The Journeys we Make to Become Gardeners.

(Written by Jeff Stephenson. Head of Horticulture and Aftercare at Bowles & Wyer)

A glimpse into my student days at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; 

As we made our way up the steep wooden ladders, which were perilously lashed (Heath Robinson fashion), to the gnarled root encased hillside, our t-shirts already clinging to our backs with sweat; we looked up through the morning gloom and dense canopy to make out  the mottled buff-grey stone wall of Temple IV  up ahead of us. We emerged around dawn onto the precarious stone terraces of the structure to sit and rest, drawing breath whilst we surveyed the dizzying panorama now displayed. The moisture laden air swirled below us like a low  fog over the sea. As the sun rose higher in the sky the white blanket of mist slowly rolled back, revealing one of the most memorable and awe inspiring views I had ever witnessed. My heart was beating fast in my chest. There, set out in emerald green, was the Guatemalan rainforest.



View towards Temple IV showing summit shrine; Tikal, Guatemala.

Majestic Kapok trees, festooned with Spanish moss and orchids, shouldered their way above the uninterrupted canopy which, when viewed from way up here, looked like tufts of lichen attached to a diorama. A cacophony of shrills, melodic woodwind like whoops and deep baritone honks could be heard emanating from the impenetrable green below. The hollow reverberating primeval ‘chant’ of howler monkeys could be identified in the distance.  A small flock of Scarlet Macaws in red,  blue and yellow passed in spirit-like effortless flight over the tree tops , whilst a pair of toucans bobbed and cavorted through the bows of a nearby tree, turning their heads on their sides to inquisitively eye each other, seemingly unhindered by their oversized tangerine bills. 

I couldn’t believe I was really here amidst such rich natural beauty; I was in the heart of the ancient Mayan city of Tikal.”

  • Excerpt from my R.B.G. Kew Travel Scholarship Diaries; Tikal, Guatemala; 18th September 1992.


A client once said to me, only a few years ago and with much sincerity;

“When are you going to get a proper job, not just gardening?”

Unfortunately it is all too often that many people outside of our profession make assumptions about exactly who and what gardeners are and where they have come from. They have a very narrow perception of how large, interesting and diverse the horticultural industry is and how long good gardeners have spent in training (which never finishes), or indeed where it may have taken them.

My journey:

I began the Kew Diploma in Horticulture back in 1989 with much trepidation, being surrounded by extremely bright students with amazing backgrounds. I’d already studied sciences but only spent one year learning horticulture and countryside management at Capel Manor College in Enfield whilst also volunteering with The Colne Valley Park Groundwork Trust; my peers had spent years at places such as R.H.S. Wisley, Hampton Court Palace and Singapore Botanic Gardens. I was woefully outmatched, so I set myself on a route of committed study to justify being amongst my classmates.

Kews’ intensive programme covers everything from systematics and genetics to surveying and landscape design. One day you are dissecting flowers under a microscope, another you are micro-propagating orchids in a test tube.  With plant identification tests, every fortnight, covering wide agenda such as ‘The Palm House’, ‘The Pinetum’ or ‘The Order Beds’, you had to quickly build up your observation and recall abilities. We were privy to lectures from Kews’ own scientific and living collections staff (favourites included Mike Maunder and Tony Kirkham) and external lecturers with the likes of John Brookes, Peter Thoday,  Sir Roy Strong and Brita von Schoenaich.  Studies were both ‘in house’ and held at other centres such as West London Institute of Higher Education (now part of Brunel University), Otley College (Suffolk) and Writtle College (Chelmsford); we were influenced by wide ranging teaching styles and facilities.

Appennine Colossus; Villa di Pratolino, Tuscany.

There were study trips to Tuscany to see Medici Villas and Pistoia’s nurseries and field trips to Dorset and Sussex to survey coastal zonation and soil profiles respectively. I built a ‘Japanese garden’ for the NCCPG at the very first Hampton Court Flower Show and designed the interpretive Bee Garden which used to reside near Kew Palace. We worked in numerous living collection and administrative departments including ‘Planning’; one of my roles was liaising with film crews, book publishers, TV companies and celebrities (inc. David Bellamy), who wanted to use the gardens for filming and photo-shoots.  A high point was winning two Travel Scholarship awards which allowed me to investigate ecosystems in Central America, both on land and around the coast via SCUBA; surveying mangrove swamps, seagrass lagoons and coral reefs with ‘Coral Cay Conservation’ (but that’s another story!).

After three years at R.B.G. Kew and a fourth intermediate industrial placement year with Clifton Nurseries’ landscape team (during 1990-1991, which incidentally is where I fortuitously first met Chris Bowles and John Wyer), I managed to graduate with Honours as the highest scoring student of each year; the focused study and sacrifices had paid off.

So the next time a gardener passes your way, have a thought for where they have been or where they could be headed. They may have rich stories to tell and extensive knowledge to call upon; your garden could greatly benefit from their experiences.

by Jeff Stephenson.

