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How To Design a Contemporary Garden

This post isn’t about garden plants. With that being said, let me tell you what it is about. The aim of this post is to provide you with a basic understanding of some of the design principles involved in contemporary garden design. The focus being on the hard landscaping aspects – that’s the non-living objects. First, we’ll start by learning some of  the most commonly used design theories. Once we’ve got that covered, we’ll move onto learning some of the principles behind building such a garden.

FIGURE 1 – Contemporary Garden 


Before rushing off to the drawing board though, we need to decide what we actually want from our garden. This includes asking questions like what is it going to be used for and what is it going to look like. Cherry-picking ideas from different gardens always works for inspiration. As long as we avoid ending up with a mishmash of random different features. Generally the overall style of the garden is influenced by the architecture of the space and the character of the site you’re building on. In other words, we want to create a garden that fits in and complements its surroundings.

FIGURE 2 – Section Through House and Garden

If you read the kitchen design post then the above image should look familiar. That’s because we’re designing this garden using the same property. And we want the two to integrate seamlessly, to have the garden feel like a natural extension to the kitchen. This means that the garden will follow the same contemporary style to reflect the interior of the house. To help us decide what we’re going to design, below is a wishlist of things to include;

  • Family dining area
  • Suitable for hosting small dinner parties
  • More intimate space to sit down for a summer evening drink
  • Pergola to provide overhead screening for shade
  • Timber screening on both sides of the garden for privacy

    FIGURE 3 – Garden Features


So what is it that makes a good garden? Is it the way it makes you feel? Or how it looks, or how practical it is? These are all excellent questions, and you’re likely to get different answers depending who you’re asking. But whatever your personal preferences might be, there are certain basic principles that will help you steer towards creating a successful garden.


Starting with an empty garden, let’s first figure out the proportions for our design. Designers tend to use many common mathematical ratios and artistic theories to help produce ‘natural’ proportions. Here we can apply a simplified version of the golden ratio – or more specifically the golden rectangle. Using this theory, we can divide the layout roughly into two-thirds of paving and one-thirds of grass and decking each, as shown below in Figure 4.

FIGURE 4 – Working Out Proportions

Now we’re going to add some symmetry. This can be done by creating an axis through the centre to mirror features on each side. By doing this we’ll also avoid the lopsided effect – the feeling that one side of the garden is dominant. Depending on the shape of your garden, the axis could run in any direction. Usually the axis leads your eye towards a focal point. In this case it will be the wall with downlights at the end of the garden. If you look at well designed gardens, you’ll often see the focal point as a piece of sculpture, a tree, plant or anything that captures the eye.


Space is an important thing to get right straight from the early stages of design and keep in mind throughout the whole process. If not, you’ll run the risk of ending up with uncomfortably confined areas. And nobody wants a cramped outdoor dining area where you have to climb over each other every time you want to leave the table. Doesn’t exactly spell out relaxing al fresco dining experience, does it.

So the bigger, the better then? Not exactly. Big, open spaces don’t feel comfortable or secure to sit in. In this case, we don’t have to worry about having too much space as this is quite a small urban garden. But the way to design large gardens is to define smaller areas within the bigger space. The trick is to design everything to human scale – meaning that you don’t get carried away designing giant pergolas just because the garden is big.


As pointed out before, without a sense of unity we would just end up with a mishmash of random features. This is why we need to pick a theme/style for our garden and then stick to it. For our design we are using geometric shapes throughout the layout. For instance, the trimmed hedges on either side of the garden give us nice clean lines – which are one of the main features in contemporary design. Also, the tall rectangular planters complement the theme well.

FIGURE 5 – Rectangular Shapes

Materials play a huge part of the design process. Generally speaking, less is more. Too many different materials can make a space feel cluttered and restless. But then again, too few and it can appear bland and soulless. Usually sticking to three different materials is a good average. In this garden we’ve used stone, timber, and a painted brick wall.

It’s a known fact that being in the nature is good for your overall well-being, so we want to use natural materials to emphasise that feeling in the garden. The colours we choose will also play a big role in setting the mood. Here we’ve used earthy tones and soft shades of grey. These should work well in creating a restful mood for relaxation. If we wanted to create something invigorating and energising, we would use vibrant colours instead.


Gardens that lack privacy can be very unappealing – nobody wants to feel like they’re being watched. Again, it makes sense if we think about the psychology behind it. Deep down, we all have a primeval desire to feel safe and physically protected. This is why we usually feel more comfortable in a closed, more intimate space. And that’s why designers like to add pergolas or canopies to create that feeling of being protected. Mind you, with too much protection the space might start feeling like a prison instead.

FIGURE 6 – Enhancing Privacy

We have added a more intimate seating area to the back of this garden. This is an area which is covered by walls on three sides and a pergola providing a roof structure and shade. Timber screenings are fixed to the existing walls to give us higher fences, and hence increasing privacy from the neighbouring properties. Remember, even if you are best mates with your neighbours, you still want to have your own privacy.


To be able to design something effectively, you need to understand how it’s built. And garden design is no exception. There’s a lot happening underneath the top surface that we need to take into consideration. I find that the best way to understand the build-up is to slice up a section of the garden, like you’d slice a cake, and take a look at its layers.

FIGURE 7 – Cross Section

The image below shows us a detail of the stone cladding and coping. Underneath the paving you will find a concrete or another form of base course. On top of this we would then add a bed of mortar (about 25 mm) and then lay the paving slabs one by one. The copping and cladding slabs are also mortared into the retaining wall made from concrete blocks.

