These blog posts are produced by James Scott, Garden Company MD and Principal Designer:
'Creating beautiful outdoor spaces for people to enjoy is very rewarding. The purpose of this blog is for me to share some reflections on our work and our industry with you. Your comments and views in return are very welcome indeed'.

Garden design ideas that turn public spaces into ‘people places’

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I always enjoy working on public spaces.  It’s a great joy to apply ideas about garden design in a way that enables and encourages people to interact in a positive way with the space around them. This was described at the last SGD (Society of Garden Designers) Awards event as ‘turning a space into a place’ – as one of the Judges said: ‘We tend to visually capture spaces to reveal design ideas, layouts, patterns, textures and colours, but, in doing so, we miss seeing them as living spaces – places which act as a setting for our lives and places which have the power to bring people together.Gardens do and must bring people together’.

So – what makes a public space a ‘people place’?

The theory 

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) – a US-based non-profit organisation – has evaluated thousands of public spaces around the world.  In their view: ‘great public spaces are where celebrations are held, social and economic exchanges take place, friends run into each other, and cultures mix. They are the “front porches” of our public institutions – libraries, field houses, schools – where we interact with each other … when the spaces work well, they serve as a stage for our public lives’.

Furthermore, the PPS has found that successful places have four key qualities:

  1. they are accessible and linked conveniently to other places
  2. people are engaged in activities there; the place is put to good use
  3. the place is comfortable (safe, clean, places to sit, ‘green’ and attractive)
  4. the place is sociable (people meet each other there to interact, and take people when they come to visit)

For more detail see the PPS article.

A practical example – Hare Court, Inner Temple Gardens, London

We have been fortunate to work with the Head Gardener of the Inner Temple Gardens near the Royal Courts of Justice in London over the last few years.  Our most recent joint project has been to renovate a historic courtyard which has undergone an exciting transformation to create a peaceful woodland landscape in the heart of legal London.  My team and I have found this a really satisfying project to work on.  We have been acutely aware of the historical architecture all around. It has been a real privilege (and responsibility) to be able to add to this special environment in a small way.

Hare Court is a planted courtyard which is home to a number of Barristers’ Chambers and residences. With a network of old Purbeck stone paths and draining channels that date back to the era of the Great Fire of London, the courtyard boasts four birch trees which are symbolic of the 4 Hare brothers who were members of the Inn in the late 16th and early 17th century.

The courtyard is surrounded on all sides by tall buildings, creating views from many different heights and angles as well as creating a ‘goldfish bowl’ effect for users of the space.  The existing design did not particularly engage with the Members of Chambers and residents or encourage exploration – people tended to travel quickly across the courtyard from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ in the course of their day, without making the most of being outdoors, away from desks and formal meetings and in the open air.

The new design set out to encourage better use and enjoyment of the space by evoking the generally respectful and peaceful usage that is found in the main garden of The Inner Temple.  A sinuous path was constructed to connect all the areas (in addition to the existing paths).  This created a more pleasing geometry, encouraging the user to wander into new planting areas.  The new path is variable in width and widens to accommodate seating areas and a large terrace area from which ‘Justice’ – a sculpture by artist Tanya Russell – can be admired.

A place for contemplation in the heart of legal London

A place for contemplation in the heart of legal London

Other garden design ideas to increase the appeal of the space concerned the new planting. Softer and denser planting was used to absorb any noise as it was previously prone to heavy echoes.  A diverse range of planting was carefully selected to cope with the unique and demanding microclimate of Hare Court.  The challenge was to find plants tolerant to shade, strong sun and limited irrigation whilst also creating a cohesive effect that would soften the strong vertical lines and brickwork of the surrounding buildings.  The new planting is denser and lusher than previous schemes, on slightly mounded contours to create further interest.  An upper area has planting tolerant of drier sunnier conditions and as the planting progresses to the lower area it becomes more shade tolerant and reminiscent of woodland edge planting.

Colleagues gathering on the newly-created terrace at Hare Court

Colleagues gathering on the newly-created terrace at Hare Court

At a recent opening party for Hare Court, we were delighted to see people (some with their dogs!) wandering about the courtyard – admiring plants, trying out the new seating locations and generally enjoying the space/place. We had called in earlier that day to chat with our client, and it was wonderful to see people having impromptu conversations outside, and bringing their sandwiches to eat in the (intermittent) sunshine.

