As the weather improves this week, the temperature climbs and we all begin to look outside again. At this time of year, I frequently go into the garden and think ‘what a tip!’ All those odds and ends, badly coiled hoses, un-pruned plants, and scrappy undergrowth – how could I have not noticed it before? It is true that without the kind veil of foliage, gardens can look particularly grim at this time of year. If all this is familiar to you, then cheer yourself up by leafing through magazines and books with their summery pictures of tranquillity that we all associate with gardens. Perhaps it is finally all too much? Maybe it is time to start again? After all if you’re not going to move house you might as well sort the garden out.
But where to start? Most people really struggle when it comes to writing a coherent brief for a designer. As they are unfamiliar with the process of design, or what a designer might propose, they feel intimidated by the whole procedure. If you’re thinking of making changes in your own garden or have a new project, why not start by tagging images that you like, even if they are wildly diverse. This will help to get you thinking in order that you can write a simple brief. Start with a few simple bullet points:
When you are there: do you look at the garden all day or only evenings/weekends? Is it a second home, perhaps used seasonally?
Think how you will use the garden: do you entertain? Do you have children, pets?
Are you a keen gardener? In all honesty, how much time are you likely to spend out there? If you haven’t shown much interest so far, then don’t lumber yourself with a high maintenance scheme with lots of herbaceous plants – leave that to the National Trust! If you are keen, perhaps you might consider an area for vegetables or fruit.
Instead of using clichéd phrases like ‘year-round colour’ or ‘lots of evergreens’, try instead to think in terms of how the garden will look and feel. Maybe you like things wild and romantic – scrambling roses, long grass with wild flowers, apple trees laden with fruit. Or perhaps you are more controlled – clean swept paving, topiary, clipped hedges, splashes of colour or white flowers kept to occasional containers. If there is a particular style or image that sums it up – cottage garden, Mediterranean, urban chic, or family friendly, then add to your brief.
Are there any particular features that you want in the garden hot tub, fire pit, water feature, swimming pool?
If there are any facts that the garden designer might not know at a quick visit – tell them – like: ‘It’s always sunny just here late in the morning’, or ‘I’ve never liked that house next door can we screen it’. Other than that, try not to lead your designer too much – no ‘I’ve always fancied a circular lawn’ or ‘I just thought a raised bed here would be nice’. Let them come up with the ideas – you will be pleasantly surprised!
Finally – BUDGET! Always a tricky one! In my experience most clients say that they don’t have a budget in mind or that they have no idea. In practice, everybody has some idea and most clients actually do have a budget in mind. It is supremely unhelpful if you don’t share your thoughts on what you want to spend with your designer. You would walk into an estate agent and say you had no idea of budget. In the end, the more detail you can give a designer on cost, the less of everybody’s time is wasted. This is especially important if you have an over-riding cost limit – you only want to spend the £40K granny left you and not a penny more. And do be clear whether you are talking VAT inclusive or excluding VAT.
Presumably, if you have come as far as reading this blog, you are interested in employing a garden designer, either now or in the future. if you want to compare people, do try and start with suitably qualified and professional designers. Of course it goes without saying that B&W are the best, but if you want a comparison, go to the Society of Garden Designers website (www.SGD.org.uk) and look through a few designers in your area.
Saturday 25th February, a beautiful spring sunny day. Parental duties on the touch line completed, a thrilling cup game but that is another story, it was snowdrop time!
This was not as you might think a trip to Bennington Lordships, Anglesey Abbey or one of the other large gardens renowned for stunning swathes of beautiful snowdrops but an open day in a small suburban garden in Leighton Buzzard.
Had I dragged the family along to see a clump of Galanthus nivalis in a neighbours garden nestled between the potting shed and compost bin? Was this a repeat of the later deemed inappropriate father and son trip to the V&A Modernism Exhibition – why would a 5 year old have preferred to have gone to the Natural History Museum I protested. Well this was no ordinary suburban abode but the home of the Owens and their NCPPG national collections of some 900 varieties of snowdrops – we were amidst the Galanthophiles!
I have always been cautious of such plant collectors and their train spotter like behavior, all that ticking names of lists and focusing on one group of plants at the expense of others seems alien to me. However after a short time spent in the garden my fears of having to don an anorak passed ……these Galanthophiles were just passionate plants people!
The garden although not at the cutting edge of design was charming with every corner full of interesting plants and not only snowdrops! Indeed there was a beautiful Prunus Beni-Chidori or flowering Japanese apricot in full bloom, a small tree that we recently planted to mark the birth of a Japanese client’s first child so it was great to see a mature specimen. The Owens were at hand to share their knowledge and passion with cautionary tales of battles with stagonospora, botrysis, narcissus flies and swift moths – which anyone who is going to grow the more delicate hybrids will need to be prepared to stave off. If a question was not being asked of Mr Owen he immediately had a trowel in hand and was on all fours in the borders – a true gardener never wastes a minute of a sunny day!
