How to plan your garden design: 12 steps to an outdoor space you'll love

Transform your outdoor space with our guide to garden design, from landscaping and planting to areas for dining and entertaining

Garden design:
(Image credit: Fuchsia Green)

When you're planning a new garden design, it's difficult to know where to start. From hard landscaping to choosing the right plants for your conditions, there's a lot to take in – and that's before you even get to the finishing touches like furniture and lighting. 

If it all feels a little overwhelming, our 12-step guide will help you. Taking you through each step from budgeting through to creating an outdoor living space, take our advice and you'll have your dream space in no time at all. Read on to get started, then head to our ideas hub for more outdoor inspiration. 

1. Get to know the rules

Garden design:

(Image credit: Luxaflex)

If you’re planning to put up fences, walls or gates – or add to what’s already there – you may need planning permission. If the structure will be over a metre high and next to a highway, or over two metres elsewhere, you’ll require the official say-so. Be aware that your rights could also have been removed by an article four direction or planning condition. If you live in a listed building, or the structure is a boundary with a listed building, you’ll need permission. 

Taking down a fence, wall or gate, or improving them? Planning permission isn’t required provided there’s no height increase, with one exception: if you live in a Conservation Area, you might need to get the go-ahead from your local council before removing these structures.

2. Plan your budget and agree on timing

Outdoor kitchen ideas:

(Image credit: Ikea)

If you want help with your garden makeover, you could call in a designer to create
a plan and use a contractor to carry out the work, or engage a company to design and build your new outdoor space. Happy to reimagine the space yourself? Call
on a builder for the hard landscaping elements you don’t want to DIY. Expect to pay from around £7,000 with design, materials, planting and construction included; costs could be around £25,000 and up for a medium-sized garden.

The initial landscaping is usually the most costly part. Plan work for months outside of late autumn and winter, and planting for the first half of spring or autumn. Book up early – everyone else will be vying for these times of the year.

3. Think about landscaping materials

Modern garden ideas: long plank stone paving with gravel surround

(Image credit: Malcolm Menzies © Future)

Hard landscaping like drainage and levelling, fencing and retaining walls, paving and decking, and preparations for a lawn should all take place at the beginning of a garden makeover. The choices you make for the materials and the divisions between them will be led by the look you’re after for your space, as well as the function of different zones, like cooking, dining, relaxing or partying. 

Underfoot, sandstone, including Yorkstone, is a popular choice, or pick stones such as granite or limestone. If you’re opting for the latter, be sure it will stand up to winter conditions. Porcelain, like inside your house, can create the appearance of wood or concrete. Consider the maintenance you’ll need to undertake when you’re choosing, and think about complementing your house and the planting with the colour palette. How you lay paving also matters: random patterns with different sizes of slab create a more traditional effect, whereas a single slab size and a linear layout looks contemporary.

4. Grass: real or fake?

Garden design:

(Image credit: Carpetright)

Including grass in your garden design? Think about whether you want the authentic stuff or prefer artificial turf. While the designs of the past were easy to spot, today’s versions are extremely realistic. You won’t need storage space for a mower, meaning it can be a particularly good option for small gardens, and you can say goodbye to mud and parching, too. Artificial grass can also stand up to kids’ games and the efforts of the dog to dig it up, but you’ll need to prepare the ground and put
down a weed-proof membrane. The downsides? It will cost you more to lay than genuine turf and it has a limited lifespan (from around seven to up to 20 years).

If you prefer real grass, you can choose from grass seed or turf rolls. Laying rolls of turf means a new lawn much faster than with grass seed, but you’ll need to put them down within 24 hours of delivery. Turf can be laid from early autumn to early spring. Creating a grassy area from seed will save you money compared to turf, but you’ll have to wait longer for your lawn – until June if you sow in autumn, or until late autumn if you sow in spring. A lawn should be created alongside the soft landscaping when the beds will also be outlined, then planted.

5. Decide on decking

Garden design: Cuprinol decking

(Image credit: Cuprinol)

Decking can help zone a garden, providing areas for seating and dining, and create level areas within a sloping plot. The lowest cost option is to lay softwood boards; opt for pressure-treated timber, which gives the wood more durability and resistance to rot and other hazards that can reduce a deck’s longevity. Hardwood decking is more costly but has a long life span and is resistant to rot and warping. Composite boards, made with plastic and wood fibre, are durable and low maintenance, but, you wouldn’t be able to change the finish in future.

If you live in a house, laying decking falls into the permitted development (PD) regime, so you won’t need planning permission to add it if you follow the rules: decking can be no more than 30cm above the ground and, together with extensions and outbuildings, must cover no more than 50 per cent of the garden. Check that there aren’t other restrictions that apply to your house, though, and remember that flats and maisonettes don’t have these PD allowances.

6. Create an outdoor kitchen

Outdoor kitchen ideas:

(Image credit: WWOO)

You might find a barbecue sufficient for alfresco food preparation, but consider upgrading to a full outdoor kitchen as part of your makeover. That way, you can prepare whole meals outside with guests around rather than splitting your time between indoors and out. Your outdoor kitchen could include an outdoor oven or a kamado for roasting, grilling or smoking. Burners will allow you to use saucepans. Think, too, about whether you want a sink, tap or fridge. The latter will need to be a model that’s suitable for outdoor use. If you need water or electricity, these services will need to be run to the area as part of the initial garden work.