Other public spaces that we have worked on in recent years can be found here and include business parks, Head Offices and school grounds.  There is no ‘one size fits all’ of course in the world of design, and in each case we have applied our ideas about garden design to meet a specific set of requirements.

Conclusion

In his book ‘The social life of small urban spaces’, William Whyte writes about how public spaces contribute fundamentally to the quality of life of individuals and society. When we think about how to create physical places that facilitate positive interactions between people and develop healthy communities, he concludes that ‘It is far easier, simpler to create spaces that work for people than those that do not — and a tremendous difference it can make to the life of a city’.

How true.

What public spaces do you most enjoy spending time in – and why?  We would be interested to hear from you…

7 garden design ideas for an English country garden

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We are incredibly fortunate in the UK to have one of the best climates for creating beautiful gardens, and the English country garden is renowned worldwide.   Our clients often look for guidance on creating their own version – which needs to be functional and beautiful, blending harmoniously with its surroundings.

So, what makes for a great English country garden?  In my experience, there are as many answers to this as there are gardens – however, there are some simple design ideas to which I constantly return.

1. Provide foundation planting

1. Provide foundation planting

2. Make magical views

2. Make magical views

3. Balance informal planting with structure

3. Balance informal planting with structure

4. Create secluded retreats

4. Create secluded retreats

5. Bring a kitchen garden into the ornamental space

5. Bring a kitchen garden into the ornamental space

6. Construct a wildflower meadow

6. Construct a wildflower meadow

7. Find a way to include water

7. Find a way to include water

1. Provide foundation planting2. Make magical views3. Balance informal planting with structure4. Create secluded retreats5. Bring a kitchen garden into the ornamental space6. Construct a wildflower meadow7. Find a way to include water

1. Provide foundation planting

A garden design is only successful if it sits comfortably in its surroundings.  By using planting at the base of buildings, walls and terraces, you can blend the boundaries between these ‘hard’ structures and the garden.  This creates a softer, more pleasing effect which is more in keeping with the English country garden style than straight lines. In the garden shown (1), I have used foundation planting for both the house and terrace which merges the boundaries between hard and soft elements of the space.

2. Make magical views

English country gardens are inviting and attractive.  It’s important to make functional elements of the garden (e.g. paths, steps, raised borders) a pleasing aspect rather than just a necessary feature.  In the garden shown (2), a simple path becomes a sensory walkway by using a pergola and fragrant climbing plants.  The whole effect is to frame the view to a gazebo and create a destination point.

3. Balance informal planting with structure

The English country garden lends itself to abundant and apparently informal planting.  However, on its own and without structure this can look rather unkempt and haphazard for large parts of the year.  I love to use naturalistic plants in combination with more formal planting – yew, hedges, domes and hornbeam for example – which provide a vertical element, sculptural form and sense of order.  These all-year round ‘formal’ plants can be softened and framed with beautiful grasses such as Calamagrostis brachytricha & Deschampsia Bronze Veil, late flowering perennials (for example, Verbena bonariensis and Aster x frikartii Monch).  In the garden shown (3), the grasses and perennials provide colour, texture and romance; the trees and hedges provide order.

4. Create secluded retreats

When reflecting on ideas for a garden design, I consider carefully how the garden will make people feel, as well as how it will look.  I strongly believe that a beautiful garden can help you to relax and unwind and I like to create intimate havens where people can feel completely immersed in the life of the garden.  These spaces can often be created with informal planting and I like using plants that will attract bees and butterflies, enhancing the feeling of having escaped from city/town life – see the image of garden (4).  Allium Christophii, Nepeta Six Hills Giant, Penstemon Garnet & Salvia May Night.

5. Bring a kitchen garden into the ornamental space

Although you may have the space for a large vegetable garden at some distance from the house, it’s good to incorporate a carefully-designed kitchen garden closer to the house too –  as long as it is aesthetically pleasing as well as practical (image 5)!  Pottering about in your own orderly kitchen garden before dinner and selecting a few home-grown herbs or vegetables can be a wonderful way to enjoy your country garden (and engage your children/grandchildren too).

