Landscape Layout for Newbies

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Picture courtesy courtesy you just bought your first home and the budget for the garden is very limited, or perhaps you are just tired of the way your garden looks and want a fresh new look, but are concerned about expenses? If so, it is comforting to know that you can do it yourself - landscape design is not that difficult, as long as you have patience and a plan in hand!

You may have even watched landscaping shows where amazing garden transformations magically occur in the matter of half an hour – all you need are a couple of friends to help dig up the existing kikuyu grass, lay down some pavers, add some focal points like a pergola, statue or water feature, not forgetting a fortune in plant material, and “voilà” your trendy new garden is complete!

By now you’re so inspired, that before you know it, you’re off to the home improvement store and garden centre to buy all the goodies you feel you need to create your own landscape sensation. And, if you are creative and have some design savvy, together with some professional advice from your garden centre, it is possible to create a stunning garden on impulse, but for most of us, a good outcome is most unlikely if we rush into things, and may even cost us a small fortune in mistakes. Although instant gardens are possible to achieve in record time, if you are new to gardening and don’t know your plants, this can only be achieved with the help of a professional landscaper, and if you can afford one this is definitely the way to go.

Picture courtesy courtesy, if your budget is stretched to the limit and you are a DIY type of girl or guy, even if your knowledge of gardening is limited, with a little patience and planning you can design a beautiful garden yourself.  It’s much like designing and implementing the interior of your home on a budget and can be such fun. You have to get passionate about it though, spending hours online researching and looking for ideas.  This will help you to decide what look and feel you want, what your colour scheme is going to be, where you need focal points or pathways etc.

The real fun begins when you start selecting your plants. This research should be the most rewarding, and whether you decide to go totally indigenous, or prefer a combination of both South African and other exotic plants, planning your plant selection will take you on a wonderful journey of discovery to faraway lands.

Gardening in South Africa has a vast plant library with essential information on all the plants you love, plus a whole lot more - just because plants are so fascinating!  Our plant library is also divided into sections, enabling you to browse according to plant size. The handy articles section will also be of great help to you along the way. Take the time to browse the members sections for some plant inspiration and make a list of the plants you like, and which you believe are suitable for your garden and climate, then visit your garden centre for further advice, they know which plants do best in your area. Sign up today to have full access to the website – our prices are affordable for everyone.

Picture courtesy courtesy, patience is the key to landscape design for beginners, and if you’re new to landscaping you don’t have to start out right away with a stone walkway or a goldfish pond! Start small with some simpler ideas that you can easily complete yourself without too much hassle.

If your garden is brand new and all of that bare ground is just too much to look at, and the kids and dogs are tracking mud into the house, a temporary solution may need to be implemented while you're figuring out what you want. Fast growing ground covers, a temporary patch of instant lawn, or even a couple of pavers and mulch can cover an area while you're figuring out what you want.

Below is a set of simple landscape goals to bear in mind when designing your garden. Like any other DIY project you undertake at home in order to save money, landscaping your entire garden is not going to get done in a day, or even a month! It may even take several years to complete, depending on your budget and time available to you, but yes, yes, yes - you can DIY. So, let’s get started creating the most beautiful garden on the block!

Landscape Layout Goals

Set a Realistic Budget

Setting a budget should be number one on your list, and if you ask most beginner gardeners this question, you are likely to get a ‘deer in the headlights’ stare. Plants, soil, equipment and hard landscaping materials are expensive, so before you buy anything, or even start designing your garden; get some inspiration and an idea of pricing by visiting garden centres and taking photographs of the items you like, also jot down the names (including the Latin name) and the prices of plants and hardware items you like.  Searching online is also a wonderful source of inspiration and information. Setting a budget will at least give you some idea of the costs involved and keep you grounded when designing your garden on paper.

Only once you have your plan drawn out on paper will you be able to determine realistically whether you can do the entire garden at once, or if you need to implement it in stages. Please remember, no prize-winning garden is created in one season, so be patient, work steadily on your project, and you are bound to get the results you envisioned, plus, you will most likely get hooked on gardening – it’s such a rewarding hobby!

