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Big, south facing, clay soil, blank canvas... And no idea!

Hi everyone,

I'm looking for any ideas and inspiration with our big blank canvas! Feeling a bit overwhelmed and the very broken house is taking so much focus I'm not getting any visions of what the garden should look like. 

We moved from a town to the Essex countryside at the back end of last year, primarily so we can have a much bigger garden for our young family and 3 little dogs. The irony being that now we have a much bigger garden, we're a bit lost for ideas! 

The garden has been used for livestock historically which the clay soil is not best pleased with! The lawn needs some real TLC and as you can see from the pictures, a lot of hedging and planting needs doing as it's all just very bare right now. It is South facing though so gets some really beautiful sunshine.

We have knocked some of the front wall down so we can extend the garden into the front- previously there was a lot of wasted space in the front garden which is going to be divided for more garden and then some driveway / parking (not pictured). 

The remaining wall will have a wooden gazebo built against it to house BBQ / sitting area. The patch of bare soil is for the MASSIVE climbing frame we're yet to install, and the pond you can just about see outside the house is to be filled in and turfed. 

So far the internet has taught me that clay soils like hornbeam, apple trees, buddleia and roses. But that is the limit of my knowledge and may not be correct!! 

Any ideas or things you think I should be researching, places we should visit, I'd really appreciate it! I love cottage style gardens so pretty, pretty, pretty! How did you go about designing a blank canvas? Where did you put little areas of interest? How did you decide where to put paths? So many questions!!



  • UffUff Posts: 3,199
    Goodness me the world really is your oyster with regard to your new garden. 
    I have been faced with huge gardens like that twice and if I gave any advice I'd say, think how you want to use your garden and then read as many garden landscaping books as you need to. It stood me in good stead.
    SW SCOTLAND but born in Derbyshire
  • FireFire Posts: 17,116
    A shame about the pond being turfed over. I would personally expand it. :D
  • PlantmindedPlantminded Posts: 2,280
    Hello @s_mayhead, welcome to the GW forum, you've come to the right place for advice.  You have a great space there to develop and enjoy.  This link from the NGS may be a starter for you, lots of good tips and ideas:

    Starting a garden from scratch - National Garden Scheme (

    There will be lots of willing advice to follow, so keep tuned in!  Good luck!
    Wirral. Sandy, free draining soil.
  • SuesynSuesyn Posts: 630
    It may be that your pond is there to serve a purpose ie that the water drains into it from your clay soil. I appreciate that with young children around it is not a desirable feature but you could always put a fence round it while your children are little. 
    Alternatively make it into a bog garden! 
  • AnniDAnniD Posts: 11,428
    Wow, that's some project !  My advice, bearing in mind l'vd never had anything as large as that to deal with, would be to take your time.
    Bearing in mind that your family is still fairly young, l would concentrate on the practicalities, such as a play area within sight of the house. Washing line (whirligig) placement, and even the bins are things to consider. 

    My initial instinct is to work from the house outwards. Everytime you walk out of the back door or look out of the window, it's satisfying to see the work that you've begun. You could start with a couple of flowerbeds and sow Hardy annuals to give quick colour for this Summer. 
    Gardens are always evolving, and as this is your "forever home" there's plenty of time. As the children grow, your priorities will alter. You may want to grow vegetables,  raised beds might be worth considering, perhaps a greenhouse in the future.

    If you want to encourage the children's love for nature, it might with worth reconsidering filling in the pond. If you're worried about safety you can always net it for now, and teach them to respect it. It could make a lovely feature.
    Finally, there are many gardens to visit in Essex and the adjoining counties to give you inspiration, and volunteers are always happy to answer any questions.

    I hope you and your family gain great pleasure from your new home and garden and remember, you've come to the right place for advice  :)
  • FireFire Posts: 17,116
    Do you have an overhead shot (Googlemaps)? How large is the property? It's an exciting prospect.
  • didywdidyw Posts: 2,917
    Another vote to keep the pond from me.  We have a tiny one and my granddaughters loved peering into it when they were young, especially when it had frogspawn and tadpoles in it.  
  • Thanks all for your thoughts! The pond unfortunately needs to go as we're also hoping to extend the house back which will mean it's potentially going to get a lot closer! 

    However I hear you- such a shame to lose it so we're planning to install a new pond further away from the house in an additional little patch of land we have at the side, when we can focus on it a bit more. The goldfish have been rehomed to some lovely people we found on Facebook Market place so are safe and well. 

    Great suggestion to focus on immediately outside the house! For some reason I've been hellbent on furthest away but it's a really good idea to start closer. 

    Image from above now shared with a rough line around our bit. The bit in blue is the section I'd like to place a pond in the future and the black line is around the rest. 
  • raisingirlraisingirl Posts: 6,649
    edited January 2022
    That's lovely.

    You can grow almost anything on clay - don't let the 'book' put you off. Mediterranean herbs are the main thing you can't very well, without a lot of fuss, but they like growing in pots  :) The key is to feed your soil - mulch it - which is more manageable to do in reasonably small areas at least until you get into the swing of it and preferably are making your own mulch materials. A bigger constraint will be whether the soil is acidic or lime - you can get little pH testers in garden centres

    My advice (having just under 2 acres of sheep pasture on clay soil that I've been 'gardening' (very loosely) for a few years now):
    Start close to the main window you look out from and work your way away from the house. Don't do a grand gesture of digging up grass all over with some big plan in mind. Take it a section at a time (by which I mean a year or season) because whatever you touch will sprout weeds, whereas even rough grass can be mowed to keep it usable in the meantime. Consider how much of it you actually want to garden - we're 'rewilding' a lot of ours.
    Mark out a new bed, work out your view lines and put in any shrubs or trees to make a structure, mulch the bare soil in between and then plant those gaps with perennials and annuals. Think about edging - it affects the look of a garden. Look around for things you like in local gardens or books to get ideas.
    In a big space, paths will tend to form themselves in the form of 'desire lines' as you use the garden you'll walk the same routes - house to shed or play area. You can tweak them so they are less straight but in a large garden, that tends to be just annoying so you end up straightening them. Curving paths make a garden feel bigger - that's not really an issue for you.
    Think about a greenhouse or somewhere to allow you to grow from seed and cuttings - a big garden like that will be expensive to fill with bought plants. Luckily 'cottage' gardens can have a lot of self-seeders and spreaders but it's still better to be able to raise a few tender plants each year to give it that full feeling. @Lyn has a lovely cottage garden and she grows all her plants from seed. If you do have a greenhouse, don't put it right at the end of the garden unless you especially want to spend your days as far from the house as possible to get away from the OH/children (I make no judgements either way on that point :) ). Do remember though that a lot of that work is done in the colder months so not quite as idyllic as your mind's eye may be picturing it right now.

    Take it slowly, allow it to form around the ways you find you use it, rather than trying to force yourself to use it to fit a plan you've drawn. Have fun 
    “Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first” 
  • Hi s_mayhead, long time lurker, first time poster here. You have such a great place there! I'd go with a drawing first, I find it helps me: patio/seating area next to the house on one side of the back door, on the other side pots with herbs, different sizes and heights: Mediterranean, mint, salvia, etc. I love mint and oregano in pots for their easy going and almost all year round nature. Between these two areas would begin a path towards the garden. I'd also put a sensory area on same side as the herbs, to serve as a background for them and transition to the play structure. Kids love sensory planting. You can have different types of grasses at different heights. Then the play structure on the same side. On the patio side I'd have a pergola and plant climbers, including fragrant. Later on I'd think of trees, along the path which I'd probably have separating further down the garden to create interest.
    Just my two cents. Hope to see your garden later on!
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