An afternoon with the Galanthophiles…

Saturday 25th February, a beautiful spring sunny day.  Parental duties on the touch line completed, a thrilling cup game but that is another story, it was snowdrop time!

This was not as you might think a trip to Bennington Lordships, Anglesey Abbey or one of the other large gardens renowned for stunning swathes of beautiful snowdrops but an open day in a small suburban garden in Leighton Buzzard.

Had I dragged the family along to see a clump of Galanthus nivalis in a neighbours garden nestled between the potting shed and compost bin?  Was this a repeat of the later deemed inappropriate father and son trip to the V&A Modernism Exhibition – why would a 5 year old have preferred to have gone to the Natural History Museum I protested.  Well this was no ordinary suburban abode but the home of the Owens and their NCPPG national collections of some 900 varieties of snowdrops – we were amidst the Galanthophiles!

I have always been cautious of such plant collectors and their train spotter like behavior, all that ticking names of lists and focusing on one group of plants at the expense of others seems alien to me.  However after a short time spent in the garden my fears of having to don an anorak passed ……these Galanthophiles were just passionate plants people!

The garden although not at the cutting edge of design was charming with every corner full of interesting plants and not only snowdrops!  Indeed there was a beautiful Prunus Beni-Chidori or flowering Japanese apricot in full bloom, a small tree that we recently planted to mark the birth of a Japanese client’s first child so it was great to see a mature specimen.  The Owens were at hand to share their knowledge and passion with cautionary tales of battles with stagonospora, botrysis, narcissus flies and swift moths – which anyone who is going to grow the more delicate hybrids will need to be prepared to stave off.  If a question was not being asked of Mr Owen he immediately had a trowel in hand and was on all fours in the borders – a true gardener never wastes a minute of a sunny day!

The snowdrops in the garden were planted in groups; nivalis, elwesii, plicatus and hybrids and the small scale of the garden meant the range in flower sizes, flower shapes, markings and colour could be easily seen and enjoyed – even by a muddied young footballer.  And the more you looked the closer to the ground you got and indeed I found myself laying down so I could look up into an interesting double or two.

 

An enjoyable afternoon ….would I be joining the ever increasing number of Galanthophiles …well with some 2000 named varieties of snowdrops there are plenty to collect although with rarer hybrids now traded on ebay for high sums with a single Galanthus Green Tear bulb recently selling for £360 it could be an expensive hobby. Well it is probably not for me but I may be tempted to try a hybrid or two ……..or is that how it starts!

Stuart Wallace

Are we just making Pretty shapes?

Strong forms can be a good thing and geometry need not be all right angles – but do we sometimes let shapes drive the design rather than vice versa? I always think of a design for a site being based on a triangular set of influences – site, client and designer. You can tell the designers who exert a strong influence on their designs and ignore the other two – their schemes all look pretty similar – ‘a very strong house style’ is how it is often described. The one advantage to clients is at least they know what they are going to get…

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Stop, Collaborate & Listen!

 As designers there are times when we become fully absorbed in our own work, and rightly so.  This happens frequently when projects are running at full tilt and we barely have time to sip that treasured early morning coffee, let alone pause for contemplation.

Ummm!

Whether you work in a small studio or large office it is important to take a step back to review work when the opportunities arise.  More often than not constructive criticism from our office colleagues encourages us to look again and consider alternatives available.  This often leads to better design development and the results are often more successful.   

Can we rely on our colleagues too much though?  There can be a danger that the criticism we receive becomes diluted or even too friendly if we are not careful.  This is where collaboration with other external professionals can be useful from time to time to refresh creativity. 

Elephant & Castle

Recently at Bowles & Wyer we were involved in a public realm design tender for an exciting regeneration project around the St Mary’s site at Elephant & Castle.  Lend Lease and Southwark council are working in partnership to transform this site as part of an overall £1.5bn, 55 acre development programme.  We were shortlisted down to the final two designers but sadly we were not awarded the final contract despite our best efforts.  The experience however proved beneficial.  

Jeremy Rye Studio were initially invited to tender by Lend Lease and approached us to work in collaboration with them.  Jeremy Rye worked previously for Kim Wilkie, recently setting up his own practice in 2011.  His key strengths lie in masterplanning and sustainable design and he felt this would complement  our own experience in detailed design of urban spaces, roof gardens and high quality residential developments. 

