Category Archives: Garden Design

A Bigger Splash – week three – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

Vicky Wyer takes up the story…

Week three of the swimming pond saga and the garden still looks like the outskirts of a Welsh mining town.

Looking very deep now - swim area walls almost complete

The blockwork walls of the deep swim area are almost complete and now stand proud of the surrounding ground – although eventually they’ll be about 300mm below water level. As our garden is on an appreciable slope, we have planned this ‘perching’ of the pool in order to minimise the dig but also to redistribute what was in the hole around the garden.

So where our lawn was sloping it will be flatter, and beyond the pool the ground will need to be terraced to take it back down to existing levels. How this will be achieved when there are spoil mounds on almost every inch of ground remains to be seen…

Plans for our food forest

John has asked me to write a bit about our forest garden plans this week so here goes:

For those unfamiliar with forest gardens they are basically self-regulating, food-producing ecosystems designed to mimic the structure of a woodland edge – optimum light, shelter and layering of groundcover, shrub, understorey and canopy  to give abundant production.

Typical layers in a forest garden (unless you have chickens)

This is based on the principle that nature is always pushing towards climax vegetation (woodland in the UK) so why not harness that energy and work with it, adapting nature’s tendencies for our own ends.

How it should work

Briefly in an ideal forest garden all your resource inputs are minimised:

  • minimal weeding as planting or mulch covers the ground completely
  • minimal watering once established due to the woodland microclimate
  • minimal pests and diseases due to the biodiversity
  • minimal feeding as the design incorporates sufficient nitrogen fixers to feed the rest via microrrhizal activity. Potassium is added via comfrey mulches, etc

All of which is just as well as between us John and I are pretty rubbish at nurturing our own garden on the whole. Looking after three children, two dogs, a business, a community garden, a neglected house still in need of major renovation, four ducks, eleven chickens, some raised veg beds and a lawn that seems to be the mole-magnet of the county seems to fill most of our time…

Deckchairs on the Titanic? - where John and I will sit and laugh when this is all over (when we're done picking all the flippin forest garden fruit)

Factoring in existing ‘challenges’

And as with everything we do at home, our forest garden will be a bit of a compromise:  partly since we’re working with a set of existing trees, none of which fix nitrogen, partly because our garden is quite exposed with the sun and wind both coming mainly from the west, and partly because the forest garden is where our chickens roam – good for fertilisation, bad for growing a productive herb layer. Oh and then there’s the rabbits that pop over from the field next door for a little ‘silflay’ every morning…

Our Forest Garden plot - aka the chicken run - looking west

How it will work – we hope

The idea is to plant some Italian alders along the northerly boundary where they will add shelter and fix nitrogen but not shade the already dappled forest garden too much – luckily the existing trees are birches so there will be some sun getting through. An Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) planted for its flavoursome berries next to the southerly hedge, will also fix nitrogen. Altogether this should give us enough nitrogen to satisfy the existing trees and our proposed fruit layers.

The Forest Garden plot looking towards the house (showing open cast mine inbetween)

As our soil is very sandy and free draining, the terraces we’re planning will help to retain runoff in the forest garden. Along the edges of the terraces we’re going to use the bulky tree waste and hedge trimmings we’ve stockpiled at the bottom of the garden from the removal of numerous unwanted or elderly trees and shrubs. These tree waste bunds will be covered with the turf from the old lawn to create ‘hugel’ beds; the slow break down of the tree waste will release nitrogen over a long period and enhance the soil structure. Rebel farmer Sepp Holzer uses this technique on Austrian mountainsides to great effect.

As well as fruit and nut trees, we’re planning to grow some bamboo near the pond. This will not only act as a much needed shelterbelt but we hope to harvest the shoots for eating.

It’s all happening so fast!

The apricots, almond, hazel, quince, medlar, gage, damson, Mirabelle, plum, blue honeysuckle, cherries, fig and berries-too-numerous-to-mention, have started to arrive from Martin Crawford’s Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon and various other specialist nurseries, and we’ve been busy heeling them in until the areas are ready for planting. And before you ask not all the plants are going in the forest garden – some will go nearer the house and some in the front garden.

The chickens look warily at the heeled-in fruit bushes

And we haven’t even started on the planting plans for the pond itself and its immediate surroundings! Looks like a busy weekend ahead with another round of decisions and compromises…

Recommended reading on Forest Gardening and Permaculture in practice:

Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden

Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture

A Bigger Splash – week two – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

After a number of requests from readers, I have relented and am keeping a blog of the construction of a swimming pond in our garden. From now on I am a client…

Getting out of the ground

Ready for the concrete...
Excavations ready and waiting.