Underground Utilities and Townhouse Complex Rules

If you have purchased a new property, you should have received a deed map which indicates the measurements of your property, where your house rests in relation to the property's borders and, if you're lucky, the location of underground utilities. It is essential to know where these underground electrical and water, or sewer or even septic lines are before you start planning or digging up your garden.

In townhouse complexes it is essential to check where these lines are and what the gardening rules and regulations are. For example, you may only be allowed to plant indigenous plants, or there might be restrictions on what types of structures, if any, may be installed in gardens.  It is always better to be safe than sorry, right?

A deed map can also help you greatly when measuring your garden. You’ll still have to do some measuring and some drawing, but the deed map will provide you with the proper orientation, steering you in the right direction. Noting the topography on the deed map can also help you plan for drainage, water runoff and collection. Make notes on your deed map to remind you of aspects you may forget when drawing your design on paper, like the position of overhead electrical poles etc. You don’t want to plant a huge tree directly underneath one of these!

List Your Wants and Needs

Now that you have a budget, begin by making a list of things you want and need in your landscape. Think long and hard about how you will use the area, spending lots of time outdoors visualising what could go, where. You can start doing rough sketches of your garden at this stage and play with the landscape layout by drawing circular or bubble diagrams to represent the ways you want to use your yard, and label each bubble with its intended use. Your bubbles and doodles may include screening the view of the neighbour's yard, pathways, new flowerbeds, a patio and a place for the children to play. It can also include existing plants you wish to keep and which ones really need to go, as well as shade and sun areas, slopes etc. Don’t panic, these are just your first rough sketches, which will possibly change many times before you draft you final plan!

Other things to consider would perhaps be pets and how they will impact your garden. Large dogs, for instance, can easily destroy a newly planted garden if they do not have their own separate section to run in. If you dream of going green with a composter and a rain tank to water your vegetable or herb garden, then decide where you want to place them in your garden, even if you only plan on purchasing them at a later stage. You may even decide to leave enough open space to eventually install a swimming pool or Jacuzzi, and your extended plan may also include new paved area and walls, or the installation of a fire pit or braai area with covered seating.

Most importantly, be ruthlessly realistic and ask yourself “how much time do I really have to maintain my garden on a monthly basis?” Maybe you were dreaming of a garden continually overflowing with gorgeous flowers, or becoming self-sufficient and growing all your own vegetables and herbs, but if you are honest with yourself, you may come to the conclusion that realistically a garden like this is simply impossible to achieve without paid help, and you may find yourself having to ditch some of your imaginings.

Study the Elements

When you are outdoors visualising how your garden could take shape, it is essential to watch how the sun moves, and where the sunny and shady areas are in your garden. This may change if you are removing some existing trees or large shrubs, so take note of this too. Mark out North, South, East and West on your plan. These observations will invaluable to your success when you start selecting your plants for sun and shade areas. They will also affect your design elements, for example, placing a seating area on the sunny side of your house in our climate can be wonderful in winter but may be pure misery in mid-summer!

Also, pay attention to things like slopes, wind and rain, you don’t want to place your braai area or fire pit in a windy corner of the garden, or where the smoke will fill your home; and that pretty patio umbrella can become a missile if it’s placed in the wrong spot! Stand outside in the pouring rain and watch how the water flows in your garden and take note of drainage issues. This is a most important aspect to take into consideration if you don’t want a temporary dam in your newly dug fire pit or flower garden.

Picture courtesy courtesy Your Outdoor Rooms

A good landscape is designed with balance, contrast, colour, rhythm, variety, and unity in mind. When pondering your rough garden sketches, try to think about your garden and its various areas as rooms inside your home and ask yourself “why do we divide our indoor living spaces into separate rooms?” The need for privacy is one obvious answer and one which also applies to your garden. For example, if you want to create a small room in your garden where you can be totally private, you would naturally place it well away from the children’s play area or swimming pool. And just like you wouldn’t dream of putting your kitchen stove in the bedroom, neither would you put your braai area next to the compost heap!

