Border lines: Planning a new garden? Don't bother with pen and paper, get tramping round your plot

Faced with a plot of ground to turn into a garden, a new gardener's instinct is to tackle the edges first, to work round the boundary. Perhaps this is a remnant of some atavistic urge to mark territory. Dogs lift legs. We plant clematis. Whatever the reason, it usually leads to a particular sort of garden layout: borders, generally too narrow to build up any depth in plant groups, all the way round the edge of the plot, a path making another circuit round the inside edge of the borders, or, if money and energy run out, leading up just one side of the plot, parallel with the boundary. There will be a bit of terracing or decking next to the house. Whatever ground is left becomes lawn. The centre of a design such as this becomes a centre by default, not so much a designed shape as a random happening.

If you think from the centre of the space out towards the boundaries, quite different patterns may begin to emerge. You may start with the thought of a rectangular paved area in the middle of the plot, with wide flower borders on either side reaching to the boundaries. You may see a path up through the centre of the garden, the length divided by upright screens of trellis either side of the path so that the width of the garden spreads and narrows as you pass down the path between the trellis screens and into the spaces contained beyond them. There could be patches of grass or gravel either side of the central path, with plants contained in raised beds round the three-sided shapes made by the trellis screens and the boundary wall. Raised beds will not work against a fence, though. The weight of the earth will gradually force it to collapse – into your neighbour's garden.

Most gardens are made up of the same basic ingredients: paths, a sitting-out place, grass, vegetables, flowering plants in beds and borders, climbers on fences and house walls, a tree (if you are lucky). Trampolines, swings and climbing frames may also come into the mix. But the permutations can be endless and working out what best goes where is the key to a successful space.

New gardeners are usually told to draw out a plan on paper before they start flailing around with spades and wheelbarrows. This is what professional garden designers do, but it isn't necessarily the best way forward for the rest of us.

Paper designs can become over-complicated. Interlocking circles ooze out over the page. A bare space is seen as a problem. The obvious is avoided and "features", as designers call them, start bobbing up all over the place. To achieve its full effect, a feature should be used as sparingly as a threat.

Another difficulty with paper is that it cannot contain the information you need to make the right decisions. When you are outside, prowling over your patch, you take in the slight rises and falls in the ground and the consequences that these will have on your design. You are aware of things beyond your boundary that you would rather not see, and can work out more easily how to hide them. You notice how the sun moves round your garden, where the wind cuts in.

Time is the advantage amateurs have and when it has been well spent, mulling over possibilities and adaptations, sticks and string and hosepipe on the ground may prove better design tools than pencil and paper. Above all, by working on the ground it is easier to develop a sense of proportion and understand that a space where nothing is happening, a void, may be as important as anything else. A planned void is a very different thing to a void by default.

When you have arranged your garden into a series of satisfying interlocking shapes, the next task is to colour them in, like a Mondrian painting. To grass or not to grass is the first big question; the smaller the garden, the less case there is for a lawn. Grass is restful. It provides a useful buffer and contrast between other more frenetic areas of plant activity, but it is demanding.

Certainly, you need plenty of green in a garden and if you do without a lawn, you can compensate by planting plenty of good foliage plants – ivy, fatsia, fig, choisya, all robust enough to survive buffeting. For a while, footballs may be the deciding factor in the way you arrange your space. But they won't be around for ever and when they are not, fine gravel can be used as a surface finish instead of grass. Plants will seed themselves into it, bulbs will grow through it, which may be the effect you are after.

If you like the idea of gravel, but want to retain it as a formal, clean, unplanted area, you can lay a plastic membrane on top of the earth and put the gravel on top of that. Different gravels give different colours and textures. It's best to stick to one kind, making sure it tones in with the colour and texture of the surrounding brick or stone. It can be used in combination with other materials – patches of brick, cobbles or setts – but may need some sort of edging to keep it off borders and lawns.

Bark is good for paths as well as under trampolines, though not for both, or your garden will begin to look like a demonstration plot for the Forestry Commission's waste products. Bark (or chipped wood) does not make a long-lasting path unless, like the gravel, you lay it on top of a plastic membrane. Otherwise, it gradually works its way into the soil underneath, but it is relatively cheap to top it up. We've covered the paths on our bank with wood chipped up by the man who does our tree work and it sops up the wet very well. We don't use plastic underneath.

Tarmac is perhaps the most unpleasant surface to look at in a garden. Concrete runs it a close second; laid on an uneven surface, it cracks and splits and becomes as lethal as it is unsightly. If you have a concrete path in your garden, abandon all hopes of repairing it. Have a smashing-up party instead and then look out for those notices saying: "Hardcore wanted".

