Saturday, 7 July 2012

Affordable Design at Hampton Court

It’s the perennial problem for garden designers – the ‘phone rings and a charming potential client makes an enquiry about having their garden designed.  After a short discussion of their needs and what the designer can do, the question of the available budget crops up. 
‘Oh, I thought something between £1500 and £2000.’
This is the point at which the designer has to gently bring the enquirer to an understanding of the realities involved.  The bald fact is that having a garden designed is a purely elective expense, and one that is pretty much a luxury.  It is easy to see why people think they can get gardens for these sums – plants are not hugely expensive, and you can buy a lot of them for £2000, but this takes no account of the labour involved in creating hard-landscaping, materials, VAT or, at the bottom of the heap of priorities, the designer’s fee.  The sum the client has in mind is, undoubtedly, a lot of money, but it is simply insufficient for what they have in mind.  It is possible to transform a small garden by spending this amount wisely on plant material, but to create the longed-for ‘room outside’ takes far more in the way of cash. 
‘But Alan Titchmarsh used to do it for £500 over a weekend!’  Well, anyone with an understanding of the true cost of things knows that he didn’t.
The new show garden category, ‘Low Cost, High Impact Gardens’  at Hampton Court Flower Show this year is thus to be welcomed – four gardens built to three different budgets give an inkling of what is achievable on the relatively modest, in design terms, budgets of £7000, £10000 and £13000.  I know, these are still big sums, but in terms of what it allows you to achieve, they are minimal outlay.  A couple of years ago I designed a courtyard garden for a house that cost at least a million pounds but that had a tiny, neglected garden.  By careful design it was possible to give the client a beautiful outdoor space for about £14000, of a size that would have cost them a further quarter of a million had it been inside the house.  When looked at in this way, the outlay begins to look like not only good value, but essential expenditure if you have the resources to spare.  Forget the immense improvements in the way you will live and experience your home – even in terms of the returns on reselling it’s a no-brainer.
But if you are having a garden designed and built, where does all the money go?  The expenditure is largely in the creation of the hard landscaping – the paving, decking, pergolas and walls all soak up contractor days and materials, and while it’s not possible to pare down the day-rate of a landscaper, it is possible to make the design faster to implement.  This is where it actually pays to engage a designer: savings are there to be made, and a good designer knows how to achieve this.  Take time though, to research a designer you have confidence in – I’m a firm believer that good design doesn’t have to be any more expensive than bad.
Rule number 1 – stick to straight lines and right angles.  Anything involving curves or odd angles immediately hikes the price, as such features are trickier to set out on the ground and more time-consuming to build.

Rule number 2 – limit the changes in level where possible.  Digging out and carting away waste, or making ground up by importing extra material is a luxury where it isn’t strictly necessary.

Rule number 3 – if you have to compromise to achieve a budget, consider changes in materials or creative use of cheap and readily available materials first.  The overall layout of the design should be the last thing to be modified, because if the designer has done a good job, this layout will be the optimal solution for the site.

So, back to Hampton Court and the Low Cost gardens.  Well, on a day of pouring rain you don’t linger too long on the details, but the first thing that struck me about all of these was that they looked amazing.  Show gardens occupy a strange cultural niche, because they always look their best, but these could, at a glance, have stood up to many more expensive gardens.  The budgets assume that a garden has boundaries and that the plants bought will probably be smaller versions of those on display, allowed to grow up for a couple of years, but even so, the results are impressive.

'Our First Home, Our First Garden'

In at the lowest price was the garden created by Landform Consultants.  ‘Our First Home, Our First Garden’ designed by Nilufer Danis had a sunken seating well (in flagrant contravention of Rule 2, tsk) surrounded by a lovely summer planting in blues and yellows.  I can’t imagine any first-time buyers not wanting to create something like this to show off their new pad.  The cost of digging out had been cleverly offset by the very creative use of cheap reclaimed scaffolding planks as retaining walls for the seating pit, steps and decking.  Gravel, always a good cost-effective choice for a semi-durable surface, formed the floor of the pit, and the budget had even stretched to a shelf/woodstore supporting an outdoor heater.  I’d say this definitely provided the template for good, affordable design for a couple setting up home – the planting implied an interest in gardening as a hobby rather than as a mere backdrop to life out-of-doors, and provided a good range of wildlife friendly plants.  A couple of semi-mature trees brought height and presence to the planting, and if you are establishing a garden from scratch it’s always worth splashing out on just one big plant like this to give a sense of permanence to the whole.
'Our First Home, Our First Garden'