People: the most valuable asset (notes from FutureScape ’17)

For those of you who either missed my talk at FutureScape this year, or just want a second read, here is a transcript. All businesses are built on two things: the quality of their ideas and the quality of their people. So the question is, how do you find and retain the best people? The first thing to ask yourself is…

Why are you hiring? The obvious answer to this is ‘because I’m busy’. If you are a one-person organisation, you should think about what it is you want somebody else to do and what you want to keep doing yourself. What are you good at? What are you not good at? So, we have gone from why to What…


What are you looking for in an employee?  First step – write a job description. This will help you focus your thoughts on what duties you want someone to carry out. There are loads of ways to structure a job description with the minimum being simply a list of duties. I find it is helpful to start with the basics: Title, Place of work, Line manager (who does the holder of this post report to?), Accountability (to whom will they have to explain themselves if something big goes wrong?), Development path. Then move on to some general stuff about the business and the post. Next a short summary of general duties relating to this post. Finally, a list of specific duties, grouped under headings. There are different ways of doing this. Some people find it helpful to list them in order of importance. Others use some sort of chronological order. Personally, I favour listing them in the order of the percentage of time they will take up, but noting if there are any that are particularly important that appear further down the list.

Next step – write a person profile. Again, there are many different ways of approaching this. I usually divide these into sections under the headings:
I then mark each with ‘essential’ or ‘desirable’. For example, ten years’ experience in your sector might be desirable, three years’ might be essential.

What are they looking for in an employer?

  1. Salary is a key decider for many people – around 60% put this top of their list
  2. CPD opportunities and career development come next – important for around 45% of people
  3. Company ethos and values is also really important, particularly with younger employees – I’ll come back to this later
  4. Company reputation is next – most people want to work at a company which has an excellent standing within the industry, and somewhere that will ultimately add to their CV
  5. Location is important for some people
  6. Flexibility of working can also be important.
  7. Size of business not important to most people, nor is job title.

The character section on the person profile starts to touch on another area completely. The experience and qualifications are, if you like, ‘tangibles’. But at least as important are the intangibles. What is a person really like – who are they? And even if you knew the answer to that question, would it help?

The answer to this is in the culture of your business. Culture is made up of the intangible parts of a business, the non-commercial aspects. This includes things like purpose, DNA, values, ethos etc. It affects not only the sort of place it is to work, but also ultimately has an impact on the ‘tangibles’ – the commercial aspects of the business. If you have already thought about this, then you will be able to take some of this and use it to feed into the general section of the job description. More importantly, it will allow you to much more directly profile the sort of person you are looking for. Having done all this background work, where do you then look for the ideal candidate?

Whereas previously you would have had to rely on classified ads in the back of magazines or recruitment agencies, now there are a multitude of routes to candidates. Here are a few of them:
Your own website (Website Career Page)
Social Media – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook
LinkedIn Career Section (on your company page) or LinkedIn Paid Job Ads
Job Sites / Talent Acquisition Platforms / Aggregators, such as SmartRecruiters, Indeed, Monster, CareerBuilder, Neuvoo.
Niche Job Boards and Sites – SGD, BALI, LI etc
University Career Boards
Referrals from current employees
Agencies. If you go down the agency route, there are costs – typically 15-25%, but they will cover most of the options above, and it does take a lot of the hassle out of it.

So, once you are flooded with applications, how do you go about selecting who you want? It is almost impossible to glean anything reliable about character from job applications, so in the initial application stage it is best to stick to the experience and qualifications sections of the person specifications you have already done. Normally this is straightforward – the candidates are well spread, and it is easy to pick out the obviously strong ones. Sometimes you have several candidates who are very similar. In this situation I often use a scoring system against my criteria. If it is still difficult, start by telephone interviewing the candidates you are most interested in. I tend to find that it can be quite good to cover experience and technical issues on the telephone. I stick rigidly to a script scoring each participant and then compare the scores afterwards. You can always weight the scores for areas that you think are more important.

When it comes to face to face interviews, allow plenty of time. Chat first to put them at their ease. Spend a little time telling them about the role and the organisation if you need to, but remember that at least half to two thirds of the interview should be the applicant talking. Ask open rather than closed questions and give them plenty of time to answer. A good part of the interview should be taken up with cultural questions. Some of these could be scenario questions. Others could be ‘give me an example of when you…’ So, if your core value is around excellence, you could ask – “Provide an example of a time when you went out of your way and jumped through hoops to delight a customer” or around team work you could ask “When you work with a team, describe the role that you are most likely to play on the team.” Followed by “How would co-workers describe the role that you play on a team?”
Apply the two-hour test… could you spend two hours (say on a train) with this person? Could you enjoy their company at the dinner table for two hours, or would you be bored stiff? And how will they fit in with other people in the team? Whilst it is important that you can get on with potential employees, it is also important that you don’t just hire people like yourself. The best teams are made up of lots of different types of people. Imagine a football team of all strikers (or worse still, all goalies!). And don’t just hire people who will make you look good. There is an old management adage that says: ‘Hire people who are smarter than you.’ I believe that learning is a two-way process. We learn a lot form our employees at all levels, just as they learn from working with us.
Don’t rule out some sort of test – particularly if you are a sole trader or very small business and this is a major step up for you.