This has been an interesting week. We started with a very big concrete pump. Although not the greenest solution, we had decided to use hollow concrete blocks for the main part of the retaining walls. I say the main part, because it is effectively only the central section of the inner concrete walls – the ones that support the deep swimming area. The outer edges of the retention (for the marginal areas) are provided by Oak sleepers, sunk vertically into the ground – more on these in a couple of weeks. The lowest section of the pool drops down between the concrete ring foundations for about another metre, effectively unsupported by the retaining walls.

For those of you who don’t know, concrete pumps normally come mounted on a lorry and are available in a variety of sizes right up to something that will pump tonnes of wet concrete up a seven storey building. We had ordered a fairly small pump with a long hose. Unfortunately what turned up was a large pump with a short hose. The pump was too big to get into our driveway, so with a combination of the pump lorry and the concrete lorry, we managed to completely block the street. The hose j-u-s-t reached the end of the excavations, which meant that Glen, Glynn, Mark and Ben had to shovel all the wet concrete by hand around the foundations. Setting out the foundations for the curved walls of the pool proved a little challenging amidst the mud, but it looks great.

At last - a sigh of relief...
Concrete ring foundation finally in after a lot of hard work.

I am sure there was some under-breath cursing of designers and their crazy ideas. Straight would have been so much easier…

Epoxy fixing the rods

The next step was drilling holes in the concrete and epoxy fixing in the re-inforcing rods. With this done, the laborious effort of carrying the blocks down and laying them over the rods began. Even with the cold weather we have been able to continue laying blocks. We have a boiler to heat the water if we need to, but so far we have not had to resort to this. The ‘hole’ seems to have afforded a sort of microclimate and the

Protecting the blockwork with hessian.

blocks were not cold to the touch this morning. Finishing block-laying fairly early in the day and covering the new work with hessian to insulate it helps a lot, and we have had no failures so far.

Of course, all this has carried on with our garden still looking something like the spoil heaps around a mining town. Our neighbours came back from a three week holiday and couldn’t quite believe their eyes. The dogs have found it very – interesting. The garden had clearly become quite boring after six years, with only the odd rabbit to offer diversion. Suddenly, it is a whole new world. They have reacted differently to this. For one it is traumatic – she goes and uses the very small patch of grass remaining before scuttling back inside to familiarity. For the other, it seems to be a constant source of amazement and excitement – she can’t wait to get outside each day when the guys arrive.

The garden still looks like a bit of a disaster area...

On Thursday Glen went on a construction course on swimming ponds, perhaps a week or two later than we would have liked, but still timely. It allowed us to fine tune quite a few details of the design, but also made us realise we seem to have got most things about right.

Meanwhile, Vicky and I have been trying to sort out some of the planting. The lower part of the garden is going to be a forest garden with layers of different plants producing different crops. We are just putting the finishing touches to this (after a lot of ‘discussion’) and there will be a lot more detail in next week’s blog, along with some of the outlines of pernaculture principles behind the design.

A Bigger Splash – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

After a number of requests from readers, I have relented and am keeping a blog of the construction of a swimming pond in our garden. From now on I am a client…

Sowing the seeds

We have been in the house six and a half years now. Two garden designers, two opinions, no progress. Well, not quite true. We had taken a lot of things out – conifers overgrown from the original intention twenty years ago, like cuckoos that never flew away. Delightful echoes of the past such as Choisya ternata aurea, Ribes sanguineum rosea and Potentilla fruticosa. Finally a plan starts to gel between us. It starts with a big curved border beneath the Mulberry tree. Then comes the notion of a forest garden on permaculture principles at the bottom of the garden. The fall on the lawn annoys me though, and gradually, the idea of a much larger pond between the lawn and the woodland starts to take shape in our minds. After a lot of wild sketching, we have the skeleton of a plan – a 14m by 4m swimming pond. And then unexpectedly, events intervene.  A team of Bowles & Wyer’s becomes free for a few weeks. I grab them!

Germination.

With Glen Brown, our hard landscape supervisor, I pore over drawings in the office. We discuss many different ways to build it – should we use concrete blocks, in-situ cast, polystyrene formers or timber walls? Lots of lengthy conversations and long email exchanges with David Nettleton of Clear Water Revival ensue. Eventually we go for perched concrete foundations and re-inforced hollow block walls for the main pool walls and new oak sleepers for the secondary walls. Will we be able to lose all the spoil on site? (actually that remains to be seen). Will the levels work out? (that also remains to be seen) How much concrete will we need? Can we get a digger in? All the usual designer/contractor questions. Except this time it is complicated by the fact that I am Designer, contractor and client.

