Garden landscaping ideas – 10 steps to landscape a garden from scratch

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Our guide to garden landscaping is a sound starting point when transforming your outdoor space from scratch – whether you’re a pro or a total novice. Because creating a garden that is beautiful and satisfying, is more than a haphazard process. And anyone who has successfully landscaped a garden in their time is sure to agree. If you’ve come this far, you are likely to be working on a garden in your forever home, or at least, in the place that you happily call home for now. To really feel the benefits of your garden space, you’ll need to follow some ground rules (pun intended) to ensure the most successful results.

It’s a case of working with your foundations so that your planting and other cosmetic  finishes can fall into place far more attractively. From weeding, to ground levelling, the best landscaping plants to use and which trees to consider, these garden landscaping ideas and tips will set you up for success. 

November 2019: Sayu Sinha seamlessly integrated tech into his extended period home

(Image credit: Chris Snook)

1. Assess your site and your garden design

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp Photography)

This is a crucial area that you should largely have covered when creating your garden design to understand the space you’re working with. The main reason of this when part of the garden landscaping process, is that you’ll be looking to identify any issues so that you can prepare your efforts and materials accordingly – which will save you time and money in the long run. 

This is what to consider:

  • Any rubbish to remove
  • Ground condition: will it need levelling? 
  • Any awkwardly situated trees: likely to obstruct walkways or get in the way of groundwork
  • Any existing planting: hedges, garden beds and so forth
  • Any existing structures or features in place to remove/work with: fencing, garden rooms, water features, garden paths
  • Drainage: the state of the space after a downpour, any particular areas that become waterlogged
  • Top soil: the current state of any existing and will any be required
  • Find all our garden ideas in one place for inspiration on the final look you want.

2. Decide whether to DIY or hire a garden landscaper

The key here is to know your limits and your budget. Planting, installing off-the-peg water features, adding a new gravel path or lawn, laying decking and garden fencing are within the scope of the keen amateur; however, walling, laying expensive stone pavers, concrete rendering and electrical work should be carried out by professionals for a quality, safe finish, even if you do have a small plot. Contractors that are affiliated to either the British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI) or the Association of Professional Landscapers (APL) should be your first choice, Checktrade is also a good place to find reputed garden landscapers that are UK-based.

cottage garden plants in front of pretty cottage

(Image credit: Joe Wainwright)

3. Clear the site

Disturbing top soil

(Image credit: Shutterstock )

This means tending to weeds (everyone’s favourite job), overgrowth and getting rid of any garden waste. Visible rubbish is easy to remove, but using a pick (if the soil is compacted), or a garden rake (if you’re lucky!) and disturbing the soil can help release any rubble to be removed below. 

This can be a tough job but it is completely necessary, especially if you’re planning for lots of planting and vegetable growing. Big chunks of rubble make it harder for plants to establish and can potentially block drainage access also.

Determine whether this will be a light job and easy to do yourself, or if you need to hire a skip. 

4. Level the ground

This is a vital task as without a level ground, any landscaping materials such as patio and decking can’t go down. 

If you have a small garden space then you may be able to a level the ground yourself using a rake. Use the teeth to break up large chunks of soil, while the back can also be used to smooth the surface by running it in a forward and backwards motion to evenly distribute the soil.

Millboard Composite Decking Weathered Vintage Garden House Design

Millboard composite decking, Garden House Design

(Image credit: Garden House Design)

If you have a big space where the soil is very compacted, or if you are working with a very sloped garden, then you may need to consider some professional help.  A subtle change in level can help make a smaller garden feel larger, but sloped grass is a no no as it can become slippy and unsightly very quickly. Terracing is probably the best way to work with a sloped garden, and it will allow you to have different levels of interest in your space.

Do bear in mind, however, that significant excavations are expensive. There’s the soil to remove and retaining walls are needed (to stop soil washing away), so you’ll usually need to call in help from a professional structural engineer which can mean landscaping costs will add up.

  • Learn how to level a garden and lawn in our guide.

5. Select hard landscaping materials that will stand the test of time

landscaping materials

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Identifying and exploring potential materials is one of the more enjoyable parts of landscaping a garden. 

While performance, durability and ease of maintenance are key with all materials used in a garden setting, you should choose natural-looking surfaces that complement your home and design style. Earthy greys, deep honey browns and rustic dull reds suit both period and new houses. 

To successfully link your indoor and outdoor spaces, choose a similar material to that used in the room linked to the garden – just make sure it’s weatherproof. And, otherwise, garden designers will usually keep things simple by sticking with four different materials max. Here are some options:

  • Patio paving: There are lots of options available – from expensive York stone to concrete imitations, brick and granite.
  • Decking: Can be a good choice where wooden flooring is used inside the house – very well suited in contemporary homes. Timber, oak and even teak can be perfect for a busy garden area as they are durable and stable materials that can deal with heavy footfall. Your decking will need a good pressure wash every once in a while to keep algae and any slipperiness at bay, but it’s sure to keep your garden looking fine for years to come.
  • Garden gravel: Is an ideal material to use in both modern and period garden settings. It’s versatile and can be used to edge a patio, create more of a themed space or you could even lay a gravel path which is a cost-effect garden path idea. 
  • Concrete flooring: will give you a great, contemporary finish and is a brilliant way to create uniformity between the outside and inside of your home.
  • Granite sets: can make an impact, and as they are typically used in driveway design so they will last for years to come. 

