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Garden Design

From ‘nice’ to ‘wow’: immutable garden laws

Carlo Gabriele

Carlo Gabriele

September 19, 2017

There is a word that I loathe more than others, and it’s ‘nice’. To be honest, I hate it. And I hate it more when somebody says it in regard to something I have designed.

In my mind, of the million or so English words in the dictionary, there could not be any word more boring and overused than ‘nice’. Nice means to me something like: ‘I don’t know what to say’, or ‘I am bored and I can’t even roll my eyes because it’s rude’.  ‘Nice’ is exactly this face:


Now, consider that I take my job seriously and every day I wake up thinking: ‘Today I’ll make the difference!’. Because I have always been afraid to be a mediocre designer, I’ve spent a lot of time during my 13 year career figuring out what makes a garden look amazing instead of nice.

And I have a good news for you: I’ve found the answer! YAY!

There is more good news: since I started my garden design blog, ‘I will teach you to design your garden’,  I’ve experienced so much happiness in sharing what I know that I’ve decided to reveal the rules and tricks I use to stay far away from ‘nice’, and deliver gorgeous gardens to my clients.

Curious? Glue your eyes to the screen because I am going to start!



When I want to go out for dinner with my partner, usually we ask to each other ‘what do you feel like?’ – I am sure you do that too.

Sometimes we reply: ‘Italian!’ (groundbreaking, I know…), sometimes ‘Vietnamese’,

and so on.

Now I want you to focus on how amazing it is that just one word has the power to conjure up a whole world of flavours and atmospheres: ‘Italian’ says immediately the beautiful smell of basil of a pasta al pomodoro, or a crunchy and delicious pizza coming out from a wood fire oven. ‘Vietnamese’ on the other hand conjures up that wonderful combination of star anise, ginger, cinnamon, and lime that makes a pho delicious.

Let’s try with another example.

Hey fashionista! Have a look at this:


I am sure that you just need to look at that bob haircut, the sunglasses and those chunky necklaces to recognize Anna Wintour in this drawing.

Why am I saying these things? I want to show you that it’s possible to describe a mood (or a person, a look, a style) just by bringing up the main characteristics that define it.

It should be the same for your garden: just a glimpse of it should tell the world what it is about, which ‘language’ you are speaking, and the mood you are evoking.

I am amazed by how many times gardens look confused and unclear, or worse, they remind me of something wrong. Look for example at this picture:

The M&G Garden designed by James Basson. Photo: Alessandro Martini


This garden, designed by James Basson, just won the Best in Show at the Chelsea Flower Show. It was quite controversial: some liked it and some didn’t. Fair enough. But for me it was terrible to read the comments on Facebook of some of my friends who went to the exhibition: somebody called it a ‘pet cemetery’…

Well, it looks like a pet cemetery because stone blocks emerging from a scruffy lawn is what a pet cemetery looks like in anybody’s imagination. Sorry James.

So, here we have to solve:

  1. How to create a mood and choose the elements to express it; and
  2. How to avoid our garden reminding us of a pet cemetery.

To create a mood we have to find the main features that define it. How many?

For many things in life, including this one, I usually apply the Pareto Principle, also called the 80/20 rule:

20% of the input creates 80% of the result

(Heavenly choir)

This means that I just have to find the 2 or 3 things that express clearly what I am talking about. Like the bob haircut, the sunglasses and the necklaces in the Anna Wintour example.

The best way to find out these qualities, especially if we are in doubt, is to confront pictures that show that mood and find what they have in common.

Let’s say, for example, that I want to design a country garden. I just google ‘country garden’ and then click on ‘Images’. This is what I see:

Here what happens when I google ‘country garden’


What do these pics have in common?

  • An informal atmosphere
  • Masses of plants
  • Hard surfaces are limited in size and uneven

Look at this beautiful garden in Umbria designed by Niccolo’ Grassi, Italian Landscape and Garden Designer:

La Vignaccia, designed by Niccolo’ Grassi. Photo: Niccolo’ Grassi

La Vignaccia, designed by Niccolo’ Grassi. Photo: Niccolo’ Grassi

La Vignaccia, designed by Niccolo’ Grassi. Photo: Niccolo’ Grassi


What do you notice?

An informal atmosphere? Masses of plants? Uneven and limited hard surfaces?

Here we are: the perfect country garden is served!

Now we have to solve the problem of choosing the right references so that our garden doesn’t look wrong. This is more complicated because, if someone like the experienced James Basson failed, we all are allowed to make mistakes.

I only see two possibilities:

1. Increase your knowledge: the more references you have, the more you know, the more pictures you look at and the less you’ll get wrong.
2. Once you define your mood, discuss it with somebody you trust: often we fall in love with our own ideas and we lose objectivity. Listening to other people helps us to understand if the message we are sending out there is heard loud and clear.