Finally, Check references. Not long ago, we were looking to appoint a new member of the design team. Interview went well, applicant seemed good on the verge of appointing we took up references. This popped into my inbox (just an anonymised excerpt from a longer email): “My experience with XXXX is that she is motivated only by his/her own self-interests. S/he is extremely poor with client follow-through—does not provide any customer service after s/he has been paid his/her commission. Often s/he does not reply to email requests nor questions. S/he spends a great deal of time in the office FaceTiming with his/her partner and has taken 5 vacations or extended leaves of absence in the last 8 months. S/he has very poor people skills is the most moody employee I have ever employed.” We didn’t employ them.

Salary is a motivating factor for around 60% of people applying for jobs, so naturally enough there is often some negotiation on a starting package. Salary in particular is a difficult one – people starting often using their leverage at the time of appointment to drive up starting salary. Make the salary range clear from the start and do not ‘promise’ the job before agreeing the package. Bear in mind where the new person will fit into the range of salaries of existing employees. Sometimes agreeing a higher salary but tying it to no review for say eighteen months allows both situations to be addressed. Offering ‘one-off’ items such as help with moving costs can also ease the situation without affecting the position permanently.

Once an appointment is in place and a starting date agreed, make all the necessary arrangements swiftly and efficiently. Make sure that the new starter has all the necessary hardware (desk/chair /phone/computer/vehicle etc) and software and logins (including email addresses etc). They will have enough to worry about when they start without adding to it with hassles over their working environment, plus it will send the right message from the beginning.

So how do you retain staff once they are in post? Although money is important when people are looking to change jobs, curiously it is not the main issue for most people in whether they stay in a job. These are the top issues:

  • Feeling valued and rewarded. Money is important here, but it is not nearly as important as feeling valued
  • Knowing clearly what is expected of them
  • Quality of management – especially sticking to promises and being fair and consistent
  • Ability to speak their mind freely and being consulted
  • Opportunities to learn and progress
  • Chance to use their skills and talent

Your culture and values once again play into these points. Consult staff constantly on important (and less important) issues and have an open and democratic culture. Regular appraisals or reviews also help as well as give employees a framework for improvement.

It is all too easy to be ‘busy’ with work. Remember that your business – all businesses are built on two things: the quality of their thinking and the quality of their people.

Are you doing enough to attract and retain the best people?

So, what does the future hold (and why should I care)?

Setting aside what’s for supper and plans for the weekend, for most of us, our plan for the future is to carry on doing what we do now, but perhaps a bit better and a bit more. But is that good enough? That was Blockbuster Video’s plan and look how that ended up. I am always suspicious when people say to me that we are living through a revolution – I have been told that for most of my life. But there is no doubt that that we are being buffeted by winds of change, some of which will lead to permanent alterations in how we work. I think there are three main socio-economic changes that we face, along with a couple of further trends within our industry.

The first is an obvious one – digital technology; although it is not always quite so obvious how it will affect us. Some of these changes have already taken hold – social media, digital design tools, Skype, etc., and we ignore these at our peril. However, some of the biggest upsets in markets come around delivery of service rather than the actual service – look at Uber or Air BNB for example. They are also difficult to predict and take hold remarkably quickly. The key here is simply to be open to new ideas and quick to adapt.

The baby-boomer demographic has had a an impact on the economy all the way through.

The next two are to do with demographics and are in many ways opposite sides of the same coin. So, my second big change is Baby-boomers. That’s me and some of you. Essentially this is people born between 1945 and 1965. This group has distorted the economy all the way through from the 1950s onwards. The oldest of these people are already retired and virtually all will have stopped being economically active in terms of earning over the next 15-20years. Research shows that people spend significantly less (particularly on capital items) after the age of 70, which includes things like garden design. How many of your current clients are 52 or older – most?

The millennial generation have a different outlook on consumption from their parents generation

And what of that group the millennials, my third big trend? This refers to people born between 1982 and 2004. There are significant differences between how this and the previous group spend their money. In short, Baby-boomers spend on possessions and millennials on experiences. With the costs of education and housing rising sharply relative to earnings over the last twenty years, this group either cannot afford to buy a house in the first place, or cannot spare much to spend on it.

What do these changes mean to us? I would argue that it probably won’t change the overall size of the landscape industry significantly, but it may change the focus. For example, there may be a drift away from private gardens toward communal spaces in long-term rental estates (as in parts of continental Europe). There is already a noticeable trend for the upper end of restaurants, hotels etc. to spend more on gardens. And an aging population may mean more spending on lifecare and healthcare institutions.

Finally, I promised two trends within our industry. The first of these is what I call the ‘blurring of boundaries’. Partly due to the pressures of change, there are no longer sharp boundaries between the professions, sources of work, and how it is delivered. To give you an example, twenty-five years ago, public space would have been paid for some form of local government and designed by a landscape architect. These days it may be planned by an Urban Designer, paid for by a developer and detailed by a Garden Designer (who is probably employing a landscape architect!). So an ability to be flexible and form partnerships (in the broader sense) is essential to survival.

