Le Jardin Contemporain // The Contemporary Garden - Barry Watton Garden Designs

In my last post I talked about forming a basic wish list of requirements I want my new garden to fulfill before I take any steps to conceive the new garden design. Before getting stuck in, I have also taken a close look at the garden I already have.

Measure up

I always start by measuring the whole site and draw up a scale plan. Although I have a rough idea in my head of the garden I want to create, this is no different for my new garden.

Le Jardin Contemporain // The Contemporary Garden - Barry Watton Garden Designs

As well as the basic shape, I have marked on the plan the position of all doors and windows (there are certain views of the garden I would like to retain and knowing the viewing positions will be helpful) and any other garden features, such as trees, shrubs, areas of long grass and lawn, and herbaceous planting areas.

For extremely large gardens or gardens with level changes this may be a job best left to a professional surveyor, but in the average, broadly level garden, this is a task that can be undertaken with relative ease armed with a lengthy measuring tape and a little basic knowledge of datum points, offsets and triangulation.

I believe this is an invaluable step that informs the rest of the entire project. It allows a comprehensive critique of the site as it stands and helps to identify any issues (safety, or aesthetic) to take account of in the design and/or construction.

Accurately reproducing the site to scale will allow me to consider such things as scale, proportion and shapes in the future design. It also helps with accurate calculation of quantities of materials and supplies needed to create the project and thereby keep a lid on the budget.

It is also helpful at this early planning stage to consult any utilities or other plans one may already have of the land to identify any issues that will need to be considered when conceiving the new layout, or when undertaking any landscaping.

For practical and legal reasons regarding the placement of trees and shrubs, the location of underground fosse septique tanks and filter beds need to be clearly identified. The location of the tank is often obvious as there will be an (sometimes unsightly) inspection chamber cover visible in the ground. The filter bed location can be less obvious. I have a vague idea from the previous owner, but I am currently awaiting the arrival of the deeds to our house, which I am hoping (hoping being the operative word) might include some documentation indicating the precise location of the filter bed!

In a larger garden, making a written inventory of outdoor buildings,  their material or construction, plant species and numbers etc may also be useful. I have not done that on this occasion as there are few things I want to retain.

Take photographs

Le Jardin Contemporain // The Contemporary Garden - Barry Watton Garden Designs

This is not essential for re-modelling your own garden, but it does serve as a helpful visual record of the site and can sometimes remind you of certain details you may have forgotten to note at the time of undertaking the site measurement. At the very least you will have some nice before and afters to share once the project is finished. For my own garden I have taken photos purely for this reason only.

Test the soil

If your garden is an older garden you are renovating you may very well be familiar with the soil, its characteristics and what type of planting works well. This is an especially important step for a new garden as it informs the planting palette for the new scheme. It is essential for me as I have no prior experience of my new garden.

Simply dig a small trial hole or two in an area where you are likely to be planting. Dig to about a spade’s depth or so and grab a handful of the soil. Getting up close and personal with the soil will tell you the basic makeup of the soil, its organic content and its drainage qualities. It will tell you whether you need to make improvements to the soil before planting. The soil here is extremely stony; I am already dreading digging beds over to prepare them for planting, but this is par for the course here in the Vienne and Charente departments so I will have to get used to it!

Le Jardin Contemporain // The Co

Wet it in your hand and try to mold it. If it doesn’t mold well and breaks apart easily even when wet it has a high sand content and is very free draining. If you can mold it into shapes without it breaking apart it is high in clay. The ideal scenario is somewhere in between, something that can be molded and yet breaks up easily also, but don’t fret if it is not. The structure and texture of soils can be improved over time with manures and compost.

Soil pH is nigh on impossible to change permanently, however. If you can get hold of a pH testing kit from a garden centre or online, do. Finding out the pH of your soil will tell you what plants are likely to succeed and what plants are best avoided. Plants are broadly grouped into acid (Calcifuge) and alkaline (Calcicole) soil lovers.

