Show Gardens -inspiration for your own garden design?

Chelsea Flower show

Back in May, I visited Chelsea Flower Show for my dose of this gardening extravaganza. The show ground as usual was packed with the garden loving public, especially around the show gardens. In fact, it was a struggle to see much of the gardens at all, such was the throng of people gathered around them.

These show gardens demonstrate and embody the great diversity of design and the skill it takes from both the designer and landscaper to create them. It is also heart warming to see how many people are fascinated and inspired by them. Maybe this is why some of these garden designers have reached almost celebrity status and therefore, the general public can be forgiven for believing that this level of design is only achievable by these famous few.

However, this is not the case, there being a large number of garden designers throughout the UK , capable of this level of design.

It is also worth remembering that these Chelsea gardens cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to create, even though the area they occupy is relatively small. These budgets are way beyond what many clients can afford, but that does not mean that you cannot design and create a wonderful garden without one.

Budgets are often an awkward subject with clients and often there is a level of naivety as to how much even a simple design can cost to construct. Surely you would not think about having your house renovated or a new extension built without considering a budget?

It is well worth remembering that a well designed garden can not only add value to your house, but also add value to your life. Like a well designed house, well designed gardens have a balanced flow to them. From the shapes and sizes of the hard and softscape, to the detail of the materials, textures and colours used, each part has taken the client’s needs and desires in to consideration, so the overall design has a sense of harmony and balance. There is a flow through the garden. It is bespoke to the client and the house it belongs to.

I know that I am biased, but I do say this with conviction, that, asking a garden designer to design your garden is money well spent. It is like having an architect design a new house or an extension for you. You are paying for their knowledge and expertise and for them to inspire and guide you through the process. So, at the end you will have something that is personal to you and you will enjoy it all the more because of it.

I can always tell houses and gardens that have grown rather organically, as their owners have added bits on here and there, without considering the effect on the whole. There is a sense of discord within the space with harmony and flow missing altogether.

Many garden designers, including myself offer a free initial consultation, so why not arrange one, it may change your life for the better.

The Winter Garden can still be a place of colour and scent

winter garden plants

The winter garden can be a stark place, with nothing growing, just a monochrome colour palette of bare twigs and dead vegetation. However, with a bit of forethought it does not have to be like this.

Colour and interest in the winter garden can be supplied by many different species of plant. Evergreens, whether, tree, shrub, perennial, grass or climber provide many different shades of green foliage and many different leaf shapes. A few also have interesting bark and a number flower through the winter and early spring, providing colour and often amazing scent. Winter flowers and scent can also be provided by some winter flowering deciduous shrubs, with their flowers being born on bare branches like brightly coloured jewels. The colourful bare stems of shrubs such as Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ can create a bright blast of red and orange in a bare border. The dried seed heads of many herbaceous perennials and grasses can be left through the winter months to help provide continuing interest and structure in the borders. This dried out plant material also provides useful overwintering places for insects and other invertebrates, so is best left in situ until the warmer weather in the spring when it can be removed as the new green shoots appear.

In early spring herbaceous perennials such as hellebores can provide a welcome array of flowers in subtle colours and these combined with early narcissus and crocus can cheer up the dullest corner of any garden. They also provide an essential early nectar source for pollinating insects such as bees.

When drawing up planting plans for clients I always do a separate plan just for spring bulbs. It is worth having a discussion about these at the very beginning when the planting plan is in its infancy. Although the bulbs will be planted later in the year once all the other plants are in, it is important they are selected for colour, height, scent and growth habit, to compliment the rest of the planting scheme.  Once in the ground they can be forgotten until they emerge the following spring to brighten up even the coldest days.

Winter favourites

Sarcococca hookeriana ‘Winter Gem’

Daphne odora

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’

Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’

Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’

Clematis urophylla ‘Winter Beauty’

Helleborus orientalis

Water management and its importance in Garden Design

why water management is so essential in garden design

With flash flooding events becoming more and more frequent each year, it is definitely worth considering having water management systems incorporated in to your garden design.

If you have ever attached a water butt to a downpipe from your house roof and monitored how quickly it can fill during an average rainstorm, you will know the shear quantities involved. I have a water butt in my garden, which can capture 250 Litres of water in approximately 15 minutes during a heavy downpour, from one downpipe. If you multiply this up by the number of downpipes you have on your house, greenhouse, garden shed and garage, the sheer quantity of water entering your drains in a very short period of time is shocking. No wonder flash flooding can occur, particularly with so many gardens, driveways etc. being covered in in impermeable hard landscaping.

However, much can be done to both slow down the rate of flow and utilise the water collected within the garden setting, using clever and attractive water management design solutions.