6. Construct a wildflower meadow

We are lucky at the Garden Company to be based on the edge of the Chilterns, an area of outstanding natural beauty.  I love to construct spaces which reflect this ‘backdrop’ and a wildflower meadow is a great way to achieve this.  Meadows do take perseverance and several years to establish; however, once achieved they are relatively low maintenance and require just 1 cut per year.  Mown paths through meadows create enjoyable journeys and I like to embed seating areas or orchards within the space to draw people along (image 6). Meadows are the perfect foil to orchard or small meadow trees native to the areas in which we work, increasing wildlife habitats and biodiversity.

7. Find a way to include water

As well as its obvious benefits to a garden, water can add huge value to your English country garden experience.  It provides a different habitat for many plants and creatures, has a cooling effect in the summer and adds a new dimension in the form of movement and reflections.  Gentle sounds of moving water can also mask unwanted noise (traffic, neighbours).  In this example (image 7), we converted an old, unused swimming pool into a formal pond with stepping stones.  You can enhance a smaller garden with a simple pond or water feature.

I hope that the ideas outlined here have helped you to think about your plans for your own garden. For more inspiration, why not get outdoors and look at some of the wonderful examples of gardens near you – the National Gardens Scheme is a great source of places to visit, and the garden styles are many and varied, from English country garden to urban chic.

For a closer look at other Garden Company projects and a wide range of our garden design ideas, please visit our website pages.

Award-winning landscape designs

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James with John Brookes MBE FSGD who received a Special SGD Award

James with John Brookes MBE FSGD who received a Special SGD Award

It’s hard to believe that it’s already a month since the Society of Garden Designers held its fifth Annual Awards ceremony.  With more entries than ever before and tickets for the event in high demand, nearly 400 people gathered at the Landmark Hotel in London for a celebration that lasted into the early hours of the next day.  Host Joe Swift and the Award Sponsors revealed winners in 22 categories, demonstrating a wonderful range of landscape designs and designers at all stages of their careers

As SGD Council Member responsible for organising the Awards process, it was a personal highlight for me to spend time with both John Brookes MBE FSGD who received a Special SGD Award and also Christopher Bradley-Hole FSGD who received a Lifetime Achievement Award. Each of these inspirational designers have influenced me significantly throughout my own landscape design career.  In addition, one of the stand-out aspects of the whole evening for me was the evident passion, enthusiasm and energy for beautiful landscape designs that permeate our profession.  This was made very clear by Richard Sneesby from the Judging Panel.  I felt that Richard’s words, borrowed here (thanks Richard!), really captured the positive influence a garden space can have on bringing people together and how gardens act as a setting for our lives:

We have seen many designers enter gardens for the first time and the quality has been exceptional.  All the shortlisted gardens and winners have collaborated with other professions to create beautiful places with exceptional attention to detail, and many with exquisite flourishes.  They have squeezed ingenious solutions into tiny spaces and created vast gardens which have become part of the wider landscape…

The photographs of completed gardens that we have seen tonight are gorgeous – but most don’t contain any people.  We tend to visually capture spaces to reveal design ideas, layouts, patterns, textures and colours, but, in doing so, we miss seeing them as living spaces – places which act as a setting for our lives and places which have the power to bring people together.

Gardens do and must bring people together.  Not only when completed, but also during their conception. 

Richard’s comments about the contrast between ‘space’ and ‘place’ were particularly apt as he went on to present the Judges’ Award to Dan Lobb MSGD, Winner of the Designing for Community Spaces Award for the Breaker’s Yard in Hackney, east London. This 5-year project has resulted in a much-enjoyed urban setting and edible garden.

Joe Swift, Awards Host, pictured here with Helen Scott from the Garden Company

Joe Swift, Awards Host, pictured here with Helen Scott from the Garden Company

I left the Landscape Hotel next day feeling (despite lack of sleep and *slight* headache) very positive about the future for high-quality landscape design.  Since then, the SGD has secured sponsorship from various organisations for next years’ Awards, including CED Stone Group as Headline Sponsor.  In the next month, I will hand over my role as organiser to Cassandra Crouch MSGD who I know will do an excellent job in taking everything forward (thanks Cassandra!!).  To close, I urge any of you designers out there to think about potential award-winning landscape designs in your own portfolios. Visit www.sgdawards.com to find out more about entering for 2017. For a peek into what the judges will be looking for, visit my blog about last year’s Awards process: ‘The Secrets of Successful Garden Design’.

