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Garden design: planning & laying out your dream garden

Val Bourne ( 21 April 2021 )

When - and how - should you start laying out a new garden with new trees and plants.

Man planting a tree in the garden
All trees will need to be staked using proper tree ties and a solid wooden stake when you plant

If you've taken on a new garden - perhaps the blank slate of a new build, or you've cleared an overgrown wilderness right back to basics - and you're keen to get going you'll want to be thinking about the architectural qualities of large plants like trees and shrubs to begin with. These can give a garden instant character and interest.

How to get started: planning

1. First, draw out your garden. You can do this using garden design software or on paper. If you want to use paper but aren't convinced by your drawing skills hold some tracing paper to a window overlooking the garden and trace the shape of your lawn, patio, fences and anything you plan on keeping. This will give you a good base to start working with.

2. Make a note of any problem areas - such as dry or soggy patches, areas that receive very little sun or steep slopes. Plants for these areas will need to be researched carefully. 

3. Draw out where you'd like structural elements such as trees and shrubs, bearing in mind the shade they will cast in your garden or your neighbour's.

4. Plan where you would like flower beds, ponds and paths.

5. Gather images of the trees, plants and flowers you'd like to use. Pinterest could work really well for this, and you could create boards for spring, summer and autumn to get an idea for what the plants you want will look like throughout the year.

Read our design tips for creating a Chelsea-style show garden at home

Getting started: planting trees and shrubs

Trees, hedging and rose bushes are best planted over winter. November until March is an ideal time for planting bare-root trees, hedging and roses and these have several advantages over container-grown plants because they are are lifted when dormant. 

Bare-root plants are sent out with very little soil on the roots making them lighter in weight and cheaper to dispatch. They usually cost half the price and the range is often greater. But most important of all bare-rooted plants aren’t checked or stressed by a move to a new position because they are transplanted when their growing system has shut down. As a result they awake like sleeping beauties and romp away in the following spring. Invariably a smaller bare-root plant catches up on a larger container-grown one - making a better plant.

Prepare the ground, thoroughly digging it over and remove some soil to make the hole. Incorporate some organic matter into your heap - either well-rotted manure, garden compost or John Innes no 3. Once the plants have arrived, open the package and soak for a couple of hours if needed. If the ground is frosted or waterlogged store your plants in a frost-free shed, keeping the roots damp, until you can plant.

Find out more about planting bare-root roses, trees and hedges

Stake all trees

All trees will need to be staked using proper tree ties and a solid wooden stake as and when you plant. The latter can either be angled at 45 degrees or placed parallel to the trunk. Check the tie regularly, loosening as necessary.


Spread the roots out and shorten any long roots that make planting difficult. Add a handful of bonemeal (a slow-release fertiliser) and back fill the hole with your enriched soil. Firm in gently and water if necessary. The bud union on rose bushes needs to be level or just a fraction below the soil surface. You can buy mulch mats for trees to keep the weeds down and keeping the immediate area around each tree bare helps a young tree or rose enormously.

First season of care

The first growing season will hopefully set up your tree, rose or fruit bushes for life and the secret ingredient is sun-warmed water. Once spring begins to feel warm and clement, water your newly-planted tree, shrub or rose if the top of the soil surface seems dry. Don’t use a hose as it’s difficult to tell how much water has reached the newly-planted tree, rose or shrub. Get a bucket and warm the water slightly by standing it outside for a day or by using water-butt water. Gently tip one bucket of water on to your new plant in the first half of the day so that it sinks in well before the spring night becomes chilly. Remember, newly planted plants are most under stress during their first six months.

Read our guide to creating a vegetable garden from scratch

Container-grown trees, shrubs and roses

These will always be popular as they can be planted in clement weather throughout the year. But never ever plant in extremely cold or extremely hot weather. Try to choose an ambient temperature if possible. Again be prepared to water well in dry conditions until the plant is established. This is especially important with container-grown plants grown in peaty compost.

