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Garden Design

Garden concept plan

Helen McKerral

Helen McKerral

October 24, 2012

Recently, a visitor to my home made me consider the myriad tiny steps on the path to creating a garden, how we all tackle it in different ways, what we each bring to the process, the different places from which we start and how that influences what we see as either challenge, or inspiration. And every gardener with an area they want to change faces either challenge, or inspiration: for example Tino’s blog about his new journey, as well as Alison’s in the UK.

Early last year, we had our kitchen renovated. Of course, one task leads to another and I painted inside the entire house, and replaced the decades-old carpet and curtains. I found the whole experience unpleasant and stressful. I’m no designer or home-maker – colour matching, swatches of fabric and paint, and dozens of helpful paint brochures showing perfectly complementary or contrasting sofas, carpets, curtains and walls, plus trim, flowers and ornaments just confused me more. Where on earth should I start? What kind of colours should I choose? Worse, what if the colours or fabrics looked great when I held them up together, but crap when they were on the walls? This is exactly what happened the first time I painted the lounge room – a mistake we’ve lived with for two decades – and I couldn’t see why I wouldn’t repeat the mistake… throughout the entire house!

A relative, who loves home decorating and is very good at it, said, “Just start. Go visit some home decorator centres on the weekends, you’ll get ideas there.” But the thought of trudging through endless gleaming showrooms filled me with dismay. I couldn’t think of a worse way to spend a weekend! And I returned from my first attempt completely overwhelmed by far too many choices.

Our house is very small, so I didn’t want bold colours or feature walls. I prefer untrendy, old-fashioned, boring (but restful) creams and fawns. I don’t want my rooms to make a statement, I prefer them to shut up and stay in the background, calm and peaceful, for all the times I’m not. But when I leafed through magazines for ideas, all the rooms in them seemed to be shouting. Then I tried to watch one of those home renovation shows on television, which was even more depressing. The choices seemed so easy for them!

But after two months I finally narrowed down a carpet – a flecked beige wool. What’s so hard about that, I can hear you ask. I don’t know, it just was! I’d still need to paint the walls first… and choose curtains! Or was it the curtains that should come before the carpet? As I dithered over committing (it was so expensive, and what if it looked dreadful?), the salesman suggested a consultant who owned a curtain/decorating store. They’d charge minimally for some basic décor advice and, of course, recommend their own window dressings. What a relief!

The woman arrived, looked around the house, asked me questions, showed me samples, and in an hour we’d narrowed it down to a few paints, curtains and carpet options that Geoff and I could discuss. I loved almost everything she suggested!

The rest was time-consuming but not difficult. I spent six weeks painting, the carpets went in, the curtains went up. Our home will never feature in a magazine – it’s way too plain and ordinary – but it was transformed, spacious, airy, without clashing colours or clutter… and exactly right for Geoff and me. And to my amazement, I actually enjoyed choosing new light fittings! Not least because I won’t ever need to decorate the house again!

Transplanted avocado, old leaves soon to fall

My garden is completely the opposite experience. It’s fun and relaxing and I can easily correct mistakes. I know gardens, I love the process of creating them. I also understand the process:

1. plan

2. remove the things you don’t want (trees, weeds)

3. add structures (sheds, coops, compost bins) where they’re needed and

4. paths where you walk

5. improve the soil

Espalier transplanted satsuma


6. organise irrigation

7. mulch

8. plant

9. fertilise,

10. weed again

11. water

…and so on from there.

Temporary espalier for dwarf persimmon

I don’t need to think about sequence, priorities and timing because years of gardening provide every gardener with those skills – if you’ve been lucky enough to develop more than one garden, you’ll understand how different the process is for the second and subsequent ones. This winter I popped in the deciduous trees, in spring when the soil warmed I planted citrus and avocados, and then I needed to install irrigation for them. Now the deciduous fruit trees are vigorously sprouting they’re being trained as espaliers, but I’ve had to jury-rig a few temporary wires because Geoff’s out of action in the garden after a chivalrous act involving me and a creek on our recent New Zealand holiday. No matter, temporary wires and stakes will be fine for now.

