New year, new design ideas

‘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.  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 searching for professional design services, I hope this gives insight into our design process.

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.  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 and adventure for children! While my brother and I would often play games or climb trees, 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 and a ‘sense of place’. In other words, a garden that not only looks good but feels relaxed and comfortable too.

Garden designers past and present

When I was first studying garden design, the designers that most influenced me included 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.

Visiting gardens

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. I was struck by the series of outdoor ‘rooms’ within this well-known Arts and Crafts garden and the atmosphere this generates.  Every year, I immerse myself in as many ideas and schemes at RHS Chelsea as I can.  Importantly, this includes finer finishing details as well as overall design concepts.  I also enjoy the National Garden Scheme, a great opportunity to view gardens not normally open to the public.

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 design 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.

Turning to 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 pity he never came to the UK, 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.  However, 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 Designers helps me to stay up-to-date with trends. The other side of the same coin is that garden design is quite timeless.  Clearly, the end of a design project is the start of a long process of nurturing a garden to its full potential. 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 project.  I think this reinforces  what a highly subjective process garden design is.  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. My advice to garden design students is always to make sure that they are exposed to as many influences as possible.  By building a mental bank of design ideas, you’re more likely to come up with a great solution to the next design ‘challenge’.

Finally, I hope that these reflections have been interesting to my fellow designers, to clients and to anybody interested in creativity. If you would like to know more about our current and recent design work, then please visit our website case studies or view my updates on Instagram (@thegarden_company) and Twitter (@gardencomp).

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