Bosco vertical by Stefan Boeri – green infrastructure at its best?

The second industry trend is that of green infrastructure, again much of it paid for by development. Green roofs, living walls, the high-line and even community gardens are all examples of the more granular end of this, but at all levels and scales there are opportunities for our profession here.

There may be many changes afoot, some of which will undoubtedly be negative in their impact. My view is that if we remain open to opportunity and collaboration, then we can insulate ourselves from the worst sides of flux and take advantage of the most positive aspects.

(originally published as an article in the Garden Design Journal, November 2017)


The Natural History of Flint

(This blog is the first from Jeff Stephenson, head of Bowles & Wyer’s Aftercare and Gardening division)

From a driveway on the outskirts of Berkhamsted to the chalk seas of the Upper Cretaceous;

When you walk into a garden, do you ever think about where everything originated from? You might find plants from such diverse places as the swamps and wetlands of the Kamchatka Peninsula (e.g. Lysichiton camtschatcensis), the prairies of eastern North America (e.g. Echinacea purpurea) or the coastal forests of Chile (e.g. Fascicularia bicolor). That’s just the chlorophyll containing contingency; what about the supporting cast of hard features; decking materials, manufactured corten steel edgings and natural stones?

In this blog I’m going to concentrate on one of the most unglamorous and overlooked materials we use in gardens. It has been a mainstay material for infilling drainage channels, adding to compost mixes, covering driveways and paths or incorporating into traditionally crafted, regional, walls.  I’m going to share with you what I know about flint. Before I took up horticulture, long before I joined Bowles & Wyer, I studied natural sciences; geology was and still is a particular interest of mine; so when I go into gardens I’m not just thinking about gardening, I’ve also got one eye out for the past; the vast expanse of the geological past.

Flint driveway in a Hertfordshire garden.
Knapped flint wall in a garden in Berkshire.

The flint that you would handle as a landscaper has much more dynamic origins then simply being extracted, graded and bagged. It originates way, way back, over 65-90 million years (Ma) ago during the Late Cretaceous Period; a time when, on land, Tyrannosaurus rex was stalking it’s prey, ancient bees were pollinating the first flowering plants; and in the sea, gigantic mosasaurs swam amongst ammonites and sharks.

What is flint? 

This is the scientific bit; Flint is a particular type of chert that is specifically found in the chalk deposits of the Upper Cretaceous. It is made from the mineral chalcedony, an opaque, unified coloured and cryptocrystalline (micro crystal) form of silica.

What is chalk?

To talk fully about flint, I first have to discuss it’s bedfellow chalk. Have you ever walked atop the White Cliffs of Dover or around Beachy Head? Well the rock you’re standing on is chalk. If you were to take a piece of this chalk, crush it and view the pieces under a microscope you’d find rather unusual disc shaped structures called coccoliths. These were once part of tiny spherical units called coccospheres; the hard calcareous (calcium carbonate) skeletons of billions of microscopic organisms called coccolithophores, a type of marine plankton (they can still be found in parts of the oceans today).

They lived in the upper sunlit reaches of the Cretaceous sea. During this time the supercontinent Pangaea was breaking apart and volcanic activity was producing greenhouse gases which, through increasing global temperatures, prevented the formation of polar ice; leading to elevated sea levels.  As they died they would have ‘rained’ down onto the sea floor forming a lime mud. These sediments eventually compacted into chalk.

Sponge spicules under a light microscope.
Scanning Electron Micrograph of Coccolith plates in Upper Cretaceous Chalk.

How did the flint form in the chalk?

Take a closer look at those chalk cliffs; interspersed in dark hard bands you will find the garden familiar flint.  But where did it come from? From a rather unexpected source. Living on the ancient sea floor were sponges whose bodies contained silica in the form of tiny needle like structures called spicules.  It is mainly the silica from these spicules which, upon the death and burial of the sponges, broke down and enriched the water in the pore spaces of the buried sediments.

These siliceous rich waters then migrated along bedding planes and precipitated out in burrows made by the activity of organisms such as shellfish, sea urchins and worms. Over time and with further burial this material becomes flint. Millions of years of this cyclical process led to the accumulation of chalk deposits within which regular flint bands are found.

How did the flint get separated?

This is where plate tectonics comes in; movements of the earth’s plates (leading to the formation of the Alps) caused the uplift and exposure of these deposits which were then subjected to weathering and erosion. The chalk degrades but the hard resistant flint material gets eroded and re-deposited a number of times through the activity of seas, rivers and glaciers and can be found in numerous deposits laid down during the Tertiary and Quaternary Periods (65 million years ago to present). This is particularly evident along a number of beaches around our coastline.

The most recent part of it’s journey is via human activities; quarrying and extraction.


Flints reworked into beach deposits.
Chalk cliffs containing nodular flint bands.

So from a journey of over 70 million years ago in seas where mosasaurs once swam, to a designed driveway to keep your car on; flint has a story all of its own. You’ll never look at it in quite the same way again.