Landscape architect Molly Kumer joins the Garden Company team

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Molly Kumer

Molly Kumer

The Garden Company, based in Hertfordshire, provides landscape design services nationally. This year, our design services will be enhanced by the appointment of Molly Kumer, who is moving to the UK from Slovenia to join the company and develop our use of computer-aided design.

With a Master’s Degree in Landscape Architecture and almost 10 years’ experience in garden design, Molly is well-placed to take on her new role. Based until recently in the lovely city of Ljubljana in Slovenia, she has also worked on Tom Stuart-Smith’s garden in Hertfordshire. This experience developed her love of English garden design and set her on the road to looking for a permanent position in the UK.

We are delighted that Molly will be joining the Garden Company team and look forward to working with her. Our design work has served us well over the last 25 years – as you can see from our track record in winning national awards! However, by bringing in more CAD skills we will be able to share information even more effectively and efficiently with our clients, work teams and suppliers.

The Garden Company wishes you a Merry Christmas

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The Christmas season provides us with an opportunity to wish you a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. As always, it has been our loyal clients and business partners who have made being in business such a pleasure all year long, a huge personal thank you from the Garden Company team.

We are grateful for another year’s successful trading and we were glad to send a Christmas donation once again to Perennial, the charity dedicated to people of all ages who work/ed in horticulture and are facing tough times. We know that Perennial makes a real difference to peoples’ lives.

It has been an extra-special year for the Garden Company and we’ve enjoyed being involved in a great variety of exciting projects and events – here are a few of our favourite images from the Garden Company Twitter archives

january-2016-getting-ready-for-the-annual-sgd-awards-ceremony

January 2016 – getting ready for the annual SGD Awards ceremony

misty-march-morning-visiting-a-design-and-build-project-in-the-chilterns-a-few-years-on

Misty March morning visiting a design-and-build project in the Chilterns a few years on

monthly-plant-identification-session-at-the-garden-company-base

Monthly plant identification session at the Garden Company base

gaddesden-place-lovely-garden-with-beautiful-view-over-the-chilterns-june

Gaddesden Place, lovely garden with beautiful view over the Chilterns – June

berkhamsted-project-contemporary-scheme-overlooking-national-trusts-ashridge-hertfordshire-july-2016

Berkhamsted project, contemporary scheme overlooking National Trust’s Ashridge, Hertfordshire – July 2016

lime-tree-avenue-8-years-on-from-planting-august-2016

Lime Tree Avenue 8 years on from planting – August 2016

hare-court-inner-temple-garden-lovely-historic-courtyard-september-2016

Hare Court, Inner Temple Garden, lovely historic courtyard – September 2016

bali-award-winning-garden-in-pinner

BALI award-winning garden in Pinner

two-of-our-team-getting-a-tree-fern-cosy-for-winter

Two of our team getting a tree fern cosy for winter

peaceful-morning-spent-setting-out-marginal-plants

Peaceful morning spent setting out marginal plants

January 2016 – getting ready for the annual SGD Awards ceremonyMisty March morning visiting a design-and-build project in the Chilterns a few years onMonthly plant identification session at the Garden Company baseGaddesden Place, lovely garden with beautiful view over the Chilterns – JuneBerkhamsted project, contemporary scheme overlooking National Trust’s Ashridge, Hertfordshire  – July 2016Lime Tree Avenue 8 years on from planting – August 2016Hare Court, Inner Temple Garden, lovely historic courtyard – September 2016BALI award-winning garden in PinnerTwo of our team getting a tree fern cosy for winterPeaceful morning spent setting out marginal plants

For more examples of our recent projects throughout Hertfordshire, Beds, Bucks and North London, please visit http://bit.ly/2gaO3U8

The Garden Company office will be closed from December 23rd and we re-open for business on January 4th. We have some exciting new projects planned for 2017 and new people bringing new skills into the business too. If you’re thinking about a landscape design or build project for next year (or you are looking for the opportunity to join an award-winning team!) then do get in touch on 01442 832666. Your project/you could be featuring in our gallery of favourite images this time next year.

