Life Home & Garden

Friday 25 May 2018

Diarmuid Gavin's: Garden action plan

Do you dream of a lush garden but feel intimidated by soil types and Latin names? Or is your green space stagnant and in need of an overhaul? It's time to take action! This spring, let Diarmuid Gavin guide you through creating a perfect plot with his step-by-step guides for every type of garden

Perfect plot: Diarmuid Gavin.2 Photo: Fran Veale
Perfect plot: Diarmuid Gavin.2 Photo: Fran Veale
Arboretum Garden Centre at Kilquade, Wicklow. Photograph: ©Fran Veale
Arboretum Garden Centre at Kilquade, Photograph: ©Fran Veale

Diarmuid Gavin

It's what gardening is all about for most people - creating an outdoor utopia, the perfect haven that is full of flora and nature, a green space that's a delight to behold.

There are many different types of gardens. Our ideas of what constitutes the 'perfect garden' are influenced by personal experiences and memory, as well as what we see in newspapers, magazines, Pinterest boards and TV shows. It means we have choice - sometimes, though, too much choice.

So, how do you know which elements to draw on to create the perfect garden for yourself? Where do you begin - especially if you're starting from scratch with a bare patch and no experience? Gardening can be so confusing, what with all the Latin names, the science of soil, weather and aspect… But don't worry, I'm here to take you through it all.

Today I'm introducing my Garden Action Plan, a step-by-step guide to creating the garden of your dreams. Each week throughout the month of March, I will be looking at a different type of garden and setting out the things that you can do to make it a vibrant, inviting space.

The Garden Action Plan will be addressed to beginners, but gardeners at every level will be able to draw on the same principles to enhance or completely overhaul their own plots.

Today, we begin with a general guide to creating a small- to medium-sized urban garden. From the fundamentals of garden design to the features and the hard-working plants that will bring your garden to life, I will help you to transform your plot from dull yard to urban Eden.

And over the next few weeks, I'll be bringing you Action Plans for container gardens, vegetable plots and conservatories. You may only have one of these elements, but you can layer and build the Action Plans on top of each other to create a garden within a garden - adding a vegetable plot or groups of pots alongside your raised beds, for example.

Are you ready? It's time to take action!

Action 1: choose your style

Begin your journey to your dream garden by identifying exactly what that dream looks like. Decide what type or style of garden you love: we are inundated with imagery, from the English cottage style, to the formality of Italian gardens, the greenery and studied tranquillity of Eastern landscapes or the latest design trend - the garden as an 'outdoor room' and extension of the interior styling.

To help with this process, develop a scrapbook: this means collecting imagery and articles about what you love, especially the garden features and plants which will influence what you want to achieve. This can be done the old-fashioned way - simply tear out the pieces that inspire you and paste them into a copybook or pin them to a cork board. Or you can go online, where you'll find scrapbook sites such as Tumblr and Pinterest. Here, you can access images and ideas contributed by people from around the globe. An hour spent browsing can be wonderfully inspiring, then step back and see what it is that all the things you have collected have in common. They should begin to tell you what your own garden style is, be it clean lines or wildflower meadow. Take some time to dream. Make your decision based on what you love - decide what the essence of a garden is for you, rather than what you feel you should have, or what's currently in fashion.

Next, examine in detail what it is that makes what you're looking at work so well. How does the champagne-coloured gravel and baroque topiary add so much to the look of a French courtyard garden? How could you create the same feeling with your space and resources? Would an arbour draped with fruiting vines be suitable or even possible? Or, even if you couldn't grow the glorious cerise bougainvillea which tumbles over the top of whitewashed walls in Crete, well, would flaming fuchsias or claret cannas provide a similar hint of exoticism?

Action 2: study your plot

Now it's time for a dose of reality! Open your eyes and examine your starting point. What's your plot like now? Big or small? Bright or shady? Wet or dry? Will it be possible to turn your space into the type of paradise that you have in mind? You won't fit a garden of stepped terraces, complete with a hundred dancing fountains, statues and acres of clipped parterres behind your terraced two-bed in Dundalk. So, begin to see what may build the Renaissance atmosphere, without the grand budget, space or accompanying Tuscan hillside.

In your scrapbook, real or virtual, make a list of the practical features you need to allow the garden to function as a viable, usable space for the family - will you need a barbecue area or a place for the kids to play football in?

After that, add in the garden features (see panel) and plants you would love to acquire, build or grow.

Action 3: make a masterplan

It's time to develop a plan! Sketch out the bones of your plot on some paper. Show where the house is, the boundaries and any features such as mature trees, ponds, sheds or greenhouses, which will remain. And then, using this template, begin to draw the master plan. Your garden needs to be a journey: you want it to lead your eye around, whether looking out at it from a window in the house or showing visitors around. So you must use shape.

The objective is to take the eye away from the boundary and lead people on a journey through the entire plot. You want to make the most use of what can seem like a relatively small space. So, trying out different shapes on paper is a good start.

The most simple is probably the C shape: a curved walk-around through your plot, swinging from one side of your garden down to the middle and back around. That has the ability to create a bit of a journey. This shape can be brought to life using the edge of a border cut into the lawn, or raised beds, or a paved or gravel path, or a row of box planting.

If your garden is long enough, you can join up two Cs that are travelling in opposite directions, creating an S shape. That gives you two dramatic curves to walk around, and once the garden is filled with plants you'll have no hint of what delights are around the corner.

The secret is to make the lines as simple but dramatic as possible. If you are creating curves, put a big bend on them. Now, take those sheets of paper outside and use a hose pipe and a half moon or a spade to mark out the curves. Big sweeps are key. Next, walk your plot - make sure to go for a real walk through the site following your imagined curves, not just as the crow flies from A to B. Of course if you don't want to use organic lines, you can try a series of squares or rectangles, turned at an angle for the same effect.

Action 4: fill out the features

The final step for your overall design is adding in the features. What will you see along the journey? Specimen plants, such as beautiful trees set into borders which become accents at different times of the year? Or it could be using water in the form of a pond or gentle fountain. Create places of rest and relaxation, to sit and enjoy. And always include destinations to visit within your garden - for example, a small pavilion with its roof peeping up among the shrubs - no matter how small it is. Good design is often about simplicity, and working with the conditions and situation you have. Gardens are like stage sets; all illusions and make-believe. Run with that notion. Begin to think of your plot as a good thriller. You don't just want to wander through; you want drama, excitement, to come across the unexpected... Every garden should seduce, tempt and bring you on a wonderful journey.

Features to consider…


We can grow wonderful velvety lawns in Ireland, comprising some fine mixes of grass plants. This green carpet acts as the perfect soft foil to so many other garden features.

Raised beds

Whether as a means of creating interest, growing herbs or vegetables or gardening on top of concrete or tarmacadam, raised beds packed with fertile, well-drained soil can make a success of a garden in otherwise inhospitable situations.

Ponds or water features

Water brings so many wonderful qualities to our gardens: a sense of tranquillity, the delightful sound of water moving or simply its reflective mirror-like surface. It will attract wildlife and become a habitat for fish; however, if you have children or they visit on occasion, unprotected water can also pose a danger.

A Pavilion or gazebo

A wonderful feature for any garden is a structure or building to tempt you outside on a journey of exploration.

Weekend Magazine

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life