‘It must be lovely to be a garden designer and create all those beautiful spaces for people to enjoy’. People have said this to me many times over the years and it is of course very true. Designing gardens is extremely rewarding, not least because every project is unique. Every new project needs to be based on a robust thought process together with a sprinkling of design creativity and inspiration. So, where do the design ideas for each new opportunity come from? I’ve been reflecting recently on my own design process and this blog post lays out the factors, people and places that influence me the most. For those of you that are fellow designers, I would be interested to know about your personal influences and sources of inspiration. For those of you that are in search of a professional garden design service, I hope that this gives some insight into how we approach garden design at The Garden Company.
Early years and influences
Looking back to my earliest memories of being outdoors, I have realised how fortunate I was to grow up immersed in the beauty of the Cotswolds. My brother and I had a 2-mile walk to school through woodland and we spent a lot of time happily exploring. My grandparents lived in a 1-acre plot with a somewhat overgrown garden and orchard – it was a place of excitement for children! While my brother and I would often play games or climb trees there, just as often we would help with pruning or fruit picking. Although I didn’t realise it then, I was engaging with nature every day. Now I am very aware of my attempts to recreate those feelings and emotions when designing gardens. I’m often aiming for a certain atmosphere, a ‘sense of place’, a garden that doesn’t just look good but feels good too – overall, a relaxed and comfortable feeling.
Garden designers past and present
When I was first studying garden design, the designers that most influenced me were those such as John Brookes, Robin Williams and Geoffrey Jellicoe. They were very active at the time, with exciting schemes, stunning show gardens, and inspirational books. I still dip regularly into their books on my office shelves – Geoffrey Jellicoe’s ‘Private Modern Gardens’ is a wonderful source of ideas. More recently, leading garden designers including Cleve West, James Basson, Tom Stuart-Smith and Christopher Bradley-Hole have been a big personal influence. Their show gardens have left a lasting impact on me and added to my mental ‘bank’ of ideas.
As a garden builder as well as designer, I’ve worked closely with several designers over the last 25 years, including Debbie Roberts and Ian Smith at Acres Wild, also Julie Toll and Andrew Wenham in Hertfordshire. Building gardens to their designs and interpreting their concepts as sensitively as possible has been a great source of insight into their creative thinking.
We are so lucky in the UK to be able to visit some truly outstanding gardens and flower shows. Early on in my design career, I was really influenced by Hidcote Gardens in Gloucestershire, a well-known Arts and Crafts garden. I was struck by the series of outdoor ‘rooms’ and the atmosphere this generates. Along with many of my fellow designers, I visit Chelsea Flower Show every year, usually spending a few days there during Chelsea week, to immerse myself in as many ideas and schemes as I can – from design concepts to the finer finishing details. I also enjoy the National Garden Scheme, a great opportunity to view gardens not normally open to the public.
My advice to garden design students is always to make sure that they are exposed to as many influences as possible. Often I find myself looking for a design solution to a certain set of ‘problems’ and the main source of ideas is the collection of experiences that I’ve had before. It’s vital to expose yourself to as much creativity as possible – so that when your mind is working on a design concept, you’re more likely to come up with a better solution.
Looking beyond garden design
Of course, being inspired and influenced by what I’ve seen can apply to many things beyond garden design. Very often, I get my ideas from nature – the atmosphere created by an old tree surrounded by low level planting, or natural colonies of plants. Even the layout of agricultural land can be aesthetically pleasing.
Abstract art can be a great demonstration of the relationship between certain proportions, geometries and colours. A simple image can be a reminder that certain proportions and balances are pleasing to the eye – Piet Mondrian’s pieces based on squares and rectangles and Wassily Kandinsky’s work on the ‘harmony of colours’ are examples of this.
In terms of architecture, I value Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy, especially for his sense of balance and proportion and the blending of buildings into the landscape. Rarely were his buildings imposed on the landscape. It’s a shame he never came to the UK because it would be wonderful to have more access to his work.
Design trends vs timelessness
There are trends in garden design as in all creative work. I don’t think I really follow them – although I am influenced by them and sometimes actively avoid them! Being heavily involved in the British Association of Landscape Industries and the Society of Garden Design helps me and my team to stay up-to-date and able to anticipate what clients might be considering. The other side of the same coin is that garden design is quite timeless. The end of a design project is the start of a long process of nurturing a garden to its full potential and – although obviously we introduce new products and materials as appropriate – in the main we are designing with a long-term vision in mind.
I’ve commented here on a wide range of ideas and experiences that influence my approach to each new garden design project. I think this reinforces what a highly subjective process garden design is – it’s certainly hard for me to imagine a time when the type of bespoke service that we provide to our clients will be automated. I hope that these reflections have been interesting to my fellow designers, to clients – old and new! – and to people interested in creativity generally. Please do share your thoughts by commenting as shown at the top. If you would like to know more about our current and recent design work, then please see my updates on Instagram (@thegarden_company) and Twitter (@gardencomp).