​Landscape design ideas following Futurescape 2016

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​Landscape design ideas following Futurescape 2016You may have noticed (ahem) that we have been celebrating our 25th anniversary here at the Garden Company, which has been a great opportunity to celebrate – and has also prompted us to look at what lies ahead.  I took part recently in ‘The Detail is in the Design’ panel at this year’s Futurescape conference with this at the forefront of my mind – what can we predict with any certainty about landscape design’s future, what ideas are being developed, what are the main trends that will affect the industry, my colleagues and clients?

Having listened to my fellow speakers, discussed various questions raised by delegates and considered my personal experience over the years, here’s my view:

1.    Landscape design ideas will become more ecologically sound and emotionally rewarding

Designers and clients are already expressing ecological interests and concerns through a wide range of choices, from planting lists featuring native species to locally sourced materials that fit comfortably within a context.  Concern for local wildlife will also become more and more part of the design concept. People will add more edible planting to their schemes and interest in the journey from ‘garden to table’ will flourish – foraging could even play a part.  In an ever-more digital age, designers will have the opportunity to re-connect people with nature and provide huge emotional satisfaction in this way. As part of this ‘re-connection’, designers and clients will be even more focused on enhancing the relationship between home and garden – marrying the indoor spaces to the outdoors, and ensuring flow, harmony and a sense of continuity throughout.  For me, these are all positive moves, to be embraced by us and enjoyed by our clients.

2.    Clients (new and existing) will relate to us differently

Building and maintaining positive, productive client relationships has always been a core part of what we do, as it is for any service business. This isn’t going to change – if anything, clients will become more selective and discerning in an era of austerity measures and economic uncertainty, so winning – and deserving – a client’s trust will be key.  What is changing fast though is the way in which we communicate with clients about their needs and expectations. Social media – for marketing, sales and ongoing project management/delivery of our services – is set to grow and grow.  For example, blog posts, tweets and up-to-date images of our work will be expected by clients as a given, not a ‘nice-to-have’. The good news is that this approach is custom-made for what we do – it enables us to show people our expertise rather than asking them to put their trust in us blindly. When we publish content via social media, it enables prospects to find us and sample a piece of our expertise immediately.  Personally, I fully welcome these changes – because I prefer sharing our genuine abilities and expertise with others over a traditional ‘sales pitch’.   In future, this is how we will build familiarity and trust with new and existing clients.

3.    Finding and keeping talented people will require new thinking

Finding, growing and keeping talented people is one of my main tasks as the founder of the Garden Company.  It’s always been a challenge and is likely to become more so.  We are losing baby-boomers from the workforce, the education system is in a state of flux and the free movement of workers is hard to predict.  However, our recruitment strategy is very simple and we will continue with it – we are always looking  for energetic and client-focused people to join our team – we don’t wait for vacancies to crop up. College qualifications are great but are not a pre-requisite – what matters most is a passion for gardens and a desire to ‘wow’ clients. We will continue with our commitment to continuous training and development – for example, supporting people through an accredited apprenticeship programme every year. It’s a bit like planting trees today to reap the benefits later.

What is changing fast though is (a) how we recruit  - again, social media will play a big part and (b) how we manage people once they’ve joined – recognising that their expectations are different to those when we first started recruiting over 20 years ago (not better or worse, but certainly different!).  We will need to constantly develop how we interact with, motivate and reward our staff. A simple example for us is getting company news out to everyone quickly via group texts rather than written memos.  In my opinion, finding talented people and knowing how to keep them engaged will be one of the most challenging aspects of running a successful design and build practice in the coming years.