The use of rain chains instead of downpipes and storm planters at the base of downpipes or chains can slow down the rate of flow. These planters are usually constructed at the base of the downpipe and are filled with layers of stone and gravel with topsoil and a variety of plants suited to growing in wet and dry conditions including temporary flooding. Water falling on to the vegetation from the downpipe, runs off on to the soil below and filters down through the layers of gravel and stone. An outlet at the top of the planter allows collected water to flow out once the planter is full. This water can then be allowed to flow in to another water feature, be allowed to enter in to the standard drainage network or infiltrate in to the ground below, if it is a suitable free draining soil type.

The rate of water flowing through the planter is reduced dramatically as it infiltrates through the soil and gravel layers. Water is also lost to evapotranspiration from the plants and soil surface.

Rainwater run off can also be stored in tanks (usually stored underground) for later use. Being used in the house for all non-drinkable needs, such as toilet flushing, washing machines and garden watering.

Rainwater run off can also be used to create a ‘rain garden’, with a series of rills, swales leading to a retention and infiltration pond. The definition of a ‘rain garden’ is where environmental benefits and aesthetic consideration bring purpose and individuality to a garden or landscape. They follow the principle of the natural water cycle by using landscape to slow down the rate at which water is lost to the public drainage system.

Using a porous or permeable paving on driveways and other hard landscape areas also helps to reduce the amount of surface water pouring off these surfaces directly in to the drainage system or causing flooding.

Green or sedum roofs on sheds, garden buildings and where possible on house roofs, also helps to reduce the rate of rainwater run off. Vegetation and it’s substrate acting in a similar way to the storm planters, by absorbing water. Once saturation has been reached, excess water is released more slowly in to downpipes and drainage system (if not being used elsewhere). Evapotranspiration from the planted surface also helps to remove water.

Swales, are shallow depressions or channels lined with free draining materials and plants which can tolerate both flooding and dryness. These can be used to retain and dissipate surface water run-off and work well on their own or in combination with storm planters, ponds etc.


All these water management features can be easily incorporated in to the garden setting, whether existing or new.


For further reading I highly recommend ‘Rain Garden’ by Nigel Dunnett and Andy Clayden. Published by Timber Press

Trees -why ‘Right Tree Right Place’ is so important

trees at Westonbirt Arboretum

I am very fortunate to live only a few miles from Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire, so I am able to spend much of my spare time walking there, doing what the Japanese call ‘shinrinyoku’ or ‘forest bathing’. Soaking up the atmosphere, enjoying being amongst the trees and hopefully reaping the health benefits associated with this activity.

However, as well as enjoying the walk through the trees, I also use the arboretum as a resource, because it is here that you can see trees at their mature height and spread. This is extremely useful when making decisions about what tree species is appropriate for the space allocated to it in a design and how it will fill that space in years to come.

Leaf colour through the seasons, leaf shape and distribution, density of canopy, colour and texture of bark, how one tree looks against the back drop of another, can all be observed and noted while strolling through the arboretum

It is something that cannot be underestimated when selecting trees for your garden. The importance of knowing how big it will become over ten, twenty, thirty years.

Some people think that trees should be treated like other plants in the garden, once it has outgrown its space you just remove it and replace it with another. Personally, I do not think it is as simple as that. Trees fill a space in a much more permanent way than any shrub or herbaceous plant, so it is not that easy to just cut down and replace it, never mind the shear cost of doing so. What’s more, is it is so unnecessary, if the right tree had been chosen in the first place.

Certainly some tree species tolerate being contained in a space by practices such as pollarding and pleaching. But, for those that do not, surely it makes sense to choose the right tree for the right place from the beginning, rather than trying to put a ‘square peg in a round hole’ and force it to fit.

Gardens are Dynamic, Living , Breathing, Things

All gardens need some maintenace

My garden, like many other gardens, has evolved over time and in recent years I have redesigned certain areas and my choice of plants has changed along with the garden. Twenty years ago, it was a hot sunny place throughout the summer months, but as my neighbour’s trees have matured growing upwards and outwards, the garden has been plunged in to shade for much of the day. Rather than doggedly grow the same plants I could at the very start of the creation of my garden, I have embraced the change in light levels and now grow an assortment of shade tolerant plants instead. Ferns, certain grasses, bamboo and shade loving shrubs now take centre stage and glorious they are too.

The garden is always in a state of flux, never static, with something new to see and appreciate throughout the year. Colours, textures, scent, the play of light on different surfaces, the sound of birds, insects, rustling leaves, all conjoin to create the atmosphere and identity of the garden.

It is something to remember about gardens though, that they are living breathing things. Being a combination of inert materials and live plants, both, requiring care and maintenance to keep them looking good.

It is easy to forget that gardens when created do not remain perfect without any further effort, time or money. Maintenance is inevitable and essential and if you are not able to do this yourself then, when deciding on a budget for your garden, realistically, money needs to be set aside to pay for a gardener.

