A Bigger splash – weeks ten and eleven – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

 

As I write the words ‘weeks ten and eleven’ I can’t quite believe that it has been that long, despite the fact that I knew this process would take at least 2-3months. Despite this, the progress in the last couple of weeks has been phenomenal. Our beautiful Pennant paving went down this week, with a set of steps, the dramatic curved path and a counter-sweeping curve of stepping stones through the lawn. The path is a thing of beauty.

However, the more Vicky and I looked at it, the more we thought that the line of it through the

The Pennant stone path - a thing of beauty

lawn was not quite right. The idea for the stepping stone part of the path came from Glyn, our hardscape foreman (as opposed to Glen, our hard landscape manager, which is confusing for everyone). There’s a frustrated designer inside everyone. It was a great idea, and one which we latched on to straightaway; so much so that we didn’t draw anything out first (is that an alarm bell I hear ringing?). So in this morning’s drizzle, I said to Glyn that we were going to have to relay the 14, 110kg stones in a slightly different line. “You are winding me up, aren’t you?” was his not unexpected reaction. We just knew that if we didn’t re-lay them, we would be looking out of the window for the next twenty-five years regretting it. He should have expected it really, working for a couple of designers!

The irony of this was not lost on me. I have spent the last two or three days (in between other stuff) writing my presentation to the SGD conference in London on Saturday. In it I underlined the importance of good communication, a clear set of drawings and specifications, communicating with the site staff etc. etc. Alright, I know, calm down at the back there. So I write this blog to say that listening to the client is also important! When they change their mind, accept with good grace (do you think I got away with that?)

 

The shallow end of reclaimed teak at the far end of the swimming pond

We decided fairly early on to have a ‘shallow end’ in the pool. Rather than rake the bottom of the pool, we have achieved this by building a timber deck which will sit below water, giving us a depth of about 1.2m for the first 4.5m or so of one end. The frame timber is made up of English larch (from my new friends at Eco Choice) which does not leak any nasties into the water. The deck itself is made from reclaimed teak. Timber of course floats, so it may seem a bit counter-intuitive building an underwater deck. Once the wood becomes saturated (which takes quite a while) it is not nearly so buoyant, with the teak becoming heavy enough to sink. However, until then, it must be weighted down with concrete blocks, although our calculations as to how many are so unsure that we just decided in the end on ‘a lot’. We will fill the pool up slowly and see whether the deck floats. It’s called the scientific method – reaching a provable result through a controlled experiment (otherwise known as trial and error).

In the almost final fortnight (apart from re-laying slabs), the lawn will go down, the sun deck will go into place and the pool will get filled and planted!

A Bigger splash – weeks eight and nine – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

 

The completed liner for the swimming pond, looking towards the path end. The skimmer pit is in the foreground.

As of Friday night, the installation of the liner is finished and the pool is (hopefully) watertight.  I will resist all the obvious puns regarding liners and launching. Suffice to say that although we didn’t crack any bottles of champagne on the ‘bow’ of the pool, we had a small celebratory drink at what is after all a landmark in the construction.

Detail along the sleeper wall. The liner is trapped between pieces of timber and then sealed.

You might remember from (much) earlier posts that we decided to go for polypropylene rather than PVC partly on the grounds of it being manufactured in the UK, but also because it is a lot less environmentally damaging in manufacture. My concern with this was that it was very stiff and might look a bit ruckled following installation. I needn’t have worried. The appropriately named Tim Pool (yes, really) who is doing the installation of the liner for us did a fantastic job with almost no creases or ugly lumps. It did take quite a lot longer than we expected (like most things on this job), but the result looks great. I have posted a couple of pictures of some of the details as well as the main photo. The marginal beds with curves on both sides were particularly difficult. To seal the liner against the sleepers was tricky – we don’t like to make things easy for ourselves – we used a chunky piece of larch that we used to secure the liner against the timber sleepers and then enclose in liner. This stops the liner tearing against the fixings once loaded with water.

Similar to the timber detail, but using metal edging.

On the lawn side we used a similar method with a strip of metal bolted to the metal edging, which was in turn secured in concrete haunching. This may all seem a bit belt and braces but the pull on the liner once it is full of more than 200 tonnes of water is huge.

Although the rain has made working on the lawn grade difficult, we have made progress towards final levels. So much so that I am now beginning to think we might not have enough subsoil and topsoil! All those enormous piles have gone – I can’t quite believe that all the calculations were right.

Hopefully an end to these...

