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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.