Soil type affects planting time

September is the best planting month in most gardens. However those on heavy, cold clay soil, or on ground that lies wet in winter, should wait until spring. If you do have to plant in September always dig a much larger hole than you need and break up the ground well. Otherwise your new plant will sit in a clay-lined sump or wet pit during winter. The hole can fill with water and your plant effectively drowns. But don’t despair - once established many woody plants do well on clay and damp soil.

The potbound container plants

Always examine your plant carefully before planting. If the root ball is dry, soak the plant for at least 24 hours unless the weather is very cold. If the roots spiral round, this is bad news. Your plant is pot bound and if you plant it like that those roots will continue to spiral round. You will have a dead plant on your hands before you know it.

You might be able to tease them down gently if the potbound state is fairly new. If the roots are impossible to tease down you will have to damage them quite severely. Either tear them with your hands or cut them with secateurs and pull away the loose bits. Hellebores are the generally the worst sufferers.

The best way to avoid this is to use a nursery that sells lots of plants rather than one where they stay on the bench for months.


What trees to grow in a new garden

New gardens need good ornamental trees because gardens don't work visually without them. They give scale to the other plants and they alter the dynamics, even in a small garden, as they cast their own moving kaleidoscope pattern of light and shade on the ground. 

They provide a woodland habitat allowing spring-flowering hellebores, wood anemones, miniature spring narcissi, pulmonarias and other woodlanders to thrive under their benign presence. Their branches give overhead shelter in winter. Their root systems warm and drain the ground below. It’s no wonder they have often been described as the lungs of the garden. Add some shrubs as well for extra structure.

Choose good varieties

A good tree should offer you a combination of at least three things whether it’s blossom, textured bark, a fine tracery of spidery branches, foliage or fruit. It should also shine in winter. Go to a tree specialist for advice.

Trees are also important on another level. They provide more diversity and pull in more insect, small animal and bird life. This is vital in an age where green spaces are disappearing fast.

Read our guide to choosing the best ornamental trees for small gardens

Ten trees and shrubs to plant

Prunus x subhirtella 'Autumnalis'

Perfectly-formed, frilled pale-pink blossom sprinkled through dark, bare tracery giving weeks of subtle flower from November until late February. Easy and accommodating 24ft (7.5m).

Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill'

Strongly-scented clusters of waxy pink flowers supported by lavish foliage on this columnar daphne. Always in flower in January. Good soil, warm position 6ft 6in-10ft (2-3m).

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii 'Grayswood Ghost'

A silver birch with striking, silk-textured, white bark and conical head of slate-black twigs. The larger, glossier leaves yellow well in autumn. Easy 60ft (18m).

Prunus mume 'Beni-chidori'(syn.'Ben- shidore')

February needs this dramatic Japanese apricot with its dark branches clothed with almond-scented, madder-pink flowers - each one packed with pale-pink stamens. Accommodating 10ft (3m).

Photinia x fraseri 'Red Robin'

Light up winter with this compact mound of evergreen leaves topped by startling ruby-red new shoots. Accommodating  7ft 6in (2.4m).

Cotoneaster 'Hybridus Pendulus'

The weeping branches of this small semi-evergreen tree are loaded with red fruits which the birds seem to ignore. Prefers good drainage 10ft (3m).

Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple'

When autumn temperatures plummet, the wine-red lollipop leaves fleck with shocking pink. Cut back hard in late-spring for larger leaves. Accommodating 16ft (5m).

Rosa 'Buff Beauty'

Large hybrid musk rose with graceful, arching branches covered in deliciously fragrant soft-apricot blooms. Healthy bronze foliage. Accommodating 6ft 6in (2m).

Malus x robusta 'Red Sentinel'

This jewelled crab apple drips with red fruits and they last all through winter. Red-stamened white flowers in spring. 16-26ft (5-8m).

Crataegus orientalis

Silvery cut-leaved hawthorn bearing large orange-red fruit - good in a sun-baked garden of silvery plants 16ft (5m).

Visit our garden ideas section for more garden inspiration, including ideas for a small garden, planting a herbaceous border and creating an Alpine scree garden



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