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‘Design Your Own Garden’ – Andrew Laidlaw, Landscape Architect, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (Melbourne)


The key to creating a beautiful garden is not always about getting a professional designer involved.  In fact, most of the gardens I love have been created by and for the people who work and live in them.  Garden design is the art of creating a beautiful and functional space that is as individual as its owners.  

Whether you design it yourself or get help from a professional, it is imperative that the design comes from and reflects the owners’ interests and passion for plants and landscape.  If you do decide to go it alone, the first place to start is with a plan.  

A plan for the whole garden!

This does not have to be fancy.  A plan allows us to collect all our thoughts and have a play with a range of different ideas before spending large amounts of money on materials and plants.  By creating a master plan, it can also allow us to stage the garden construction over a number of years, spreading the cost if needed, but more importantly allowing time to adjust and make better decisions as parts of the garden develop.  Finally, if the plan is drawn to scale, it becomes an invaluable planning tool, giving us the ability to work out material quantities and costs.

Base Plan and Wish List

Creating an accurate plan is a great starting point.  You will need to locate the house on the block and plot all the entry and exit points, including all the major windows (for view lines), existing trees and any outbuildings or structures you wish to retain.  With the base plan completed, it’s time to create a wish list of all the things you would love to have in your garden.  This is the time to sit down with the whole family and really allow the creative juices to flow.  Nothing should be off the table - from plunge pools to outdoor entertaining areas, basketball hoops, vegetable plots, orchards, lawns, chooks and even trampolines which are the bain of most landscape designers.  The list should cover off on practical issues, around car parking, pedestrian access, pets, clothes drying, storage and service areas and it should also include the feel of the garden you are wanting to create.  Is it a rustic garden, an indigenous/habitat garden, a more modern contemporary space or something in between?  Collecting images of garden styles and/or ideas that you love is helpful at this stage, in fact you may even like to make a picture board which can serve as a vision for the garden you are going to create.

Site Considerations

Now that we have our base plan and wish list, there is one final step before we can start our master plan.  We must understand the site’s conditions, constraints and opportunities.  This should include the environmental factors; local rainfall and water availability, drainage, soil type, pH levels, soil compaction, slope and different microclimates from the hot exposed to the shady protected areas.  Other site considerations might include good and bad views, the period of the home, access and current circulation, planning overlays and any existing easements. This detail becomes critical information that starts to inform the design.  The hot sunny spots will be better for the vegetable garden, the steep areas may need terracing, with retaining walls and steps, the period of the home may direct our selection of plants and materials, undesirable views will need screening and attractive views may benefit from framing.

The Master Plan

When all this information is collected, the hard work is done, and the fun can begin! I always start my master plan by zoning and linking my main areas, so they make sense together.  For example, the main outdoor entertaining area needs to be connected to the main living space of the house, while the chooks, vegetable garden and compost need to be clustered together with a good pathway link to the kitchen. The entry point to the house, carparking and pedestrian access is another cluster of associated activities that require sensitive design. Too often the cars and car parking dominate our front gardens. There will be many options of how the jigsaw puzzle fits together but it’s worth taking the time at this point in the process to explore all alternatives before moving into the detailed design. 

At the end of the day, the master plan should show a sequence of spaces that are joined through a network of pathways.  When you are satisfied this has been achieved, you are ready to progress to detailed design, being the selection of plants and materials.

Detailed Design

With the Master Plan in good shape its time to drill down further and start to look at the plants and materials we are going to use. These are the compositional elements of the design and we look closely at how they all relate together, working with their different forms, colours, patterns and textures. 

The selection of both landscape materials and plants has a major impact on our budget, but more importantly on the environment.  From timber choices for our decking, to paving stones and concrete versus gravel for our paving, and similarly with our plant selection, all these choices have major implications on budget and environment, so I encourage you to consider your decisions carefully. The use of locally produced or recycled materials and permeable paving options are much more sympathetic to the environment than expensive imported materials.

Both plant and material selection should be drawn from the vision of the garden you created in your master plan. For example, if you desire a rustic, native garden, then your material selection may include recycled sleepers, large boulders and mud brick with an exclusively native plant palette.  Alternatively, if you desire a water conserving garden, then gravel may replace the lawn and the plant palette can include a wide range of both exotics and natives. We can draw inspiration from the period of the house and use similar materials in the garden or use colours that complement the colours and textures of the home.

Planting design is one of our most powerful tools in creating a beautiful sustainable garden. It can greatly reduce maintenance, help restore soil structure, reduce water usage, provide habitat, and create beauty at the same time. Plants really are the gift that keeps on giving and giving!

I would encourage you to work with all the layers of plant material  – trees, shrubs, ground covers and climbers, and all types of plants, both exotic and native, matching your selection to the different microclimates within the site.  I use trees to frame the house, create shade, and provide screening, while our shrubs and ground covers clothe the space, creating seasonality and wrapping us in green. I encourage you to use lots and lots of plants, and I try to cover 100% of the soil, creating a living mulch. I work with plant forms, texture and colours and always plant in odd numbers,  overlapping my plant groupings to avoid any sense of symmetry.

Design Principles

There is only one rule – and that is to let your passion and interest in plants and landscape drive your individual design.  That said, I’m going to spend a little time talking about some design principles that have helped me in designing gardens.

  • Plants and Planting Design is the key to beautiful gardens.  Plants are the life and connection of the garden to its owners and it is the careful design of planting around the sequenced spaces that brings beauty and personality to the garden.  We need to drape our gardens in plants.
  • Sense of Unity this is about creating a garden that feels like it belongs both to its larger external environment - the surrounding landscape, and to its internal environment - the house, the back and front garden. This is about creating a sense of unity! To bring unity between our garden and the broader landscape we may choose to sweep the rural or external landscape right up to the house and reduce our garden areas to more internal spaces.  We might repeat the patterns of the broader landscape and wrap the external parts of the gardens with large drifts of grasses or lavender as an example.  Simple repeated patterns will achieve this sense of unity. 

Creating unity within the garden is often about the rhythm of planting masses that run through the spaces, and repetition of plants and materials throughout the garden.  The other consideration is to ensure the house and garden sit comfortably together.  This can be achieved by anchoring the house to the garden using pergolas, decks, ponds, and paving, which all help connect the house to the earth. Using pots, seats, tables, water and climbing plants in these areas blurs the edge between house and garden and helps to create beautiful outdoor spaces. Even our small balconies or courtyards can include these garden elements to bring them to life.

  • Asymmetrical design is much more dynamic than symmetrical design. Asymmetrical design mimics nature, it is unpredictable and recognises that humans are not in control of everything.  Finding balance in this type of garden is more challenging but is much more exciting! It involves creating a sense of equality throughout; if we have too much of any one element in one place it can create an imbalance.  For example, if we have a row of conical shaped trees down one side of the garden it can dominate the space. To bring balance, we may use one of the same trees planted on the other side of the house, thus creating a sense balance.
  • Sacred space/Transitional landscape Our gardens and our homes are our sacred spaces and particularly our front gardens can be used as a transitional zone before we go inside at the end of a busy day.  Arriving home from the often hectic and hostile external environment, the garden can immediately offer you sanctuary and a sense of calming. With sensitive design we can use the garden to slow us down and help make sense of the world.  Moving through a green space where the scale, the light, the paving textures, the view, and the smells all change between the car and opening the front door of your home can change your life!


The outdoor spaces we create should be individual and richly reflect who we are.  Our gardens have never been more important to our sense of health and wellbeing and connection to the natural world.  Enjoy designing them, but more importantly enjoy being in them.


 Andrew Laidlaw


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