How to design a garden: assessing the site

This is the third in my series of Garden Design Essential blogs and I hope it inspires you to view your garden differently.  It’s about observing what’s within your garden, and also what’s borrowed – beyond the boundaries. A key element is to observe the context of the garden – the spirit of the place (Genius Loci).   It is a vital step in the garden design process.

There will be existing elements within the garden and outside its boundaries, which won’t change after the garden has been rebuilt.  Identifying these, and linking them into the design, will ensure your new garden will have a greater impact and value.

If you’re looking to design and plan your own garden, then I hope you find this blog helpful.

Garden Designer, Ilkley Skipton Otley Menston Bingley

What is a site assessment?

In essence, when I carry out a site assessment, I’m making a visual survey of your garden. During the visit I record notes and observations, often by dictating comments into my phone and taking photographs. I focus on the views and vistas, space and layout, character, style and planting, materials currently in the garden, and its context.

I touched on the site assessment in a previous blog, Garden Design Essentials 2: The Survey because it can often be carried out at the survey stage.  I prefer to be on my own when I’m assessing a site so I can let my ideas and thoughts unfold uninterrupted.  It’s why I try to assess the site on a different day than the survey.

I look for views to be softened, vistas to be framed and areas to be screened.  I photograph views from the house to the garden and back to the house.

Melissa Morton

The spirit of place – ‘genius loci’

The site assessment (or visual survey) is also how I observe the ‘genius loci’ (Spirit of Place). It’s important to consider what you see beyond the garden boundaries when designing a garden, whether that’s neighbouring houses, views to the countryside or a huge willow tree in next door’s garden. Designing with nature requires the landscape designer to develop a heightened awareness.

Back at the studio I process my notes and images alongside your brief, and the site survey with its technical information. This is the next step: Site Analysis.

Views, vistas and seating: where would be nice to sit?

This is where I look for views that can be enhanced and others that need to be screened. I detect a sense of where to position seating areas to make the most of views.

  • What views does the garden have? Do any views need screening or could some views be enhanced, by framing with trees, for example.
  • Where in the garden feels most windy or exposed?
  • Do I feel overlooked in the garden at all from neighbouring windows?

A new build home with a blank canvas garden with no character, part of a new housing development near RHS Harlow Carr, Harrogate. It’s a windy site too. Identifying the views of the pine woodland, in the distance will inform the design. Desired views will be framed, whilst screening overlooking windows.

Character and style

I look at how the garden and house are connected character and style-wise. For example, if a period home has undergone a contemporary redesign or extension how does it connect with the existing mature garden? Is there now a disconnect because the garden no longer reflects the style of the home?

  • What style and character are the house and garden? Do they work together, or do they feel at odds with each other?
  • What is the character of the wider landscape, beyond the garden, and how does this relate to the garden?

Planting and materials

I look at the materials already used on site, for example, is your house built with traditional Yorkshire stone, modern brickwork or cladding? I visualise materials and colours that would unify the design.

  • How do existing trees and other mature planting in the garden relate to the house and the wider landscape?
  • Do you have decking or a patio, gravel paths or raised beds?
  • What planting exists in the garden? Which trees really enhance the garden and can be used within the design and which ones would we consider removing or pruning back?

If you’ve booked a one off consultation service with Melissa Morton Garden Design, my site visit involves a brief site assessment.  An extract from my summary notes can be seen by clicking on the image below.

Final thoughts

All I need from you during the site visit is access to your garden and maybe a mug of tea to keep me warm if it’s cold outside! This really is a chance for me to spend time in your garden so that I can digest the spirit of the place which I then take forward into the concept design.

Further Reading

Garden Design Essentials Step Two: The Survey, Melissa Morton Garden Design July 2021, https://melissamorton.co.uk/garden-design-essentials-step-two-the-survey/

How to design a garden: nature as inspiration, Duncan Heather, Oxford College of Garden Design, October 2017

https://garden-design-courses.co.uk/genius-loci/