Brooks Drive Extension Concept

It quickly became apparent from our first meeting that we had similar ideas and values, helping us form a strong bond.  We made sure we communicated regularly and most importantly gave un-bias ‘outsider’ criticism of each other’s ideas.  The result was a robust response to the design brief and we were left convinced our ideas had the potential to be successful. 

Concept Masterplan

Criticism from fellow landscape practitioners is not something we all have the luxury of during design stages of projects but something that can prove useful with the right team of people.   Results can be surprising with exciting outcomes often different to those produced in isolation.  Maybe we should all consider the benefits of collaboration once and a while to challenge our thinking?  Certainly in tough economic times it is no bad thing to have allies closer to home.

James Smith

Where have all the trees gone?

This is from a developer’s sale details – not a tree in sight!

Why is it that most house-builders are so against planting trees? In fact, why are they generally against putting landscape in place? This question lurked behind (and occasionally in the foreground) of many of the recent discussions in the Landscape Institute lecture series staged at the excellent Garden Museum in Lambeth, London (www.gardenmuseum.org.uk). Historically, those schemes that have incorporated a high quality integrated landscape have become highly valued, both in market terms but also in wider social terms. Many of these were in their day landmarks in the way in which housing was built on mass – The Garden City movement, Span Developments, Wates housing estates from the 1960s to name but a few.

Span Houses at Cedar Chase – designed by Eric Lyons

One of the common threads in all of these was their incorporation of dense planting and trees into the structure of the developments. Often they were planned at relatively high housing densities, allowing higher returns for the developer.

As land prices have moved up and car ownership increased, developers tended to move more towards apartment block schemes in urban areas. The more imaginative operators (such as Urban Splash) and those working at the top end of the market would always incorporate landscape. Sadly, this was a minority. Our experience working in this market has clearly shown that fantastic results can be squeezed form the most difficult sites when Landscape Architects or Garden Designers are involved early enough. Bowles & Wyer recently picked up the ‘Landscape Architect of the Year’ and ‘Garden Designer of the Year’ awards at the New Homes Garden Awards (www.newhomesgardenawards.co.uk). This has been run by Denis Rawlings and David Hoppit for several years to try and drive forward the quality of landscape design in housing.

Squeeze those trees in! A scheme of ours in London.

One of our schemes won ‘Best Urban Landscape’ on a very tight site in London. It just shows that there is never an excuse not to plant trees. On this site, they are squeezed between the houses and the backs of the neighbouring shops, on top of an underground car park! you can see more of this scheme on our website in the project pages: The Collection, St Johns Wood. The interesting thing about it is that the cost of the soft landscape was only about £70,000, which represents just £5000 per house. I would hazard a guess that it added a lot more than that to the sale price of each unit.

John Wyer

Should garden designers take commission payments?

Loadsamoney! - Commission? or corruption?

We were recently offered a commission payment by a firm that designed and built treehouses. We were recommending them on a large garden we are undertaking in Surrey. We did not take up the offer. Interestingly, shortly afterwards they put us forward for another job in the same neighbourhood and demanded a commission payment if we were appointed. We refused, saying that payment should be unnecessary. This resulted in quite a row between us.

We were against taking the payment on a number of different grounds. Firstly, it clouds your judgement. I want to be free to make decisions on a number of criteria, without the ‘size of the bung’ being one of the factors. Secondly, we should be free to recommend others (and be recommended ourselves) on the basis of competency, skills and experience. We work with a range of other experts and specialists – joiners, artists, lighting designers, etc. we choose them on merit. Finally (and most importantly) it is essentially dishonest. Not dishonest in the sense of illegal, but more in the sense of not being transparent. If you take such payments, do you tell your client? If not, why would that be? In other industries (such as the insurance industry), we all rail against similar opaque practices, calling them shady, dishonest or even corrupt. When it is us being offered the money it is a slightly different story. We either defend it saying it is an honestly earned commission, or keep quiet and take the money (which is what I suspect most people do). Even if one decides to take a stance on this, it is very difficult not to acquiesce when a supplier effectively gives you the money unbidden by inviting you to invoice them, as happened to us recently. Perhaps weakly, I didn’t invoice them, but I didn’t tell them I wouldn’t take the money either (although I won’t). I am not saying we haven’t accepted it once or twice in the past, but we have made a joint decision in the business to draw a line here.