In the £10000 category Richard Wanless of Twigs Gardens had created ‘A Compromising Situation’.  I’m not sure what the title refers to exactly, but the conceit here is that the garden is one in a Victorian terrace, the residents of which can pass through each other’s plots.  Though this is a far-from-normal arrangement in my experience, it gave an opportunity to create a seating area secluded from the gravel path, screened by hedges of different heights and a timber arbour.  The paths and terrace area were paved in stone, and the inevitable expense of this offset with areas of (cheap) grass.  The lie of the path added interest to the design, and  a bit of extra width to a seating area.  If space and/or budget are limited, finding ways in which necessary pathways can contribute to other areas is a good trick.  There was scope in the budget here for a few little ornamental touches – a screen of curling steel reinforcing rods evoked the croziers of new fern leaves, and the risers of the steps were made of rough stone - while this wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice for an urban Victorian terrace, it’s an indication of the level of detail it is possible to achieve with this degree of funding.  The planting, less expansive than in the first garden, nonetheless achieved a good balance with the other elements of lawn and paving.

'A Compromising Situation'

The first of two gardens in the £13000 category,  ‘live outdoors’ by Roger Smith for Garden House Design used very simple shapes – a square deck big enough to put a dining table on, covered with a clever arbour and crisp paving in the path were all surrounded by the type of planting that looks great in an urban setting – a limited palette of plants linked by form and colour, with plenty of softening foliage, bamboo for screening  and one or two knock-your-socks-off specimens.  In this case the specimens were tree ferns which do look amazing although you need to check your supplier’s credentials if you are investing in these plants – I always worry that they have been uprooted from virgin Tasmanian forests when I see them decorating a courtyard in the UK.  This garden had some nice design touches that illustrate my point that good design doesn’t have to be expensive:  the step risers were made of three paving slab sections put together – this didn’t mean much until you noticed the uprights of the arbour, made of three laths of timber to each face, or the overhead beams constructed in the same way.  It’s this sort of detail that can really pull a design together, giving the garden a coherent feel.  The beams were a real designer’s touch – open at the top they acted as channels for planting which spilled over in a curtain – a neat way to soften the structure without using climbers.  The budget even ran to a wood-fired oven and a couple of planters.
'live outdoors'

The final garden was ‘Summer In The Garden’ by Mike Harvey for Arun Landscapes.  Another design centred on a seating space, this garden also had a budget of £13000.  A Yorkstone crazy-paved terrace with an outdoor chimney stack surrounded by a good mix of shrub and perennial planting created a seating area submerged in vegetation.  Again, the overhead plane was defined by timber, treated much more simply in this case, with the presumed-to-exist boundaries rough-cast rendered then painted a vibrant yellow.  This is a great way to introduce some drama to a garden for very little outlay, and through your choice of colour can produce just about any mood you wish.  The feel here was very much of the Mediterranean – an olive tree and pencil cypresses underplanted with santolina and lavender don’t look at their most natural under leaden skies, but with the sunny yellow walls the whole certainly brightened up a gloomy summer day.

'Summer In The Garden'

So, do these gardens offer a realistic goal for those trying to establish new gardens on a budget?  Very definitely – for me the most important aspect in each case was the way in which the design process had been used to minimise unnecessary costs, and I do think this is where it is worth getting design advice.  The principle of using cheaper materials to deliver the design is a good one and if you are hands-on with construction  you can save thousands of pounds in landscaper fees, but unless you are really confident and experienced, with plenty of free time to devote to your project,  it is probably worth stumping up for a professional.   A bit of patience allows you to buy smaller plants that will establish quickly and fill the space in a couple of years, but what these gardens really show is that getting the long-term design details correct at the start is the key to a successful garden – practical, good-looking and, most of all, a place you want to be.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

On Form 2012

The biennial exhibition of sculpture in stone at Asthall Manor is back, and is, as always, a delight.

