By

Bent Johnson

Apr 11, 2023

16 garden design ideas to make the best of your outdoor space

These garden design ideas are key to creating a scheme you’ll love for years to come. Whether you’re looking for garden landscaping ideas to overhaul your outdoor space – however big or small – attract more wildlife, or be more sustainable, we’ve compiled some fabulous garden ideas to help you transform your back garden – and it’ll even help to boost your property value.

If you’re looking for smaller garden updates, we also share advice and styling tips on garden furniture, paving, lights, plants, borders, decking and more, to help you carve out an outdoor space you can really enjoy.

But, importantly, before you proceed with any redesigns or updates, take a look at your garden as a whole, says Andrew Kyte at The Chelsea Gardener: ‘Find out as much as you can about the garden’s position, direction and outlook. Not only will this affect planting, it can dictate how you use your space.’

Whether it’s a small garden, long and narrow garden, cottage garden or courtyard garden, you should observe where and at what times of day different parts of the garden gets light and sun. Think about access and what you want to use your garden for – planting and growing veg, sunbathing, eating alfresco or simply sitting down to enjoy a cup of tea on a sunny morning?

garden ideas, outdoor seating area filled with cushions, plants and a side table

1. Get your lawn into shape

Look out of your window at your garden and the biggest shape you’ll probably see is your lawn. If it’s a good, strong shape, it will set the entire garden on the right track. And remember, it doesn’t have to be a rectangle – try an oval, circle, square or oblong shape. You’ll need the right tools to complete the job. Last year saw a rise in searches for nifty robotic lawn mowers and ride-on mowers, with the Flymo Easi Glide 300 Electric Mower being a best-seller, as revealed by price comparison service PriceRunner.

2. Plan your planting

The best garden designs start with structural plants infilled with pretty, flowering plants. So use evergreen shrubs at the end of each border and as punctuation along the way. Include small shrubs such as box balls, or large evergreens, for example mahonia, for bigger areas.

Once you have this frame, fill the gaps with pretty flowering plants. Try to stick to just five or six different types and arrange them in repeated patterns for a coordinated and harmonious effect. A metre or more in depth is a perfect size for a border, giving you enough space to put smaller plants at the front with taller ones behind.

secured by design, rhs hampton court palace flower show 2018
brilliance in bloom designed by charlie bloom sponsored by stark  greensmith, simon probyn sculpture, nickie bonn  art4space, friends of dorking, mears group, the palm centre, rolawn and dyofix show garden rhs hampton court palace flower show 2018 stand no 656
Sue Townsend’s ‘Samphire’ garden, winner of the Beth Chatto Award for best Eco Garden

3. Trees

Mature trees can be a starting point for building a scheme. They block the glare of the sun and can also be used as an anchor for shade sails, hammocks, pendant lights or hanging decorations.

Trees can also screen an unattractive view or help to filter noise and air pollution if you live near a busy road. And they benefit nature significantly, providing pollen for insects and shelter for birds, and converting airborne carbon dioxide into oxygen.

A growing trend is multi-stem trees – planting these can create an architectural showpiece, with the elegant canopies lending themselves to layered underplanting or, if planted exclusively, creating a striking structural statement. As seen below in this modern Suffolk garden by Caitlin McLauglin, multi-stem trees and soft planting creates a deconstructed woodland environment in a front courtyard garden.

Multi-Stem trees garden by Caitlin McLauglin

4. Beautiful paving

The colour and style of your paving and the way it is laid can provide a strong design direction for the entire garden. For instance, grey or white stone laid in a random pattern will set the scene for a French country look; black or silver paving organised in a regular design will form the perfect backdrop to a sleek and modern scheme; while golden stone arranged in a mixed pattern creates an English country feel.

Aged Riven paving from Bradstone
Circular paving, Ribbon Wheel garden by Butter Wakefield

5. Distinct levels

Is your garden on different levels? If you don’t like the idea of incorporating stone steps, you can achieve a seamless look with your existing lawn, for example, by enabling the flow from one space to the next. As seen in the below photo, garden designer Helen Elks-Smith used grass treads, integrating them into the existing lawn to connect the lower patio to the small sun terrace above.

Garden with grass steps by Helen Elks-Smith MSGD, winner of the Large Residential Award at the SGD Awards 2020

Helen Elks-Smith via Society of Garden Designers

Looking for decking ideas? If you have an uneven or sloping garden, decking is an ideal and cost-effective option for levelling it out. Decking can also have split levels and include steps, making it the ideal space for dining furniture, and due to its use, a decked garden area typically needs to withstand heavy foot traffic.

Environmentally friendly, anti-slip and maintenance-free, Millboard’s composite decking boards are an innovative mix of polyurethane and a mineral blend, offering the beauty and versatility of natural wood without the maintenance. This wood-free decking has a non porous outer layer, so it essentially self-cleans so the rain will do the hard work.

Millboard Composite Decking, Weathered Vintage in garden, Garden House Design

6. The furniture

For smaller courtyards and patios, go for folding furniture, or bench seating that can be tucked under a dining table when not in use. L-shaped sofas can be surprisingly compact, while larger spaces can take full-on seating sets, with matching chairs, sofas and tables, sun loungers and day beds, or on-trend hanging egg chairs or swing seats.

Invest in a good garden furniture set that will last for years to come. Consider the space and allow enough room for each person to be able to sit comfortably and pull out their chair without bumping into anything. And remember, you’ll also need room to walk around the table with everyone seated. It takes up much more space than you might think!

