Post category: Hard Landscape


Lighting can bring a whole new dimension to the garden. It extends the use of the garden, most notably in summer, and makes it possible to view the garden from inside the house at any season or time of day. Floodlighting is not particularly appropriate for a garden because the glare is too harsh.

Dramatic effects can be created by highlighting key plants and ornaments. Light can be shone on the front of an object or plant and this is known as ‘spot-lighting’. Shone behind an object, it emphasises the silhouette of the object and is known as ‘back-lighting’.

Mood lighting effects are most successful, using small lights in key positions. This is sometimes known as key lighting. Pale flowers especially catch the half-light from lower powered lamps and create a mysterious mood. Lovely effects can be created when a garden pool or waterfall is lit with underwater lighting, the source of which is most effective when hidden.

Lighting has the practical value of making steps, pools and other hazardous places safer. The fittings themselves, whether bollard-type or standards, can be quite ornamental, even unlit. Although lighting particularly complements modern gardens, it is also very effective in older style gardens, providing the lamps are well hidden from view. Electrical installation outdoors should be left to an expert. Low voltage lamps are safest.


Although it is possible to approximate to a natural stream by creating a long, narrow, shallow pool with a circulating pump maintaining some movement at narrow points, it is impossible to make a sizeable artificial stream without incurring large electricity bills!



Streams and Waterfalls
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A small garden stream, or rill, can be artificially built and need not cost much to run because the volume of water is quite small. If the stream bed is terraced to hold the water on the slope, the stream will appear more substantial and its little waterfalls are a feature in themselves.

Many gardens have a natural stream, but relatively few make good use of them. Streams with steep banks are usually ignored for garden purposes because of the danger and are often fenced off, but a natural stream can be a great asset.

A path cut into the bank down by the water’s edge, or built out from it, makes a stream much safer. It also makes a garden feature of it. A stream should be left partly open, partly planted along its banks. The steepest, most dangerous parts can be planted.




The level of the bed of fast-flowing streams falls quickly over a relatively short distance. In the same way that sloping dry land can be terraced, the bed of fast streams can be ‘terraced’ by building a wall across and filling behind it with rock.



Streams and Waterfalls
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If the water flows down across its full width, it is a weir. If it crashes straight down in just one place, it is a waterfall. Though unusual as garden features, they are very spectacular.

An artificial waterfall that needs a lot of water is expensive to install and to run. A small flow of water can be good if it is nicely built. Whether large or small, there is one very important point to bear in mind. Water should not fall from the highest point of the structure. In nature, water never falls from the highest point. To have it do so, spoils the whole effect.


Bridges and stepping stones


Bridges have the practical function of crossing water, but they have ornamental value as well. Simple, or very elaborate, bridges can be made of timber, stone, concrete or metal. Stepping stones are the most basic form of ‘bridge’ and they are very decorative used with a stream or pond.


A wide range of objects from high-quality sculpture to simple containers bring enormous interest to the garden. Objects such as statues, modern sculpture, sundials, armilaries (as shown), seats, urns, wind chimes and even simple groups of nicely shaped rocks can be used in strategic places to add an extra dimension.

Planters, urns and boxes filled with well-chosen plants are a delightful feature. They focus attention on the plants, and if they are good quality, the container is an ornament in itself.



Garden Ornaments
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Good quality containers are usually expensive because they are made of stone, lead, hardwood, cast iron, clay. While these improve with age, containers of poorer quality materials deteriorate. Well-made concrete containers can be very good, suitable for modern style gardens.

Position containers carefully where they will make most impact, but out of the way of people passing. They can be moved around to find the right spot. Always place containers on a flat, hard surface – paving, walls, steps.

Grass and gravel surfaces are too uneven, and the fussy texture of those surfaces close to does not set off the container well. However, containers are especially attractive when viewed with a stretch of grass or gravel in the foreground or background.




Statues, figures, and other objects in stone, marble, metal and good quality concrete are tremendously effective in the garden. They can be used to draw attention to an area, or to divert it from a negative aspect of the garden. Placed at a distance, sculpture emphasises space; placed fairly close, it shortens distance.

Sculpture can be positioned at the end of paths, or on a stand or plinth, to draw attention to it. It can also be tucked away amid plants to create a surprise, a strong contrast, or the impression of maturity.



