Thursday, March 22, 2012

Accident or design?

I recently read a comment that went along the lines of  - 'there's no need to hire a professional garden designer, as effective landscaping is little more than common sense and observation, not rocket science or brain surgery'. If that is so, I wonder why there are so many gardens that are badly designed or quite simply, not planned at all. The author of that comment, and I forget where I read it, is either supremely arrogant or actually has no idea of design themselves. Maybe the real trick is to create gardens that look relaxed and a happy accident rather than contrived but to my mind that is the skill of good design not a lack of it. 

Cancer Research Garden - Chelsea 2011 - beautifully relaxed planting
There are many skilled gardeners that have gardens full of wonderful plants but which do not meet their potential because of the way the garden is designed. Regular readers will know that I have a strong feeling for colour and how it is used in both architecture and gardens. There are some colours that just do not go together like yellow and pink. Most blends of these two colours just shriek. By using a very pale lemon or primrose with a deep cerise pink, you can just about get away with it but its a bold combination and often goes wrong.

Great plants but together?
The assertion that any and all colours go together in the garden also doesn't hold true. Sadly most seed merchants seem to be colour blind as the blends of colours in mixed packets of seed are rarely successful. Take this mix of bedding pelargoniums. You can't fault them for bloom size, vigour or performance but they just scream at each other.

Lincoln City centre - Pelargonium 'Headache Mixed'
The next picture shows a garden open under the National Garden Scheme - actually a very impressive garden, full of great plants and with a wonderful vegetable garden and greenhouses packed with fruit and vegetables. But it needs the eye of a designer. There are too many small fiddly trees breaking up the lawn in a random way. And what do the blobby little bits of bedding around the trees achieve - nothing except a fidgety disruption of the lawn. Then there's the quite elaborate centrepiece pergola with its two impressive statues - quite a statement. But if I tell you the garden extends about another 30-50 or more yards beyond the hedge, you will realise that the owners have missed a trick. If they had cut an opening in the hedge, created a broad grass walk to the end of the garden and placed the pergola there, the garden would have been twice as impressive and there would still have been room for the vegetable plots either side of the main vista. (If by any chance the owners are reading, then apologies for the criticism and I'll happily give you some design suggestions!)

As the 18C landscape designer Brown would have said 'It has capabilities!'
I'm going to finish with a more positive image, a small garden in Derby  which is featured in my book Designing Small Gardens. This is no more than the plot behind a Victorian terrace house but it is beautifully designed. The shape of the square plot has been altered by creating a circular lawn. The garden is enclosed enough to give that feeling of  tranquility but not darkened by the planting and the glimpse of trees in other gardens and slate roofs in the distance extends the interest. A matrix of trees and shrubs gives a skeleton to the planting which is filled out  with a carefully matched mix of perennials, roses and bulbs. Colours are soft, mainly pastel shades with  a few touches of dark foliage. It is a perfect example of a well designed small garden.

Now this is what I call design in a small garden!
Now I'm not sure whether that garden was created by common sense, rocket science or  good design but its a winner! This and the neighbouring garden are open by appointment in June and July under the National Garden Scheme. Check details here


  1. There's more to garden design than meets the eye, and there are, by far, a lot more gardens out there that are badly designed than not.

    Creating a garden for someone else is a different story, but for oneself, you either have the knack for it or you don't. Personal style and design is an inborn talent me thinks!

    Personally though, I do appreciate anyone who makes a visible effort to have a lovely garden. Whilst it may be technically badly designed, as long as it's well kept, plants cared for, and pleasant looking then it's good as gold, especially to the owner. I've seen a few gardens before that have choice and rare plants yet have litter all over the place, including empty beer cans (which is no effort to put straight in the bin, why throw it in your own garden?).

    It's almost Chelsea Flower Show time, a celebration of the good, bad, and wackyily designed gardens!

  2. You are right and I guess my comments come over with a liberal dose of middle-class horticultural snobbery - apologies! A couple of years ago I judged some of the Britain in Bloom community entries. I found it difficult. But when you have a small group of volunteers who are growing plants in recycled containers, in the middle of a deprived area you have to re-assess standards and priorities. Whilst not Chelsea Gold medals some of these were immense achievements, adding colour and life in otherwise barren areas.

  3. Oh I love that garden with the round lawn in the middle. I have managed to layer the height of my plantings so that the neighbours high trees look as though my garden is much bigger than it is. Not all of us can afford designers, and I do appreciate any titbits you throw at us frugal gardeners!