Jeff Stephenson

Designer to Design Director by James Smith

I’ve been working at Bowles & Wyer for 12 years now, that’s a long time I hear you say! Well yes, it certainly is but, to be honest it really hasn’t felt like it. I have been fortunate to work on some great projects during this time, honing my skills as a designer and project manager and working with some amazingly talented people along the way. I have had the freedom to enjoy my work, with my respected directors John Wyer and Chris Bowles, having given me enough rope to take chances, make mistakes and learn from them. Without this trust I would never have progressed into the position I find myself in as Design Director of Bowles & Wyer, a role I am very proud of. Trust without a doubt breeds motivation, creativity and success!

When I started out at Bowles & Wyer in 2005 the Iphone hadn’t even been introduced to the market and tablets were only of the medicinal kind! Edgar Davids (the chap with the odd specs) was playing for my beloved Tottenham Hotspur and the office was located in a cosy attic of a shared building in Berkhamsted. I remember my start date well, both nervous and excited, plus my eldest son Noah was born a couple of weeks after, making life even more interesting. He is now in his first year of secondary school and it’s scary how time moves on in the blink of an eye! I’ve had some ups and downs over the years as everyone does, I have been divorced and remarried in that time, and count myself very fortunate to have an amazingly supportive wife in Becky, and a young family of 5 fun loving and characterful children (Isla 15, Rosie 13, Noah 11, Isaac 11 and Finley 3) Life is never dull in our world and the fridge is never full for long!

Although many things have changed over the years, there are of course some reassuring constants, Bowles & Wyer is still a great place to work, we continue to take on and deliver the highest quality schemes, and the powerful 10am coffee can always be relied on to reset the pulse (brew for 4 minutes, no more, no less!) Plus John Wyer’s hair cut hasn’t changed one bit!

Now, I will be the first to admit, I never saw myself as a natural front man let alone Design Director, I haven’t always embraced the limelight over the years and I can be very quiet at times (the power of silence is a wonderful thing!). I am however fully aware that being introverted at times, means I can go unnoticed in a world and industry increasingly saturated by extroverts. My challenge to myself over the coming months and years is to work on this, raise my profile more in my own way and above all help to further promote Bowles & Wyer from the front foot. During my 12 years as a designer I have never stopped learning and listening, and never will, that’s the beauty of our profession. This has made me confident of holding my own against the best designers in our industry, I have just preferred to let my portfolio do the talking for me. The projects I am most proud of to date are The Lancasters (detailed design and project management), Eaton Square (concept to completion) A Surrey garden (BALI Grand Award winner) and more recently a Regents Park Garden (BALI Award Winner) and a large country garden in Cookham (recently finished). They all have different elements I am proud of but, above all they have felt like a real team effort to create and maintain.

A Regents Park Garden

Despite the varied and successful schemes we have worked on to date, I know there is so much more to come at Bowles & Wyer, and as Design Director, with a talented design team around me, I am convinced we will hit even greater highs over the coming years. So like my first day at the office, is it with nervous excitement that I look forward to the next chapter!

Eaton Square

Horticulture, travel and global imperialism

Vinca minor ‘Bowles Variety’

Most garden designers, indeed most gardeners are aware of the diverse origins of the plants in their gardens. It only takes a brief look at the specific epithets to realise that terms like canadensis, japonica, europaea, lusitanica, etc. are direct geographical references. It is possible to take a swift journey around the globe in a few minutes in most gardens, from Hebe in New Zealand, to Tulips from west Asia, Rhododendron from the Himalaya and Japan, perhaps ending up at Dogwoods from North America. These plants were collected by dedicated and pioneering plant collectors who travelled the globe to bring back ever more exotic fare for the discerning Victorian gardener. their names are also commemorated in specific epithets and varietal names – fortunei, davidii, wilsonii, banksii, etc and of course ‘Bowles variety’!

Much of the time we forget this and simply take gardens and the plants they are stocked with at face value, arranging them in terms of colour, texture and flower period in what we see as a pleasing combination. The more practised tend to look for subtler combinations – planting associations that speak to origin or habitat; it is these that tend to prove the most interesting and longest lasting arrangements.

There are of course other ways in which we ‘travel’ in our gardens: countless references to Mediterranean or Japanese gardens; snippets of designs collected magpie-like from here and there. As a child I remember being fascinated by a grove of bamboo in our local park. It was quite a big area (to an eight-year-old anyway) with paths winding through it. I imagined I was in some tropical bamboo forest – I expected to discover some long-lost soldier at any point. Later (in my teens) I was captivated by Canizaro Park in Wimbledon, which I visited many times – a fantastic garden well stocked with exotics as well as areas of simple woodland. I was transported when wandering around it and felt that I was really somewhere else completely.

