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

With my wish list compiled, having measured up, undertaken a stock check of the garden and evaluated the plot, I can now dive right into the fun stuff of organising the space and building upon my initial ideas.

Aside from planting, this early stage of playing with shapes and evaluating ideas is my favourite part of the process. I can go back to school days of colouring pencils and paper, masking tape and tracing paper.

Organising the space

Gardens are created by people, for people. They are a place of work. They are a place of sustenance. They are also a place of enjoyment, relaxation and contemplation.

People using a space generally requires organisation of the space; somewhere to put the tools away, cultivate fruit and veg, or simply somewhere to sit and enjoy a quiet book. A destination in the garden of some sorts invites you into the space. Manipulating your journey through the space offers different and, hopefully, interesting perspectives.

As much as planting choices, it is this organising and construction of the space, as well the means of moving between spaces, that offers seemingly limitless permutations and makes our gardens individual.

Armed with all the information gained through the brief, stock taking and evaluation undertaken so far, I start the process of re-imagining a space very simply by overlaying the original plan already made with a layer of tracing paper. I mark in very general terms the various parts of the garden where I think sitting areas for various times of the day might be situated, where outbuildings might be placed, potager, compost bins etc.

It is not exactly a high-tech approach, or particularly tidy work that I would want to present to a client. However, this simple process of playing around with spaces, shapes and forming a basic layout means I do not have to redraw my original plan, or make additional copies. I can scribble and rub out, organise and re-organise the space with ease. The messiness of such work is not something the client needs to see to appreciate the final design in any event.

Building shapes

Choices of shapes on offer fall roughly into two camps: flowing curves and circular shapes or angular shapes, comprised of straight lines.  You could throw caution to the wind and mix the two!

Those shapes might be equally balanced and repeated in the garden creating a symmetry, or be asymmetric using the perceived ‘weights’ of areas of hard landscaping and planting to create balance of a different kind.

I have a preference for straight-lined geometry. There is something I find very appealing in the contrast between hard lined shaped surfaces/beds and the softness of planting. Whilst everything has its place and gardening has plenty of room for individual preference as between gardeners, I also prefer asymmetry. For me, it just seems to play better into the notion of being more ‘natural’ and appears to have less of the hand of the gardener in it when planted. The illusion of a natural garden is of course a deception, something which Jinny Blom calls the ‘anti-garden’, but one I enjoy nonetheless.

This was not initially a conscious choice and I have worked in both formal and informal gardens, but asymmetry and naturalised plantings are something that intuitively I have been drawn to. I recognise this is hypocritical of course given what I have already said about my preferences for hard lines and geometrical shapes in landscaping, but for me the interest is in the contrast between the two.

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

On my plan I draw a series of lines drawing reference from the ends or angles of walls (in red), or the placement of doors and windows (in green). From this exercise simple shapes can start to appear, which can help to define the basic layout of the garden. It also helps me to identify any views I might like to keep, or that can be created. I like to let the arrangement of the land and buildings thereon guide the size and shapes used. For me, referencing the lines of the building(s), or features of buildings themselves, in the shapes used in the garden helps contribute to the garden’s sense of place and uniqueness.

Overlaying the plan with a grid sized to reference the proportions of the house is also helpful in creating spaces, but defining scale and proportion in detail is not something I get bogged down in at this macro stage of the process. At this stage it is all about just getting a cohesive idea of concept together; the process of drawing up a final concept plan for presentation to the client is where, for me, this is becomes more important.

In my garden, using the lines of the buildings as a guide I intend to divide the garden into three ‘zones’ that transition from relatively formalised/organised nearby the house to a looser structured meadow-based middle area, to small pockets of woodland-style planting in the third zone that visually ‘joins’ with the landscape beyond.

Connecting the space

Once I feel I have hit upon a basic layout, series of shapes or zones that offers the best fit, I start to think about connecting the space. This means paths. At this stage I don’t tend to think too much about the material from which they are constructed, but merely how the space connects and how the routes may be used. A space which is impractical and cumbersome to use is not a successful design in my book. If a person using the space is likely to take a straight line avoiding a curved path, the curved path is obselete and one should consider using a straight path instead. Similarly, I think the practical considerations of the person responsible for maintaining the garden are sometimes overlooked. This is especially important if that person is not a professional and is the owner of the house or other resident. A garden difficult to navigate could put that person off maintaining the garden resulting in the garden not looking its best.

Using the tracing paper layer, I experiment with joining up the areas I have identified as destinations in the garden, trying to avoid obscuring any views I have identified as important to the design. This together with the reference lines I have already drawn in red starts to give a rough definition to the space.

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

There shall be some hard landscaping near the main house, to fit with the more formal character that area shall have and also given that these areas are likely to be far more often walked than elsewhere in the garden. But given budgetary constraints, I have opted to use mown paths elsewhere throughout. These are easy to create, easy to maintain and can be altered in the future at little expense if other ‘desire’ lines should appear.


I think about the planting in general terms only. I don’t waste time at this stage preparing a detailed planting plan. Using the shapes I have created I identify what might become areas of planting or landscaping and consider where I might like key trees or shrubs to be positioned to create the balance I am after, perhaps to create a specific shade canopy for a seating area, disguise an unwanted view or seclude an exposed part of the garden. I mark on the tracing paper circles to represent trees & shrubs and undefined ‘blobs’ to indicate possible areas of herbaceous planting.

Removing the tracing paper from the underlying plan, a basic form is clearly starting to appear:

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

Refine the concept

Critique the design. Refer back to the brief. Refine it and start to clearly define the areas and shapes. I try to imagine walking around my design. Adapt the design if something does’t feel like its working. Adjust the balance of planting if you think you need to. Increase the amount of hard landscaping surfaces if this would better fit the brief. Having started my horticultural career in gardening I always tend to lean in favour of planting over landscaping.

Through this process of critiquing and refining, I have adapted the design to include a mown path (represented in the plan by a blue line) that recreates the shape of the course of the Charente river as it passes through Vouleme. I am certain this is far from a unique idea. I have most likely seen it used somewhere else before and stored the idea away in the back of my mind without realising. Nevertheless, using the unique shape of the river that passes through the village not only adds to the garden’s sense of place, but also offers further perspectives on the garden, new planting opportunities (the course of the path recreates the river’s two islands, which can be planted up) and adds an additional area of play for children.

I have also identified areas where I think I would like to construct dry stone walls, which will help to define seating areas, divide the space and offer seclusion for certain seating areas, and set off planting against.

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

Having now settled on a basic layout, I will be delving in on a more micro level and start making decisions concerning landscaping materials, the subject of my next post.

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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