Dividing the rooms in your garden can be done by groupings of plants or by erecting walls and screens. These rooms should also flow gracefully into one another and lead one through the garden. Pathways are incorporated to add rhythm and flow to the garden, encouraging one to wander through the garden. The repetition of certain plants will also add unity, rhythm and flow.

Picture courtesy courtesy and Scale Matter

To understand size and scale in design it may be easier to think of it as “proportion”. Proportion is really just common sense and should be applied outdoors just as you would in your home. For example, if you have a very large lounge area, common sense will tell you that a tiny little lounge suite is going to look very odd in such a large space.

If the same design principles apply outdoors, why does common sense fly out the window when we design our gardens?  Disproportionate scale in a garden can happen with both plants and hard landscaping elements. For example, an oversized deck will swallow a small garden and look ridiculous, just like a large tree or shrub can eventually overpower a small garden and make it dark and gloomy. Also, if you have a large two-story home that is tall and majestic, then a 50cm bed for flowers and shrubs along the border just isn’t going to cut it - it is too under-scale for the size of your house and stand. Bringing a bed out and away from the house or boundary walls will already create a better balance. The opposite is also true, and a smaller one story garden and home will require smaller beds to keep the whole in scale.


Transition is also a big part of proportion and, simply put, refers to gradual change. All good designers understand this concept and avoid designs that are marred by abrupt transitions, or by a lack of transition. An obvious example would be that, although a very high stone wall will elegantly set off a large majestic home, it will look terrible next to a small one-storey home, making it look even smaller. However, if the small home is situated on a very large property, a high perimeter wall would be fine because it would be far enough away from the home for effective transition.

Picture courtesy courtesy Texture and Form

Just like the ambiance inside your home is created by combining several elements of good design, like colour, texture and form, so is your outdoor room. A great landscape will take into account all these design tricks, and, because gardens are outdoors, other wonderful elements of nature can also be taken advantage of, like changing patterns of light and shade and the changing seasons.

Texture and form is created, not only by the plants selected, but also by hard landscaping materials like decks, walls, pathways etc. Because plants are so varied in their shape and growth form, they are invaluable to add interest to the garden. Bear this in mind when selecting your plants and remember it’s not just about the flowers they produce, but also about the shape they will eventually grow into, as well and the texture, shape and colour of their leaves.

Picture courtesy courtesy Focal Points

Focal points are used to draw the eye into the garden, so when you are designing, think about where you want the eye to move. Plants with attractive shapes or striking leaves can be used as focal points, as well as pots, statues, bird baths, gazebo’s, pergola’s etc.  Use your imagination, and remember, not every plant has to be inside the boundaries of a bed. Some plants and trees make beautiful focal plants when planted singly, or in groups in the lawn.

Adding Plant Material

In your rough sketches draw in circles or doodles where you require trees, shrubs etc. You don’t have to name them or even have your final plant selection yet, at this stage of the design you are basically just insuring that there is a balance between the hard and soft landscaping elements of your design.

Be very careful where you place your trees and large shrubs in your plan as these can be very difficult to remove at a later stage. Time and time again you see homeowners add two or three baby trees or shrubs to their small suburban gardens because the plant identifier label said the tree’s size was 5m tall and 2m wide, only to find out the hard way that in only 10 years the tree has already reached 7m tall with a spread of 3m! However, before you go accusing your garden centre of providing you with false information, bear in mind that the ultimate height and spread of any given plant will always be an approximation, because growth rate is largely determined by the soil and climate of the region in which it is grown and how well the plant is cared for. For example, if you take a tree that will grow in a cold region as well as in a more tropical climate, and you plant one in each region at the same time, the one growing in a tropical region with good rainfall and soil will grow much quicker and much larger than the same plant growing in a colder and drier region with poor soil.

Also, we often we bring these plant woes upon ourselves by insisting on very fast growing plants because we want privacy quickly, limiting dramatically the choices available to us. Often, in desperation, the horticulturalist at the garden centre will sell us a very fast growing shrub or tree, saying that it can be pruned to keep it compact, This sets our minds at ease, because we really want that specific plant, only to find our later that all this pruning has become a nightmare as well as a time waster. Consider planting slower growing shrubs and trees, they are much easier to control and will also outlive faster growing specimens.