Garden Ornaments
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The number of objects used should be limited depending on the size and layout of the garden. A small garden that is divided into several areas and has lots of nooks and crannies will justify more placements than a large garden of open layout. The size of objects and their style should be appropriate. Old gardens do not receive modern sculpture happily.

‘Sculpture’ need not be expensive to be effective. An interesting log, rock, piece of cut stone, group of rounded stones, or arrangement of bricks – any of these can be used successfully as ‘natural’ sculpture. They must be of interesting materials, and they must ‘fit’. Old wheelbarrows, pots, kettles, sinks, tyres and such like are not suitable!


Garden Seats



Garden Seats
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The provision of seating has a practical as well as an ornamental value. The points made about using sculpture also apply to seats. A seat is best set on a path or hard standing of some sort. The exception would be in a woodland setting where too permanent a fixture might look out of place. An iron or wooden seat placed on a lawn is always in the way of mowing!


The house itself can be considered the largest, most important garden ornament. As much as the garden sets off the house, the house sets off the garden. It is very important to consider the house when deciding aspects of garden design. For example, paving and walls should be in keeping with the house materials. Climbers effectively link the house and garden.



Garden Buildings
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It is also important to keep garden features in scale with the house. Thus a tiny patio will look ridiculous beside a large house; a large area of paving near a small house tends to look bare and harsh, unless it is softened by plants.




Aluminium glasshouses are most unsympathetic to a garden, because of their materials and shape. A greenhouse can be difficult to fit into a garden scene; polythene tunnels are even worse. Old-style wooden glasshouses perhaps with half-walls of brick can be very attractive, particularly if they have ornamental details, but they tend to be expensive. In general, greenhouses are best hidden away behind a screen.




A conservatory ‘fits’ into a garden much better than a greenhouse. Being attached to the house, a conservatory does not stand out as much as a free-standing greenhouse. This effect also works in reverse with the conservatory helping to link the house and garden, particularly if there are plenty of plants inside, and directly outside, the conservatory.




A summerhouse, or pavilion, is usually a small wooden house, often opening onto a grassy, or paved area with trees around. A loggia is a more elaborate kind of summerhouse – an open-sided small building of concrete, or stone, with a solid roof, often of concrete tiles. A loggia usually opens onto a paved area with, perhaps, a pool or a fountain, and is often contained within a sunken garden or courtyard garden.




A pergola is not a building as such but has a roof of sorts. A pergola is very ornamental when well located, but nothing looks worse when it is badly positioned; for example, a pergola in an open area, perhaps needlessly emphasising a path.



Garden Buildings
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A pergola can be effectively used to screen a paved area from surrounding buildings. However, it should never cover the whole of the area. When associated with a sitting area, a pergola looks best supported on one side by a building or high wall. To be successful, a pergola must have a real function, or appear to have one.


A fence is usually made of timber and is more temporary than a wall. Fences have the same functions of boundary, division and ornament as walls.



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There are many ways of using timber in fences – woven panels, post-and-rail, picket fence, sawn ‘slabs’; each one has its merits. Sometimes, timber poles in palisades, or ‘log rolls’ are used as a retaining wall; but these do not last well in a wet climate!

The quality of wooden fences largely depends on the durability of the timber; oak and larch are among the best. The thickness of the parts and the method of application of preservative will have a big influence too. Softwood should be pressure-treated for long life.




Fences used for division within the garden usually take the form of screens, for example, rustic fence with climbers. Screens are less enclosing than solid fences. Trellis fences are a form of screen made of narrow laths nailed in regular pattern – diamond, square or rectangular.

Trellis is very ornamental in itself, and even more so with climbers. Apart from supporting climbers, the strong patterns of trellis can be used to break up featureless areas of wall.

Good quality metal fences, especially wrought-iron, can be very attractive, and are more likely to be successful when associated with stone or concrete. The colour they are painted has a big influence – white, black and very dark green are best.




An artificial shelter fence can be invaluable in an exposed garden to give plants a chance to get started. There are various brands of plastic mesh shelter material available. These materials are nailed to wooden posts and rails.

A wooden shelter fence, consisting of five centimetre wide laths with a similar gap between the laths, can provide good shelter, and can also be used as a boundary. A shelter fence provides good shelter for five times its height, and some shelter effect for ten times the height.


