As well as creating a new dream home, a self build also offers the opportunity to design a garden from scratch.
A well designed garden can be the crowning glory for any new property.
Landscaping your garden can prove almost as much work as building or renovating your house but can ultimately be just as rewarding. Often, selfbuilders will leave their gardens until last, when they’ve run out of time and money, which can lead to months, if not years, of piles of rubble and discarded builders’ rubbish scattered outside what is an otherwise finished house.
One of the benefits of selfbuilding is that you can often design the garden to suit your own requirements. One of the drawbacks is the fact that many sites are bare, which means it will take some time for gardens to mature. Although a mature site has obvious advantages when compared to a bare patch of ground, it also means that careful attention will be required to ensure that the new house suits its location and fits in, rather than imposing itself on the landscape.
Careful orientation and landscaping can make a new home feel more private.
Some selfbuilders choose to dig down to reduce the impact of the building on its site and create a more sheltered setting, with hedging, walls, fencing and gates offering protection and defining boundaries.
Start by surveying the site and drawing up a plan showing any existing trees, hedges, walls and large shrubs. Add in your house and garage on this plan, including the location of pipes, cables, sheds, greenhouses or outbuildings. Mark the position of sunrise and sunset, so that you can estimate areas which will be in the shade and sun at different times of the year.
Decide what you want to keep, but remember that existing trees may be subject to tree preservation orders or planning rules, particularly in Conservation Areas. You don’t normally need permission to plant a hedge in your garden, and there are no laws that say how high you can grow a hedge (not near a highway), but you are responsible for looking after any hedge on your property and for making sure it’s not a nuisance to anyone else.
If you choose to flatten a sloping site, remember that other complications in the form of access roads, drains, landscaping and retaining walls can all add considerably to the overall cost.
If you’re building a new house, ask the groundworker to save any good topsoil before excavation work begins so that it can be re-used later.
Avoid Straight Lines
Straight lines make a small garden feel even smaller and more confined, whereas a meandering pathway with curved borders, a shaped lawn and diagonal paving will add a sense of extended space. Long sections of wall or fencing should also be avoided, if possible, or concealed with planting to create a more interesting view. Avoid the ‘corridor’ effect, where your eye is drawn straight to the end of the garden. Changes in level are another clever way to visually divide areas of garden into different ‘rooms’, with steps, raised beds or a platform deck adding a whole new dimension. On well-drained sites you could even consider digging down to make a lower area.
Divide and Conquer
Many UK gardens are long, narrow pieces of ground, edged by a high fence with a central lawn and borders around the edge, which can look dull and uninspiring.
The solution to making a small garden appear larger is quite surprising: divide up the space.
Contrary to expectation, not seeing the entire garden all at once will add intrigue and, if done well, creates the optical illusion that it is far larger.
Making small openings into each section of garden, so that you have to walk between close planting or stoop below a low branch or archway, adds to the sense of mystery and seclusion, and placing a water feature out of sight will draw people on with its sound.
On the other hand, don’t create such a private garden that you’re prevented from enjoying the wider outlook: leave some visual spaces between screens, walls and trees to capture the view. Each part of the garden should have its own distinct purpose, whether it’s for the children to play in or as a quiet place to retreat for coffee and capture the morning sun. They don’t need to be identical in size and shape – variety will add more interest.
Driveways and Patios
Ideally, you should tackle hard landscaping such as driveways, paths and patios early on and leave delicate planting until later.
Every garden should have at least one dedicated seating area for relaxing, entertaining and enjoying the view, but so often patios can be drab and uninviting spaces with cracked concrete or uneven paving allowing weeds to flourish.
The current trend is for very sharply angled, precision-cut patios to be laid in a single material, which is ideal for contemporary garden designs.
Using different materials is more suited to a cottage garden and can also allow an existing patio to be successfully extended if it isn’t possible to match the original paving.
Specific rules apply for householders wanting to pave over their front gardens.
If the surface to be covered is more than five square metres then planning permission will be needed for laying traditional, impermeable driveways that don’t provide for water run-off to a permeable area.
You won’t need planning permission if a new or replacement driveway of any size uses permeable (or porous) surfacing which allows water to drain through, such as gravel, permeable concrete block paving or porous asphalt, or if the rainwater is directed to a lawn or border to drain naturally. Elsewhere around your house there are no restrictions on the area of land which you can cover with hard surfaces at, or near, ground level.
Once you’ve decided on the position, material, shape and size of the patio – which should be large enough to comfortably accommodate your chosen garden furniture – look in more detail at how you can achieve the desired effect, and allow for any wiring cables or water pipes, which should ideally be concealed in a trench before the patio is laid.
Companies like Stonemarket offer handy online tools, including a free paving generator to create patio paving plans and experiment with different laying patterns, as well as calculating the amount of material you will need. There’s also a useful guide on preparation and laying paving flags.
Try to see samples of your chosen patio material in both wet and dry conditions, and ideally laid in a garden or showroom, rather than buying from a catalogue picture.
Laying out the pattern first before fixing the paving in place will give you the chance to create the most pleasing effect. If you plan to employ a company to complete the work, then ask to see examples of their previous work in the same materials.
Budget realistically for all materials and laying costs in addition to the paving stones. Plan and measure the paved area carefully to avoid wastage or under-ordering.
Factor in at least 10 per cent for cutting, wastage and breakages.
Consider the thickness of the pavers when excavating the area and avoid trip hazards created by different levels. A slight gradient should be factored into the design to prevent water from pooling.
Existing trees will give an established appearance, provide welcome shade in summer and add height to a garden, but too many can make a site feel enclosed and dark and their roots will be competing for nutrients and moisture with other smaller plants.
Don’t make any hasty decisions until you are sure of the nature of each tree and what it can offer your site, and remember that trees with preservation orders are almost impossible to remove, with permission needed even for pruning.
Thirsty species such as oak, elm, poplar or willow should be located at least 20m away from a house built on highly shrinkable (usually clay) soil.
When a tree is felled or dies, a clay soil will gradually regain the moisture that has been removed by the tree, which results in the clay swelling and pushing on the foundations. This can lead to serious structural problems if the foundations have not been designed to take account of the likely movement, and expansion of the soil can also occur beneath a building if roots are severed by foundation excavations.
On the other hand, if there are existing hedges or trees, or if trees are to be planted, the opposite effect will occur: moisture will be removed from the soil and the clay will shrink. If a new tree is planted, or an existing tree is to remain, then the mature height of the tree should be used to help calculate the foundation depth.
Use Colour Carefully
White walls and pale fences will add to the perception of depth and visually extend outdoor space, and the use the colour, texture and shape when choosing plants can also help to make a garden feel larger.
Instead of a random selection of colours, which can look cluttered, try limiting the palette to just three or four shades that complement one another.
Cool colours such as blues and purples recede and make a space feel larger, whereas hot colours produce a more intimate feel.
Positioning darker colours to the front with larger, lighter, finer-textured plants behind will help to create a sense of depth.
Repetition of planting is the key to avoid an overwhelming variety, but small spaces do not mean limiting yourself to only small plants, as tall planting, grasses or a grapevine on a pergola can serve as privacy screens in their own right. Avoid thorny or spiky-leaved plants if space is at a premium, as brushing past these will be uncomfortable – scented varieties are a better option.
One of the most common mistakes when tackling a garden makeover can be over-planting, because the plants will quickly grow and soon begin to struggle for space.
Growing upwards saves space and creates privacy, so think of ways to use climbers and creepers to decorate walls and trellis, plant hanging and high-level containers, or consider a living wall to draw the eye upwards and make a small garden feel larger.