"Great design is eliminating all unnecessary details" Minh D. Tran

The first thing to establish when laying out a garden is the orientation of the light.    If you don't know the orientation of your garden look your house up on Google Maps.  North is always at the top.  The sun rises in the East and sets in the West.  

Although it depends on other factors  such as surrounding buildings and trees casting shade, as a rule of thumb,  the sun travels through your garden in the following ways

  • Back garden has morning sun but in shade by the house in the evening = East facing

  • Back garden has mid afternoon / evening sun but in shade by the house in the morning = West facing

  • Back garden has morning sun / afternoon / some evening sun = South facing

  • Back garden in shade most of the day and evening = North facing


When you know how the sun affects your garden you can create a Sun & Shade Map.    In this example, the house is on the left hand side and the old patio at the back door would be in shade all day.  Moving the patio closer to the boundary on the right hand side creates an area to enjoy afternoon and evening sun.  This also means choosing plants confidently based on sun & shade levels for every area of the garden.  Spend some time observing the effect of the sun on your garden and use sticks or pegs to mark out areas that get good sun levels / always in shade.  Remember this will be your garden made perfect so work with the conditions you actually have.

Think creatively

By taking the time to understand how your garden is affected by the movement of the sun means you can unlock the potential of the space and get the best from your garden.  Looking at this example below we can see the best place for a patio would be an L-shaped one located on the corner.  This wouldn't be the obvious solution but it really does get the best from the space.  Making it L-shaped ensures you can catch the best of the weather from Sunrise to Sunset.  The left hand side of the 'L' could be for evening entertaining, cooking & dining as it's getting the best from the evening sun.  The right hand side would be perfect for some sun loungers an outdoor sofa for daytime sun. As it's close to the house it's easy to add outdoor sockets and lighting.

Establish your 'must haves'

The most common issue with modern gardens is they tend to be on the small side. So getting clear on what's truly important is essential.   Create a wish list of everything you'd want from your garden, then get tough on what you must have.

Wish List

  1. Sunbathing area

  2. Outdoor Dining

  3. Kids/Pets Play area

  4. Outdoor Cooking

  5. Wildflower/nature area

  6. Pond

  7. Compost area

  8. Fruit trees

  9. Vegetable plot

  10. Privacy from neighbours

Group BBQ

Must Haves

  1. Sunbathing area

  2. Outdoor Dining

  3. Kids/Pets Play area

  4. Outdoor Cooking

  5. Privacy from neighbours

Find your garden's 'sweet spot'

Every garden has one!  Survey your garden with fresh eyes, ignore everything that is existing.  Think of it as moving into a house where you hate the layout and style of the kitchen.  You wouldn't replicate that layout when replacing the kitchen and it's the same with the garden.  Shed basking in the sunny spot at the bottom corner?  Move it!  Be bold enough to start from scratch.  Gardens are precious and it's so worth taking the time and trouble to get what you want. 


Looking at the Must Haves list above, items 1, 2 & 4 can all be achieved with an extra generous patio.  If your garden is lucky enough to get afternoon and evening sun this is where the patio needs to be.  Patio's are always automatically at the back of the house irrespective of the garden's orientation.   Do as much as redesign as you can afford to carve out an area in evening sun if possible.  It will get much more use on weekdays.  Ideally your new patio will be in sun from 2pm to 8pm this makes it an area that melds seamlessly from afternoons lounging in the sun to cooking and entertaining space in the evening. Once you know where the new patio will be, the old patio and any other remaining space can be turned over to soft play areas for kids and dogs.

Get clever with privacy ideas.   Adding storage buildings along a boundary, attractive summer houses or brilliant sheds that double as greenhouse's are really smart ways to add privacy without annoying the neighbours.  Paying an electrician and plumber to hook these up with power and water makes them even more valuable and convenient.

What is the best shed for a small garden?

shed greenhouse.JPG

How about a double duty shed?  Part storage, part greenhouse.  Imagine how useful this would be with a few power sockets and a hose connection.  You can have outdoor speakers & phone charging, a hose reel protected from frosts and tucked away and still have room to grow chillies on the sill and store your outdoor cushions. Perfect. Remember most of the time you are using the garden you are seated so creating privacy doesn't need to be blocky and heavy.  Imagine this painted charcoal and using climbers to soften it.  You could add lighting and put in an attractive reclaimed Belfast sink and mini fridge  and set it up as an outdoor bar.  Instead of being purely utilitarian it can become a thing of beauty in itself. You can add two and have them back to back. I love these types of solutions for small gardens. 

What is the best hedge for privacy?

You can't do better than a Laurel hedge.  'Prunus laurocerasus'.  It lends itself well to pruning meaning it can easily be kept under control and in shape.  It's dense and bushy habit makes it unbeatable for privacy.  Fast growing plus easy to grow both make it a good choice too.  The best attribute is that's evergreen meaning it keeps it's leaves all year.  So it's a fantastic all year screening solution.  Birds enjoy it for nesting so it's a nice choice for wildlife too.  Nesting season is generally March to August so avoid cutting it until Autumn and always check for nests first.

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Design Ideas for a Shady Garden

My advice is to roll with it and forget about creating a 'standard' garden.  You can fight with Mother Nature but she will win.  Go with a bold and dramatic planting scheme such as 'jungle shade' planting.  Since you don't need to worry about catching the sun you can create a really private oasis making boundaries disappear entirely. 


shady woodland garden.jpg

If you want to keep a lawn area, how about a moss lawn?  A moss lawn stays green all year even in deep shade, springy and bouncy and never needs cut or watered. A 3.5 metre area of moss produces more oxygen than 275 trees and cleans the air of particulates from pollution.   

With a shady garden it's important to add line of sight attractions.  Think enormous terracotta pots, statues and pergolas.  Always add uplighters to create dramatic spots in the evening.

If you are adding a water feature to a shady garden be sure to add a pump to give it a gentle movement which helps to stop it becoming slimy this can be filled with Blue Flag Iris and Marsh Marigolds for splashes of colours.  Use variegated plants that have white trim to add extra brightness, but not too many, just here and there.

These are fantastic plants for deep shade.  All chosen for their tried and trusted reliability.  They need moisture to keep them lush and vibrant.  To this combination, I would add my all time favourite shade plant Fatsia Japonica.  Completely hardy with enormous lime green exotic leaves.  Remove the flowering stem for even bigger leaves.  Add a variety of white fringed and blue leaved Hosta's to your heart's content.  Consider adding clump forming bamboos also.  The bamboos and Fatsia will stay evergreen and looking good all winter.  If you really embrace a shade garden and go big and bold it will look amazing and give enormous pleasure.

sketch key lime whites for shade.jpg