“How Much?!” I find myself exclaiming; “Out of the question”. A myriad of decisions that have to be taken balancing method, size, layout, materials and of course a mass of technical details. One novel feature is that we only have to do technical drawings – no visuals or coloured presentation plans to convince a client!

The calm before the storm...

Finally, a date is set for starting on site, even though we have not yet bottomed out all the costs or details. Not exactly seat of the pants, but not quite comfortable either. On a frosty Friday in early February, the team arrive. First day is just preparation – hand clearance, draining the existing pond, making sure the route for the excavator is clear.

On the Saturday, I let our (four) ducks out as normal. three of them are Indian Runners, and true to form, they go tearing across the lawn towards the pond. Their eye level is quite low, so they don’t see that their pond has been drained until they get within a metre or two. They stop in amazement. I can almost hear the duck voices saying – “What the…where…I’m sure it was there yesterday….!” They wander back up the lawn, confused and disorientated. They will have to wait a long time for the new pond to be finished, but it will be worth it!

Week One – green shoots.

The 5 tonne digger arrives. after a quarter of a mile trek down the bridleway and a sharp 270 degree turn through the fence at the bottom of the garden, we are in! Work proceeds quickly – the lawn gets stripped, topsoil is scraped off and piled up separately. We rapidly get down into gingery coloured gravel subsoil and at the bottom of the excavation is a fine amber coloured sand layer, very free draining. By the end of Wednesday we have the bulk of the main excavation out. As a result, most of the garden is covered in large piles of soil. My 15 year old son asks me where this is all going to go. I furiously check my cut and fill calculations, cross my fingers and say airily that it will all get used up back-filling and making up the levels. Perhaps if we fill our pockets every day, like the great escape and walk around outside in little circles… 

Meanwhile, I am trying to sort out the final details with David Nettleton. PVC, Butyl or Polypropylene liner? Welded on site or off site? Do we need an Iron Reactor? As David explains: “This unit is not entirely necessary and could be added later. It’s a unit for emergencies; if the pond gets enriched with phosphorous or somehow you get a spike that encourages algae it will release Fe3+ ions into the pool to capture Phosphate Ions and precipitate them out. Very clever stuff!”. However having had our water tested, it is apparently ‘very good quality’ (which is reassuring), so for the time being we are passing on the Iron Reactor. We may live to regret it. For the liner, it is a choice between a whole roll of Polypropylene made in the UK, of which we will use about half, or the much less environmentally friendly PVC  which comes from Germany. Both are expensive (client in me speaking there) so we plump for the UK made, environment-friendly product. Friday is spent making finishing the excavation of the main pool and making everything safe. By tomorrow, we will all breathe a sigh of relief and I will not be alone in wondering where my garden has gone. On Monday, it will start all over again.

Now I know how my clients feel!

More next week…

What makes a really good client?

Clearly one who pays on time! Well now we have got that out of the way, let’s look at the issue in a little more detail. Our clients come from all sorts of different disciplines – architects, property developers, interior designers and private individuals, who are of course infinitely variable. Some things are constant though. Here is my (by no means exhaustive) take on the subject. A good client is:

  • One who gives you a good brief. Not all clients know what they want, perhaps most don’t. It is part of our job to talk to them and ‘tease out’ the details of what they want (and what they will want to spend). However, we have all experienced clients who don’t know what they want but when they see the project nearly finished they know what they don’t want. So I guess the key here is if a client can’t give you a good brief, write one yourself and communicate really well throughout the project.
  • One who doesn’t tell you what to do. This is of course an over simplification, but there is no doubt that it can be frustrating to have a client who constantly explains to you how you should design the job. Often, this is followed up with a deconstruction of what you have done. By this, I don’t mean a critique, more an unravelling through a series of alterations that mean the scheme no longer makes sense. At this point I always ask myself why I was taken on. I guess the key to this is that clients should give designers enough room to think creatively. Of course, we can all think of schemes that we have looked at and thought ‘that designer was given a bit too much free rein’ – or maybe it’s just me that thinks that.
  • One who understands the true meaning of value. Clearly what I don’t mean by this is someone who wants everything at a reduced price. As designers, we all know that cheapest is rarely best. Also that ‘whole life cost’ is an important principle – cheaper light fittings for example are rarely a saving in the long run. Cheap hedges grow quickly and – well it’s obvious.
  • One who understands the balance between programme cost and quality. To be fair, most clients do these days, but we do still come across the odd person who wants a high quality job quickly and cheaply.
  • One who respects your professional skills and experience. By this I mean one who doesn’t just expect you to ‘fill in the green bits’ but will give you the room to do a good job and will support you against the occasional forays into our zone by other professionals. Also, a good client will get you involved early on in the project, before all the essential decisions have already been made.
  • One who recommends you to friends. Obvious really.
  • Finally – One who enthuses! For me this is the most rewarding. I had a client a few years ago who was buying the garden along with everything else – pool, kitchen, interior design etc. By the end of the project two years later he was completely addicted to his garden. At the end of each day who he would come back home and go and sit in his garden to unwind before he went inside. Every time I saw him all he would talk about was how much he loved it. I would never have predicted this from our first few meetings, so it was an added bonus for me. Clients who really love gardens are a relative rarity but they always lift my spirits.

Perhaps this all sounds rather negative? Clients are actually what I love about this business, people in all their random variety with their foibles, likes, dislikes and baggage that they bring to a project. Our work could not function without them.

As long as they pay that is.

Awards – what are they good for?

Well, the short answer is quite a lot (purely a personal opinion, you understand). After reading Tim Richardson’s column in the November issue of the Garden Design Journal, I gave this a lot of thought. I have won the odd award in my time, so one could say my stance is biased, but read to the end and you can make up your own mind up.

Firstly, I think it is a pity that Tim fired from the hip without first waiting to see what the SGD awards had to offer, but let’s set that to one side. I was interested by his opinion, but I take a different view. If one ignores the over-the-top rhetoric and posturing (‘the simpering saps who have to go up and be pathetically grateful on the stages of corporate rent-outs in front of baying drunks’), then it seems to me that Tim’s main points are as follows:

  1. Awards ceremonies are principally a way for organisations to maintain power and influence.
  2. Awards are mainly given to those who have ‘been in some way useful or obliging to the presiding organisation’

Let’s tackle the second one first. Bowles & Wyer (my company) has won many BALI awards over the last ten years – certainly well into double figures. I would like to think the projects won their respective awards on the basis of their quality. It is certainly not (as Tim postulates) because we have ‘been useful or obliging’ to BALI. We have never had any involvement in the organisation, either as individuals or corporately (other than paying our subs). I have never sat on any committees, boards or made any contribution to BALI. The main reason for this is that my time has been largely taken up with the Society of Garden Designers, where I seem to have been involved on just about every committee going at one time or another, including the one which set up the awards. Which brings us to Tim’s first point.

The main reason that the Society set up the awards was not to ‘maintain power and influence’, but because its members have frequently asked it to do so. There seemed to be a bit of a vacuum in terms of celebrating good design in real gardens. That the awards scheme is filling this void is underlined by the real interest from the press and also from two separate TV companies. That of course is neither a guarantee or stamp of quality. However, I think most people would agree that the design quality of the winning schemes was very high, certainly higher than I have seen evidenced in other awards ceremonies, some of which have different criteria.

I suspect that the judging panel of the SGD awards would be deeply offended by Tim’s assertion that the gongs are handed out on a largesse basis. The judges were almost all completely independent from the Society and instructed to take a completely independent view in their decisions. Tim is entitled to his views and I would support his right to express them freely (and frequently have done so in my role on the editorial panel of the Garden Design Journal). His opinions are almost always interesting often introduce fresh light on a subject. Sometimes however, (as in this case) the arc of his opinion neatly skips over the facts. Charles Jencks, who won the John Brookes (or lifetime achievement award) has never had anything to do with the Society. Dan Pearson, who won the Grand Award, is a member but has never (to my knowledge) served on any committees or on council, or even does anything behind the scenes. I suspect he is too busy with his practice most of the time. As such, the two central planks in Tim’s article seem to be unsupported by the facts.

So what are awards good for? I cannot deny that it is gratifying to receive an award. But, as Tim suggests, one should not trust these instincts; they serve little other than to puff oneself up. Nonetheless, I have found awards to be a useful marketing tool. Confronted with trying to find a garden designer, many clients find the panoply of practitioners on offer confusing, and find awards a useful way of filtering. They view a designer’s involvement in the Chelsea Flower Show (and other similar shows) in the same light. Whether this is sensible or not is arguable, but clients will tend to take account of such things. I also find that preparing the publicity material for awards is a useful discipline in getting marketing material ready for more general use. Finally, all the people involved with working on an award-winning scheme feel some sense of gratification and recognition, from the client and designers through to the contractors and suppliers. It would seem to me to be curmudgeonly to deny this as a good thing.