According to Claire Belderbos, director of garden landscaping specialists, Belderbos Landscapes, ‘a dining table works best in the area of the garden that has early afternoon full or partial sun. Put a smaller seating area where you can enjoy the evening sun’.

garden ideas, garden fireplace, schiedel isokern volcanic garden stove from £1191 wwwgardenfireplacecouk

7. Pay attention to your boundaries

In a small garden, boundary walls, fences or hedges may be the biggest element in view, so it’s really important for them to look good. They don’t have to all be the same but try to provide visual links between them. You could have the same type of fence, for instance, and grow climbers up them in coordinating colours. If you aren’t able to change the fences, whitewash them or clad them with battens or trellis. Check with your neighbours first to establish whose fence it is and ask permission before doing any work.

Backyard wildflowers, Montana
Timber posts in garden by Bowles & Wyer. Photo by Richard Bloom

8. Screening and zoning

You should also think about screening areas of your garden to create separate ‘rooms’. Introduce hard landscaping in the form of pergolas or fences, or through plants. ‘You can’t go wrong with hardy rose bushes or tall bamboo,’ suggests Jon Holloway, founder of Garden Trading. Alternatively, try a line-up of potted trees.

If space is limited, consider zoning areas of your garden, although this is a good idea for every garden shape and size. ‘The garden is definitely an extension of the kitchen and living space,’ says Vicky Angell, outdoor living buyer for John Lewis & Partners. ‘In part, this is because our homes are, on average, smaller than ever, so we’re looking to the outdoors for space to entertain and relax.’

9. Accessorise the fifth room

Think about how you can turn your outdoor space into a relaxing sanctuary with cosy garden decor and tactile furnishings. Essentially you want to create a living room look, it’s just outdoors rather than inside, so bear this in mind when on the hunt for decor and accessories.

For example, you could invest in an outdoor rug (Cuckooland sell a great selection of Fab Hab rugs made from recycled plastic) along with chunky knit throws, lanterns, and outdoor cushions for an inviting and snug feel. Reflect light around your chosen spot with a garden mirror; invest in a waterproof speaker; choose citronella candles to keep bugs at bay; keep warm in the evenings with a patio heater, and last but certainly not least, dot smaller potted plants around the space, much as you would with houseplants.

10. Integrate your ornaments

The most important rule with garden ornaments is to nestle them in with the planting. Choose wisely as an ornament or water feature (although it’s great for wildlife) that’s plonked in the centre of an empty space is unlikely to look good. If it’s too small it will look lost and something too big will overwhelm the space; the latter has also been known to devalue your home, so it’s something to bear in mind when it’s time to sell.

If you like the idea of hearing the trickle of running water in your garden but don’t want a fountain, try a simple stone trough and water spout like the one incorporated into Butter Wakefield’s Ribbon Wheel garden (below). The antique trough is designed with wall panels hanging above it, incorporating antiqued mirrors to reflect the garden beyond and painted a dark grey to set off the green of the surrounding plants.

Antique stone trough in Ribbon Wheel Garden by Butter Wakefield

11. Install a garden room

A garden room is a great way to maximise and extend your space whether you want a home office or a yoga studio, and planning permission is not usually required. Whether it’s a large shed or summerhouse, it can be the perfect space for entertaining guests over summer, and can even be used as additional accommodation for guests. Think about ways to make your garden more than just an outdoor area to eat, drink and soak up the sunshine.

12. Living walls

Living walls are becoming more popular in garden designs, providing a great way to embrace vertical planting and create maximum drama in your outdoor space. You can position a living wall anywhere, just remember to choose the right plants for that part of the garden, just as you would with a border. There are plenty of green wall kits and living wall planters available too, so shop around to find one that best suits your space.

Dobbies living wall
Stylus Garden with hydroponic living wall

13. Don’t forget the lights

Speaking of lighting, don’t underestimate how important it is to create atmosphere in your garden. In exactly the same way that you layer up indoor lighting, do the same for garden lighting and choose a variety of sources (Lights4Fun stock a great range), including fairy lights, festoon lights, wall lights, freestanding lamps and ground lights etc. ‘Outdoor lights and a fire pit mean that you can continue to enjoy your space even when the sun sets or if the weather isn’t quite what you hoped,’ says Jon Holloway.

Whether it’s fairy lights or lanterns dotted along a garden path (Lights4Fun stock a great range), the lights you choose will bring character, ambience and atmosphere to your space – and it’s essential for dining alfresco well into the evening.

Lights4fun, Set of 6 Solar Garden Pathway Stake Lights  SS20

14. Small space solutions

Vertical planting is key. Make use of fences and walls by planting upwards to maximise space and buy hanging baskets (these are great for front gardens too). In terms of paving, switch to gravel; it’s much more affordable. The most important thing to remember is that just because you have a small garden, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it and make the most of it. There are some great space-saving, foldable or stackable table and chair sets that are perfect for compact spaces – invest in a garden bistro set for style and functionality and deck chairs for easy, instant seating.

Azzura table and Baldwin black chair, www.habitat.co.uk

15. A family garden

Get smart with landscaping to utilise space in a family garden to make it work for everyone. For example, Adolfo Harrison created a hidden playground in this garden in east London, weaving elements of play throughout the design so that both children and adults can enjoy the space.

Monkey bars form a pergola to which swings and slides can be attached, boulder stepping stones are laid out to enable children to jump from one to the other along the length of the garden, and two moon benches provide a snug place where they can sit, set within a living wall to create a playful face. Mirrors are used to make the space feel bigger and a ‘ceiling’ created by the canopy of long-stemmed bamboos focus attention within the space and create a more intimate atmosphere.