Monday, 15 November 2010


I visited the site of a prospective design commission this afternoon, a few miles outside Oxford, on the very edge of a village with views across the nearby countryside.  A beautiful site, waiting for a house to be built and the landscape to be developed accordingly.  
A misty day, even by early afternoon the sun had not penetrated the cold fog, and the scene was quiet and enclosed in the unique way that fog alone can manage.  Distant sounds are muffled, yet the dripping of water from nearby branches is undimmed.  Most magical of all, out of the quiet the rhythmic whistle of swan flight - a pair of mute swans approaching unseen in the fog were preceded by the rasp of their wing beats, reaching a crescendo as they passed overhead, their forms softened by the Gaussian blur of the mist.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

...and a few more...

Iris sikkimensis

Kniphofia 'Little Maid'

Lilium martagon

More IGPOTY images...

Coreopsis verticillata 'Moonbeam'

Helenium 'Moerheim Beauty'

Cyclamen hederifolium

Hosta fortunei


I have submitted images to the International Garden Photographer of the Year competition in the past two years without any success, but this year I have images taken with my new macro lens which I have much higher hopes for - fingers crossed!
Agapanthus africanus

Anemone hupehensis splendens

Allium obliquum

Clematis montana

Miscanthus sinensis 'Malepartus'
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Tuesday, 2 November 2010

An autumn to remember...

The past few weeks have seen the deciduous trees in the UK change to magnificent autumn colouring.  This year the leaves seem to be brighter and more vibrant than for many years - with the exception of the Horse Chestnuts, which appear to have been universally infected with the virus that prematurely destroys their leaves.  The usual suspects - beeches and maples are holding up well as we enter the first week of November, and are reaching the peak of their impact - every day is a bonus now, as gusty winds gather strength and are liable to strip trees bare overnight.  Beyond the reliable colour of these trees there is the contribution made by numerous others - ornamental and otherwise.  Cherries are noticeably more vibrant this year, turning from yellow to orangey-pink, the liquidambars settling to a range of deep reds flushed with purple.  In the hedgerows the sloes and other wild varieties of Prunus are bright buttery yellow, their leaves a contrasting scale with the Field maples, which are now uniformly yellow as well, in this locality.
The effect, of course, is enhanced when the possibility arises of seeing sunlight through the foliage, and we have been fortunate to have a few weeks of reasonable light by which to enjoy the show - there has been some sun on most days lately, and relatively calm conditions so far have allowed the leaves to hang rather than be stripped away.  The images have been taken at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden Arboretum over the past couple of weeks, and show something of the range of colour we are enjoying this season.

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Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Nursery Stories

A key relationship for any garden designer is that with a trusted and reliable nursery.  Plant supply is a dark art, subject to its own seasonal oscillations that are sometimes at odds with what is going on in the garden year, and the advice and support of talented and knowledgeable plantspeople who are also able to supply healthy stock can make the difference between a successful scheme and one which is merely acceptable.
Orchard Dene Nursery near Henley on Thames in Oxfordshire, run by Chris and Toby Marchant is one such.  This is not a retail nursery - stock is grown for wholesale supply to designers and landscapers, including those at the top of the field in the UK.  Calling in on any particular day you are likely to see plant orders assembled for the likes of Andy Sturgeon, Tom Stuart-Smith and Anthony Paul - a roll call of the notable names in our profession. 
It's no surprise that these people come here for their plants - the quality and range is terrific, with every plant on the list 'road-tested' for its garden-worthiness and contribution to a planting.  Chris and Toby have built an enviable reputation for quality and regularly supply plants for the most demanding arena of all, the show gardens, putting their wares under the scrutiny of the harshest judges in the horticultural world.  The plants I used in my own garden, supplied mainly in 9cm pots, have grown away brilliantly this season - it is hard to believe that the planting was only a few weeks old when I photographed it for my website.
The list is particularly strong on plants and groups popular in the 'New Perennial' school of plant design - large, robust perennials with good form and habit that could easily have come from the wild.  Improved forms rarely stray too far from this ideal - overbred plants with their attendant problems don't seem to feature here.  There is a good selection of grasses, particularly varieties of Miscanthus, to go with Persicaria, Salvia, Eupatorium, Helenium and Rudbeckia, amongst many others.  The catalogue also offers great advice on plant combinations, more than one of which has found its way into my garden.
If you live too far distant to make use of Orchard Dene then hopefully you will have an equivalent nearby - the world of horticulture is full of talented, committed and helpful people, ready and willing to assist.
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Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Planting with Style