It is true that some awards schemes fall short of the standards one would like to see. There are those which hand out awards like sweets. There may even be some that operate on the back-slapping principles that Tim suggests, although I don’t know of any. However, the real point about awards schemes is that at their best, they are all about a celebration of excellence. They inspire and encourage individuals and companies to strive for better quality in design and execution. And that has to be worth supporting.

 John Wyer

How to design in a material world

I went to the Thomas Heatherwick exhibition at the V&A recently. I was deeply inspired (as I expected to be). Here was an uncompromising and driven designer. Actually, that is wrong – it is no more appropriate to call him a designer than to say Leonardo was just a painter. His work spreads amoeba like from ‘design’ across furniture and product design to engineering, architecture, sculpture, and urban design.

However, although his polymathic qualities are impressive and somewhat daunting, they were not what I pondered as I left the exhibition. Few of us can reach that level of achievement and versatility. What interested me was something quite different, but at the heart of Heatherwick’s ability is something much more basic – his thorough understanding of materials. Like many great designers he started making things as a child, and never really stopped. This constant experimentation led to a familiarity with the properties of what he was working with.

Heatherwick's Gazebo - thanks the the RCA

An example of this is an early piece made by Heatherwick while he was still at the RCA in the early 1990s. Three square pieces of sheet steel were each cut, comb like, from either side. The slots cut were the same width as the tines that remained allowing the sheets to be slotted together. However, the beauty of this was that because the rigidity of the sheet had been compromised by the cutting, it was possible to bend them. When they were bent into a gentle arc and slotted together as a triangular ‘vase-shape’, the tension kept the whole object locked into one. This was an idea that he explored further with his work at the Royal College in the piece ‘Gazebo’ and other furniture.

The other interesting thing was his obsession with process-based design. Many designers follow this mantra, but for most (particularly in architecture) it can lead to a sameness of output where the process seems to have moulded the design into a house style. Heatherwick’s ‘style’ (such as it is) is eclectic and diverse. This appeals to me, but I fear that such process driven design is relatively rare in landscape design and rarer still in garden design. The designer I know who has come closest to it is probably Dan Pearson (who has of course worked with Heatherwick). Heatherwick’s devotion to material and process also led to a relentless pursuit of trying to find the best version of any one idea. Here I felt that he definitely set himself apart from most designers. There were dozens of versions of a single object until he thought that he had reached the best form of the idea.

5cm high original object

There are also lessons to be learned from his interest in the forms produced by instantaneous action. In his piece for the Wellcome Trust (‘Bleigiessen’) the whole project concept was built around forms produced by solidifying molten metal. As Heatherwick explains on his website (www.heatherwick.com/bleigiessen) “Following extensive experimentation, pouring molten metal into water was found to create extraordinary and complex forms in a fraction of a second. No two experiments produced the same result. Over four hundred of these were produced before a five centimetre piece was created and selected as it was felt it would work well with the building and is the basis of the final thirty metre project.”  The final piece is breath-taking and the leap from inspiration to reality is huge, but recognisable.

What I think is most interesting about this is that these processes, although instantaneous, follow natural laws. The results are random, but follow recognisable patterns. Such pattern-making forms the basis of a lot of landscape thinking. Our designs sometimes reflect the natural patterns made by wind or water – ripples, waves etc. These patterns are themselves etched on the landscape in many ways and the more grounded our designs are in these, the more interesting and captivating they often become.

The whole life cost of a Citroën (or why to think twice about water features)

In a recent trip to Paris, I made a point of visiting Parc André Citroën to the western side of the city. Wikipedia describes this succinctly as “… a 14 hectares (35 acres) public park located on the left bank of the river Seine in the XVe arrondissement (district) of Paris.” It was designed and built in the early 1990s by Landscape Architect Giles Clément and Architect Alain Provost on the site of a former Citroën automobile manufacturing plant, and is named after company founder André Citroën.

The design is daring and the scale breath-taking. The central lawn alone is 275m long by 85m wide and refreshingly there are no restrictions on games (unlike most Paris parks). The design is a very strongly structured. Two vast pavilions overlook the park from the south east end. Between these is a paved terrace with a field of water spouts in which children splash around (similar to those at Somerset House and elsewhere). The central lawn is effectively sunk below the surrounding ground.

