Sunken gardens don't need to be grand affairs, simply lowering a section of your garden can offer some privacy and give you a whole new perspective. If you're thinking of building one in to your own garden design, it's worth taking time to consider what you want your sunken garden to achieve. Here we've listed five key elements to think about when planning a sunken garden and the best places to visit for sunken garden ideas.


What is a sunken garden?

A sunken garden is a garden that lies below the general level of its surroundings. They have been used for centuries, becoming very popular in Britain in the Victorian and Edwardian era.

Five design elements to consider when planning a sunken garden


Bear in mind that by digging a hole you are inviting all the rainwater to gather in one place. Many sunken gardens boast ponds on the lower level for exactly this purpose. It is worth taking advise from a landscaper before you start digging downwards, to avoid disappointment later on.


The walls surrounding your sunken space need to be robust because they have to hold back a considerable weight of soil. This is obviously dependent on how far you dig down but whatever depth you decide upon, it is a design element worth thinking about.


green garden furniture in a small garden
© Getty

Having excavated, the obvious thing to do is make some sort of seating area so you can enjoy your new bolt hole. This is where your personal style can come in to its own. Choose elegant, comfortable sunken garden seating for an intimate terrace or go for a more rustic look and choose a simple arrangement using chunks of logs gathered around a fire pit. Which brings me to the next point...


Fire pits are trendy and great for garden parties but if you get its position wrong, the outcome can be disastrous. The smoke has annoying habit of blowing all over the place, running the risk of sending guests home with streaming eyes. If you want to install a fire pit in your sunken garden, take careful notice of prevailing winds or rig up some sort of chimney.

Don't over think it

Sunken garden in a walled garden
This sunken central section has a quatrefoil shape and features an octagonal metal planter. © Jason Ingram

Not everybody has the skill, desire or resources to create something dramatic and theatrical, so if you're after something a bit less convoluted then a similar effect can be achieved by simply lowering a patch of lawn and surrounding it with deep and gorgeous borders. This not only affords you the pleasure of a slightly secluded refuge but gives you a different view of the plants. It is exciting to be able to see things from a slightly alternative angle.

Gardens to visit for sunken garden ideas

If you get the chance to visit Butchart Gardens near Victoria on Canada’s Vancouver Island then take it. An extraordinarily joyful collection of colourful gardens and soaring fountains in a disused quarry.

A bit closer to home, Kensington Palace in London has a fine example of a classic sunken garden, which was designed in 1908 to replace some potting sheds.

The Forestiere Underground Gardens, near Fresno, California, were burrowed out of the ground over many years, starting in 1906, to create a home and garden for Baldassare Forestiere. There are many courtyards growing an abundance of fruit.

Words by James Alexander-Sinclair


This article was taken from the February issue of Gardens Illustrated (244).