Leave a garden to its own devices at your peril, turn your back for a moment and it will return to jungle. Even those gardens that are designed to look wild and natural, still need human intervention to keep them that way.

My own small patch requires the regular brandishing of a hand fork, trowel and secateurs. I see it as part of the enjoyment of owning a garden and it is always great to stand back and appreciate my handy work once the job has been done.



Water Features

small stone water feature

The choice of water features for gardens are endless, from formal ponds, water walls, shuts, rills, cascades and waterfalls to more informal wildlife ponds and natural swimming pools.

Whatever your choice, the design and appropriateness needs to be carefully thought through. Scale, location, aesthetics and end use, all need to be taken into consideration too.

Not only can water create a wonderful ambience and focal point, but it can also encourage more wildlife into your garden.

The sound of falling water is also said to help cancel out unwanted external noise, too.  So if you live near a busy road or in a town or city, including a water fall in your garden design, may well prove extremely useful

So, whether you have a small courtyard or many acres, you will certainly benefit by including water in your design

Garden Features

When it comes to garden features and accessories, the choice is so wide and varied, it can be very difficult to get it right. However, when chosen with imagination and care they can really personalise and transform a space.

Useful points to consider before you buy are:

  • Purpose – Is it for aesthetics or practicality, or both?
  • Size – It should be appropriate for the space. Small garden features can become lost in a large space, or maybe you have room for one carefully chosen piece?
  • Materials – Does it fit in with its surroundings and is it sympathetic to existing features?
  • Colour – Clash or complement? Strong colours can work in a garden scheme, but sometimes less is more.
  • Location – Features can encourage movement through a garden, being chanced upon as you turn a corner, or used to enhance or frame a view.


Enjoy Your Summer Garden

During the warmer summer months your garden can become an extension of your home, providing a wonderful outdoor area for dining and sitting, from dawn until dusk.

Strategically placed lighting or candles can be very atmospheric and can extend the length of time that you have to enjoy your garden.

Growing scented plants near to your seating area is also a good idea. If you are only able to sit and enjoy your garden in the evening then night scented plants might be the best option.

The sound of rustling leaves from plants such as grasses and the bubbling of a water feature can also add to the ambience.

If you are overlooked, utilising overhead screening can help create a more private area. Where external noise is a problem, erecting special sound reducing fencing may be worth considering.

Grasses – their use and importance in Garden Design

Pennisetum grasses

Ornamental grasses and sedges have been used very effectively in all sorts of planting designs for a number of years now and rightly so. They not only provide glamour and movement to a planting scheme, but they also extend interest well in to the winter months.

Whether your garden is open and sunny or shaded, there is a grass and /or sedge that will suit.

Many clients are hesitant about including ornamental grasses in to their planting schemes and much of the fear seems to be that there is not enough room or that the grasses will run wild and self seed all over the place. However, although some species of both grass and sedge will self seed, this is rarely a problem that a bit of judicious weeding cannot solve and no worse than some herbaceous perennials. As for size, well just choose a grass or sedge species that has a mature size to suit the space available.

Block planting of grass species can look fantastic if you have the room and a very fine example of this is at Scampston Hall, Walled Garden, Yorkshire. Here the renowned Dutch planstman and designer Piet Oudolf has created an inspired and wonderful garden incorporating, very successfully, block planting of molinia grasses.

However, for the smaller garden and planting design, ornamental grasses and sedges can be easily incorporated in to any planting scheme to great effect. So don’t be shy, give them a try.

Favourite ornamental grasses:

Calamgrostis brachytricha – wonderful feathery, purple flower heads that are produced late summer and dry to an oaty brown colour. These seed heads stand well through the winter months and look fabulous after a heavy dew when the drops of water sparkle on the morning light. Looks grerat in any planting scheme in any size garden

Hakonechloa macra – a shade tolerant variety that produces a mound of thin strap like leaves, that turn a red orange in the autumn and eventually to pale brown through the winter months. Wonderful planted around the base of trees or along the edges of shady borders.

Stipa gingantea – this is an evergreen grass and produces tall oat like golden flowerheads up to 2.5m tall. These add an ethereal effect to planting schemes, particularly when the light shines through the flower heads making them sparkle. Even though this grass is tall it does not take up a lot of space so can be incorporated in to any size planting scheme

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Kleine Silberspinne’ – this is quite compact for a miscanthus at 1.2m high, so is ideal for smaller gardens. However, it is still a dramatic grass with narrow silvery green leaves which have a white stripe down the centre and feathery, reddish brown, plume like flower heads, which fade to silver in the autumn. These silvery flower heads look amazing shimmering under a setting sun.

Carex elata ‘Aurea’ – This golden sedge not only tolerates shade but prefers a moist soil and so is ideal for growing around pond margins or in wetter parts of the garden. It’s fine lime green foliage lights up the darkest corner and contrast well with darker, larger leaved plants.