree), you could get in a street artists, attach some weatherproof art, a mosaic or a photo mural to make your own view, or a built niche to house a special piece of sculpture. A thin metal or modwood decorative screen set off the wall with a coloured backdrop and backlit at night looks dramatic. If there’s a bit more room, a vertical garden could be the answer, planted with either hardy ferns or sun-loving succulents.

Design Sticks and Stones

Design Sticks and Stones

Design Stuart Pittendrigh

No view? Make your own. Design Stuart Pittendrigh

White Rabbit Gallery

Street art at the NG Gallery

Even every day objects and tools on a side fence can make a view

Even every day objects and tools on a side fence can make a view

9. A garden overlooked by neighbours
Problem: Your backyard has no privacy from a multi-storey development next door.
Solution: A spreading canopy, rather than height, is the answer here. Choose small trees with an umbrella-shaped canopy you can sit beneath, or build a free-standing pergola on that side, covered with bamboo screening, angled slats or a lacy, climbing vine to let in light but not views. Painting the pergola a light colour makes it visually more obscuring for those looking down. Shade sails or outdoor umbrellas are a quick fix.

Design Peta Donaldson

Design Peta Donaldson

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Creator, curator and editor of GardenDrum. Sydney, NSW.

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