In any case, most if not all professional associations frown upon the idea: it is strictly forbidden by the code of professional conduct of both the Landscape Institute and the Society of Garden Designers. I suspect that this does not stop the practice going on however. I also realise that I will probably unleash a flood of posts from other designers saying that this is the only way they can make a decent living; that it is alright for you lot in the SE etc. etc. My answer to that is that you should charge more. Again – ‘Alright for you lot in the loaded South-East’. But if you don’t try and charge a living wage for what you do, how will clients ever learn to value it? What clients pay for should be transparent and fair – to both sides.

John Wyer

Small acts can make big changes

I went to a funeral yesterday of a friend who had spent most of his too-short life campaigning on environmental and other issues. It seemed a cold, bleak moment as we stood by the graveside on the snow-covered ground. But then, something amazing happened. Brightly coloured bio-degradable balloons we handed around. We learned that each had been filled with a few wildflower seeds before they had been inflated. After a few words and a moment’s silence, all the balloons were released simultaneously into the winter sky. It was a beautiful moment as we all stood, each wrapped in our own thoughts, watching the balloons floating away.

I was profoundly struck by this. As always at such events, one is sharply reminded of the mortality that we all share and of how much for granted we take vitality. It also offered an opportunity to re-assess priorities and goals. Even in his last act, this deeply committed individual was striving to bring about change. The wildflower seeds were of course a quite literal interpretation of the parable of the seed sowing – those which fall on fertile ground would grow. But they were also a wonderful metaphor. Sometimes the best way to bring about change is not grand gestures, but small acts. We never know what effect each small act of change may be. A letter here or an email there; a name on a petition, a face at a meeting: some of these will fall on stony ground, but others may take root.

John Wyer

Why are Landscape designers different?

Landscape and Garden design are different from other forms of design. Why? Well, there are two reasons; firstly because we design with living things. This means our designs change with time. They are not ephemeral in the usual sense of the word, tending instead to improve with time. However, the other reason we are different is that we are always site-specific. This is sometimes true for other professions (architecture for example), but always true for landscape design. Sometimes I think that we do not sufficiently realise what a rare opportunity this represents.

A few months ago, we looked at a site in the Gade Valley in Hertfordshire. We already have other projects in this valley, notably at a grade II* listed manorial house called Gaddesden Hall. The new plot we were looking at was different because it was a greenfield site where the client was planning an application under PPS7, which allows new houses to be built in the countryside if they are of exceptional architectural quality. 

This new site really got me thinking about what it meant to be site specific in terms of design, and also how that related to the client. I suppose what defined it was not so much the views (which were fantastic) or the approach through the tree-covered lane, which I also really liked, but the way the site connected to the broader landscape. One of the things that I learned from working at Gaddesden Hall is that the Gade Valley has a rich history going back at least a couple thousand years, and probably longer. That is why the approach through the little lane overhung with trees was so important, because the feeling one gets walking up the track is of stepping backwards to something forgotten.

In landscape terms this would mean that our approach would not be to create a ‘garden’ as such. Neither would it be to try and ‘hide’ the house. In any case, in order to succeed the architect’s design would have to strike chords with its surroundings. In the simplest terms we would be looking at integration, but this works at a more fundamental level than a cosmetic or visual approach.

When we were standing on the site, I remarked to the client that although we were surrounded by classic English ‘countryside’, everything that we could see around us was a ‘manmade’ landscape. In effect of course this means a balance between human activity and natural forces. Ultimately any landscape that we would create would be the same – it would seek equilibrium between human activity and nature. How this will look depends partly on the activity – lawn, vegetable gardens, orchards, pasture, hedgerows, woodland and reedbeds all occupy different positions in the tapestry of the broader landscape and represent varying inputs of activity.

 The skill would be to weave different elements (however few or many they may be) together into a whole that feels right, that feels as though it has always been there. It will be neither a pure expression of the site any more than it will be a pure distillation of who the client is (or the designer for that matter), but a manifestation of how we interact with the land, how we live in the place. In this way it will not only be unique but will change with time as our circumstances change and with every decision that we make.

John Wyer