To avoid costly mistakes it is essential that you do your plant homework thoroughly before completing your garden design. It is vital that your plants are suitable for your soil, climate, and especially the rainfall average. Once your garden is planted, your biggest expense will be on water, and for the first few seasons, while your plants are establishing themselves, they will have to be watered regularly, so budget for this too.

Water is not cheap and remains a concern for many gardeners, so select water-wise plants and group them according to their watering needs. For example, group very drought hardy plants together and those which require moderate watering together. If you do want to include a few plants which require regular watering, like summer and winter annuals or shrubs like hydrangeas, camellias or azaleas,  grouping them together simply makes sense.  

Last of all, select your ground covers, bearing in mind that these should tie the whole design together, rather like carpeting or tiles in the home. Stretches of lawn or paving are used in the same way.

Do not rush this part of your design, relax and have some fun learning about your favourite plants. Visit as many garden centres as possible and take notes, and even photographs, of the plants you love and feel are suitable, but resist the urge to start buying anything until your plan is complete. Rather, go home and do further research on the plants online to double check that they are really suitable for your garden and climatic region.

If you live in an area with difficult soil conditions like extremely sandy or clay soil etc. it is best to select plants which are adapted to these conditions, rather than trying to alter your soil type, which can be extremely costly and is not always effective anyway. You can enrich the soil by adding compost or fertilisers when planting and this will certainly help, but choosing the right plants is the key to your success.

If your garden is exposed to high winds, this will also greatly influence your plant choices, or perhaps your property is vulnerable to fires, which will require a completely different plan. All these factors will influence your selection, so be ruthlessly honest and purchase only those plants which fit perfectly – no matter how much you love that unsuitable plant, it will simply not grow well where it is not happy!

Picture courtesy courtesy classic mistake many gardeners make is to visit the garden centre maybe once or twice in the summer season to buy plants. They then impulsively purchase whatever plants are flowering or looking particularly good at the time. This will result in a garden which provides colour and interest for only a couple of months, leaving the garden looking drab and uninteresting the rest of the year. So remember to include plants which look at their best in winter and autumn too. Many plants produce ornamental berries in autumn or winter, and others may produce beautiful autumn shades before dropping their leaves, so include some of these together with your seasonal flowers.

One of the most basic rules of good garden design is probably the one that most people have a problem with because it says that “less is more” when it comes to plant selection. If you try to include one specimen of every plant on your list, you will land up with a confusing hodgepodge of plants that just make the garden look unprofessional and unplanned. Rather cut down on your selection ruthlessly and then repeat the plants in the garden. Repetition will produce a harmonious garden with rhythm, one which looks planned and is pleasing to the eye.

Another temptation is to plant closer than recommended for instant effect. This is a big mistake, and will cost you in the long run. It is far better to space your plants correctly and to fill any large gaps with a selection of small, inexpensive plants, which can easily be removed later when your garden is more established.

Picture courtesy courtesy Colour

Colour is what most gardeners are drawn to in a garden and should be artfully incorporated into your design. Regardless of what design or theme you have chosen, make sure you know what colours you want before you start choosing plants. There is no such thing as a bad choice of colours in the garden but the choices you make can take your garden from mediocre to simply stunning.

Good garden design involves knowing how to combine colours so that the final product will be one we like. Only practice and experimentation will develop your eye for colour and allow you to see the differences between hues, but a good way to start is by studying the colour wheel used in art.

In our modern gardens it is not only plants which provide colour and there are many creative ways to brighten up your landscape. Consider painting a wall or pergola, or add an awning or some brightly coloured pots. Think about how you want to use colour not only for the way you imagine it will look but also for the mood you want to create in the garden.

