Category Archives: Countryside

Master-planning country estates and large gardens

Image copyright Ketih Hornblower, commissioned by Bowles & Wyer for a garden in Surrey

I recently was asked to give a talk at the landscape show on the subject of Master-planning country estates and large gardens – what do you do when confronted by several acres and an expectant client?

Estate master-planning is an area in which Bowles & Wyer have considerable experience, built up particularly over the last decade or so, in this country and internationally. So, question 1 –

What is master-planning? And how is it different from design?

There is often confusion about the differences between design and master-planning. Many inexperienced designers approach a master plan in the same way they would a garden design – they do some analysis, but often quite quickly get bogged down in shape making and fail to think radically about what is needed – they think in terms of features and style rather than areas and networks.

    • Masterplans establish a framework of land use spaces or zones, connected by a distribution network. It is within this framework that design occurs.

Which leads us naturally to question 2 –

What processes should you go through to masterplan a site?

There are three basic stages – Information gathering, Analysis and Design. Remember the S-A-D process you were taught at college? This applies doubly to landscape (or any) master-planning.  There is a fourth process that overlays this, which is stakeholder engagement. In the public realm this is a continuous and multi-layered procedure. However, for private projects, although important, it is more straightforward.

1. Information gathering stage

Magic maps (https://magic.defra.gov.uk/) can be a really useful resource in desk surveys.
  • Before you go to site, before you start on anything else, it is good to carry out a thorough desktop study into background information. Web-based sources like magic map are useful for this – look at designations, neighbouring land uses, local planning applications, planning history, etc.
  • The next step obviously is to Visit the site: spend as much time there as possible. Walk around the whole area and take lots of photos.
  • Talk to people who know the site well. Obviously, this may include the owner, but also site managers, gardeners, people who have had previous dealings there (other designers, tree surgeons, local authority officers etc.). This information can be invaluable.
This is a slope analysis for a site we master-planned in the south of France – the red areas show the steepest slopes.
  • Again this may seem obvious, but Aspect and topography are crucial – they have a major bearing on almost everything. Resist the temptation to start formulating design solutions until all the information is analysed and collated. In most cases, aspect and topography are likely to be bigger drivers of the final masterplan than the client brief.
  • Use aerial or satellite photography
    • Look back at previous cached satellite/aerial pics to get an idea of history/change on the site. This is not always easy, but can be really useful.
    • Sometimes useful for looking at seasonal change – not all photographs are taken at the same time of year.
    • Combine overlays and aerial photography – we find this a really useful methodology and it makes sure that your design process is always pinned back to site.

  • Other Surveys may also be useful:
    • Commission a tree survey if possible, or in the case of a woodland a walking woodland health survey. Generally very useful, although sometimes you have to convince the client to spend the money.
    • Commission ecological survey information – especially if there is a lot of semi-wild (or wild) landscape.
    • Hydrological information – if Hydrology or drainage are an issue, then this is vital in formulating solutions.
    • If abroad, local climate
  • What is the house going to be used for?
    • Main residence – family use? Is it going to be a low-key home for the family?
    • Holiday or country home? If so what are the times of year of visits?
    • Entertaining (shooting, country house parties, etc)? How many guests and how often? Sometimes larger houses have to virtually function as hotels – if so, you need to consider this from the start.

2. Analysis stage

  • What are the overriding physical constraints that affect the site?
    • What further research is needed? Often a consideration of this stage throws up extra research that can be useful to undertake.
    • What is the nature of the constraints?How can they be mitigated to meet the client brief?
  • How are the client requirements going to impact on the site?
    • How might these change over time?
    • How might the various client uses have different impacts? Sometimes these can be in conflict – quiet family use and formal large-scale entertaining for example require a completely different approach.
    • What land use zones need to be near the house and which can afford to be further afield? Swimming pools for example generally need to be near the house. Ditto kitchen gardens. Games pitches or tennis courts can be a little further away, whilst woodland walks, lake etc. can be quite distant.
  • Budget and timescale
    • What are the client’s time horizons (and are they realistic)?
    • Are there overriding budget constraints? Although be warned, it is best not to get sucked into budgetary discussions too early.
    • What future management or maintenance resources are likely to be available? This needs to be one of the earliest questions you ask.
  • Context
    • What bearing does the context of the site have on usage and design?
    • How might land use on neighbouring plots change in the foreseeable future change and what are the implications? It is not uncommon for example to find neighbouring farmland under threat of future development – this has happened to us during the master planning process at least three times that I can think of.
    • Analyse key views across the surrounding countryside, particularly from the house. These need to managed rather than just kept. Use clumps of trees or other objects to mask unwanted parts of a view.

