Garden Designer Interview: Duncan Heather

Thursday, October 24, 2013 at 10:18
In our series of interviews with garden designers that have a plethora of knowledge and talent, we at Notcutts were lucky enough to have caught up with one of Europe’s most successful garden designers, Duncan Heather.
Duncan Heather When reading Duncan Heather’s biography you can’t help but be impressed. He is one of Europe’s most successful garden designers, winning five gold, one silver and one bronze medal along with three best show awards for his work. Duncan trained under and worked for John Brookes – one of the most influential garden designers of the 20thCentury. In 1991 while working for Mr Brookes who is known for the world famous Denmans garden in West Sussex, Duncan was offered a directorship, something he declined in favour of concentrating on his own design practice in Henley-on-Thames.
Duncan splits his professional time working on a variety of garden design projects with lecturing at the Oxford College of Garden Design. He is the Founder and Principle of the college, since its inception in 1992, Duncan now offers a diploma course which can be obtained via online lectures, tutorials and video lectures.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Duncan to discover what it was like to train under and work with John Brookes, and what he believes is the key ingredient to a well thought-out and executed garden design.
What was it like to train under and work with John Brookes?
I rate John as one of the top designers of the 20th Century and he will go down in history as such. I was very privileged to be his design assistant and one of a handful of people to work with him. Working with him gave me a deeper insight into how his design philosophy (called Pattern Analysis) works, although he has written numerous books about design. It was this insight that helped me to set up Oxford College of Garden Design and reach the goals I wanted to achieve.
John developed ‘Pattern Analysis’, which is the polar opposite of the ‘SAD’ technique most garden designers are taught, allowing designers to create modern art within the garden.  The boundaries of the garden, act as a picture frame.  With the house always being the most important element of the design. An imaginary grid is setup, which is unique to the site and is created using the proportion of the house. As a result all the patterns created within the picture frame, relates back to the house in scale. The spaces within the design, can represent water, paving, lawn or planting and the lines dictate where a hedge set of steps or wall can be placed.

It sounds as though you have been extremely influenced by John Brookes, even mentioning his Pattern Analysis as a way of teaching. How does the Oxford College of Garden Design differentiate with ‘John Brookes: An introduction to garden design’?
John is no longer teaching a face to face course, but does teach a four-week online course with my sister school, MyGardenSchool . The classes I teach with Oxford College of Garden Design are intended to teach those who are wishing to become professional  garden designers, whereas MyGardenSchool aims to teach horticultural classes to the general public.
Both John and I co-wrote the classes taught at MyGardenSchool, and John is available to answer any questions, help with any design elements people may have and mark their work. He is very much involved in teaching and has embraced new technology throughout his career. We are both very excited about online learning, and I really believe this is the future; within a decade I believe all universities will be teaching their lectures this way.

You and Elspeth Briscoe founded MyGardenSchool  the world’s first virtual gardening school and you’ve also launched MyPhotoSchool. When you’re not lecturing how do you spend your time? I’ve noticed your garden is quite large, have you found time to do all the garden chores yourself?
My wife Carol, does most of the gardening, but yes I do a little work here and there. I tend to use my time to build and run my businesses, blog, do a little SEO and teach online. I am very lucky when it comes to how I spend my time. I love gardening and this is my full time job and photography is a great hobby of mine and I’ve been able to incorporate this into my work load too.  MyPhotoSchool was founded after our Flower Photography course proved to be the most popular class we had to offer and since then we have been able to ask top photographers to teach at our online school.