6. Plan for wet ground and control damp

garden lounge chair in a small garden

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Simply working the ground will increase drainage, and if you’re installing paving, this will help disperse water furthermore.

An important point to note is that your top soil level shouldn’t surpass the damp-course of your home or other garden outbuildings to avoid running the risk of damp in any interior spaces. Six inches below is the recommended top level, including any materials on top like gravel etc.

If your land does have waterlogging issues, then you may need to consider adding drains.

7. Plan your planting

garden landscaping with planting

(Image credit: Shutterstock )

This is the fun part, and plants, trees and any shrubbery should come next on the list, ahead of adding any garden lawns. The type of garden plants you choose, of course, depends on your garden’s design and the overall feel that you want to create in your outdoor space, but it also depends on the type of soil you have and on your garden’s aspect. Generally, a mixture of trees, flowers and evergreen shrubs will work well, creating year round interest so be sure to nod to wildlife with a mixture of garden plant ideas.

8. Think about zoning different areas in your garden

garden sofa set creates the perfect area to lounge in

(Image credit: Shutterstock picture agency)

Zoning is one of the best garden landscaping ideas will make more use of all types of garden space: be that in a spacious cottage garden or in a small garden setting. Zoning can help define an outdoor kitchen, vegetable plot or family outdoor living space and so on – here is how to go about it like a professional:

  • Choose different hard landscaping and floor surfaces: To differentiate between the dining, lounging and play areas. Obvious options include a stone material for the dining space, decking for the lounging area, and bark or grass for the play area.
  • Use different colours on fencing or walls: To create separate zones. White is a good backdrop for lounging areas that you want to feel bright and sunny, deep greens are good for making play areas blend into the background, while deep shades, such as blue or aubergine make dining areas feel atmospheric during long summer evenings and is one of our favourite garden fence ideas around.
  • Let planters do the talking: Plants can help define zones too, especially if you go for a strong colour theme by area. So, if your lounging space has a white wall behind it and light-coloured decking, choose white flowers. If your dining space has dark-coloured decking and aubergine walls, go for deep purple plants.
  • Architectural planting: Can be used to divide up zones. A line of shapely box plants, set into a low wall, takes up very little space but creates a strong visual divide between the lounging and dining areas. Or, group tall, tropical-looking plants at the far end of a dining space to disguise a play area beyond. Consider growing a vertical garden: Garden Beet sells modular planters that allow you to create a ‘living’ wall.
  • Don’t neglect vertical space: living walls, screens, arbours, pergolas and trellis all provide garden privacy and somewhere to train flowering climbers for visual interest. Paint them to match your scheme; or, if you want your planting to do the talking, choose a neutral, natural paint shade for them, such as olive green or pale grey.

9. Add the final touches

garden landscaping final touches

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Last but absolutely not least is when you should start adding final touches to water features including any ponds that need filling. This is also when you can start to fill raised beds for your kitchen garden and so on. At which point you’ll be able to sow your lawn, or lay any turf around it (if you want one that is!) to let it establish.

10. Tidy up

Garden pond

(Image credit: Garden pond)

Or rather trim up, as once your grass has established you can mow it to your desired shape and make a start on your lawn edges. If you don’t have a lawn then move onto the decorative aspects of your garden design to fulfil all of your outdoor space needs.

deck with seat under a pergola

When choosing materials, rustic timber complement both contemporary and period houses. Decking is a good choice where there is wooden flooring inside. Blogger Dear Designer has created this wonderful shaded space with decking and a pergola

(Image credit: Carole King)

How do I landscape a small garden?

Savage reassures us that small gardens need not be dull. ‘The image below is of a small front patio that a client wanted to make the most of. To make it feel more interesting and less of a throughway, stepping stones with Thyme were introduced to denote the route to the front door, making the space adjacent to this feel separate, and with lush planting flanking and softening the boundaries, this is now a lovely space to sit and relax in.’ Proving that a mixture of soft and hard landscaping can be most effective even in small plots. 

Alicia transformed a small front patio with clever choice of landscaping materials and techniques

(Image credit: Alicia Savage Gardens)

How can I landscape my garden cheaply? 

Ahead of work starting, with all garden landscaping ideas, it’s important to find out abou costs. You’ll need information on materials, so do use manufacturers’ price lists. Builders’ merchants and plant nurseries are also useful sources. You can usually negotiate good prices direct from the supplier or manufacturer, depending on the quantities. Spon’s External Works and Landscape Price Book is helpful to consult, and is the most common guide used in the trade. To help you stay on budget consider the following:

  • Protect your topsoil: if you have good quality top soil, take care to keep it out of harms way, and, if you need to order more, make sure you are there to take the delivery to not ensue any further costs. If this is coming via a digger, when you’re dealing with a lot  of soil for your whole plot, be sure to take a look at the quality – checking for any clay or weeds – ahead of letting the driver tip it. It’s easier and more cost-effective to reject top soil, than to re-load a truck and order it again.
  • Protect your plants: if when finalising your garden design you decided to keep certain trees, shrubs and hedges, be sure to keep them well taken care of. A main point is to not let them rot by adding any soil to their stems or trunks, that wasn’t there before.
  • Choose sustainable landscaping materials: opting for timber and other hardwoods for your space is not only cost-efficient, but also creates a rustic and quality finish. Note that softwood decking may be cheaper, but doesn’t weather as well or last nearly as long as hardwoods, such as ipe and balau.

You’re on your way to garden greatness!

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