Tea – Camellia sinensis

Britain is famously a nation of gardeners. But it was actually our obsession with gardening combined with our growing sea power that led to the birth of the empire. Far-fetched? Give it a little more thought. Let’s start with the spice trade. The ability to grow spices in different locations from their origins aided the breaking of the monopolies. The same with tea – the Chinese monopoly was broken by the English (and to a lesser extent the Dutch) successfully cultivating tea in India and Ceylon (as it was then). In fact, the horticultural story for coffee, sugar, rubber, tobacco and an endless list of other products are closely bound up with colonial expansion. So principally for commercial reasons, horticulturists and botanic gardens were very important to the expansion of the empire. Along with mining and extraction, it can be argued that the European fortunes were almost entirely built on these products.

So next time you site in your garden (perhaps with a cup of tea or coffee?), give some thought not only to the origins of all the plants around you, but also to the broader role that horticulture has played in the development of society, for better or worse, over the last two and a half centuries. Alternatively, you could just be transported into another world by the beauty around you!

Who is Chris Bowles, how did it all start and where do we go from here? (or a short history of Bowles & Wyer)

Presumably, if you are reading this you have heard of Bowles & Wyer, and indeed of me. You may be less familiar with the ‘Bowles’ half of the partnership. Chris Bowles is fairly well known to most of our clients and to many of our suppliers, but less well known in the broader industry. As Chris is retiring at the end of September (to spend more time with cricket!), I thought now would be a good opportunity to give a potted history of Bowles and Wyer, Including how Chris and I met.

Sowing the seed 1984-1992

The partnership’s genesis goes back to April 1984 when Chris and I met on a landscape site in Lower Thames Street. Shortly afterwards I started at Clifton Nurseries as a designer. Chris had been there for a year at that point, having been taken on as the contracts manager following a job in Maracaibo, Venezuela establishing a botanic garden and a brief stint at another contractor in London. By the late 80’s we had begun to explore the idea of going into business together, with some helpful advice from Michael Johnson at the Needham partnership. Although recession in 1990 slowed the process, the break finally came in 1992.

Germination 1992-1994

In May 1992, John left Cliftons to start up Bowles & Wyer, initially called ‘John Wyer – Landscape design and construction’. Both partners had made an investment at that point with me putting 70% of the money in and Chris 30%. Their first big job was a private garden in Weedon, near Aylesbury for one of the founders of Virgin Music. Initially the business ran from Shoreditch Studios in Scrutton Street (we were ahead of the Shoreditch curve!). The following year in April 1993, Chris joined up and the business was renamed Bowles & Wyer, with the share capital being equalised. At the end of 1994 the partners decided to move the office from Shoreditch to Hertfordshire and took space in the attic of a serviced office in Berkhamsted. Turnover went from a modest £80K in 1992-3 to £350K in 1994-5

Potting on 1995-2000

All the construction work in those early years was done by sub-contractors. Meanwhile Chris was out on the mower maintaining our first few gardens, in between project managing the business’s first really large garden – a three acre plot on the Bishops Avenue in North London. Our first really big break came in late 1994, when we were retained by Northacre (still a client today) to design their project at Earls Terrace, having done some design work the previous year for them at Observatory Gardens. Earls Terrace was the job which really put Bowles & Wyer on the map. The project comprised 24 rear gardens and a 160m long communal front garden in Kensington, with a host of construction challenges. It was finally finished in late 1999. The maintenance portfolio was growing and in 1996 we were joined by two old friends in the shape of Jeff Stephenson and Richard Pantlin to form our maintenance arm. The business became a limited company in 1998 and after several moves within the business centre, made the bold move of relocating to our own rented offices. By this time, as well as Chris and me, we had two designers, as well as Barbara Northcott (still with us) on the admin side. Turnover topped £1m in 1997

Chris and me around 2002, taken at the newly completed Pavilion Apartments project for a ‘Gardens Illustrated’ article.

Planting out 2000-2006

This started with a period of rapid expansion, with lots of large and small projects on the go and many new members of staff joining – several still with us today. Stuart Wallace joined us in the spring of 2000 with Neil Percival on the design side in 2002, having started as a summer student the year before. Dan Riddleston also started working with us (as a consultant) during this period. The business growth slowed to a steady consolidation from 2002-2004. In 2005 we had an exceptionally busy year with three major projects in the form of Victoria Square in London for Grosvenor Estates, a country Garden for a Pink Floyd and a large garden in Kensington Palace Gardens for an industrialist. James Smith joined in the same year. Turnover for 2005 reached about £2m


A team picture taken in Sept 2006, shortly after we moved into the new offices in Pitstone.

Transplanting 2006-2016

2006 saw two defining shifts in the business. After eighteen months of talks, Dan Riddleston and Matthew Maynard joined the Business with Bowles & Wyer Contracts formally launching in June 2006. This had a slightly different business model, concentrating on construction of schemes for other designers rather than the pure design build model of the mother company. Also in that summer, we had finally outgrown our rented office and made the move to our current location at Pitstone, buying and converting a building to add more space. The business continued its rapid expansion for a couple of years or so until the recession finally began to bite in 2009-10. However, 2010 did see a major milestone with B&W winning the BALI Grand Award for a private garden in Surrey, built with cooperation from all parts of the business. Although we had our problems, after a bumpy few years we climbed out of recession to a more solid and predictable turnover across the group, although individual divisions do still have their ups and downs.