Following your article ‘Would you be a better Landscape Designer if you were Dyslexic?’ and being dyslexic yourself, do you believe it has made you a better designer?
Those with dyslexia tend to see things more holistically. We’re more arty than analytical. Do I think it has made me a better designer? I think it has helped. I struggle less with visualising what I want to do. When I walk into a garden, within half an hour I have a clear plan of what I intend to do with that space.
What do you believe to be the key ingredient to a well thought out and executed garden design?
The house and site are the main factors for every garden design. What a lot of people believe is the most important aspect of garden design is the client, but what I want to create is a garden  with longevity. Although the client is important, after all they are paying the bill, you also need to ensure the next owners like the garden too. It has to work with the house and location. The style and location of the house needs to be put at the forefront of any design, whether it is a countryside setting or in a more urban environment. The architecture is the main focal point; it is the beginning and end of all design. The design then has to revolve around it.
What influenced your garden? Are there places you like to source inspiration from?
I have a two acre garden, which is located in a heavily woodland environment. One part of my garden is filled with beach woodland which makes it difficult to grow anything, not even brambles could grow under the trees due to the lack of light. So in the second part of my garden, I removed 60 of the trees and create two woodland glades. One is grass and the other is a natural duck pond.
What inspires me is light. When you walk into a church with beautifully painted stain glass windows and they catch the light it can be breathtaking, and often makes the hairs on your neck stand up. This is what I have created in my garden with mounded flower beds (two to three feet high); it’s wonderful to see plants with a natural back light. This height, or having the border westerly faced, ensures that you can create shafts of lights. When I walk through my garden, I will get a different feel at all times of the day. Playing with light quality inspires me and if a designer gets it right, you can create shadows that dance on the grass and take the art of design to another level.

Do you think Chelsea Flower Show is a good place to start pulling ideas for your garden if you’re a novice?
To me the Chelsea Flower Show is a complete waste of time. The RHS are not going to like what I say, but I feel it’s the same old designers, techniques and gardens just rehashed year upon year. It is dated and irrelevant.
I always suggest to my students that they go to the International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire in France. Each year 30 gardens are built by architects, designers or anyone who is artist and not bogged down by planting. They create mind blowing art installations within hedged exteriors that are not large in scale, but gigantic in artistic flare. They use sound, light, water, reflectivity, shadow and mirroring to create something that pushes the boundaries in design.

Trees seem to take centre stage in your garden; what do you look for when buying a young tree?
I take a look at the roots to make sure it is healthy and prefer pot bound trees. I look out for a good, strong trunk that is damage free and has a good head of branches with two or three leaders, and often opt for trees with 8-12cm to 16-18cm girth. I prefer to plant young trees as they don’t need as much TLC as mature trees and tend to get away more quickly. 
What advice can you offer those wishing to build a magical garden from scratch?
Take your time; a garden isn’t like a house and you can complete the build over the course of many years; but do have a master plan to work with. If you don’t feel you have the qualifications to draw up a plan, bring someone in to help you and don’t be afraid to gain help in building your garden.
Although this is a cliché, the garden is an extension of the home, especially now as we can incorporate the outside sofas and art. I use photography in my garden to create an art installation; experiment with different ideas. Segregate parts of the garden with natural walls or use meshing with photographs for a modern twist; this is especially great for urban environments. Light control is also great to experiment with as you can create all sorts of atmospheres.

What does the magic of gardening mean to you?
In the spring time I love to go outside, sit on my deck with a glass of wine and listen to the birds singing. There is nowhere else I’d rather be and my wife and I never chose to travel in April because of this.
The garden is the most magical retreat and if you get it right you can create a real oasis. In urban environments you can use the sound of water to mask on-going traffic or add screens to create privacy. When you sit in your garden the pace of life changes, your quality of life improves in this space you’ve created


Chelsea Flower Show 2013


The Daily Telegraph Garden
Exhibitor: The Daily Telegraph
Designer: Christoper Bradley-Hole
Christopher Bradley-Hole's garden is an abstract design inspired by the English landscape, with Japanese overtones. His Latin garden for the Daily Telegraph in 1997 won Best in Show. He says: "The garden is a representation of England as a wooded landscape from which openings were cleared to allow settlement, civilisation and cultivation. English native trees and shrubs are used in a graphic way to create an understorey which expresses the way a field pattern has been superimposed on the land."

Picture: Martin Pope


B&Q Sentebale 'Forget Me Not' Garden

Exhibitor: B&Q Sentebale
Designer: Jinny Blom
This garden was inspired by Prince Harry's charity Sentebale, which supports vulnerable children in the African country of Lesotho. The garden is intended to evoke the landscape and culture of Lesotho, featuring round houses, muted colours and mountainous plants. Its designer, Jinny Blom, says it is also intended however to evoke the Prince's experience of losing his mother. A pattern of “heart and crowns” is engraved on the circular central terrace, based on a Lesotho blanket design which was loved by the Princess of Wales.