Gardens take their shape from the ground they occupy. Sloping ground is more interesting to the eye that flat ground, and it also shows off plants better. A gentle sweep of lawn meeting a mixed border at the bottom of the slope, or the trunks of trees ranged up a woodland slope, have more appeal than the same on flat ground.



Banks and Terraces
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The effect of a gentle natural slope is spoiled if it is broken by irregular bumps or dips. Moving soil to create sloping ground is a troublesome business, but well worth the effort.




A bank is a steep slope over a relatively small area. They can be created when a house site, or driveway, is cleared on sloping ground, or when a sloping site is cut into terraces. The front of the terrace is usually left as a steep bank, unless a retaining wall is built. Sometimes, steep banks occur naturally.

Artificial mounds of earth can be used to divide a garden and to deflect noise at boundaries. Steep banks are best planted with trees, shrubs and flowering plants near a house. When low-growing plants are used for ground-cover, they will follow the line of the slope. A few upright plants must always be used among them to ‘lift’ the line of planting.

Earthen banks left after site excavation are a very common problem, mainly because they are rarely taken into consideration at the house design and building phase, but can leave few options and real problems afterwards.

Very often, the problem is made worse by the fact that excavation is often limited and the banks are left too close to the house. And the slope is left in one place and not terraced to ‘step down’ the slope.

The best solution, if not too close to the house, is to plant the bank with a mixture of trees and shrubs. A bank can be largely disguised by planting trees and shrubs, because it is not immediately apparent how tall the trees are … a 5 metres tall tree on a two-metre bank simply looks like a 7-metre tall tree. If the bank is too close to the house, you will be limited to shrubs and perennial flowers to achieve a similar effect.

Grass lawn is not usually a possibility as the slopes are generally too dangerous to mow. 

To establish trees and shrubs, you will have to control all grass and weeds on the banks, either physically or by spraying with Roundup, which does not affect the soil. Weeds must be controlled until the trees and shrubs are well established, usually about  4 or 5 years, using Roundup, and Basta when Roundup-resistant willowherb builds up. 


A terrace is a flat area of ground cut into, or built onto, a slope. Usually, terraces are made by both cutting back into the slope and filling out onto it, using the ‘cut’ material to ‘fill’ elsewhere. Terraces can either ascend or descend the slope. They can be very shallow or quite deep.

Even in the smallest gardens, terracing can be both desirable for its ornamental effect and necessary for its practical function of making sloping ground more comfortable for standing or sitting.



Banks and Terraces
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Terraces are very pleasant to sit or stand on. The view looking down a series of terraces with flights of steps, or upwards against the facing banks or retaining walls, is always interesting and offers great scope for displaying plants.

If there is a drop of more than one metre from a terrace, for safety reasons, it should have some indication of the edge. This could be a coping, wall, balustrade or plants. The greater the fall, the higher should be the barrier.


Although a rock garden can be difficult to get right, and need considerable maintenance, these drawbacks do not put people off. Often built on awkward slopes, and in shady corners, rockeries are usually the worst choice for these locations because it is difficult to make them look natural.



Rock gardens
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A sunny situation is essential. Most rock plants like sunshine; those which like shade do not like the drippy overhang of trees.

To look natural, a rock garden must have significant rock outcrops. It should look ‘rocky’. Some of the rocks should be almost completely buried to give the impression of deep-seated natural rock. If a rock garden does not look natural, it fails. Ideally, only rock from the locality should be used. Certainly, only one sort of rock should be used; lumps of concrete, never!


Scree beds



Rock gardens
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In nature, a scree is the sloping heap of shattered rock that is found at the base of inland cliffs and rocky hillsides. In the garden, a scree bed, or gravel bed, is a form of rock garden – an area of flat or gently sloping ground covered with a layer of broken stone or gravel.

The colour and texture of the stone is attractive and it sets off alpine plants beautifully. Stone has the additional advantage of suppressing weeds and reducing maintenance. Gravel is often wrongly applied as the solution to a weed problem under trees and shrubs. Falling leaves quickly provide rooting material for weed seeds that blow in.

Choose an open sunny position. Scree beds should have at least 5 centimetres of stone to provide an effective weed barrier. Sand or fine gravel should generally not be used because dust and organic material that blows in is washed down to form a rooting layer for weeds. If fine gravel is used, it will need to be regularly raked over to keep it smooth.