FIGURE 8 – Cladding & Coping Detail

The 440 x 215 x 100 mm concrete blocks are one of the main building elements used in garden building. They are much bigger than bricks, and they are quicker and cheaper to build with. Here we’ve used four layers of blocks to build the retaining walls. You can also see that there is a geotextile membrane separating the soil and the blockwork. Geotextiles are blanket-like products that are made of synthetic fibres. Here we’ve used it between the soil and retaining wall, in order to prevent moisture and weed growth getting into the blockwork.


The secret to long-lasting success is a firm foundation. Remember that all paving, decking, paths and driveways need a compacted sub-base to spread the load. Sub-base is the layer directly underneath the base – which is concrete in this detail. Underneath this sub-base, is the native soil which is referred to as sub-grade. So from the top down, it’s base, sub-base and sub-grade.

To make the sub-base strong enough, we would usually use a coarse, crushed stone product, like scalpings. This layer usually needs to be compacted with a vibrating plate compactor. Silt or clay wouldn’t be suitable to form a sub-base, as clay soils shrink and swell considerably with changes in moisture content. If you look at the GIF below, you can see that there are concrete slabs below our paving stones, patio decking and stepping stones. So under each of the concrete slabs you would find a sub-base layer made from scalpings, or a similar product.


Water’s role in the landscape is a crucial one. Every garden needs a drainage system to avoid problems like flooding, frost heaving, erosion, and ponding. Especially since we are using hard surfaces like paving slabs, which aren’t going to soak up the water. So to direct the water away, we need to have a slight slope in the paving areas. As a rule of thumb, the fall should be between 1 in 50 and 1 in 100 (10-20 mm fall every one meter). To help us come up with an effective drainage system, we can go through the following checklist;

  • Where is excess water coming onto site and where is it leaving the site?
  • Determine flow pattern and identify high points, ridges, valleys, streams and swales.
  • Check means of disposal; on-site, off-site, natural drainage system (swales), existing drainage system (drain pipe), proposed drainage system
  • Analyse other site conditions; physical obstructions such as walks, drives, parking, patios, landscape edging etc
  • Identify what type and size drains are required.  Design the system using a combination of surface and subsurface drain systems and underground pipes. Design pipe layout to convey water from the drains to the discharge point in the most direct and simple manner possible.

(checklist source: Principles of Exterior Drainage)

FIGURE 9 – Drainage

The above image gives us an understanding of how the runoff water is directed into the soakaway. Soakaway is basically a dug hole that has been filled with rubble or other coarse material that allows water to soak through into the surrounding ground. The type of soil you have in the garden will have a big impact on its drainage abilities, so keep that in mind. Also, we always want to divert water away from the house.


Timber surfaces can have a beautiful and long-lasting effect on any garden. So it’s no surprise decking is a popular choice for patios – also a common DIY-project. There are few different ways you can go about building a deck. Usually, leg posts are fixed to concrete footings, joists attached to these posts, and the decking boards fixed on top of the joists. Here we’ve laid a concrete base below the decking, so there is no need to use posts.

FIGURE 10 – Decking Detail

First step here would be to fix the 47 x 75 mm timber supports onto the concrete base at 600 mm centres. Because the concrete has a fall in it, we need to use packers to make sure that our decking stays level. Next, on top of these supports, we would fix 50 x 40 mm battens to which the decking boards are screwed onto. Again, the battens would be spaced at 600 mm centres. Remember that decking boards need roughly a 6 mm space between each slat, to allow for expansion. Timber will swell when it gets wet, so without the gaps in between, the boards may start to buckle. All screws, bolts and other fixings should be hot-dipped galvanised or stainless steel.


Pergolas should always have a defined purpose, so it shouldn’t just stand as an isolated feature int the middle of a lawn. Here we’ve used it to provide cover (shade) and privacy for the seating and cooking area. The design should fit into the style of the garden, which is why we have chosen a more contemporary design. The structure for the pergola needs to be strong enough to withstand the force of a gale wind – which is why the leg posts are fixed into the concrete base with post brackets.

FIGURE 10 – Pergola Design

When designing the pergola, we need to think about space. We’re going to need enough of it to move about the BBQ as well as the seating area. We want this area to feel relaxed and comfortable, not cramped and claustrophobic. The overall dimensions used here are 5.3 meters by 3 meters, with a height of 2.6 meters.

Depending on your preference, you might probably find a ready-made kit on the market to put in your garden. The problem with kits tends to be the limitations in available sizes. The solution is to roll up your sleeves and build one yourself. Just remember to use pressure-treated timber (or similar) and to make sure the posts are securely concreted into the ground [1]. A quick search on the internet for DIY pergola instructions and you’re sure to find one to suit your skill level.


Of course, it is difficult to talk about garden design without even mentioning plants. As soft landscaping (the trees & flowers bit) is such a large topic, there was no point trying to squeeze it into this post. But I would recommend researching this field, as it will give you the know-how to use them as a design element of its own. Also edible plants are worth adding into your garden, if that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for. It doesn’t get much more locally sourced than picking your own vegetables, herbs and fruit from your back garden.

Another topic that was too big to cover is lighting design. Again worth looking into, as you can literally transfer a garden with a flick of a switch. With some clever lighting solutions, you can pick out shapes, distort colours and add a touch of drama to the garden. Gardens usually use a low-voltage lighting system, which is cheap and easy to install. You just buy and plug the transformer into an indoor socket, and it will give you 12 V or 24 V to power your lights. From there you’re all set to start creating some magic.

So, I hope you now have an idea of how gardens are designed and built. Based on all the research I did for this post, generally speaking, you want to aim for a garden that looks like it just grew there naturally. This is something that many successful gardens seem to have in common. Unless you are working on a garden that has less flowers and more man-made things – like our design here. If you want to read more about garden design, I would recommend starting with Garden Design by Alan Titchmarsh. It’s full of useful information and practical examples –  making it very good value for money. If you have any comments or questions, please leave them below.


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