In a garden designed by Christopher Bradley-Hole in south Oxfordshire, sweeps of naturalistic planting merge together to form a plausible community of wild plants - plausible, but not genuine, and certainly not wild.
The planting is beautiful, however. Here, Bradley-Hole has employed his grid system, with square beds of perhaps four metre dimension separated by gravel paths. The planting is so dense that the pathways become visible only when you are looking directly along them, and each square of the grid echoes its neighbours in the choice of plants. Dynamism and variety are introduced almost mathematically - the proportions of each type of plant change with each bed, and select additions subtly bring new colours or forms to the overall pattern.
Elsewhere in the garden, a fringe of massed grasses and huge Persicarias along the boundary picks up the theme of these plants which runs through the planting as a whole, and a mown circle of grass allows for rough-grass planting of spring bulbs around its perimeter. The terrace, raised above the level of the garden, is fringed by a tall bank bearing swathes of different Persicarias and more grasses - looking at this head on gives the impression of a huge pointillist screen, ranged in colours of rust, plum and tawny yellow.
Some find this pattern of planting somewhat 'spotty' - too many small groupings of plants (often in fact single plants) creating, for them, a hectic mess of plant material.  This is highly skilled design, however - although the plantings cannot be read easily at distance, closer inspection reveals the rhythm built through repeated forms, closely-related varieties of the same plant and the same colours, appearing in the foliage and flowers of completely different species.  I find the style deeply satisfying - a creative response to the environment that suggests wild places and natural communities of plants through highly knowledgeable design.

Paul Ridley Design
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Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Autumn colour

After a relatively overcast August in the UK, when the vibrancy of late summer flowers has been toned down by the grey skies, the sunny opening to September is a reminder of the value of bright light in maximising the impact of late summer and autumn plantings.
Many plants flowering at the moment have a daisy form - either simple as in the Rudbeckia deamii shown above or doubled up as in the Shasta daisies and asters that also make valuable contributions at this time of year.  Other groups with daisy forms at their peak include the annual Cosmos and  Helianthus varieties, Bidens and Coreopsis.  Colours tend to yellow and blue/purple with plenty of whites to soften the clashes.  Some of the sunflowers show wonderful rusty dried-blood reds - 'Velvet Queen' is a favourite, whereas the asters (often quite scruffy plants overall) have a colour range extending from the classic blues and mauves through salmon and white to eye-popping pink (seek out A. 'Andeken an der Alma Potschke').  In short, if you are looking for a daisy to enliven your September garden, you'll find something, although of course the scale of a sunflower will have a very different effect to a cloud of small asters...
I have to confess that I love the simplicity of the single rayed daisies, and the Rudbeckia, with its black cone offsetting the bright yellow petals or the blue of Aster 'King George' contrasting with its orangey-yellow centre are pleasingly unaffected - robust and dependable at a time of the year when to be fussing too much in the garden seems just wrong - we are in wind-down mode and should rightly be enjoying a lull in the ornamental garden after all the hard work of the spring and early summer. 
 It's a happy fact that, with often similar environmental origins, these simple flowers associate superbly with the late-flowering grasses - Miscanthus varieties often have purply-brown feather plumes that would look magnificent behind a stand of the 'Velvet Queen' sunflowers, with perhaps a few of the branching, smaller-flowered 'Italian White' to leaven the mix.  A combination of the Rudbeckia with creamier, less strident Bidens can be partnered effectively with the drooping awns of Stipa gigantea, perhaps loosened further with the extraordinary weaving flower spikes of Stipa barbata.  There is still plenty to enjoy, and while the sun continues to shine in September and October, the daisies are there to bring colour and structure to perennial plantings.

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Monday, 16 August 2010

One year on

There is always a bit of anxiety over seeing a garden design after it has spent a year establishing.  Will it have the intended effect?  Does the design work as hoped?
In the past few days I have I revisited a garden that was redesigned and built last year in Ely.  This is a garden for a weekend cottage that is prone to being left for up to a month at a time - the design and plants needed to be structured and low-maintenance, giving maximum impact throughout the year.  The focus of the garden is the new gravel terrace catching evening light at the end of the garden, surrounded by a simple planting palette of grasses and alliums with agapanthus, daisies and salvias.  The theme of grasses is continued in a block of the frothy Deschampsia flexuosa on the left which will offer a contrast with two blocks of yew clipped into severe rectangles within the grasses.  The yews need another year to bush out and establish before we attempt the initial shaping, so this sculptural element of the design is not yet apparent.  The Deschampsia is backed by a ribbon of the vertically-accented Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' against the wall.  A familiar component of grass plantings, this variety makes a curtain of vertical stems to offset the billowing Deschampsia - the foxy red flower spikes make a lively wind-tossed screen behind the new line of birches which march along this side of the garden.  The trees have had a rough ride this summer, and a couple of them are looking very autumnal already - the twiggy growth still has green beneath the bark, however, and my instinct tells me that these individuals have responded to the stresses of their first summer by shutting down early.