The soil beneath a scree bed must be free-draining and open because alpine plants like open soil. Coarse sand, grit or gravel should be added to heavy soil.

A few large stones, perhaps grouped, should be placed on the bed for contrast with the broken rock. Settle them down into the layer of stone. Plants should be spaced well apart and used in groups rather than dotted about. Carpeting and clump-forming alpines are ideal. Scree gardens associate well with paved areas.


Raised Alpine Beds



Raised alpine beds
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Alpine beds are very free-draining, raised beds constructed specially for alpine plants. Generally, only alpine enthusiasts go to such trouble, but raised beds are an attractive feature in any garden.

The sides are usually walls about fifty centimetres high. Ideally, these would be of stone or brick; concrete blocks are unattractive. Likewise straight lines, gentle curves are nicer. Leave little planting nooks between the stones for alpines that like to peep out. Because they are made of hard material, alpine beds are best associated with a paved area. Close to lawns and mixed borders, they look artificial.

Drainage is all-important; as much as twenty five centimetres of broken rock in the base and the overlying soil should have gravel and grit added. The surface layer of five centimetres of coarse grit encourages healthy growth and shows off the plants well. A sunny location is vital.


A garden bed is a piece of cultivated ground, kept weed-free and used for growing trees, shrubs or flowers. It can be of any size, usually positioned within a lawn or paved area. Beds can be raised at the centre to give plants some extra height, and they might have a little retaining wall on one or more sides.



Beds and Borders
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Beds can be formal with roses or bedding plants lined out in rows, or they can be informal with a mixture of the various types of plants at various spacings. An island bed set within a large lawn can be effective but an island bed in a small area can be too demanding of space.




There may not be a great deal of choice in positioning pathways in small gardens but a large garden will usually have some leeway in the positioning of the drive, at least how it curves within the confines of the garden. Even a small adjustment in siting can greatly help to link the driveway into the garden.



Paths and Paved Areas 
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Except in a formal garden, a path, or driveway, should not run in a straight line from entrance to front door. It is much too dominant in such a position. Make paths and driveways cross the garden to reduce the amount of surface that is visible from the road and house. If a path or driveway is in the wrong place, consider moving it – the expense may not be as great as it might seem, and the results can be excellent.

Trees, shrubs, borders or beds planted along the length of path or driveway generally do not achieve the desired result of disguising it. Such planting can actually reinforce the line of the driveway rather than disguise it. A better disguising effect is achieved with one or two plants near the drive to ‘confuse’ the eye, and/or heavier planting at a small distance to draw attention away.


Function of a garden path


Apart from the access path or drive, most gardens have other paths as well. There will usually be a service path in the back garden, to reach a clothesline or compost area, for instance. The same points about position apply. For example, a straight path will divide and dominate a long narrow garden, emphasising its length and narrowness. Curving the path, or having it pass behind plants, helps to fit it in.

Large gardens can have decorative winding paths to bring the stroller around the garden, continuously presenting new vistas. It should not pass by a compost area or other service area. In any garden, even a small one, a dead-end path leading to a false exit, even just turning the corner of a large shrub but going nowhere, gives the viewer an impression of greater space.


Paved areas


Every garden should have part of its surface area paved with hard material. Hard areas allow more comfortable access to the garden, especially during periods when lawns might be wet and unpassable.



Paths and Paved Areas 
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Paving is visually attractive in its own right; it creates a pattern on the ground. Its colour and texture also add to the garden picture. The level surface makes a perfect foil for the shape and texture of plants. Because paving is made of hard material, like the house, it provides a link between the house and the garden.

A paved area is usually placed on the sunny side of the house, where it will be most useful. Even if the back of a house faces north and gets little sun, a small paved area is worthwhile because of the need for access, and the manner in which it links house and garden.

A sun patio can be placed elsewhere, and there is no reason why a garden cannot have a number of paved areas. If a paved area is located away from the house, screening for privacy is essential.


Small changes of ground level in areas of flat ground can be very attractive, having the same ornamental value as terraces. Platforms are created artificially by building a raised level area of soil retained by low walls. Platforms can be covered with gravel or sand, but more usually they are sown down to lawn.



