Whether your home is a mud-brick abode, California bungalow, miner’s cottage, modern townhouse, converted shipping container or even a castle, surrounding it with a thoughtful, naturalistic garden will help bring it to life in more ways than one.
Depending on where you live, designing with mostly native plants can bring an instant visual connection to natural areas. Using indigenous species provides a rewilding opportunity – to play a role in the regeneration of our little pocket of the landscape and hopefully extend the range of local fauna. With a bit of luck your garden will enchant neighbours and they’ll follow suit.
The more consideration you give to the site conditions and locality during the design process, the less effort, cost and energy input it will incur, and the greater the benefit for the environment.
General design tips
– Take photos of nearby natural areas that appeal to you and save them in a separate folder for inspiration on colours, plants species and placement.
– Keep a notebook for your ideas, sketches, contacts and every little thing. Jot down the types of clotheslines, sheds, furniture etc. that appeal to you, your ‘must have’ plants (spoiler alert: this list will change frequently!), a ‘wish list’ of cubbies, or even the name of that sculptor who lives in the blue house across the road from the large river gum, down past the place with the barking Jack Russell. This is your blueprint and memory board and it’s invaluable.
– Graph paper is indispensable. It’s a ready-made scale on which you can plot the buildings, existing vegetation and services using one or two 1-centimetre squares per metre, depending on the size of your property. Draw everything in black marker and photocopy it. Now you can scrawl away to your heart’s content.
– Consider what local materials will complement the style, colour and materials of your home. Also factor in proportions (relative to the size of the whole property and the buildings).
– It’s important to be mindful of mass and void when thinking about garden beds, paths, driveways and each zone. By creating a void close to the home and a mass of green vegetation beyond, the view from inside the house connects us to nature.
– Integrating wide, curved garden beds brings a relaxed vibe.
– Take advantage of pleasing ‘borrowed landscapes’ such as neighbouring trees or views, as this helps connect the garden visually to the broader environment and makes your garden feel bigger.
– Don’t forget to think about out-of-the-way spots too. A narrow strip along the side of the house has the potential to become a cool and quiet, nature-rich relaxation zone.
Keep it simple
Perhaps the structure of an existing garden suits your lifestyle but not all the plants match your taste or environmental philosophy. Rather than a full redesign, you might consider ripping them out and starting fresh. If you don’t know where to start, this is the time to bring in an expert for species and placement advice. For this type of consulting you’ll usually pay per square metre.
Sometimes the structure is there, but the materials need a refresh. Swapping out dilapidated or dangerous walls, steps and edging can be a relatively easy and inexpensive way to give your garden a facelift.
If you’ve moved into a home with a ‘cookie cutter’ garden that doesn’t speak to your senses, consider reshaping the beds and creating some paths. Creating a ‘sanctuary’ garden in the tiniest of spaces is perfectly achievable.
It’s always good to divide big, overwhelming projects into smaller, more manageable chunks, and this is the best approach for garden design too. Divide the property into zones, and give each zone a name that evokes a feeling or is a key element for you. It’s practical for when you’re talking with tradespeople, and it also allows you to really picture yourself and loved ones using the area. It’s so exciting to be scrawling names like Entertaining, Sanctuary, Fire Pit, Entrance, Workout, Productivity, Kids onto a plan – you’re essentially creating a visual story of your future life.
This is not to say that a garden needs to be prescriptive, but this mud map of sorts gets you thinking about things like how the sun moves through the garden at different times of the year, where rain accumulates naturally (best place for a frog bog!), where the views are great and where they’re not.
In the early stages your zones will be rough splotches on a page, but they’ll become more defined as you refine your needs and wants and consider each zone carefully. This is when it can become apparent that for practical reasons a zone may need to be in a different spot to where you first imagined it would go. Being flexible and open to compromise will save you money and heartache.
Bushfire zone considerations
With our continent covered in eucalypts and other oil-rich, highly flammable plants, Australia was always prone to bushfires. However, due to climate change there’s a marked increase in the size, number and ferocity of bushfires worldwide.
Depending on the location of your property, it could have a bushfire overlay, which will impact your design options, and species and placement choices. If you’ve recently constructed a dwelling on the property, you’ll have at least one report outlining restrictions, but if you’ve lived in your home for many years without building, you’ll need to familiarise yourself with current regulations.
It’s not always easy to determine if you live in a bushfire prone area. For some it’s obvious, but for people living on new housing estates or even in suburbia, it’s not necessarily clear. Natural areas such as bush reserves, waterways and even public gardens can create a bushfire risk, and you might be surprised to learn that your relatively built-up suburb has a bushfire overlay. Some areas also require permits for developing and clearing vegetation.
Eastern Australia is particularly prone to bushfires, and the Victorian Country Fire Authority developed an excellent downloadable guide, Landscaping for Bushfire: Garden Design and Plant Selection.
As you map out your zones, paths deserve your attention too. Thinking about how you want to move from one area to another will help inform your choices for the placement, shape and texture of your paths and steps.
To reach amenities such as the clothesline or rubbish bin, straight paths are usually more practical. Otherwise, use winding paths to create a sense of flow and mystery. This is achievable on any sized property. Meandering paths offer the opportunity for us to unwind on our ‘journey’ to another zone, and by incorporating intentional elements at various junctures, a path’s functionality elevates from merely practical to consequential – mimicking the experiences and feelings of being immersed in nature.
Pausing for effect
The little things play a big part in designs too, so you might consider a key feature a little zone of its own. It’s surprisingly easy to curate meaningful encounters by integrating distant views, special plants or sculptures, which could be unique, commissioned art pieces, hunks of driftwood or special rocks. Imagine strolling through your garden, turning a corner, and happening upon your boulder ‘friend’ – a thriving microcosm, changing with the seasons and weather. Birds take moss and lichen for nests, lizards lounge there in summer, hide underneath in winter, and its rain-filled crevices become ephemeral drinking holes for ants and other insects. While admiring your friend’s current nuances, you spy a self-sown, indigenous seedling emerging from the protected microclimate of its base. The little things.