5 steps to your perfect garden design – step 4, materials, features and magic

Part 4 – Materials, Features and Magic

So once you have a good idea of what you want, the overall style you are seeking and the planting themes, it is a good time to think about some of the detailing. You may already have in mind a significant feature like a sculpture or water feature, or love garden lighting and want that to be a priority. Now is the time to indulge yourself in some of these, as well as nailing down the specifics of the materials you want to use.

Now clearly these are each big things and we will come back to them individually, but a little romp through the art of the possible will hopefully whet your appetite!


These are the key to any scheme. External materials obviously need to be durable and suitable for the purpose- pedestrian zones are very different from driveways, and drainage, cleaning and maintenance also need to be considered. As a rule, stick to one material for each unit size (ie one paving material, one edging or brick detail sized unit and one gravel or loose material). Keeping these unified through the scheme gives the space a sense of order, even if you choose to use them in different proportions. You can usefully use a smaller unit size as an edge and a detail, to make “placeholders” for dining furniture, or to denote pedestrian paths or separate zones.

Edgings/Sett details can be in the same material (just a different unit size) or a contrasting material. You can also play with textures (smooth sawn granite versus cropped can work well for example), or linking one material to the interior and the other to the exterior as with the example below.

Some materials just sing on their own – Herringbone brick is one of these…and can be used with smooth sawn or naturally riven paving, but it is a pricey option so is rarely used for large areas. Aninset, a special path or a threshold are ideal.

We can come back to choosing stone/deck/porcelain, but a good thing to do is to go and visit a decent supplier (when you are able!) London Stone is a really good starting point to give you a sense of the ranges available in stone and porcelain.

Features and Magic

As a designer you learn pretty early on to be somewhat restrained with the features in your designs. You start by packing every design with all sorts of bells and whistles, and learn that less is more fast. Not only do too many “designed” details and features often end up looking fussy, but these items, many of the bespoke, can be brutally expensive, and given that most landscaping budgets are a real shock to most people, (see Why is Landscaping so Expensive? and How the Budget Works) we need to treat these with great care.

Having said that, a single detail beautifully done (such as a gate that needs to be there anyway, or a sculpture that the client loves can have a transformative impact on the garden).

Water features are a well known device for this, and are brilliant. Providing sound, movement, focal points and bringing wildlife in. the flip side is that all require at least some maintenance,  and there is little middle ground between the lowe price off the shelf options and very expensive bespoke builds. At the mid to high end a fair number are designed by designers not engineers and can have quite a lot of problems! They look wicked though, and don’t let this put you off- just choose with care! Lakes, ponds and natural (looking) streams are all possible, they just need a great deal of skill to do well!

As a result, they are rarely best added as a minor afterthought and work best when designed in to the overall scheme- that way you ensure you get the most out of it, the paths and sight lines work well, and the feature looks as it should.

This goes for almost any other “garden feature”. Obviously studios have been a big one over the last year or so, but have been for a fair old while. These can be a fantastic addition to a garden both in terms of aesthetics and functionality, and obviously need to be carefully planned to ensure they add to rather than dominate the space.

Special features are as endless a topic as you have imagination and patience to consider. We love designing a few touches of real magic- amongst my favourites are the “Starlight Bench” which was designed for our first RHS Chelsea Garden and was later installed in a clients garden locally….

Another is this mirror finish stainless steel triptych panel used to dress the side of a garage (!)

….and perhaps our favourite quirky piece…a panel of paintings and frames (including a working outdoor TV) used to dress a very large leylandii hedge for a gallery owner. Not for the fainthearted in terms of construction or maintenance, but some cool ideas!

A modern outdoor seating area with mirrors hanging on a hedge

Lighting, as you can see from a few of these images, completely shifts the feel of a garden, and mood lighting can be variable even within a single garden using different settings. Blackpool illuminations are rarely required, and a more subtle series of effects typically work well, although some bolder statements can give a real impact, particularly in courtyard settings.

The CG team are experts in helping you to create the impact you want, and are happy to work with you in collaboration. Do feel free to send us your ideas or queries Click Here

We are happy to answer directly, and will share here any that have broader interest. This article forms part of a series so do have a look at the others via our news page here https://cgla.co.uk/news/