Asthall, a couple of miles outside Burford in Oxfordshire, is a dreamy Cotswold village, with the manor house at its heart.  The gardens, redesigned in the late 1990s by the designers I & J Bannerman, responsible in part for the gardens at Highgrove, are in the blowsy Arts and Crafts manorial style which looks at its best in early summer: roses, peonies, geraniums, astrantias and foxgloves tumble out of beds restrained with clipped box hedging, but more contemporary notes are apparent in the sloping box parterre and the massy blocks of clipped yew which articulate the upper levels.

The planting is allowed to escape and self seed in the gravelled paths - mounds of limy-green Alchemilla mingle with lavenders and daisies, loosening the structure and giving the whole ensemble the feeling of relaxed informality which is essential to the success of this gardening style. 

The sculpture is displayed in the grounds of the house, in the Ballroom and the neighbouring church - the works in stone cover a huge range of styles and materials - there is a good mix of figurative and abstract work, and all are illustrated in the lovely catalogue which is included in the admission price.  The larger pieces, in the grounds, are well-suited to placing in landscapes, and the variety of settings that the manor garden offers allows for sculpture in secluded corners and more expansive meadows - the meadows will be at their most floral by the time the exhibition closes in mid-July.

If you have a chance to visit, On Form is a great opportunity to see a beautiful and rarely-open garden and some of the most exciting stone sculpture currently being made.  Don't forget your cheque-book!

Find out more about On Form here

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Hal Moggridge and the Future of Landscape Design

The Garden Museum, on the South Bank in London, next to Lambeth Palace, has an ongoing series of evening lecture-discussions called VISTA.  Co-chaired by Tim Richardson and Noel Kingsbury, the format is simple - an invited guest gives a presentation of their work after which the chairs jointly interrogate that guest on issues raised by the talk.  The end of the session sees questions from the floor.

Last night it was the turn of Hal Moggridge, doyen of landscape architects, to offer his opinions on the state of landscape architecture in the UK, explored through brief exposition of a small portfolio of key works in which he has been engaged over the past four decades.

The discussion was interesting when exploring the failure of the authorities to secure and protect iconic views (especially in the capital).  It is apparent that Moggridge's early architectural career in the socially-responsible 1950s - when the profession of architecture was striving to build a post-war democratic environment fit for the new, Modern, utopia - deeply influenced his outlook, and although his stance is not necessarily a 'political' one, he is clearly on the side of a public whose environment is at risk of degradation, not the side of the wealthy developer or company wanting to erect huge buildings for mere financial gain.  The value of detailed and comprehensive planning to preserve the best of the built and natural environment - something which is implicit in the work of landscape and garden designers - becomes even more apparent when viewing the 'before and after' images of Moggridge's work in comparison with other, less successful interventions.
The trend towards landscape architects working on huge private estates came under scrutiny, along with the increasing trend for these tracts of land to be removed from public view - another strand in the theme of the undemocratisation of the landscape.
Discussion of Moggridge's early career with such luminaries as Geoffrey Jellicoe and Brenda Colvin raised questions of the links between garden design and landscape architecture.  Tim Richardson's recent suggestion (Garden Design Journal, June 2012) that the Landscape Institute and Society of Garden Designers should combine forces, with fully accredited members being designated 'landscape designer' came up for discussion.  This is an interesting possibility, and has much merit.  The field of garden design is, frankly, bedevilled by the lack of an overarching body to manage the profession.  Changes are under way, and the SGD has to be congratulated on its moves to increase the professionalism of garden designers.  Hal Moggridge identified the crux of the matter, and I have discussed it elsewhere: until suitable garden design qualifications are accredited by the SGD or another relevant body at the source, there are only the 'post training' hoops to jump through to ensure the professionalism of garden designers.  Much more sensible would be for design courses and providers to be rigorously assessed and accredited at the outset: successful completion of such a course would give an automatic, professionally recognised qualification.  The tradition of gifted amateurs designing gardens for themselves and friends could be accommodated by a licentiateship or associate membership.  This would have the benefit of allowing appropriately rigorous courses to advertise themselves as such, thus encouraging an improvement in training standards across the sector. 