Work surfaces create space for preparation and plating up and should be made of a weatherproof material – some stones, concrete, or an ultra-compact engineered surface could fit the bill. Storage for equipment avoids the trek back and forth to the house. Avoid decking underfoot in an outdoor kitchen area as food can fall between the boards. Choose non-porous paving in case of spills, and opt for slip resistance to make cooking safer. 

7. Plan your planting

garden planting with green gate

(Image credit: Future / Kasia Fiszer)

A garden doesn’t have to be generously sized to pack a punch with its planting, but you do need to decide from the outset how much of the area will be devoted to planting, and what style you want. You may be after traditional cottage borders, or perhaps plants that will attract wildlife. Alternatively, you might want to create an architectural effect with sizeable plants that create strong outlines. Some prefer to go with a particular colour scheme: for example using hot shades or cooler tones. Think about whether you want to grow food for your table, too.

Look at the soil conditions in your garden and choose plants accordingly. You should be able to see and feel the difference between gritty sandy soil, sticky-when-wet clay, spongy peat, and smooth silt and loam soils. Put a handful of soil in a jar of vinegar and, if it froths, it’s chalky and alkaline. You can also pick up a test kit in a garden centre to discover the pH of your soil. It’s also important to consider the orientation of your plot so you can think about which areas will be sunny and which shady at different times of the day.

When you’re considering the planting, factor in how much time maintenance will take. A successful makeover will create a garden you can keep on top of. For a lower-maintenance space, think hardy evergreen shrubs that don’t take much work. Incorporating strong structural elements such as paving and/or gravelled areas, paths, large planters and even sculptures will help give the space style and interest while keeping chores down, too.

8. Think garden buildings and structures

pretty she shed opening onto an outdoor seating area with cushions, a coffee table, and festoon lights

(Image credit: Lights 4 Fun)

How much storage do you need in your garden? A shed for hand and power tools, plus the furniture you need to put away out of season, should be in the plan for your makeover from the start. If the space is small, you may be able to scale down to a mini shed or storage bench. A glazed summerhouse-style building is great for relaxing, hobbies or play room, and there are designs that are shed and summerhouse in one, so you don’t need to double up on buildings to get a seating area plus storage.

Vertical structures such as walls, fences, screens, pergolas and arbours are also important to a garden design, balancing the horizontals of the space. They can help distinguish the different zones of the design, provide privacy and shelter, and create an opportunity to grow climbers. Vertical elements can also make a small garden feel bigger by delivering different areas to view and explore, rather than letting the eye take in the entire space in one go. They're also handy for hiding unsightly essentials like the wheelie bins, or concealing a less than lovely view beyond the garden.

9. Enjoy sun and shade

Garden design:

(Image credit: Dobbies)

The way your garden faces is an important consideration when you’re planning seating and dining areas. A patio area outside the house may need shading if it’s
to be functional all day long, and a pergola with shade-creating climbers or an awning could keep it comfortable at different hours. 

You might want to plan two or more seating or dining areas to accommodate the movement of the sun. For example, the terrace at the back of the house in an east-facing garden could be the perfect spot to enjoy a sunny breakfast or morning coffee, but you might want to sit or dine at the end of your plot later in the day when the area by the house is in shade. North-facing gardens are the trickiest as there’s shade for most of the day. On the upside, from May to October – when you’ll want to spend time outside – you can enjoy evening sun.

If your garden faces south, you’ll likely want to design areas of shade into it as there will be little naturally. Trees and tall hedges, as well as elements like garden parasols, are your allies.

10. Design your lighting scheme

wall lights in a modern garden with an outdoor sofa, decking and panelled fences

(Image credit: Philips)

Whether you want to eat outside in the evenings or you like the idea of overlooking your garden after dark, it’s important to plan exterior lighting from the start. Choose the key features you want to highlight and use darkness to conceal the areas you don't. Illuminate paths, steps and other circulation areas using wall-mounted pillar up/downlights or wall lanterns. Cooking areas will need task lighting so
you can prepare and cook safely. 

Garden lighting and cabling must be designed for exterior use. Lighting fixed to the outside of your house is subject to building regulations, and you need to use an installer registered with a competent person scheme or get building control approval.

Garden design:

(Image credit: London Tile Co.)

If you’re building a rear extension, it can be the perfect time to tackle your plot as well – but even if not, blurring the boundary between outdoors and in creates the illusion that both spaces are bigger than their actual dimensions. One trick is to lay a patio or terrace in a material that matches the interior flooring, especially if you have bi-fold or sliding doors that create a wide opening. Team wooden flooring with decking outside, or lay similar tiles – but make sure they’re suitable for exterior conditions, including being slip-proof when wet. 

The two spaces could also be linked with colour, with interior and exterior walls in the same hue, or by bringing exposed brick into the house. Planning an outdoor kitchen? Link its run of units with a kitchen run inside so they have a seamless feel. Even simpler is to introduce greenery where house and garden meet with raised planters at window level.

12. Meet your children's needs

Garden design:

(Image credit: Jenny Ballantyne)

Need a child-friendly garden? Think about creating zones to separate play and seating areas, and pay attention to the surfaces you lay. You might want an area with grass for ball games, or bark chips or another forgiving surface for areas with sizeable climbing equipment, for example. Separate zones with low dividers to keep activities apart without blocking the views that allow you to keep an eye out. 

Think about what’s in your planting plan for a child-friendly garden. With many plants, issues arise if they’re ingested, and some have sap that can irritate the skin – for example, euphorbia and, vegetable growers should note, parsnips. Consider which areas are likely to be hit with footballs and other objects, and stick to tough planting for these borders. Finally, be safety conscious if you’re including a water feature – even shallow water can be a hazard for children.

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