Garden at night with lighting to illuminate

Garden lighting can transform an ordinary garden into something extraordinary
Image: welcomia

If you’re dreaming up big plans for your garden in the New Year and you’re looking for clever ways to create dramatic impact, we can help.

We asked our favourite British garden designers for their top tips on how to make a big statement in your outside space. Here’s what they said…

Choose strong architectural plants

Acanthus mollis from Thompson & Morgan

Acanthus mollis brings dramatic impact to a garden
Image: Acanthus mollis from Thompson & Morgan

Let’s start with planting. Whether you prefer cottage garden style or something more contemporary, professional gardeners understand the power of repetition. Russell Page, a hugely successful twentieth-century landscape designer said: “the most striking and satisfying visual pleasure comes from the repetition or the massing of one simple element.”

Jason of Hornby Garden Designs agrees, and likes to use these architecturally dramatic plants in his schemes:

  • Acanthus mollis with jagged leaves and majestic white flowers that bloom from May to August. 
  • Phormium ‘Maori Queen’ (or New Zealand Flax) with strappy pink and green leaves throughout the year.
  • Anemanthele lessoniana (or Pheasant’s Tail Grass) lending green yellow and orange hues to the garden together with sensory movement.
  • Fatsia japonica (or Japanese aralia) with its large glossy palmate leaves makes a perfect specimen feature plant.

Geoff Stonebanks has some wonderful plants in his award-winning Driftwood Garden, but his favourite is also the acanthus: “Centre stage is taken by a large and imposing acanthus, which has incredible towering flower heads throughout the open garden season. Some years it can produce over 20 heads from the one plant.”

“If you’re looking for architectural impact, it has to be all about the foliage,” says Sarah Wilson of Roots and All:

Large-leaved plants such as cannas, begonias, phormiums, ferns, bergenias and palms all look dramatic. Light them to bring out their best features such as attractive leaf undersides, leaf texture or for the shadows the leaves cast on a background surface.

Add height

Topiary in a garden

Topiary brings vertical interest to your garden
Image: Rachel Benn

Clever garden designers create a sense of privacy, refuge or sanctuary within a larger outdoor space through the use of vertical planting and height. This doesn’t necessarily mean fencing the garden in, but applying 3-D design rules to make use of an entire space rather than just planting patches of ground.

Sarah Wilson recommends trying to create a variety of different ‘levels’ of interest in your garden: “Use a trailing plant on top of a wall to add interest where a planting scheme would otherwise be all on one level. A climbing plant can be used to create a green screen or wall. Evergreen climbers are the best – you can clothe an entire wall or trellis panel with a climber such as ivy, to give you a dramatic backdrop year-round.”

Alexandra of The Middle Sized Garden likes to use topiary to add height and architectural impact to her own garden:

It can be expensive, but you can also grow your own and learn how to topiarise. We have two holm oaks that we bought as £50 young ‘whips’. It took about five years before they were bulky enough to make a good topiary shape but they are now really distinctive.

Plant containers for instant drama

Geof Stonebanks terracotta pots in Driftwood Garden

Geoff Stonebanks has hundreds of terracotta planters in his Driftwood Garden
Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Long term design schemes can take time to fully mature. While you’re waiting why not fill gaps and add instant colour with container plants, advises Sarah Wilson:

If your garden’s going through a tatty spell or you need to create instant drama for an outdoor party, draft in some help from containers. Placing a couple of well-thought out and freshly-planted containers in key places around the garden, such as either side of doorways or in front of borders, will draw the eye and they’ll become the flashy focal points.

Sarah recommends packing your containers full of plants and focussing on colour harmonies and foliage contrasts. And be bold with your pot sizes. Try using a few large containers rather than lots of small ones to create impact.

Geoff Stonebanks also recommends the use of container plants for dramatic effect, although he continually moves his around throughout the season:

“My garden contains over 300 different terracotta planters, filled with anything from bulbs, small shrubs, annuals, palms and grasses. The trick to using them is to ensure they contain plants and shrubs that ‘peak’ at different times of the year. That wow factor can easily be achieved by moving a fabulous-looking pot from its regular home to pride-of-place in the garden, just as it starts to look its best!” 

Plan for winter

Winter garden scene from Cheryl Cummings

Ornamental grasses lend an air of Narnia to your winter garden
Image: Cheryl Cummings

One of the things that separates professional from amateur garden design is the ability to plan for year-round interest. Even when the leaves have fallen and plants have died back, a garden with ‘great bones’ will have enough structural interest to carry it through the coldest months in style.

Cheryl Cummings uses ornamental grasses to create wonderful winter structure in her gardens:

In the depths of winter the best and longest lasting ornamental grasses are elevated from supporting artists into stars. In a hard frost their fine lines and elegant shapes are emphasised by a dusting of ice crystals. Left standing with the uncut remains of herbaceous foliage until the very end of the season, they provide essential shelter and sustenance for wildlife. And on sparkling cold days they reward us for our restraint with the stunning appearance of Narnia.

Here are four of her favourite grasses to recreate the magic in your own garden:

Add a focal point

Sculpture in Driftwood Garden from Geoff Stonebanks

Use pieces of sculpture to create focal points in your garden
Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Finally, successful garden design is about more than just plants. It’s about using the space to maximum effect and giving your scheme a bit of personality. Here are three tips from our garden designers that will help deliver a professional punch to any garden:

  • Get creative with coloured paint: 

“A pot of paint adds instant wow factor. Give your garden a signature colour and use it on outdoor furniture, fencing, sheds, trellis and pots. It pulls mismatched styles together and can be easily changed when you want something different… Chalk paints can be used on any surface – plastic, metal and wood.” – Alexandra of The Middle Sized Garden

  • Invest in a garden sculpture:

“Instant wow factor can be achieved by carefully placing a stunning piece of sculpture in the garden. I have many, in both wood and metal, and the eye is immediately drawn to them.” – Geoff Stonebanks

“Personal pieces of sculpture hold relevance and give pleasure no matter the price tag. They add focus, meaning and charm whatever the weather.” – Cheryl Cummings

  • Add feature lighting:

“Cross lighting is one of my favourite lighting methods. Place two lamps at different angles to the front of a feature tree or plant to create a natural and three-dimensional effect.” – Jon Gower

We’d like to thank all of these fantastic garden designers for sharing their top tips with us. We hope you’ve found some ideas to inspire your own garden plans for the coming year. Want more expert gardening advice on how to incorporate ornamental grasses into your planting scheme? Then visit our helpful grasses hub page for growing and care advice.


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