Platforms and Decks 
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Lawn platforms in a small garden should be less than fifteen centimetres but they can be higher in a large garden. By being low, the flatness of the platform is emphasised. If the height is more than fifteen centimetres, steps will be necessary.

Wooden platforms or decks are akin to a viewing terrace, or balcony, in their effect. They are usually associated with a paved area close to the house, or a pond. Building a wooden platform, or deck, on a slope might be easier than building a terrace with retaining wall.

A wooden deck can be very effective built onto very steeply sloped ground, or where there is not enough room to excavate a terrace. Well made decking is very attractive in its own right, but it may become slippery with algae. This can be removed with a wire-brush when dry, or a power hose when wet.


Sunken garden


A platform, being raised, always has open sides, and a sunken area is always closed. If nothing else, the sides of the excavation close it off; it becomes a little garden in itself and can be very attrctive. Further enclosure with hedges and walls can be used to reinforce its individuality.

A sunken garden can be made by digging out the soil from a level area of ground and providing retaining walls on all sides. It can be of any depth, but small ones should be shallow, no deeper than forty centimetres.

The area chosen should have good natural drainage; otherwise, water seepage could be a problem and drainage becomes a major task. Like any garden, a sunken garden might have beds, paving, grass, ground-cover, water features, ornaments – a garden within the garden.


Steps have the important practical function of allowing easier access over sloping ground. But they also have an ornamental function – well-placed steps, even just one or two, can lend great character to a garden.



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The design of garden steps should be appropriate for their setting. For example, a narrow, winding flight of steps is appropriate between large trees on a woodland slope, while steps linking broad areas of smooth lawn should be wide and even.

The materials used must also match the location. Simple log-steps would suit a woodland garden; cut stone slabs, an expensive formal garden.




Garden steps should be wide in the tread, about 30 centimetres, with shallow risers of about ten centimetres, and be made of non-slip material. They are best sited where they will dry out quickly, reducing the slippery growth of green algae.


Gates and piers set the mood of the garden and the house. Cut-stone piers and wrought iron gates spell wealth; no gates implies an open attitude; high solid gates say – keep out!



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Many modern houses, both in town and country have no gates at all, just entrance piers. Cattle grids have replaced gates in many rural gardens, but they hardly convey the same message as gates!

Gates and entrances to gardens should be in keeping with the rest of the garden in style and materials. For example, a wooden gate might be used if there is wooden fencing or trellis work in the garden.

!Garden gates!
Gates used within the garden can have the practical function of restricting access to certain areas. They might also be used to create a feeling of division between different parts of the garden.

Garden gates have an ornamental function too. A gate is usually quite a strong feature, its approach pathway tending to emphasise it. The gate and its approaches can be worked into a garden design to great effect. A ‘see-through’ gate can made a picture of what is beyond. A closed gate creates mystery.


Walls at the boundaries of the garden delimit the extent of the garden but they also provide privacy and security. These will be the highest walls in the garden, about 1.8 metres in the back garden; about one metre for front gardens.



Functional walls
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Usually made of concrete, less often of stone or brick construction, boundary walls are generally regarded as a gardening liability. However, they can add considerably to the usable space in the garden when their vertical area is taken into account. This is especially true of enclosed town gardens. Very interesting schemes using climbing plants and trellis work can be created.


Retaining walls


Retaining walls hold back an earthen bank. They must be constructed properly with drainage holes every two metres and they must have a damp-proof-course at the back to prevent water seepage and structural deterioration. If they are more than one metre high, they might need reinforcing steel – ordinary blocks are not strong enough on their own – and an architect or engineer should be consulted.



Functional walls
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Retaining walls define the area of ground that they support, separating it from other parts of the garden. Plants growing in the retained ground will be raised above the neighbouring area and this focuses attention on them.

However, plants grown at a retaining wall must not be of upright shape because they will look isolated. Some trailing plants to tumble over the retaining wall should always be used to link the raised plants with the rest of the garden.


Drystone walls


A drystone wall is made without mortar holding the stones together. In practice, some mortar is often used, or soil in place of mortar, but it is kept hidden at the back of the stones. Drystone walls used in gardens are rarely two-sided; they are usually used as low retaining walls to front a terrace.

Because they have little inherent strength, no heavy loading should be placed on drystone walls, nor should they be built higher than one metre. They should always be built with a slope back towards the soil face, and filled behind with rammed earth to stabilise them.