So, change is afoot in some key areas for us and set to continue:

  1. Landscape design ideas will become more ecologically sound & emotionally rewarding
  2. Clients (new and existing) will relate to us differently
  3. Finding and keeping talented people will require new thinking

I’ve said it before in these blog posts, this is a great industry to work in.  We are in the privileged position of creating beautiful spaces for people to enjoy.  A lot of that is brought about by sheer hard work.  Some of that hard work has been automated already and even more will be automated in years to come.  However, I believe that the sparks of creativity and passion for gardens that lie at the heart of every beautiful place we create cannot be automated.  We will continue to listen intently to our clients, understand what they want and need from us, and use our technical skills and expertise to go on and create it.  If this was easy, it would have been automated long ago! Creativity and passion are not easy to mimic -  as the great, and sadly late, Leonard Cohen said: ‘If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often’.  Luckily, when creativity and passion do come together the results can be outstanding and that is why I am continue to be excited about the work that we do.

If you have any comments about this post, then please do add them below. Finally, a special thanks to Jim and Lisa Wilkinson at Pro Landscaper for providing another thought-provoking conference experience.

The Garden Company is marking its 25th Anniversary

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Garden Company managers and office team

Garden Company managers and office team

This year we are celebrating 25 successful years in business.  We set up the Garden Company way back in 1991 in Barnet with just two of us and a few garden maintenance clients. To put things in context, ‘Iron Maiden’ were top of the charts, people were queuing at the cinema to watch Terminator 2 and I – like most people – had no mobile phone.  I find it hard to imagine running the business today with no internet, no email and no smartphones!

 A lot has happened since those early days, not just in technology terms, and I’d like to take the opportunity of this special anniversary to say a few important ‘thankyous’.

Delighted to be BALI winners this year

Delighted to be BALI winners this year

Firstly, a huge thank you to our clients for trusting us with your precious gardens and outdoor spaces.  We know that you choose us with great care, and it is a real privilege to work with you and for you to create, develop and nurture your gardens.  We do have a fantastic track record over the years in meeting your needs and expectations – evidence for this can be found in the long trail of National Landscaping Awards that we started to gain in 1996. We have won another 21 since then – including a new BALI Award added just last week. Winning these awards is a huge professional achievement for all of us at the company and we believe it is due to not only technical ‘knowhow’ and plain hard work, but also to our client-focused culture and ways of working.

 Of course I want to say thank you to everybody working in the business, whether out in all weathers building and maintaining gardens or in the office, managing teams and projects and keeping the business running.  You might be surprised to hear that between us (that is, everybody working in the business today) we have nearly 100 years of service! That means that those people that joined us this year have joined a company with a huge amount of experience and knowledge about making beautiful gardens.  We are equally proud to welcome our recent joiners and delighted that our apprenticeship scheme will be put to great use in the coming year with four more team members signed up to work on NVQs levels 2 & 3.

 Thank you too to Kathie Coss who set up the business with me 25 years ago.  We both have many memories of good times and a few challenges we have overcome too!  Thank you to other people that have moved on (inside and outside the industry) but stayed in touch, recently sending us good wishes for our anniversary – including our own ‘Garden Company couple’, Ian and Ellie Harris.

 I want to thank also our close suppliers and business partners.  It is a pleasure to work with such knowledgeable and helpful people.  And thank you to those fellow designers who choose us to build their gardens for them because they know that we will endeavor to build their creations as envisaged.  Over the years we have worked with many designers and I am grateful to them all. There are a few that I have particularly learned a great deal from and who have helped set the standard to which we work. In particular, I would mention Julie Toll (FSGD), Andrew Wenham (MSGD) and Acres Wild (winners of the SGD’s Grand Prize in 2015). We are very proud of our positive reputation throughout the industry.

Several people have asked me recently what I think the next 25 years hold in store for the Garden Company.  Obviously, none of us can predict with certainty what the UK economy is going to do over that timescale (!) – but I genuinely believe that this is a great industry to be in.  It’s creative, full of talented people, much of the work cannot be automated and the end-result – delivered with care and attention to detail – brings people great pleasure and celebrates the best of the British landscape.   I see steady growth for the Garden Company, especially in the larger domestic garden design and build market and continued growing demand for our services in building gardens for other designers.  I may not be at the helm in 25 years’ time (hoping to be following the England cricket team on tour by then!) but I look forward to steering the company from strength to strength in the coming years while ‘putting something back’ by association with two great professional bodies, the SGD and BALI. Landscape design and horticulture is a wonderful place to work – I see attracting and developing new talent into the industry as one of our most exciting challenges in the years ahead.