Where to buy:

Grass seed is cheaper but slower than turf. The cheapest seed is usually bought loose from garden centres which may have three different kinds to offer: one for fine turf, one general purpose and one for shade. Greenacres Direct (01895 835235; greenacresdirect.co.uk) supplies six different mixes at £20 per kilo. They estimate 1kg covers 23sq m.

Turf is usually of two different grades. Meadow turf is cheaper but is not suitable for urban gardens. Ask for turf from cultivated grasses; expect to pay £2.50-£3 for 1sq m, more if you want it delivered.

Gravel suppliers work in tons rather than kilos. One ton (£42.78 from our local supplier) will cover about six square yards of path. You can buy either washed, crushed gravel or a self-binding path gravel (£49.80 a ton) which is a mixture of stones and sand. Stone merchants can also supply large round pebbles for cobbling. Our supplier charges £4.09 for a 25kg sack.

Bark and chipped wood are available in different grades. We buy chippings at £60 a lorry load. By the sack, it is more expensive: 100 litres of Westland bark mulch (£5.99) will cover 2sq m. Coarse chipped bark (Cambark chunky chip £7.50 for 70 litres) is less comfortable underfoot.

Suggested Topics
Voices
voicesMoyes' tragedy is one the Deputy PM understands all too well, says Matthew Norman
Arts & Entertainment
Such tweet sorrow: Will's gone digital
arts
News
Matthew Mcnulty and Jessica Brown Findlay in 'Jamaica Inn'
mediaHundreds complain over dialogue levels in period drama
Arts & Entertainment
Rocker of ages: Chuck Berry
musicWhy do musicians play into old age?
VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
With Jo Joyner in 'Trying Again'
tvHe talks to Alice Jones on swapping politics for pillow talk
News
Jilly's jewels: gardener Alan Titchmarsh
peopleCountry Life magazine's list of 'gallant' public figures throws light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
Sport
John Terry goes down injured in the 70th minute
sportAtletico Madrid 0 Chelsea 0: Blues can finish the job at Stamford Bridge, but injuries to Terry and Cech are a concern for Mourinho
Student
student
News
<b>Rebecca Adlington</b>
<br />This, the first British swimmer to win two
Olympic gold medals in 100 years, is the eversmiling
face of the athletes who will, we're
confident, make us all proud at London 2012
peopleRebecca Adlington on 'nose surgery'
Arts & Entertainment
tvJudge for yourself
Life & Style
tech
Life & Style
Tough call: is the psychological distress Trott is suffering an illness? (Getty)
healthJonathan Trott and the problems of describing mental illness
Life & Style
23 April 2014: Google marks St George's Day with a drawing depicting England's patron saint slaying a fire-breathing dragon
tech
Life & Style
On the dogwalk: a poodle on the runway during a Mulberry show in London
fashionThe duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable
News
peopleEmma Appleton says photographer said he would shoot her for magazine if she slept with him
Extras
indybest
News
peopleRevealed: Goop.com's losses - and the pay rises
Property search
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Projects Financial Analyst - Global Technology firm

£55000 - £62000 per annum + outstanding benefits and bonus: Pro-Recruitment Gr...

Reception Teacher

£120 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Reception teacher required for an Outs...

Commercial B2B Pricing Specialist - Global Bids and Tenders

£35000 - £45000 per annum + excellent company benefits : Pro-Recruitment Group...

DT Teacher - Food Technology

£90 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: The Job We are currently recr...

Day In a Page

Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

Migrants in Britain a decade on

They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
Why musicians play into their old age

Why musicians play into their old age

Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
How can you tell a gentleman?

How can you tell a gentleman?

A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire
Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

Celebrate St George’s Day with a nice cup of tea. Now you just need to get the water boiled
Sam Wallace: Why Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term

Sam Wallace

Why Ryan Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term
Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

Having smashed Sergei Bubka's 21-year-old record, the French phenomenon tells Simon Turnbull he can go higher
Through the screen: British Pathé opens its archives

Through the screen

British Pathé opens its archives
The man behind the papier mâché mask

Frank Sidebottom

The man behind the papier mâché mask
Chris Marker: Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

Chris Marker retrospective is a revelation
Boston runs again: Thousands take to the streets for marathon as city honours dead and injured of last year's bombing

Boston runs again

Thousands of runners take to the streets as city honours dead of last year
40 years of fostering and still holding the babies (and with no plans to retire)

40 years of fostering and holding the babies

In their seventies and still working as specialist foster parents