Another fifteen cubic metres of mulch has arrived and I’m finally getting my money’s worth out of my mulch fork, moving just ten barrows a day because there’s no hurry. More walling awaits, and a neighbour is letting me collect extra rock from her paddock in exchange for eggs. So I do a bit of that as well, in between other jobs. A fortnight ago the jasmine and ivy needed hacking back in the old garden. Tomato, chilli and eggplant seedlings have been potted on and are hardening off on the kitchen windowsill. A designer friend will soon install unique and beautiful tomato trellising, after which I can plant that bed. And I’ll only plant that one bed (plus a few herbs), because establishing all four at once will be too much to manage this year on top of fencing and espaliering and all the permanent plantings.

Fan-training the cherry

I’ve interviewed many people whose gardens just evolved or “grew like Topsy”. They just start around the house, and then expand… and you can’t distinguish their gardens from one that’s been designed in its entirety from scratch by a professional. Gardeners in country areas often fence a relatively small area immediately around the house and then, every few years as the garden fills up, move the fence outwards, until the non-gardening spouse puts their foot down!


Temporary espalier for apple



So there’s no one method, although of course your previous gardening experience and local knowledge makes things easier. But if you’re at all daunted, remember that a garden consultation where a designer visits your property to develop a concept plan to varying degrees of detail, can greatly help you in the same way as my home decorating consultant helped me. You don’t need the garden designer to do any construction or planting, or even draw a detailed plan, but a concept plan showing the location of basic structures, paths and garden beds can make a big difference to your confidence… and your enjoyment of the process.

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Julie Thomson
11 years ago

Loved your post, Helen. I am one of those “grew like Topsy” gardeners. I don’t know if I could ever tackle a start- from-scratch project, liking the security of the bones that were here to build and work around. But your advice is wonderful. There is a common thread to people who are good at design; they wear clothes and make-up well, they have stylish houses and their gardens work. It’s something about their “eye”; perhaps “taste”, my mother would say. My sister has it and I learned much of mine from her – or maybe it’s in the genes.

helen mckerral
helen mckerral
11 years ago
Reply to  Julie Thomson

Thanks, Julie and yes, you’re right! I’m quite good at the science of growing plants, and where to place them for optimal growing conditions, so that they complement each other in a permaculture sense but, as to creating those beautiful plant pictures, such as in Bernhardt’s lovely garden, I have a long way to go! I understand the principles of garden design but lack that natural talent for turning theory into reality. Oh well, at least healthy, thriving plants always look good, even if the colours clash somewhat!

Alison S
Alison S
11 years ago

The key word is in the last line of your post, Helen: “confidence”. As a non-professional gardener, I sometimes feel the same mixture of panic and inadequacy when I contemplate my garden that you describe when confronted with home decorating. A concept plan from a professional garden designer can certainly help though in my case the problem then is working out how to actually do it in the absence of any local landscape contractors, and with a husband whose willingness only runs to a bit of strimming now and then. I am constantly having to calm myself down and just “have a go”. By the way, we should have a race to the bottom of the mulch heap: after all the stumps we had ground, I have one very like yours!

helen mckerral
helen mckerral
11 years ago

Hi Alison
Yes, that’s the thing, isn’t it – we are so pressured to achieve great things in gardening – and I’ve said before it’s one reason I don’t like “Instant Garden Makeover” shows at all. It discourages folk from just having a go.

If you make a mistake (other than with major structures like sheds, or with huge trees) in a garden… well, how bad can it be? You might lose a few plants, but a garden’s a living, dynamic thing, not static, anyway. Gardens that are exposed and windy when young become sheltered and shady when mature, with a completely different microclimate in which completely different plants thrive. Soil improves with decades of added manure and compost: I’ve had a few failures in the new area because it’s, well, new (and unimproved).

Alison, I confess that my mulch heap is only half moved – I’m getting quite bad asthma from the dust/fumes/fungi/whatever, even wearing a mask. I may need to get a lad in to shift it which is ironic, because at $40/hr that would mean by bargain is – yet again – not!