The business is in good shape overall, with strong cash reserves, a loyal and committed team of people and an expanding client base. In July 2017, Chris Bowles stepped back from day to day running of the business, leaving me as CEO. I am supported by an exceptional team including Dan Riddleston, Matt Maynard and Vicky Wyer along with Stuart Wallace, James Smith and Jeff Stephenson. The B&W group is seen by most of the industry as a single brand and is well respected. Group turnover hovers around £5.5m.

And the future exciting! The business is going through something of a revolution at the moment. The management team have written a paper outlining want we want to achieve over the next ten years. From this, we are in the process of developing a more detailed strategy. There are also various different projects running internally which have spun out from this, and I will come back to in more detail in later posts. The first is one on Purpose and Values, which is being run by Vicky. This is really exciting stuff and is all about what drives the business, the values that are common to all the people that work here. The very first post that I wrote in December 2010 talked about this:

“…everyone at B+W has a commitment to high quality that borders on the obsessional. It is difficult to achieve a really good result without staff at all stages of the project being focussed on the same thing. It doesn’t matter how many forms are filled in, how many checks are done or how much snagging. In the end it will only happen because people want it to. This may seem smug and even a bit facile. But it strikes me that communication, training, camaraderie and a relentless focus on quality are the only way to produce consistently good results in the long term. The bottom line follows – not the other way around.”

The values project that Vicky is running attempts not only to capture this, but to define and feed it back in the business so that the values become embedded in everything we do, in every process in the business.

Meanwhile, Dan (and I) are looking at a Capacity plan and Stuart is just to starting an exercise on Workflow and Engine-room. This latter will look at every aspect of the business and involve everyone. The aim is to iron out all the wrinkles, all the bottle necks so that internal stress is reduced (to us and the business!) and customer experience is improved.

Finally, I am going to be looking at Positioning. This is also quite a big one but from it flows brand identity, a marketing strategy and a really good understanding of how our work comes to us.

So – the next few months and years are looking eventful. We have some other plans too, but I am going to keep those under wraps for the moment – you’ll just have to keep reading to see!

The dynamism of landscape & lighting

Following my recent blog on Light, time and landscape, my good friend Paul Nulty of Nulty+ has written this response:

In his guest blog post, John Wyer (landscape designer and friend of Nulty’s) effuses about the dynamism of a landscape – not just through the changing seasons, but also with the passage of daylight. As a lighting designer such dynamic lighting inspires me, from the dappling of sunlight through woodland canopies, to flat, overcast light enhancing the greys of bark on deciduous trees.

When you consider how a landscape is constantly evolving and how the hierarchy of space becomes different under differing lighting conditions (artificial or natural), it becomes important for any landscape designer to capture the essence and hierarchy within the environment, and it’s great to read John acknowledge this.

Of course, artificial light excites me – it’s a medium with huge influence on the perception of landscape and placemaking. I previously discussed the impact of artificial lighting in my blog post “Light Time Economy”, so I won’t dwell again here. However, when it comes to light, we must make sure that not only is the right ambience captured, but that the right hierarchy is also presented.

This requires careful, strategic planning of even the smallest space. In the same way a landscape designer will carefully consider the size and mass of planting to create focal points and permeability, the lighting designer will use light to create contrast and drama to create focal points, depth, foreground, midground and background.

It’s very easy for artificial light to create a whole new perception and visual composition of a space, providing alternative focal points and balance than those achieved under daylight conditions.

Collaboration between landscape and lighting designer is imperative as there isn’t necessarily one way to light a landscape. We need to consider the seasons when planning an installation as shape, texture and colour will change. Certain light sources will emphasise different tones within the living landscape – tones that are ever changing, for example, highlighting the warmth of autumnal leaves or the blue/silver hue of a bare tree in winter.

We also need to give care and attention to the type of hardware used as some luminaires work more efficiently in different temperatures – what works in winter, may not in summer. It’s also wise to choose outdoor lighting that has a long lamp life for minimal maintenance.

A considered, holistic approach is also wise, and more often than not, less can actually be more. What isn’t illuminated is often as important as what is. I sometimes imagine “painting the space with light” when thinking about what should and shouldn’t be lit. And often, with less foliage, we require less light, or perhaps a focal point may shift from one end of the garden to another.

Landscape lighting for informed architects and developers has become as much a part of new home design as say, a good staircase. At the very least, entrances, steps and pathways are now tastefully and safely illuminated under the guidance of a lighting designer – we know the importance of how to highlight the areas of beauty and downplay the not-quite-so-beautiful parts. This also extends the internal spaces beyond the “window”, which would otherwise appear as a dark, reflective mirror. Drawing the eye beyond the interior to the garden extends the feeling of space.

It’d be amateur to say that “one size fits all” when lighting a landscape. Whether it’s a tiny suburban patch or acres of rolling parkland, if the use of light is well considered then there’s a clear opportunity to extend the use, view and ultimately connection with our outdoor environment. However, it needs a gentle touch and the expertise of a skilled lighting designer working hand in hand with landscape architects and garden designers – like John and his team at Bowles & Wyer – to make sure that light isn’t simply added on or considered at the end, but forms an integral part of the planning process, to truly capture the landscape’s aesthetic from season to season.

