Garden tour – a design case study

In this blog post, my aim is to describe the design process I follow whenever I’m given a new design opportunity.  I will do this by reference to a design case study. Any new design enquiry is usually against a background of several ongoing projects. During the time period between the first and second client meetings, I find myself reflecting on everything that I’ve heard from the client and what I have seen of the space. I mull over factors such as how the client plans to use the garden, how it is related to the setting, what design problems and opportunities might occur.

That’s really an enjoyable period.  I am seeing and building the garden in my head, and not necessarily thinking very hard about it!  When I get to the drawing stage, I become very focused, but the ‘mulling over’ first helps to make that a very natural flow.  In this blog post, I’d like to illustrate the process by describing a recent design-and-build project in Hertfordshire.

Client brief

Our clients asked us to transform their one-acre garden set in a beautiful location on the top of the Chiltern Hills (an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) in Hertfordshire. The garden design needed to sit comfortably in a farmland setting yet have a contemporary, modern feel. Being keen cooks, our clients also required a small kitchen herb garden as well as a larger vegetable garden and orchard so that they could grow more of their own supplies.

Design challenges

The house and garden are in a lovely setting, but the garden felt very open and quite exposed to the elements.  There was also a sense of being overlooked by a neighbouring property.  A sense of sanctuary and privacy was required around the house whilst maintaining a visual connection with the surrounding countryside.  Views within the garden needed to be created and framed to give a sense of scale.

Design solution

I began with a strong rectilinear geometry, to connect the house to the garden and create attractive, separate spaces.  Trees and clipped hedges were used to strengthen the geometry before the areas were over-layered with softer, more naturalistic planting. Further hedging, trees and grasses also provide screening from the property next door. A large wildflower meadow was created, using local native calcareous species to increase the garden’s biodiversity.  This also gives a further strong connection to its countryside setting.

Mown paths through the meadow area provide a sense of control and an invitation to explore further. An extra contemporary touch was added by using bespoke modern sculpture to lead the eye.  Wonderful views across the Chilterns are now framed.​ Overall, the result is a garden which is well-loved and regularly used by its owners.

Summing up

Design solutions are very subjective and there are always many choices to make – from the concept design stage to the detail of a path width. Just where to start designing a new garden from is interesting. Often, I start out (as I did in this case study) with very basic shapes, lines, usage flow.  I start sketching that out, always by hand initially, and start to see some geometry within the flow.  I work with these sketches to develop ideas further and in more detail.

With a new project there’ll often be a trigger from my history. I never know where it’s going to come from. It might be from a garden that I visited 20 years ago.  In this example, I was influenced by some elements of the wonderful walled garden at Scampston Hall in North Yorkshire. Sometimes of course there are more ‘gnarly’ problems to solve too.  There’s always a conflict of some sort to solve, or an opportunity to balance the garden’s functionality with its aesthetics.  With this garden, I was keen to ensure the clients could enjoy a feeling of sanctuary whilst maintaining a strong connection to the surrounding countryside.

I hope that this design case study has been of interest – to fellow garden designers and to clients.  And to people interested in creative thinking generally! Please do get in touch and share your thoughts. If you’d like to browse more case studies, please follow the link here.

This blog post first appeared on our website in September 2019 and was the most popular post in our 2019 series.

4 responses to “Garden tour – a design case study

  1. James,
    I have time at the moment so I can indulge in a reply to your blog. It would be interesting to have more on the lines and usage flow. To actually see those on the paper and see how these influence your later shapes. It is a very good technique of getting graphite onto paper. The jump from this stage to design is always a surprise as the thought process progresses. It is quite difficult to number these sheets aas the design develops as you are in the zone, so to speak. With practice it is possible. Teaching is a good incentive for this as it gets closer to the core of the design process which ironically is something you can’t teach. Paul Khlee from the Bahoaus was interested in all this, although his paintings were really tricky eg ‘horticulture’!

  2. A fascinating case study with beautiful results. It’s also interesting to hear about where you get your inspiration from too. It’s clear that you can solve even ‘gnarly’ problems, which can be even more rewarding than simple dilemmas. Thanks for sharing!

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