What I really cannot face is the incessant battles with the local mole population which has gone on for the last six years. This peaked when, on our return from our summer holiday a few years ago, we were confronted 40 molehills on the lawn. My heart sank. I spent 3hrs or so on my hands and knees opening the tunnels and burying all the soil so the lawn was green again. Next morning: ten fresh molehills – this was war! We tried everything – flooding the tunnels, battery operated sonic devices, solar powered devices, traps, with limited success. The ultimate indignity was finding a sonic device toppled by a fresh molehill – a sort of moley ‘two-fingered’ response. The dispute as to whose lawn it was dragged on for several years until I recently solved it (temporarily) by digging it all up. We had to find a more permanent solution by which we could both share the lawn. After a lot of research, we have come down in favour of a German product (suggested by Jens in our design office) which allows the moles to tunnel beneath the lawn but prevents them producing molehills. An honourable compromise that should restore peace. You can get details from Harald Unger at http://molebarrier.com/3.html. It is installed about 50-70mm below the surface of the turf. If I never see another molehill, it will be worth it.

From now it is a sprint to the finish. Marginal beds in the pool to be filled and planted, plumbing completed, paving laid, pool filled, lighting to be installed, lawn laid and decking constructed (both underwater and outside the pool). Soon there will be no more mud in the house…

A Bigger splash – weeks six and seven – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

Light at the end of the tunnel.

Swimming pond for a garden designer - The Oak sleeper edge
The oak sleepers that make up the lower edge of the pool. The marginal area is on the right, the deeper water plants in the centre and the deep swimming water to the left.

Despite the weather (and there has been plenty of that, if you know what I mean), we are nearly ready for the liner. In the two weeks since I last posted on this blog, it seems to have been alternately too wet or too cold to do anything! Luckily, we got most of the blocks laid before the really cold weather set in, but we still had to take our chances with the few remaining stretches, as well as concreting around the sleeper walls. The results, as you can see below are almost starting to look like something recognisable as finished instead of random piles of earth and the odd block wall.

Swimming pond for a garden designer
Almost ready for the liner...

 

Swimming pond for a garden designer - edge detail
The steel edge with its concrete buttresses that forms the upper edge to the pool. The intermediate block wall divides the marginals from the deeper water plants. The swimming area is to the right.

The money pit.

The costs have mounted up fairly alarmingly. By necessity, when we started on this, the design drawings had to progress pretty quickly leaving the finer points of the detailed design to be sorted out as we moved forward. As a result, although we knew roughly what the cost would be, there have been a few additions and we seemed to have forgotten one or two things…

 

Plants are people too.

Doing the planting plan for the big border to the right of the pond was a challenge. Plants are like people. They all have different characters. Some we have a sentimental attachment to and can’t help inviting to every planting plan. Others are old friends that we haven’t seen for a while, but bump into again. Planting plans for small spaces can be a bit like planning a difficult dinner party table! When its your own garden, it is even worse. I had to work really hard to keep reasonable sized blocks and sweeps of plants. My instinct was to try and squeeze in as many of my favourites as I could, but I knew space was limited. In the end, I limited myself to three grasses (not including the small patch of Helictotrichon I have sneaked in at the front): Muhlenbergia capillaris, Eragrostis spectabilis and Miscanthus gracillimus. This last is not definite but it was either that or Pennisetum

Pink Muhly grass. In autumn, this beautiful grass creates a spectacular, billowy of mass of pink, airy flowers on 1m-1.2m stems.

We are lucky to have a fairly deep sunny border, on a well-drained gravelly soil. Whilst this does not suit all plants, it does mean that I can finally plant Eremurus robustus with some hope of it succeeding! I can’t wait! I have also found room for two of my favourite large perennials – Cynara cardunculus and Crambe cordifolia which should punch up nicely amongst some of the lower herbaceous material. There are few places in the garden where we really have the right environment and space for herbaceous material, so it is a delight to have some freedom. Nonetheless, there is still a framework of taller shrubs towards the back of the border and through some of the deeper stretches.

With the end now in sight, the first celebratory party is already booked. I always groan when clients mention this – “We’re having a party on xx; can you be finished by then?” As before with this project, now I can see why they do it.

 

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

New Oak sleeper wall going into place.

I don’t want to bore you all with endless words and technical stuff on this. Goodness knows I’m getting fed up with having a mudbath for a garden week after week, so you lot must be bored stiff! So this week just a few quick pictures showing where we have got to.

New Oak sleeper wall going into place.
New Oak sleeper wall going into place.