Part of the problem, from my point of view, is that so much garden design (and the vast majority of that at the amateur level) is still so driven by plants and horticulture: in a nation obsessed with the culture and cultivation of plants there is no shortage of people who are able to create pretty gardens for themselves or others - whether this makes them garden designers is a moot question, and one which I would probably answer with a 'no'.  This is not to say that there aren't sufficiently talented amateurs out there, with the vision and patience to create magnificent, meaningful gardens - I'm currently reading Roy Strong's account of his garden at The Laskett, clearly a garden so rich in allusion and meaning for the makers that it could never be achieved by a designer parachuted in to draw up a ground plan.  On the other hand there are (mercifully, for garden designers!) plenty of others who would love to have a beautiful garden but lack the time, knowledge, patience or creativity to make their own.  Perhaps this is the real dichotomy - not 'landscape architects and garden designers', but rather 'garden designers and garden makers' - the former providing a service, the latter engaged in the very personal act of creation.  Possibly the greatest skill of a designer is to become so good at the design that the end result has the same effect as a more personally created garden.  Fortunately there are enough gardens in Britain to keep everyone happy and busily employed, at whatever level they are engaged with the process of making gardens!

Here's a pretty photo after all that text...

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Convergent Evolution at Chelsea

Yesterday was the first public day at the Royal Hospital showground in Chelsea for visitors to the 2012 RHS Flower Show.  Given the fact that this is the year of the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics the atmosphere was lively - the sense of occasion at the first big event of the summer season augmented by the feeling that it marked the opening of an important summer for the capital and the country.

Copper sculpture in the garden by Andy Sturgeon

I last visited two years ago and the sense of the unreal that the show gardens engender had not diminished - see my reaction to this aspect of the show here
The perfection of the planting and structural work never fails to astonish - the glossy sheen of these otherwise unattainable gardens lures visitors and the media to SW3 every year for precisely the purpose of marvelling at the effect produced; an overseas visitor in earshot was vehement in her denial that the gardens could possibly be conjured out of thin air in just three weeks.  Well, three weeks and a bit - the clipped pear tree she was looking at must be 150 years old, parked in a hole in the ground in London for two brief weeks of its life. 

The garden by Arne Maynard

The show gardens have the intense attraction for us that other great cultural icons have, with the difference that these particular icons are perishable - they occupy the same space as other fleeting one-offs - performance art, concerts and sports fixtures.

A garden evoking a shepherd's hut in Central Europe

There is often the sense when going round the showground that you are seeing the same plants, planting combinations and hard-landscape ideas cropping up in show gardens all over the site.  One plant invariably appears in so many gardens that it becomes crowned the 'Chelsea-must-have-plant' of the year.  I have seen the black-leaved cow parsley given the moniker this year, and indeed it popped up in a number of gardens.  This plant,  Anthriscus sylvestris 'Ravenswing' has been doing the rounds for a few years, but a plant new to me that seemed to be everywhere is Centaurea 'Jordy' - this deep purple knapweed was most evident on the garden by Arne Maynard, but was spotted in many other places. 

The garden by Tom Hoblyn - my favourite of his offerings over the years

It's all to do with fashion of course, and fashion in gardens runs deeper than the occasional duplication of plant material.  There was a distinct sense that at least three of the large gardens were more or less interchangeable - each has its devotees, but in design terms there was distinct convergence. 

A wilder-looking garden by Sarah Price

We'll come to what the style embodies later, but the real interest lies in why it happens at all. 
In biology the term 'convergent evolution' refers to the way in which animals or plants on different evolutionary pathways come to resemble each other in order to exploit the same ecological niche.  Whether the niche involves food supply, shelter or climatic suitability, the species involved come to look like and behave like each other because that particular form is the best adapted to survive the environmental conditions that prevail.  You can see where I'm heading with this.