If you cannot get a soil pH testing kit, take a look at local gardens nearby. The plants your neighbours are growing will often give clues as to what plants are likely to succeed. Hydrangeas are usually (unless the gardener in question is clever and is using an additive to force a colour change, or the hydrangea in question happens to be of a type whose colour is unaffected by soil pH!) a good indicator of whether the soil in the area is acidic or alkaline. Blue hydrangea flowers indicate an acidic soil, whereas pink flowers indicate a soil that is alkaline. Hydrangeas here are pink, which tells me we have a soil at the alkaline end of the pH scale.


Consider the direction in which your garden faces (its aspect), its overall climate and any micro climates within the garden. This will help identify where the sun falls within the garden, the density of any areas of shade and how those areas of shade travel throughout the day. This will also help identify what plants are likely to be successful in your garden.

We first viewed the house and garden in mid-July and then again in August when the dry season was at its peak.

Le Jardin Contemporain // The Contemporary Garden - Barry Watton Garden Designs

If it was not already clear from the lawn scorched to a cinder and the stressed looking trees, it was clear that the combination of the southerly aspect and the garden being surrounded on three sides by stone walls combined to make a garden that would be sheltered from winds and yet exposed to a severe sun baking. Winters here are cold, but I have it on good authority from many sources that it rarely snows here. All these factors make the garden suitable for drought tolerant steppe/prairie and mediterranean plantings, which plays right into my preferred planting palette.


This was a problem I commonly encountered when working in Bath in the UK. Side alleyways were typically very narrow or access to the rear was only through the main house, and gardens were rarely flat. This made any clearance of waste, deliveries of materials and machinery access very problematic. It slows down the whole project and may require specialist machinery to get the access required. It is something to keep in mind for the budget; additional man power, time and machinery costs will eat into your budget. Fortunately for me we have very good access here; the entrance to the garden is wide and if all else fails we have open fields at the rear served by a well-surfaced road.

Analyse and appraise

Now armed with all this information, it is possible to evaluate the importance of all the collected information and start to think about what changes may be needed to form the basis of the new garden.

Use the plan to identify the things you like in the garden and that you would like to stay, the things you would like to form part of the future design, but need moving to a new location or amendment/improvement in some way, shape or form, and things that you wish to get rid of entirely. My own garden is fairly featureless in terms of above ground structures, although there are a few trees that don’t fit with my desire to ‘borrow’ the landscape beyond. I am hoping my wife will agree to me removing a few of the existing trees that interfere with views of the land beyond the garden and which don’t fit with my desire to use trees that reflect the local landscape.

Think about the challenges and opportunities the existing site brings: I have a well, but I do not know its full extent or how close it comes to the surface. This means that I have already identified the area in its vicinity as an area where little to no excavation can be done and which will need to be reflected in the design. On the plus side it will be a useful source of irrigation for the planting in the first few years before it becomes established and can sustain itself.

There is also a septic tank and filter bed, which must be avoided. A legal requirement is that trees and shrubs may not be planted within 3m of it, which will inevitably determine the position of some of my planting.

The soil is poor and rocky. In this part of the Vienne and in Charente too there is a limestone bedrock, fragments of which litter the ploughed fields everywhere. I am reliably told by various sources that this bedrock can in places can leave just a couple of centimetres of top soil and find you gardening with a pickaxe. This slows landscaping and cultivation. It is going to need improvement, which will need to be budgeted for, but by the same token does offer me the opportunity of plenty of hearting material for any dry stone walls.

What is also clear is that there is going to be a large number of plants needed. The consequence of this is that the planting shall need to be phased, trees being the first priority. Some planting will need moving or removing entirely – there are Liquidambar and a Walnut blocking window views. There is an existing rose ‘arch’, which won’t work with the intended new planting scheme and there is a large amount of lavender here. Don’t get me wrong I like lavender, but its downfall is it looks twiggy and horrible for about 8 months of the year. For me Nepeta is a much better substitute, it looks broadly similar, starts into growth early in the year and if cut back it will re-flower two or, in a good year, three times a year.

Now familiar with the challenges and opportunities the site offers I can now proceed confidently to the next stage of the planning process;  starting to form this information into a concept for the garden, the details of which will be covered in the next blog in this series.

If you would like help with planning, constructing and planting your new garden for next year, please get in touch here.


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