The snowdrops in the garden were planted in groups; nivalis, elwesii, plicatus and hybrids and the small scale of the garden meant the range in flower sizes, flower shapes, markings and colour could be easily seen and enjoyed – even by a muddied young footballer. And the more you looked the closer to the ground you got and indeed I found myself laying down so I could look up into an interesting double or two.
An enjoyable afternoon ….would I be joining the ever increasing number of Galanthophiles …well with some 2000 named varieties of snowdrops there are plenty to collect although with rarer hybrids now traded on ebay for high sums with a single Galanthus Green Tear bulb recently selling for £360 it could be an expensive hobby. Well it is probably not for me but I may be tempted to try a hybrid or two ……..or is that how it starts!
Strong forms can be a good thing and geometry need not be all right angles – but do we sometimes let shapes drive the design rather than vice versa? I always think of a design for a site being based on a triangular set of influences – site, client and designer. You can tell the designers who exert a strong influence on their designs and ignore the other two – their schemes all look pretty similar – ‘a very strong house style’ is how it is often described. The one advantage to clients is at least they know what they are going to get…
Why is it that most house-builders are so against planting trees? In fact, why are they generally against putting landscape in place? This question lurked behind (and occasionally in the foreground) of many of the recent discussions in the Landscape Institute lecture series staged at the excellent Garden Museum in Lambeth, London (www.gardenmuseum.org.uk). Historically, those schemes that have incorporated a high quality integrated landscape have become highly valued, both in market terms but also in wider social terms. Many of these were in their day landmarks in the way in which housing was built on mass – The Garden City movement, Span Developments, Wates housing estates from the 1960s to name but a few.
One of the common threads in all of these was their incorporation of dense planting and trees into the structure of the developments. Often they were planned at relatively high housing densities, allowing higher returns for the developer.
As land prices have moved up and car ownership increased, developers tended to move more towards apartment block schemes in urban areas. The more imaginative operators (such as Urban Splash) and those working at the top end of the market would always incorporate landscape. Sadly, this was a minority. Our experience working in this market has clearly shown that fantastic results can be squeezed form the most difficult sites when Landscape Architects or Garden Designers are involved early enough. Bowles & Wyer recently picked up the ‘Landscape Architect of the Year’ and ‘Garden Designer of the Year’ awards at the New Homes Garden Awards (www.newhomesgardenawards.co.uk). This has been run by Denis Rawlings and David Hoppit for several years to try and drive forward the quality of landscape design in housing.
One of our schemes won ‘Best Urban Landscape’ on a very tight site in London. It just shows that there is never an excuse not to plant trees. On this site, they are squeezed between the houses and the backs of the neighbouring shops, on top of an underground car park! you can see more of this scheme on our website in the project pages: The Collection, St Johns Wood. The interesting thing about it is that the cost of the soft landscape was only about £70,000, which represents just £5000 per house. I would hazard a guess that it added a lot more than that to the sale price of each unit.
We were recently offered a commission payment by a firm that designed and built treehouses. We were recommending them on a large garden we are undertaking in Surrey. We did not take up the offer. Interestingly, shortly afterwards they put us forward for another job in the same neighbourhood and demanded a commission payment if we were appointed. We refused, saying that payment should be unnecessary. This resulted in quite a row between us.
We were against taking the payment on a number of different grounds. Firstly, it clouds your judgement. I want to be free to make decisions on a number of criteria, without the ‘size of the bung’ being one of the factors. Secondly, we should be free to recommend others (and be recommended ourselves) on the basis of competency, skills and experience. We work with a range of other experts and specialists – joiners, artists, lighting designers, etc. we choose them on merit. Finally (and most importantly) it is essentially dishonest. Not dishonest in the sense of illegal, but more in the sense of not being transparent. If you take such payments, do you tell your client? If not, why would that be? In other industries (such as the insurance industry), we all rail against similar opaque practices, calling them shady, dishonest or even corrupt. When it is us being offered the money it is a slightly different story. We either defend it saying it is an honestly earned commission, or keep quiet and take the money (which is what I suspect most people do). Even if one decides to take a stance on this, it is very difficult not to acquiesce when a supplier effectively gives you the money unbidden by inviting you to invoice them, as happened to us recently. Perhaps weakly, I didn’t invoice them, but I didn’t tell them I wouldn’t take the money either (although I won’t). I am not saying we haven’t accepted it once or twice in the past, but we have made a joint decision in the business to draw a line here.
In any case, most if not all professional associations frown upon the idea: it is strictly forbidden by the code of professional conduct of both the Landscape Institute and the Society of Garden Designers. I suspect that this does not stop the practice going on however. I also realise that I will probably unleash a flood of posts from other designers saying that this is the only way they can make a decent living; that it is alright for you lot in the SE etc. etc. My answer to that is that you should charge more. Again – ‘Alright for you lot in the loaded South-East’. But if you don’t try and charge a living wage for what you do, how will clients ever learn to value it? What clients pay for should be transparent and fair – to both sides.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.