Overall I'm pleased with the result - there are some minor adjustments to the planting I would like to put in place this autumn, but within a couple of years the woody elements of yew, laurel and birch will be established and contributing to the structure and lines of the design as intended.  The best outcome is the satisfaction of the client, who is able to use the garden as a recreational and entertaining space for the first time in 15 years.
There are more images of this garden transformation, from conifer-riddled jungle to the present in my website portfolio here.
Paul Ridley Design
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Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Images now available for sale!

If you enjoy my images, they can now be yours in the form of cards, prints, posters and canvases by visiting Redbubble and searching for 'paulridley'. You will find a gallery of flower images and others, regularly updated.
I hope you like the images on offer - bookmark the site and revisit occasionally to see new work.
Paul Ridley Design

Monday, 2 August 2010

Summer Planting

As summer progresses into August in the Northern hemisphere, light quality changes - by the end of the month the sun is lower in the sky, and afternoon light is tipped towards the red end of the spectrum.  This is the most evocative time of year for me - grasses, seedheads of earlier-flowering perennials and the drumsticks of spent alliums are all ripening, and the tone of the colours softens.  The plants that are still doing their thing may have gloriously coloured and vibrant flowers, but with a gently fading background and less strident lighting these accents are not the eye-popping additions that they might have been a month or two earlier.  We are at the cusp of autumn, and as large numbers of plants fade away, the performers that are really hitting their stride become increasingly valuable.
Many umbellifers (now grouped in the Apiaceae) shine at this time of year - fennels, dill, angelica  and the rest invariably stand well through autumn, and even into winter, their skeletons gradually leached of colour and the seeds eventually released and dispersed.  The heleniums, or sneezeweeds, contribute their mixed warm palette for months - the buttery yellows through to velvety mahogany shades in the petals, via burnt orange mean that there is something in the family for almost any situation.  To extend their season I am experimenting next year with the 'Chelsea chop' - by taking a third off the tops of these plants in May I hope to push the flowering back to August, and reckon that if I do this for a third of the plants I will also get some valuable shorter, sturdier specimens to support those plants that escape the shears.
Eryngiums and thistly plants are all in full swing at present (see my earlier post) and Dahlias are beginning to have an impact in mixed borders.  Plant dahlias with dark foliage and you won't go far wrong .  Crocosmias, with a similar colour range to the heleniums, offer a valuable option for partially-shaded sites, or an interesting contrast of foliage and habit if mixed in with the sneezeweeds.  My all-time favourite is Crocosmia 'Emily McKenzie' - petals in two shades of rich orange, with a purply-tobacco shaded throat.
Many herbs continue well into August - ornamental marjorams (Origanum) are good value, especially O. laevigatum 'Herrenhausen' with its glaucous foliage and clusters of purply-pink flowers.
The best thing about all these plants?  They are crowded with masses of insects at this time of year, so the garden is alive with sound, movement and interest.
Paul Ridley Design

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Thursday, 29 July 2010


It can be a difficult call.  When is figurative sculpture in a garden setting good, and when is it just wrong?  Sometimes it is easy  - if the setting is grand and the sculpture of the highest quality, preferably antique, located in a grove of established trees, as above, then the whole thing feels right.  The gardens of ancient Rome, the huge vistas of the English Landscape tradition and the magnificently ordered spaces of Renaissance Italy all set the precedent for great sculpture, often derived from Greek originals.  The forms of an idealised humanity are pressed into service drawing the eye, sending a message, populating the scene.  We are in our own Arcadia.
With modern sculpture things get a bit more problematic - for me at least.  The huge number of poor quality reproductions in cast stone from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards started the trend for garden statuary in gardens of all sizes, and the habit continues today.  Shepherdesses dressed up like Marie-Antoinette and coy children feeding Disneyesque birds from their hands can still be bought from the average garden centre.   I'm struggling to imagine the setting that would benefit from these all-too-literal presences.
There is plenty of good figurative modern sculpture, however, that suits modern garden styles well - unheroic, relaxed, in a variety of materials that separate them from the traditions of Parian ware and cast concrete. This trend towards figures engaged in the simple activites we ourselves enjoy in a garden - perched on benches, lying supine reading a book - makes them clearly distinct from the gods and titans of Classical sculpture, and equally far from the later tradition of boys holding birdbaths.