Chelsea Flower Show reflections – a kind of beauty in imperfection

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So, what did you think?!  It’s two weeks since Chelsea Flower Show came to an end for another year, and I have been reflecting on what I saw over the 3 days that I spent there.  Every year I like to identify what really ‘stood out’ for me, what I will remember about the show by this time next year and – most importantly – what will most influence me when designing gardens for clients from now on.

Overall, I thought that the show was as impressive as ever. The detail on the best gardens was exquisite.  It is always hard to choose a favourite and I could only narrow it down to three …

Steps and secret path in James Basson's L'Occitane Garden

Steps and secret path in James Basson’s L’Occitane Garden

The garden that I would most like to spend time in was James Basson’s Provencal landscape for L’Occitane, because it felt real and uncontrived (OK, I realise that as it was a temporary installation, that is an oxymoron!).  At face value, some might have felt it was a recreation of a scene rather than a garden – however, in my view, it still had a strong underlying geometry and the plantsmanship was superb.

Andy Sturgeon's Telegraph Garden

Andy Sturgeon’s Telegraph Garden

Andy Sturgeon’s Telegraph garden was, in my opinion, fairly awarded the Best in Show (with James Basson and Cleve West also worthy recipients had it gone to either of them). It had a lovely crisp geometry, restrained use of planting and great atmosphere created by the monolithic bronze structures. The presence of the structures was beautifully balanced by the floating detail of the bridges which gave the overall scheme a lightness of touch. I don’t agree with those saying it was a very masculine garden. Of my three favourites this one had the most innovation. It was the garden that most pushed the boundaries of design and that may well have tipped the Judges’ opinion in its favour, especially after Dan Pearson received the top award for a very naturalistic garden last year.

Lovely path detail and planting in Cleve West's M&G Garden

Lovely path detail and planting in Cleve West’s M&G Garden

Cleve West’s M&G garden in many ways sat between James Basson’s and Andy Sturgeon’s. The planting was more lush. It had a natural feel but not taken to the extremes of James Basson’s. I loved the path which featured large natural stone slabs set into patches of much smaller stones which in turn contrasted quite dramatically with the sawn stone of the steps and terrace. Cleeve used some large rocks which provided substance to the design, the tops of which were carved out to provide bird baths to the delight of the local blackbirds!

I always look for something groundbreaking at Chelsea – what will have the biggest influence on garden design and gardening after the show is over? I believe James Basson’s use of plants will be very influential. They were not perfect!  Some were a little misshapen, others had dead and broken branches left on.  In years gone by, anything but perfection in plants would have resulted in criticism from judges and no Gold medal.  James created a beautiful space that felt great to be in (I can testify to this as I shared some champagne in the garden with James and Helen Basson on Press Day). In contrast, for me it made some of the planting in other gardens feel overblown and forced.

So –  I am sensing a move towards ‘real’ planting. I feel in tune with an approach which doesn’t rely heavily on irrigation and fertiliser to give results. Instead, beautiful, inspiring gardens are created by setting the right plants in the right place and associating them naturally with their neighbours. Rather like people, James has shown that beauty also lies in the imperfections. I like the way that the novelist Alice Walker summarised the relationship between imperfection, perfection and beauty: “In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.” Or as Conrad Hall (cinematographer) observed: “there is a kind of beauty in imperfection”.

To be successful, my own designs have to fit into their environment as well as being aesthetically pleasing and of course fulfilling the client’s brief.  I rely on a strong underlying geometry to create beautiful gardens serving many different purposes. For examples of our work throughout North London and the South-East, please see our Design projects.

 

 

The secrets of successful garden design

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The Society of Garden Designers held its fourth annual Awards Ceremony last week.  The venue was the prestigious Landmark London Hotel, providing a superb setting in which to celebrate garden design at the highest standards in the UK.  This year there were 19 Awards in total, with categories including Pocket Garden, Hardscape and Large Residential Garden. Entrants ranged from students to Fellows of the Society.