Andy Sturgeon's beautiful garden for M&G Investments

Show gardens at Chelsea are expensive to build.  In fact they are phenomenally expensive.  To create something that has the appearance of permanence, with both a past and a future beyond its hyperreal present involves at least a year of planning, the coordination of building teams and plant specialists from around the UK (and, often, beyond), the shipping of enormous established plants around the world and immense amounts of labour in the final three weeks in order to bring the planned creation to life.  This all has to be funded by the sponsors, who not unreasonably like to see a gold medal at the very least propped up on the garden mantelpiece once judging is done.  Those slugging it out for the Best in Show gong have to live up to very high expectations indeed.  The pressure to achieve is precisely the sort of environmental factor that causes swallows and swifts to look and behave similarly, sharks and killer whales to have the same tools for dealing with prey.

The Australians always come up with something a bit different

Once a particular 'style' is successful and wins at Chelsea, there is huge public interest, the particular features become disseminated and reused by other designers in less lofty settings and the fashionable becomes more mainstream.  This takes years to occur, however, because in evolutionary terms we are dealing with a long generation period.  Plants and animals can adapt in every generation, which in many cases is less than a year.  How often do people redesign their gardens?  Once a decade at most, I'd suggest.  In the meantime the showmen and women at Chelsea are pursuing the style that is most likely to get them a win.  I'm not suggesting they are calculating the odds, but let's say the design DNA is working through them to deliver success - the Selfish Gene of fashionable reknown in tandem with the external pressures of the marketplace.  It is a fascinating thing to watch in action.

This is by Chris Beardshaw - an attempt to highlight the artificiality of show-gardening, I hope

And so what of the style?  Well, since the notable designers of the current generation, and especially Tom Stuart-Smith (not showing this year) have been working a rich seam of frothy herbaceous planting in soft colours set against structural blobs of clipped evergreen for a number of years, it isn't surprising to see this as the dominant style in the biggest and most expensive show gardens.

The maquis of southern Europe transported to SW3

Lightened with the movement of fine grasses, tied to the traditional English garden through the use of peonies, roses and lavender and held in place with slabs of honed limestone, cobble pavements, hedging and pleached trees these gardens are direct descendents of the Arts and Crafts style that has proved so flexibly suited to the English love of plants, desire for structure and deeply-rooted nostalgia.  Indeed, it is possible to read the sequence of these show gardens at Chelsea as a succession of rooms in a single compartmentalised Arts and Crafts garden - there are differences, certainly, but the feelings they arouse, the memories they plumb are the same in each case and the similarities significantly outnumber the differences.  In their contemporary reworking (and we could discuss the word 'contemporary' for hours!) of the Arts and Crafts style these gardeners have created something else, and I am calling it 'New Manorial' - a quirky evocation of the country house garden familiar from a century's worth of Country Life back issues.

My favourite of the large gardens - by Joe Swift

Is this a problem?  Not necessarily - they all look astounding, but my favourite garden was a markedly different take on the theme, with a more daring palette of plants.  I suspect that with such a preponderance of New Manorialist gardens this year the pressure next year will be to create something very different in feel.  Let's hope so, because that could deliver a truly thrilling Flower Show, in the centenary of its move to Chelsea.

Best in Show - Cleve West for the second year, and one of three or four gardens that had very similar treatments of hard-landscaping and plants

Sunday, 22 April 2012


I have referred the landscape garden at Rousham, in Oxfordshire, in previous posts, but it is three and half years since my last visit and in fine spring weather this morning I decided to revisit. An almost complete survival of the work of William Kent, the mercurial genius of the first phase of what has come to be known as the English Landscape Style, the garden is by turns intimate and expansive, a theatrical sequence of enclosures and clearings, vistas and tunnels through the wooded slopes of the River Cherwell. It is the perfect understated setting for the magnificent house, the whole ensemble with its carriage yards, stable blocks, kitchen garden and dovecote a more or less unchanging evocation of a type of solidly English domestic feudal landscape, with hamlet and church within the park of the house.

Here nothing is obvious - the visitor is led through the garden by implicit clues - a gap in the hedge, a barely discernible path, an intriguing rise and fall in the ground.  At times way is more clearly marked, as by Kent's famous rill, leading to an octagonal bathing pool and thence to the water at the bottom of Venus' Vale, a descending series of fountains presided over by Venus herself, and looking out over the River Cherwell and the valley beyond.