A major milestone this week – the oak sleepers started to go in. We excavated a deep trench, rammed back fill around the sleepers and then concreted. We are using vertical sleepers in order to achieve the sinuous shapes those pesky designers have come up with. Actually, talking of pesky designers, I tried to draw a SketchUp model of the pool this week to try and get my head round some of the underwater decking (and because I thought some of you might be interested in it). But with all the curves, after three hours, I had come to the conclusion that building the full size model in the garden would be quicker! Whose idea was this anyway? The level of the top of the sleepers is just above water level by the way.

 

Although still muddy, at least it is level mud now!

The huge piles of earth have mostly gone now. The level of the lawn (I use the word loosely here) has been raised by about 600mm, and the remaining large pile of excavated material will be used as backfill around the sleepers. So I can finally breathe a sigh of relief that I am not not going to have to devise a landscape solution for a mini version of the the Alps in the garden.

No update on planting – I haven’t had time to do any planting plans. Proper work keeps getting in the way!

More soon…

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

The builders yard - a necessary evil?

Although the design for the rear garden is finally starting to emerge from the muck and bullets, the front drive looks like a builder’s yard. In addition to the bulk bags of sand and ballast, pallets of cement, glass filtration aggregate, plumbing fittings, geotextile, reclaimed teak decking, and mulch visible in this photo, there is a 7m long roll of liner and 75no new English oak sleepers out of shot.

One of the principal features of the design is a curved path running around one end of the pool connecting the lawn to the forest garden. This is made up of single 1.2m wedge-shaped slabs of stone. Of course, with two garden designers, selecting the material was always going to be a difficult process. We had recently come across a very interesting stone from the Forest of Dean, called Pennant.

The curved walls that will run benath the new Pennant Stone path

I had been vaguely aware of this stone for about ten years, but never really used it. We had selected it for a large project in Berkshire, and liked the subtlety of the blue grey and buff tones. As well as the quality of the stone, what really impressed us though were the go-ahead attitude of the quarry and the sustainability of the production process. All the quarried material is used and the production unit (which is under the same ownership) can process up to 1000m2 a week – not relevant to our garden, but very useful on our site in Berkshire! The stone saws are powered by the plant’s own hydro-electric power unit producing 13.5kW of power. The stone was supplied through Edward Tennant at Ashfield Stone, who was extremely helpful (www.ashfieldgroup.com).

The path swings on a single radius of 11.1m, so precision is absolutely key. Glen has been keeping a very close eye on the measurements, as there is no room for error. The individual stones (of which there are forty) weigh 106kg each, so laying them will not be easy. After looking carefully at all the possibilities, we decided on suspending the slabs from the end of the excavator arm using a stone lifter. This should allow us to rotate and position the individual slabs very accurately. They will be delivered in about two weeks, so we will see. The block-work support for this path is going in at the moment.

Selecting the timber has been equally tortuous, for various reasons. There are a number of locations which have different requirements hence a variety of timbers are being used. The retaining walls for the lower areas are vertical (new) oak sleepers laid in sweeping curves. Within the pool, the main walls are topped of with capping of western red cedar (which will be under water.) In addition to this, there is a deck about a metre below water level at either end. This is to be made of reclaimed teak decking on a network of larch beams. It is not possible to use any treated timber in the water, because the chemicals used in the preservative process are effective biocides. There is also a deck suspended above the northern end of the pool. This must also be of larch bearers. We wanted to use locally sourced FSC timber wherever we could. The sleepers were fairly easy as there are many companies supplying English oak sleepers, but the other timbers were more difficult. EcoChoice (based in Cambridge – www.ecochoice.co.uk) were particularly helpful. We managed through them to find some really good British grown larch and western red cedar. I had only come across Canadian or Russian WRC before, so this was a revelation to me. the timber is a little knottier than Canadian, but a lot cheaper and perfectly good enough for our purposes.

Blockwork starting to go in for the deepwater renegeration beds (before rain stopped play)

 

A spring scene: what is left of our lawn, with the pretend farmyard in the distance (aka the messy area next to my veg garden) and the edge of the new herbaceous bed in the foreground.

Although the end is in site, I don’t think we will be finshed for when my family descend at Easter. What’s more, inevitably other work is starting to clamour for the team. Suddenly I am feeling like one of those clients who says – “It must be finished for my party on Saturday Week”. I’ll start changing the design soon…

I am beginning to develop designs for the main herbaceous bed. Not that we can agree on what plants to use. And as always, visualising herbaceous plants in their summer glory in what still feels like the depths of winter is a cross between torture and therapy. More on this next week.

 

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