Mammoth Red Daisy (Chrysanthemum) Picture Courtesy Ball Horticultural CompanyMammoth Red Daisy (Chrysanthemum) Picture Courtesy Ball Horticultural CompanyFlowers are naturally our first choice to introduce colour into our gardens but it is important to remember that, what sets one flower garden apart from another is the structure and design surrounding the flowers, and the easiest way to create an attractive and continuous display of colour in your garden is to plant perennials, bulbs, annuals and groundcovers around a framework of shrubs and ornamental trees. The various plants will support each other visually and make a rich patchwork of texture and colour. If you try to create a flower garden without first planting this framework of shrubs and trees it can be likened to decorating the interior of your home before it has even been built!

These permanent plants provide year round structure and substance to the garden, providing the perfect backdrop for your flowers, which can be thought of as the finishing touches of your garden, just like ornaments or pictures do for the home.

If you are revamping an old established garden, work with the existing plants in the garden, adding plants that will enhance the design, or removing those that really clash. You can create a mood or even change the perspective of a garden by using certain colours

Members can find out more about adding colour to the garden here.

Drawing the Design

Putting your final ideas down permanently on paper is the next most important step, and vital to the success of your design. Drawing a very simple plan on paper from a ‘birds eye view’ is really not rocket science and can easily be done at home. Think of it as creating a visual reminder of your thoughts and an aid to help you see what really works or not, as well as a low-cost way to explore options and prevent costly mistakes.

Using scaled paper makes drawing a plan to scale a whole lot easier.  The size of the paper and the size of area to be represented will determine the scale chosen. The larger the piece of paper, the smaller the scale can be, thus making the plan larger and easier to read. Choose a scale which works well on your size paper, but ensure the plan is large enough to include some of the finer details. For medium-sized and larger gardens use a scale of 1:100. That means that 1cm on the ruler represents 1m on the plan. For a plan of a small garden where plenty of details can be included, use a scale of 1:50 – 1cm = 50cm. A scale of 1:20 will allow you to show even more detail.

Start your base map by measuring and drawing in the outside dimensions of your house, including the locations of doors, windows, air-conditioners, and other utilities. Next, mark the perimeter lines of your property, also carefully noting the exact position of gates or utilities. Now include all the other existing features in the garden that are not going to change, like walls, walkways and outbuildings, as well as any existing trees and shrubs you plan to keep. When you have completed your base plan and are sure it is accurate you can draw it in permanent ink. Make several copies, so you can make additions and subtractions without ruining the original, or you can place tracing paper on top of the original to do your further additions.

Next, on your copy or on tracing paper, you can start to add any future hard landscaping additions you require like walkways, paving, patios, braai areas, water tanks etc., not forgetting any features like statues, water features, and even lighting. Once this is done take another copy or add more tracing paper and start to add your plants, not forgetting your North, South, East and West orientation.

The plants may be added last of all, but this is probably the most important task of all, especially for beginners. Before you start, make a numbered list of all the plants you want to incorporate, starting with the trees and large shrubs, following with the smaller shrubs, perennials and groundcovers. This list should include the botanical (Latin) names and the common plant names, and you will find it very useful if you include a column that identifies the primary reasons for your plant choice, for example, the height and spread of the plant, and perhaps that you selected it because of its attractive shape, or the texture or colour of its leaves, or the colour of the flowers etc. This will allow you to easily substitute plants later if needed, when you are shopping for your plants.

Picture courtesy courtesy this stage you can draw in your large trees and shrubs, remembering to number them according to your list. By now you will know the correct sizes of your plants at maturity and you can draw these in according to the scale you have chosen. Number each plant clearly as you add it to the plan to avoid any confusion later on.

Smaller perennials and groundcovers etc. can be added last using different colours or simple symbols or doodles to draw them in, so that they stand out underneath the broad outline of the canopy of trees and larger shrubs. You can colour in your plan and make it as detailed or simple as you wish.

As long as your measurements and scale is correct, even if you are implementing your garden design in stages, by referring to the design concept every time you begin one of the projects, your landscape-layout vision will remain cohesive and the final results will reflect a well-thought-out plan.

If you think of your landscape design as a trouble-shooting and problem-solving process that makes your life better, just as you would with a kitchen remodel, you are sure to create a beautiful yet practical garden design. Not only that – it can be a whole lot of fun for the whole family too!