Further along the circuit a sharp little escarpment is topped by the Praeneste - an arcaded lookout flanked by urns and the clipped underplanting of laurel and box.  The garden is populated with Classical sculptures, including a stone version of 'The Dying Gaul' and some sprightly gods, presiding over quiet corners or more dramatic openings in the hedgerows and tunnels of vegetation.  Here are Bacchus, Mercury and, most significantly, Pan to whom the whole garden could be dedicated. 

Still owned by the family who commissioned Kent to lay out the garden in the early 1700s, Rousham is my favourite garden - I hope the photos do justice to its timeless appeal.

See more images here.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Natural Look

The desire to have a little piece of nature gets stronger among garden owners and makers.  I have written before that I think the deep need we seem to have at present for gardens and landscapes that evoke natural plant communities and wild places is in part a guilty response to the horrors that we, as humans, visit on the environment in other arenas.  Such landscapes may be our way of making some small recompense for the over-use of the planet.

An unmanaged meadow

The irony is that to create the multi-flowered pictorial appearance of the modern meadow requires a lot of work and intervention.

The weedy ground in an olive grove

Unimproved agricultural settings can offer a template for these landscapes - the weedy ground in orchards, vineyards and olive groves is almost a matrix through which the trees emerge, but is not necessarily an attractive backdrop in its own right.  However, where plant communities have had time to develop over long periods of time it is possible to see a large variety of plant species in a stable community.

The flowering meadow in a vineyard - late spring

To create a flowering meadow from scratch, with a good percentage of forbs (the flowering plants rather than grasses) requires the soil to be, generally, impoverished.  This can be done over a long period by repeated cutting and removal of grass - the quick solution is to scalp the area, removing topsoil.  In doing so, the grasses are deprived of their required nutrients and the tougher flowering plants have space to grow.  Eventually the initial seeding will settle down to a stable community of flowers within the grass matrix.

Natural plant communities may not be very mixed or attractive

A short-term meadow can be created by ploughing then seeding with a chosen wildflower mix, including grasses.  The meadow will flower impressively in the first year, but after this the number of flowering plants will rapidly decrease as the grasses out-compete them.

A seeded meadow can make a spectacular show in the early years

The team at the University of Sheffield (Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough) experimenting with pictorial meadow mixes will have their work tested to destruction this year, with millions of people seeing and experiencing their work at the Olympic Park in the summer.  Their seed combinations are in no way reflective of any particular meadow community - they put together combinations of attractive plants that suit the setting and aspect, and which give a plausibly natural feel when established.  Over several seasons natural selection takes over and some varieties decline in favour of others, but such is the nature of these dynamic plant communities.

Plant communities in a matrix of grass can use ornamental plants when carefully managed

Monday, 6 February 2012

2012: New horizons...

This year is shaping up to be a highly productive, challenging and inspiring one.  With many initiatives currently under way - in both professional and personal spheres - it's getting a bit difficult to keep track of everything.  However, it's these periods of change and development that keep life interesting, and open up new opportunities.

With a number of projects at the build stage I will be profiling a few different gardens in the coming months, but am starting 2012 with a project for a cottage in south Oxfordshire.  The clients are having the ground floor remodelled to include a new, two-storey oak-and-glass extension.  The challenge of the site, which slopes back towards the house, is to provide a series of interconnected terrace areas, each of sufficient size to be useful on its own, but together providing a fluid and flexible arena for entertaining larger groups. 

Here, three terrace areas on two different levels wrap around the new extension, with a gravelled area, capable of being used for playing boules or acting as 'overflow' terrace, form the areas of hard landscaping near to the house.  The upper garden retains a large area of lawn for childrens' play, with a line of fruit trees installed to act as a screen but also to form a backdrop to a possible future vegetable garden acessed by the pathway, which will then run through the middle of the productive area.  The terraces and lower garden are screened from the lawn by staggered blocks of evergreen hedging and perennial planting to keep footballs out of the sitting areas, while areas of mixed perennial planting are brought down to the very bottom of the garden, providing scent and visual interest close to the house and arrival zone.

The project is at tender stage, and with committed clients I anticipate a quick decision and some serious earth-shifting in the spring!