Light, time and landscape

When I first started thinking about a career, I wanted to be a town planner. There was something about the scale of it that appealed to the teenage me – the ability to plan whole towns with a sweep of your hand. Later I moved on to architecture, before finally settling on landscape design. These days I am also much involved with garden design. Of course there is much in common between these fields – indeed, all the various design disciplines have fuzzy edges – they overlap and merge one into another.
However, I have long been interested in what sets landscape apart from the others. Clearly, the unique element is plants, but the simplicity of this statement belies its huge implications. A building or any other designed object generally looks at its best on day one. It is closest to the designer’s intentions when it is newly finished. True, with the passing of time buildings (as with most things) develop a pleasant patina of age, but this is incidental to the designer’s intentions. However, landscape architects and garden designers work with a different medium. Planting design is complex enough as it is – a bit like working with an orchestra. Each plant has different shapes, colours textures and requirements. But of course, plants are living things; they change and grow. They do so at different rates and with differing habits. This means that a landscape is constantly changing; it will never look the same twice. Planning for this can be a complex task, made more difficult by the huge number of variables involved. But whilst this makes the task trickier, it also introduces serendipity into the process. I am often surprised in schemes that I have designed by unexpected combinations of plants at particular times of year. Sometimes it is because one has grown more quickly or slowly than I planned or possibly migrated within the planted areas to a different position.
The real joy though is not the long-term changes, but the way a landscape changes month to month, day to day, even minute to minute. Being living things plants react to their environment. Their leaves and branches move with the wind or sag with the weight of rainwater.  And we have all had that sudden rush of emotion when walking through woodland or across fields when the sun suddenly comes out and transforms the landscape in a second, sunlight lancing trough foliage to pick out an area on the ground. Light is integral to how we perceive the world, not just in the obvious sense, but in all its subtlety. Landscape designers lay on this.

I often put tall grasses or lightly foliaged tall shrubs where I know they will catch the late low afternoon light. Early morning or late afternoon light can be very dramatic, but also lends a warmth and softness to a landscape because of its colour.

Good design with artificial light also makes use of this luminosity of foliage. It tends to accentuate both the high points and shadows, but it is the effect of light passing through leaves that gives glowing greens and yellows. This effect needs to be used sparingly, or the abundance of the jewelled colours dulls their impact. Artificial light can also bring a new perception and definition to form quite different to that of natural light. By doing so it adds drama, but the beauty of this is that it only works because it is such a contrast to the natural light we take for granted.

The ability of landscapes to change with time is what drew me to landscape design. And is that very seasonality and freshness that brings joy. We notice and react to change – bulbs bursting through the soil or leaves turning to autumn shades. And no matter how long I have been doing this, the capacity of landscapes to surprise me remains a constant source of delight.

[This post was written as a guest blog for Nulty+ lighting design –]

Am I a bad loser – and is that a good thing?

‘Nobody likes a bad loser’. These words rung in my ears through my childhood. Being a bad loser was one of those cardinal sins like not sharing with your siblings, taking more than your share of cake or not writing thank you letters to elderly aunts. I can remember shouting matches at the end of games of monopoly, with the board upended and me (or one of my brothers or sisters) storming out of the room.

I learnt over the years to be a good loser, particularly when I was doing something for the pleasure of doing it – a game of table tennis for example. Winning is the motivation but the play is the pleasure. But not all competitions are like that. Industry awards for example – one does not enter these for the pleasure of filling in the forms. There are of course consolations (‘finalist’) but winning is the only real reason for entering. We all put a brave face on it at the awards ceremony, but that moment when someone else gets the prize – however well deserved – is a bitter edged one. Just look at how the camera always cuts to the fixed smiles on the losers’ faces at the Oscars.

When you look at sportsmen and women – in tennis for example – bad losers are everywhere. Not only that, but the bad losers are often the best players. The drive to win is so strong that anything that frustrates that attracts rage, whether it is the umpire, their opponent or themselves. That relentless drive to succeed, to overcome whatever obstacles are put in the way is what allows many successful people to reach the top in their field, whether it is business, sport, or something else.

Of course, this is all dependent on how success is defined. Many sports and business people complain in later life that their focus was too narrow – that in concentrating only on a narrow set of criteria (winning gold medals, grand slams, their first million) they missed enjoying the rest of life – relationships, family, holidays and so on. But if they hadn’t defined their success with such narrow criteria, would they have got to the top? Probably not; and of course very few of us are able (or indeed would want) to get to the very pinnacle in our field. In any case, once you get to the top, there is only one way – down.

But even with more realistically defined criteria for success – a closer alignment of life and work in other words – the drive to succeed is important. Settling for second or third best is something that we all have to get used to, but only if we still yearn to achieve number one.

So please, at the next awards ceremony, try not to look at my face – unless I am winning that is!