 

The upper level canal as it was when the park was first opened...

On the south-west side it is flanked at the higher level by a canal, punctuated by at regular intervals by monolithic stone pavilions, alternatively housing staircases and cascades. On the other are colossal blocks of pruned hornbeam backed by a raised walkway. It is cut beneath by routes through to a series of secret gardens and also by enormous water chutes echoing the cascades on the other side of the lawn. Or it would be. Because sadly, most of the water features no longer function. The monumental canal on

…And the canal as it is now.

 the south west side lies forlornly empty, with nothing but a ruckled butyl liner to remind you that it was a water feature, along with a slightly ironic sign in French saying ‘for your safety, please do not enter the basin’ fixed to the concrete upstand in place of a missing coping stone. None of the water chutes on the other side function either, although the field of water jets still delights the children. The basic maintenance – grass cutting, pruning etc. has been carried out carefully. However, there is little evidence of ‘gardening’ in the half dozen or so themed gardens and whenever something breaks or fails, there is either no will or resources to replace it. The net result is a gradual decline in the park.

This is hardly an unfamiliar story to English ears. We have countless public parks and open spaces that have suffered the same fate. What interests me about Parc Citroën though, is how much of a part the original design (and perhaps more interestingly the commissioning process) played in its eventual decline. An article in the Boston Herald had a very good line on this. It said that “Citroën — for better or for worse — represents high-concept triumphant over public participation.” The article postulated that a project such as this could never have happened in Boston (and by extension I would say in the UK). The combination of vision, funding and single-minded project management meant the French Government was able to drive this project through with great speed and force. The piece went on to point out that there were good and bad sides to this. Interestingly, it was written shortly after the park’s opening, but the central point becomes even more strongly reinforced as time passes.

The design relies heavily on vast water features for much of its impact and structure. As landscape professionals, we all know what the implications in maintenance terms are for such features. How could the designers be sure that the funds would always be there to maintain and refurbish these features? The running costs alone are significant, but when the annualised costs of pump replacement, relining, etc. are taken into account, the bill becomes pretty much unsustainable in the longer term. Parc Citroën remains a great achievement and an exciting space. It is a reminder of what can be achieved by single minded vision. But clearly there is another lesson here. Perhaps we should all take more care to consider both the cash and skill resources that are likely to be (realistically) available for the future maintenance and management of a project before we let our imaginations (or should that be our egos) run wild.

Where do ideas come from?

As landscape architects or garden designers, many of us spend a good deal of our time designing (though perhaps not as much as we would like).  This is probably the most important and distinctive part of our work.  Yet try to get designers to talk about how they go about this and one is confronted with blank looks of misunderstanding.  During interviews I almost always ask prospective staff – how do they design?  Blank.  What processes do they go through?  Blank.  What do they actually do?  Few people can even put one sentence together about the design process let alone come up with any coherent analysis.

At college most of us were taught the ‘Survey-Analysis-Design’ method, which grew from and is linked to the modernist mantra of “form follows function”.  This principle is so deeply rooted as to have become almost unassailable.  At its core is the idea that an object is inherently beautiful if it fulfils the use for which it was designed.  In other words by satisfying the first two Vitruvian principles of commodity and firmness, the third (delight) is automatically satisfied.  Whilst in many cases this is true (Mies van der Rohe’s buildings for instance) it is also flawed.  Do you suppose that the beauty in Calatrava’s work is purely an expression of form follows function?  I think not.

Photo credit Jonathan Choe
Calatrava’s stunning work in Milwaukee. Photo credit: Jonathan Choe (http://www.flickr.com/photos/crazyegg95)

 The essential inconsistency in ‘Survey-Analysis-Design’ (SAD) is the implication that it is made up of three equal and similar partners.  On both counts this is untrue.  Survey is a process of gathering information and although there is a subjective element in the filtering and recording of information, it is essentially a quantitive process.  Analysis on the other hand is essentially a qualitative process.  Nonetheless, both elements have established methodologies and rely on ordered and rational procedures.  At this point we are expected to make what Tom Turner calls “the creative leap”1.  The SAD method is taught as though the design grows naturally and organically from the first two stages.  If this were true, we would all (like first year college students) come up with the same solutions to design challenges.  In fact the creative process is quite different in its nature.  It relies on ‘ideas’ that are filtered and modified against a rational framework to make them work in the real world.  Thus the SAD method is a way of modifying ideas rather than originating them.