SGD Awards Ceremony 2015

SGD Awards Ceremony 2015

I believe that everybody involved in the Awards process finds it an energizing experience.  One of the judges commented to me that they felt privileged to take part – to see the ‘best of the best’ emerging from the entries and to reach consensus with other judges on what constitutes excellence.

So, what do the judges really look for?  All of the entries are beautiful, professionally designed gardens – that is a given.  What else is required?  Browsing through the judges’ comments on the winning gardens, these are the phrases that struck me.  Many focus of course on the design concept ….

  • Very sensitively designed.
  • Good design for a difficult site.
  • A good honest design.
  • Conceptually interesting and well laid out.  
  • A very clean design that deals with the space with confidence.  
  • A sophisticated approach to the handling of the space.
  • Neat simple design when seen from house.  
  • Good all-season garden.
  • Beautiful honest design – less is more.
  • Good from all angles.
  • Clever exploration of width and space

Execution is important too … e.g.

  • Great detailing
  • Good constructional detail.
  • Clever use of natural resources
  • Good all year round design that has been very well executed.

Planting plays its part … the judges observed:

  • Sophisticated and harmonious planting.
  • Great seasonal planting that works very hard all year round.  
  • Diversity of colour and texture that works well in situ
  • Planting arrangements are very thoughtfully placed.

Not to forget how it feels to be in the garden …

  • A real sense of a journey
  • A lovely place to be in

And last but not least … what did the client think?!

  • Perfectly answered the client’s brief

I find it amazing that whilst there are as many solutions to a particular design problem as there are designers, nearly all the statements above apply to any well designed space. We are unhindered by limitless possibilities yet bound by many rules. What other profession is so challenging yet so satisfying?

James and Helen Scott at the SGD Awards 2015

James and Helen Scott at the SGD Awards 2015

Personally, I came away feeling hugely inspired by my industry friends and colleagues.  It is great to know what is being achieved for our clients.  In my current SGD role (I am the Council Member responsible for the Awards), I am rightly unable to enter any of my own design work. When I finally leave Council I certainly will enter, but with some trepidation as I know the competition will be strong!

For a full list of finalists and winners, plus more detailed judges’ comments, please visit http://www.sgdawards.com/

Horticulture is a great place to work

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I had a real reminder last week of how great it is to work in horticulture, when I went along to Perennial’s annual fundraising party (the UK charity providing support services to those in need in the industry e.g. disability, ill-health. www.perennial.org.uk ). It was a wonderful evening, raising record funds, and a very positive environment in which to catch up with friends and colleagues from across the sector.

A view from Skyloft, London

A view from Skyloft, London

Being amongst the 300+ people at the Skyloft in Millbank Tower and discussing exciting projects (past, present and future) made me feel very grateful for the opportunities that I have had throughout my career.  I have been able to do great work and collaborate with many talented colleagues since leaving Merrist Wood College way back in the 80’s. My first job was for a London practice as a Landscape Designer and Manager (a real learning curve in my early 20s!).  In 1991 I set up the Garden Company in Chipperfield near Hemel Hempstead and business has grown ever since (yes, we have a big anniversary this year!).

It is possible in this industry to make a significant positive difference to peoples’ daily lives, at home and in public spaces too, and the benefits of spending time in gardens and gardening are well known. I love to see people enjoying being in the gardens that we have built.  I also feel privileged to work so closely with nature – my favourite gardens are those where we draw on the natural environment, creating havens where people relax and unwind.  What a privilege to enable that to happen.

Interestingly, January is officially the nation’s favourite time to change job roles (according to a recent report from the recruitment site Glassdoor). Apparently it’s a case of New Year, new job for many people. For those of you (or your family/friends) that are looking for a career change and especially for young adults just starting out on their careers, I would like to shout out the praises of this wonderful industry!

For guidance about getting started on such a career change or new career – see the Society of Garden Design website (www.sgd.org.uk) and also the British Association of Landscape Industries (www.bali.org.uk).  On a personal note, we are actively recruiting at the moment for people to join our busy practice – in landscape, maintenance or summer work experience roles. For details, please take a look at www.thegardenco.co.uk/careers.

To close, a ‘just-in-time’ Happy New Year to all of our clients, old and new, and to everybody that we work with – from all at the Garden Company.