3. Design Stage

  • Access and distribution are important
    • Look at the journey that visitors will make when approaching the house. Not all should be revealed at once – there should be a serial vision as to how the design unfolds.
    • Think of day-to-day use by the family; this may well be different from guests.
    • For larger houses in particular, think of servicing. Remember that a very large house with say 15-20 bedrooms acts like a hotel when full for a weekend or other event. There will need to be drop-off and parking for guests, parking for staff, but also separate access for food, drink laundry and other deliveries. This needs to work smoothly and as nearly as possible, invisibly.
    • Security may be an important factor for some clients. This has a significant bearing on communications and distribution networks
    • You will also need to think about how maintenance equipment (such as minitractors, mowers etc) move about the site.
  • Uses:
    • The internal and external uses need to be aligned. For example, main reception room and spilling out space; pool room and sun terraces. We had one project where the architect completely reworked the internal layout when we pointed out the potential of the views and west facing façade.
    • Consider grouping uses together where feasible – entertaining or grander spaces, family use spaces, sports and outdoor activities (tennis, swimming, trampoline, play equipment etc.) There may be scope for spaces to have more than one use.
    • Think about practicalities for gardeners – composting, equipment storage etc, but also WC and break facilities.
A Spectacular view from an estate in Hertfordshire – image copyright Quintin Lake
  • Views and spaces
    • Look to ‘manage’ key views. It may be that removal of some trees (or groups) may open beautiful views. Alternatively, there may be other features (pylons, buildings etc) that can be hidden by tree planting. Consider using landform for this as well, preferably combined with tree planting.
    • Segues between spaces are crucial. This is particularly important where uses vary between spaces.
  • Finally, style – this should be quite a long way down the list. Land use and practicality are much more important.

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

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

Winter Landscapes

This normally muddy footpath is transformed by the snow. Look how the pinks and mauves in the low sunlight are reflected in the snow

Why think about gardens now? The weather outside is terrible and the sun seems to set only just after it has risen. One reason to look forward to the spring is that it is a good way to cheer yourself up. This is of course famously the time of year to make resolutions and lists; clear one’s desk and mind of preconceptions, and move forward with fresh vigour (if slightly lower in the water after the Christmas period). It is perhaps for this reason that we often get new enquiries in January. It is not a bad time to start planning a project, if one can raise the enthusiasm. Getting stuck into the possibilities of what can be achieved is almost by definition an optimistic process which helps raise the spirits of all concerned.

I also find that one looks at landscapes and gardens in a different way at this time of year. In a sleepy winter landscape, the importance of what colour and life remains is underlined.

One becomes more aware of the contrasts between evergreens and deciduous plants; of coloured stems shining in low sunlight. Birds are suddenly much more noticeable, along with the need to cater for them. There is something particularly fascinating about the landscape laid bare at this time of year. Beyond the tiredness of the herbaceous plants and bumpy lawns, there is a leaner palette of colour and texture that gradually forces the casual observer to look more closely at a landscape.

 The combination of colour and texture of these rosehips with the frost on them is beautiful

The skeletal nature of the branches, and the tracery of the twigs can look very dramatic against a pale sky, and quite magical when picked out in frost.

Everyone enjoys the snow, but look how the contrast enhances the pattern of the twigs....

The snow underlines the structure of a landscape in quite a different way. The surface textures are all obliterated, the contours smoothed out and the colour palette reduced to a simple, elegant monotone. The reflective effect of the white landscape also gives a different quality to the light.

This normally muddy footpath is transformed by the snow. Look how the pinks and mauves in the low sunlight are reflected in the snow

The sun is often low in the sky which enhances the undulations of the landforms with subtle bluish purple shadows. All of these things allow us to look at the structural elements of the landscape with a detachment that is otherwise rarely possible, often revealing a hidden beauty and simplicity of form. There is also a stillness about a winter landscape that lends real serenity. Noise is muffled, but there are few leaves to rustle together anyway.

A landscape transformed by snow

So instead of moping inside, look at the landscape through fresh eyes and reassess it. You may see simple beauty that you hadn’t noticed before.