So where do these ideas come from?  To most of us it is a mystery.  As Mattias Konradsson puts it: “..ask a friend to think up something creative on the spot and he’ll look like he ate a bowl of ice cream in a hurry.  It’s indeed an elusive process.  Creativity and ideas don’t come on command, they seem to spring up when we least expect it”2.  Much of the writing on the subject of design theory intellectualises this process.  Methodologies, systems and theories have been put forward, but most post-rationalise what is essentially an intuitive process. 

Instead of trying to dissect and categorise the process of idea origination, it probably makes more sense to try and examine how the brain works.  Most designers are exposed to myriad cultural, spiritual and other influences that are clearly inspirational.  Nonetheless, most people still talk about ideas coming ‘out of the blue’ and we are all familiar with the way in which they can be triggered by unexpected sources.  One theory that looks at this in more detail is that of brain hemispheres.  The “left brain – right brain” hypothesis was initially put forward by Roger Sperry who won a Nobel Prize for his work in 1981.  In simple terms, he postulated that the left part of the brain controls the rational, analytical, objective, and detailed parts of our thinking; generally in a conscious fashion.  The right part of the brain is responsible for the intuitive, random parts of our thinking.  It works on a subconscious level and focuses on aesthetics, emotions, creativity and subjectivity.  It is certainly true that the subconscious plays a critical part in the generation of ideas.

Perhaps it is impossible to successfully analyse creativity.  Some people are naturally creative designers, and others will never be.  For most of us in the middle, the ability to create and develop ideas that are the seeds of designs is something that can be fostered and refined.  This partly happens through practice, and partly by the adoption of specific strategies.

In my experience the most successful design strategies work by giving the subconscious parts of the brain more free rein to work.  The most effective of these is the deadline.  If I have all day or all week to work on something, most of it is spent in a state of constipated frustration.  Instead of producing something better I produce something worse.  The other strategy I use is to do something else.  Absorb the details of the site and then work on other things for a week or so before coming back and working ideas up quite quickly. Often just when I think I have things right, the client changes some parameter.  I reluctantly rework the scheme only to discover that I have come up with a better solution than the original.  All of these indicate that if we constrain our thought processes with too much methodology, we limit our ability to generate ideas.  Of course, these ideas are loose fluffy masses which must be clipped and beaten into shape against a framework of principles.  These may be site specific or more general and are part of the signature of individual designers as well as determining how practical their schemes are.

So where does this leave us.  Survey-Analysis-Design is not really a method at all.  The best ideas come while you’re in the bath.  And if you try to design things by a method you can’t do it at all.  Best not to think about it I say.  Now, about that deadline…..

John Wyer

This article first appeared in Landscape Magazine under the title ‘Finding the form’.

What are your favourite ways of stimulating the design process? Leave a comment.

  1. Tom Turner. Garden Design Journal Autumn 1999: ‘Timeless with delight’
  2. Mattias Konradsson. ‘The Creative Process’ A List Apart ISSN: 1534-0295. 12 March 1999 – Issue No. 8

Pollination nation

This spring it seems Britain is a-buzz about bees … many of us have suddenly woken up to the fact that bees are more than just our honey-slaves, and that if we don’t look after our pollinating insects, our food production system could be in serious trouble. If this sounds melodramatic then stop to consider that in the UK alone, pollination is calculated to be worth about £430m to the national economy – food for thought!

Paradoxically it is modern farming practices that have swept away so much of the natural foraging grounds for our bees. Bees feed on pollen and nectar which they collect from flowers, and there are simply far fewer flowers in the countryside these days. Hedges have been removed, marshes drained and over 97% of flower-rich meadows have been lost from the UK. Add to that new research from France suggesting that common pesticides damage bees’ ability to navigate and dramatically reduce the numbers of queens they produce, and it’s little wonder bees are struggling!

Gardens are just about the only place left to them and even they are becoming unwelcoming: the fashion for sleek lawns, monoculture planting and everything clipped to within an inch of its life does not make for an attractive world to pollinators. They need flowers – but not just any flowers – sadly most annual bedding plants (eg Pelargoniums, Begonias, Busy Lizzies) have no nectar in them – you might as well be planting artificial flowers for all the use they are to bees.

Gardens need to be designed for pollinators. The garden on the right has no flowers at all. The flowers on the left are double busy-lizzies, which may look nice but produce virtually no pollen or nectar so are useless to pollinators.