Balustrades and rails


Where there is a change of level at the edge of a terrace, even quite a small drop, balustrading or rails can be considered, both for safety and decorative value. A balustrade is a concrete or stone coping supported by small columns, called balusters. Rails can be of any material, concrete, timber or metal.



Functional walls
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They have the advantage over a solid wall of being open, creating less enclosure. Balustrade gives a formal, somewhat old-fashioned feel to a terrace; rails are more modern, especially metal. Timber rails, especially peeled rustic poles, are suitable for natural gardens.


A decorative wall has no practical function, such as defining the property boundary or retaining earth, but the functions of division and ornament are just as important.



Decorative Walls
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The main function is to divide the garden, defining each area and its treatment. A high wall might divide an internal garden or courtyard from the rest of the garden, creating a garden within.

The higher the wall, the more complete the division, but even a low wall can effectively define the edge of an area of paving, or perhaps a small internal garden, such as a rose garden. Apart from the function of creating division, high walls provide support for wall plants.

Low walls can be used to divide a flat garden in compensation for lack of natural changes of ground level. Ornamental walls should also be decorative in themselves, nicely made with a neat coping perhaps. The straight level lines of low walls make an excellent foil for the varied form of plants.

Walls must be there for a purpose; there is not much point in having a low wall just run across an area of lawn. However, if there is a little flower border to one or other side of the wall, or both sides, a reason for the wall is established.

Stone walls are appropriate for older gardens, and natural gardens. Well-built, plastered, dashed or sprayed walls suit a modern-style garden. Screen walls, made with open, screen blocks or by leaving gaps between solid blocks, are less enclosing than solid walls while still providing division.


Water brings unique qualities to the garden. It has movement and music, and mysterious depths. Its flat surface mirrors the shapes and colours of plants. The sight and sound of water has a soothing effect. A pool dominates the area of garden in which it is located, so it must never be just an afterthought. Very few garden pools are natural; most are excavated.



Garden Pools
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An informal garden pool should have a curving, irregular shape, and must be made to look as natural as possible. The pool should fill a natural low point of the ground, or have slopes made around it. An informal pool is usually made with a flexible pool liner that takes the shape of the hole when it is filled, or a rigid pre-formed pool liner.

Hiding the liner around the edge greatly helps to make the pool look natural. This can be done with stones, overhanging paving, even grass sods. Planting should approach the pool on one or more sides. The open sides can have paving or grass.

A formal pool is of regular shape, rectangular usually, but a circle, square and other geometric shape is possible. A formal pool does not retain a regular shape unless the sides are of hard materials.

Formal pools are usually made of reinforced concrete, sealed with special compounds, or lined below the concrete with synthetic rubber liner. The surrounding edges must be formal too, usually paved. If there are associated areas of lawn, these are usually formal in shape with paved edges.


Cascades and fountains


In contrast to the calm silent water of a pool, a cascade or fountain has trickling, tinkling, tumbling, or splashy sound, depending on the volume of moving water. Water tumbling over a series of ledges in a cascade can be appropriately linked with an informal pool. The height of cascade should be no more than about one-third of the width of the pool at the point where it enters.



Garden Pools
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Fountains shoot water into the air, creating shapes as well as sound. Although often used with informal pools, they are most appropriate to a formal pool, itself an artificial shape. In the right setting, usually as a centrepiece, a fountain is a very effective garden feature.


Bog garden


An area of wet soil, naturally flooded on occasion, can be turned into a bog garden, or it can be deliberately flooded to grow bog plants. The term ‘bog’ has nothing to do with peat; a ‘marsh garden’ might be a more accurate phrase. A naturally marshy spot fed by a small stream, or by springs, is ideal.

Alternatively, the soil of a low-lying area, perhaps bordering a garden pool, can be dug out to a depth of about 30 centimetres and lined with a good quality pond liner. The soil is replaced and a permanent water supply laid on. If there is a pool, an overflow might be set up. Otherwise a length of plastic pipe, drilled to leak evenly, might be laid just beneath the soil surface.

A bog garden area can prove difficult to maintain because weeds are very vigorous when well watered. It is best to start with clean ground and put in lots of bog plants to quickly cover the soil. If the area is large, provide access in the form of a wooden walkway, or stepping stones across which planks can be laid to facilitate weeding.