At the extreme of this spectrum are figures such as the above - created from biodegradable materials, assembled on site and with a short life, temporary presences inhabiting the garden, Green men.
Paul Ridley Design
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Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Working in Macro

Since buying my Nikkor 105mm micro lens my interest in macro images has rocketed.  I have always been drawn to detail and structure, but with the ability to get in as close as this plants take on a completely new aspect - their colours fade into one another on an almost cellular level, the refinement of spines and stamens is apparent in a way that is impossible to appreciate with the naked eye.  If you have seen some of these images on my other, photographic blog, here is another chance to see what is making my photographic synapses fire at the moment.  Hope you enjoy the images...
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Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Spiky Plants

I love the drama of big spiky plants.  As the summer moves to its later stages, the many garden plants that have a thistly habit reach their peak, and their jagged outlines and often grey-silvery colouring are a good antidote to the mounds and cushions of more vibrantly coloured perennials.
Some varieties are perennial - the globe thistles (Echinops), artichokes (Cynara) and bear's breeches (Acanthus) are among these, but some of the most eye-catching are biennials which, having spent a year looking decidedly underwhelming suddenly sprout into amazing Gothic candelabra.  The Scotch Thistle (Onopordum acanthium) is one such - eight feet tall, with felted white leaves in huge sheaves around its winged stem, it branches wildly to bear tomato-sized thistle heads of blue-purple.  It is invaluable as an accent in larger schemes, but give it room - the leaves make uncomfortable close-quarters partners in small spaces.  Once you plant it you have it forever - it self-seeds like crazy.
One family of garden-worthy plants has a wide range of forms that run from something the size of the Onopordum down to much less threatening two-footers.  The eryngiums, or sea hollies do have some perennials among their number, such as the stately E.pandanifolium (widely branched flower stalks to about seven feet, with, in the dark Chelsea Physic Garden form, rusty claret buttons at the ends) - the most elaborately formed flowers belong, however, to the biennial Eryngium giganteum, commonly known as Miss Wilmott's Ghost. 
Green in bud, the whole plant reaches its peak in a blaze of silver, the extravagantly jagged ruff to each flower veined with pale buff as it dries.  The blue flowers are loved by insects, including wasps, and once they are over the plant decays beautifully, holding its structure throughout the winter, the deeply cut and thorny flower heads never better than when frosted on a sunny morning.  The story goes that the Edwardian plantswoman and gardener Ellen Wilmott surreptitiously introduced this, her favourite plant, to other gardens by sprinkling the seed as she visited.  Like the Onopordum it is a vigorous self-seeder, favouring hot situations and gravelly soil.  Besides the species, there is a selected form with even more flamboyant costume, E.g. 'Silver Ghost', but either plant will reward you with a glamorous late-summer display to set against daylilies and grasses, with which they associate particularly well.
Paul Ridley Design
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Friday, 16 July 2010

A Sunny Courtyard 2

The planting in my own small courtyard garden is rapidly establishing itself - just ten weeks after planting some of the healthiest stock I have ever seen, courtesy of Orchard Dene Nursery, the garden is a leafy haven, with wonderfully coloured perennials picking up the colour of the Cor-ten steel tank and, incidentally, its fish.  Bronzy-green Carex testacea, fantastically varied Heleniums and purple punctuations from the bomb-proof salvia, S. nemorosa 'Caradonna' are thriving in the sun and heat, with necessary shade at times from the pleached hornbeams at the end of the plot.  These were an extravagance, but worth every penny and stubbed toe in getting their 4m lengths through the house - they screen a pretty ugly view and bring the garden up to first floor level.  As the living accommodation is on the first floor, the extended and newly-canopied balcony leads to a view of this flying hedge, and the glass screen to the balcony allows the view to be appreciated from the interior.
The fish have doubled in size during our two-week absence, thanks to our assiduous house-sitters, although I think we are one down in number - Monty, visible in the top photo, is the likely culprit.
Water plants grow exceptionally fast, and I am looking forward to the first water-lily flower.  As a novice to water gardening I was worried about algae filling the tank up, but over the past three weeks the water has cleared beautifully, without any intervention.
There will be bulbs to plant this autumn, then the spring show to look forward to after a winter admiring the skeletons of the grasses and fennels that surround the garden. 
You can see more images of the development of this garden, from plan through to build, on my website here.