Proportion and scale are the most important aspects in design: if they are not correct, whatever you design looks unbalanced, unfinished and uncomfortable.

By contrast, in a well-proportioned composition all the parts have the right dimension and scale compared to the others; walking through a room, or sitting on a chair, or chilling in a garden make you feel comfortable and in harmony if proportions are well conceived. It’s like wearing a bespoke suit: it fits perfectly.

Getting the right proportions is not a super power, it’s more a matter of practice. Once you learn how to put things in the right correlation, it becomes more and more natural.

How come?

Have you ever heard about the Golden Ratio?

It’s a special number found by dividing a line into two parts so that the longer part, divided by the smaller part, is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part.

This number, approximately 1.618, has been studied since Euclid and used to design many masterpieces from the Parthenon to the Leonardo da Vinci Mona Lisa, from the Taj Mahal to the Mies van der Rohe houses. Scientific tests (for more read here) show how our brain seems particularly attracted to this proportion, which is considered the most satisfying.

How to use this magic number?

Let’s say that you want to design the perfect rectangle that has a 1 metre side: the other side should be 1.6 metres. This kind of geometric shape, where side lengths are in the golden ratio, is called a golden rectangle.

You can apply this rule to every element of your project: the height of a pergola compared to its length, the width of a pathway compared to the width of the lawn next to it, etc.

It is, for example, what I did in this garden using the golden rectangle to define all the prominent lines of the project.

A garden I designed where I applied the Golden Ratio to get perfect proportions


Every time you are in doubt about the proportion and the scale of your design, just check if they are close to the Golden Ratio. Easy! Isn’t it?



Before I started my blog I was very curious to understand which topics my potential readers were interested in. Which garden design problems they were struggling with, and what made them frustrated about their gardens. I wanted (and still want) to offer solutions to these pains.

That’s why I interviewed a lot of people: friends, acquaintances, relatives and strangers that I found visiting gardening forums, blogs, Facebook groups etc.

Many of my interviewees told me about a common frustration caused by looking at magazines for finding inspirations: when creating their own garden it seemed to them that the result was incredibly far away from what they were trying to get. They felt hopeless.

Having a look at the pictures of these gardens, the problem was often the same: they were supposed to be lush and luxuriant but they all lacked plants.

If you are willing to make a garden full of plants, probably the only thing that you can’t miss is… PLANTS!

Maurizio Usai, Landscape Architect based in Sardinia, knows this rule really well. A profusion of well combined plants is his signature, and if you look at these pictures I am sure that you agree with me when I say that every inch of his gardens is filled with plants.

I Fontanili garden, design by Maurizio Usai. Photo: Maurizio Usai

I Fontanili garden, design by Maurizio Usai. Photo: Maurizio Usai


This kind of garden can be very expensive to make, but if you want to have the same result there is not a ‘plan B’.



We all are similar because we have a pair of eyes, ears, legs, one nose etc. But what really makes us different from each other is that bunch of unique details: a big nose or a sweet voice, or that beautiful and soft skin that I wish I had. Lol.

It’s the same for gardens: the more they are rich in details, the more their character and personality is defined.

‘God is in details’, Mies van der Rohe said. He was right. Details take every design to another level, they step it up. Not all designers are able to master details wisely: unfortunately, it takes time and practice. So, what are you waiting for? Why don’t you start to play with your garden by adding details and seeing how it goes?

Flowers and leaves, textured foliage, interesting finishes for the hard materials, etc. help your design to become more interesting.

In this project, for example, I had to deal with a small space. To avoid a sense of confusion I used a limited material palette and I chose plants with tiny and extremely textured foliage.

As you can see, because of the light play, it’s like having a million pixels of different shades of green.

Details are never enough for me: the more details, the richer the garden


For this project, by contrast, I designed the paving using small black and white pebbles so that it looked like a mosaic.

The contrast between the large foliage and the textured mosaic suits perfectly this project!


If you have a look at both pictures you can notice how your eyes can’t stop jumping around from one detail to the next one, like bees in a meadow.

It’s what details are for: a plain and simple composition gets boring quickly because there’s not so much to see. 



Always remember: the only reason why you should master the rules is to break all of them. Out of your comfort zone is where the magic happens. Don’t be afraid: once you’ve learned all the rules that make design great, just take the challenge and create something new!

I really hope that you’ve enjoyed this article so far. Let me know your thoughts: leave me a comment below!



‘Pretty’ is the enemy of ‘Beautiful’

Nonna Giuliana


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Brajesh rana
Brajesh rana
6 years ago

Appreciate it, got more clarity in thoughts… gr8!