So, aside from campaigning to change the way Britain is farmed (good luck with that one!), how can we help the nation’s pollinating insects? Well there’s hope for bees in even the smallest garden:

Instead of filling your pots and windowboxes with bedding, why not plant flowering perennials or shrubs instead – lavender is the classic bee plant and there are many different types, but also think about catmint, lilies, sedums, hebes and heathers. If you’re absolutely wedded to bedding try wallflowers, sweet peas, cosmos, heliotrope or nicotiana – bees love them. 

Some bedding plants are good for pollinators

Herbs can be great for pollinators too: rosemary, fennel, hyssop, mint, oregano and sage are all nectar-rich and no kitchen doorstep should be without them. You could even plant up the joints between paving slabs with herbs and flowers – like thyme, thrift or erigeron daisies.

But if space is really at a premium think vertically: climbers are great way to add nectar – and texture – to a small space: favourite plants for pollinators include wisteria, honeysuckle, open-flowered roses, climbing hydrangea or if you’ve got room, wall shrubs like Ceanothus, Cytisus battenderii (the pineapple broom) or any of the Buddleias.

Climbers can be good for bees

For the medium-sized garden, why not create an area for cottage garden flowers? A sunny border filled with achillea, campanula, hollyhocks, delphiniums, penstemons and asters will be buzzing with insect life; or for shadier areas plant lungwort, bugle, foxgloves and astrantia. If you have gaps in existing borders, why not fill them with easy annuals like cosmos, cornflowers, love-in-a-mist, eschscholzia or calendula – there are some great colour coordinated bee-friendly seed mixes about. Or go wild and sow some native wildflowers: bistort, verbascum, teasel and viper’s bugloss – a brilliant bee plant.

But the mayhem of the cottage garden isn’t for everyone. If you like your planting strong and structural, you can still benefit bees by using statuesque plants like angelica, cardoon, globe thistle or drifts of iris, alliums, and the ever-popular but wonderful Verbena bonariensis.

Bee friendly plants with good form

For the larger garden there are several different ways you can improve your bee-friendliness, from tree or hedge planting to meadow creation (a subject so complex it merits a blog of its own).

Fruit tree blossom is very attractive to bees, so creating an orchard or forest garden (the more natural equivalent) would be a great idea if you have the space. If that’s not possible, why not plant a crab apple, cherry or Judas tree and enjoy it for the blossom alone. And, while people tend to either love ’em or loath ’em, bees adore laburnums, so if you’re that way inclined, a laburnum arch would be a pollinator’s dream. And for the yellow-phobes among us, wisteria is a more restrained alternative.

Bees love Laburnum

Hedgerows are great places for all sorts of wildlife, but they can be a really important food resource for pollinators especially if wildflowers are encouraged to grow up along the base. They also provide good nesting sites for bumblebees. If you’re planning on planting a new hedge, think mixed and native: the hedgerow blossom of hawthorn, blackthorn, wild plum, dog rose, and honeysuckle are all well-loved by pollinating insects – throw in wildflowers like ox eye daisy, knapweed, red clover, scabious, sanfoin and viper’s bugloss at the base and you have a year-round supply of nectar.

Native hedgerow plants are a really good source of nectar for insects - and attractive too.

 Which brings me to a few important considerations: bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects need a regular supply of nectar all year round, so it’s important to plan your planting so you have several plants flowering at any given time right across the year. Pollinating insects come in all shapes and sizes, and different shaped flowers suit different species so mix it up floristically-speaking. And as a general rule of thumb, it’s best to avoid plants with double flowers – they keep their nectar hidden away making harder for bees to get at.

Any good garden designer will be bearing all this in mind anyway: providing seasonal interest for their client and ensuring that sustainable, environmentally-friendly options are given full consideration. If you feel inspired to take on transforming your patch into a pollinators’ paradise, there is plenty of information on the following websites – enjoy!

http://www.rhs.org.uk/Gardening/Sustainable-gardening/Plants-for-pollinators

www.bumblebeeconservation.org.uk/gardening_for_bumblebees.htm

www.plantforwildlife.ccw.gov.uk

One final thought – if you are keen to attract and encourage pollinators, but can’t completely kick the pesticide habit, then please check the ingredients of the products you use very carefully and keep your eye on the news. Several commonly used chemicals: Imidacloprid, Acetamiprid, Thiacloprid and Thiamethoxam, have already been potentially implicated in bee decline, and I doubt they’ll be the last…

Vicky Wyer