Picture: Martin Pope


East Village Garden

Exhibitor: Delancey
Designer: Michael Balston and Marie-Louise Agius
Inspired by the Olympic East Village, this garden is intended to represent the sustainable regeneration of an urban area. It combines urban-feeling materials such as steel and glass with vibrant planting. Co-designer Michael Balston said: "When I visited East Village for the first time I was struck by the amount of public and private green space. It was... fundamental to the inspiration behind the East Village Garden."

Picture: Martin Pope


The Brewin Dolphin Garden
Exhibitor: Brewin Dolphin
Designer: Robert Myers
A relaxing space with its plants drawn heavily from UK native species. Telegraph writer Bunny Guinness says: "Robert Myers restricted his plant palette to predominantly British native plants. This was a good twist, hopefully making more gardeners realise what a great range of excellent native garden plants there are, and Robert has used them in a contemporary setting."


Trailfinders Australian Garden presented by Flemings
Exhibitor: Fleming's Nurseries
Designer: Phillip Johnson
A quirky "off the grid" garden which demonstrates its designer's environmental passions. It uses solar panels and recycled water, while all the building materials are also locally-sourced, or reclaimed.


The Homebase Garden
Exhibitor: Homebase
Designer: Adam Frost
A "modern family garden", designed to allow a small family to garden, entertain and enjoy themselves, but also encouraging wildlife to thrive.

Picture: Martin Pope


The Wasteland

Exhibitor: Kate Gould Gardens
Designer: Kate Gould
The story behind Kate Gould's garden is that it was once a derelict urban space, transformed into a garden using recycled items, such as the insides of an old mattress reworked into a trellis screen and shopping trolleys turned into frames. It is intended to demonstrate that beautiful gardens can be built without sourcing new materials.

Picture: Martin Pope


The Laurent-Perrier Garden
Exhibitor: Laurent-Perrier
Designer: Ulf Nordfjell
Ulf Nordfjell’s garden for Laurent-Perrier has been described by Telegraph columnist Val Bourne as "an evocation of a vineyard involving lots of Mediterranean plants that evoke the French landscape".

Picture: Martin Pope


M&G Centenary Garden
Exhibitor: M&G investments
Designer: Roger Platts
Designed to mark the Chelsea Flower Show's centenary, this garden evokes trends and themes from Chelsea gardens past and present. Shrubs popular when the show began in 1913 and classic British design elements are mixed with modern plant varieties.

Picture: Martin Pope


RBC Blue Water Roof Garden

Exhibitor: Royal Bank of Canada
Designer: Professor Nigel Dunnett and the Landscape Agency
In keeping with the bank's Blue Water Project, which aims to help protect fresh water, the RBC's urban rooftop garden focuses on how city dwellers can create a garden which supports biodiversity and protects natural resources. Features include "living walls" that do not require irrigation and a wetland area which captures rain.

Picture: Martin Pope


The SeeAbility Garden
Exhibitor: SeeAbility and Coutts
Designer: Darren Hawkes
This garden is the first RHS Chelsea show garden from designer Darren Hawkes, and is a garden for the blind and partially-sighted. it features bright, clearly contrasting plants that can be distinguished more easily by partially-sighted people, and an installation of stainless steel balls cascading with water.

Picture: Martin Pope


Stockton Drilling as Nature Intended Garden
Exhibitor: Stockton Drilling Ltd

Designer: Jamie Dunstan
Designed to promote the use of natural materials and traditional craft, this garden features a number of plants with important uses - such as a field of winter barley (used within the brewing industry) and taxus (used in the treatment of cancer). Telegraph writer Tim Richardson says "This is one of the most conceptually interesting gardens this year."


The Fera Garden: Stop the Spread
Exhibitor: the Food and Environment Research Agency
Designer: Jo Thompson
Disease and death pervade this garden, which is themed around the threat that diseases, pests and invasive species pose to British trees and plants. Features include a grove of dead trees in one corner, and a striking lonely ash sapling on its own island.


The Arthritis Research UK Garden
Exhibitor: Arthritis Research
Designer: Chris Beardshaw
This lush garden is divided into three parts; a woodland garden, a brightly planted section and a pool garden with a modern sculpture. They are designed to reflect the three stages of a person's journey after being diagnosed with arthritis.


Exhibitor: Stoke-on-Trent Garden Partnership
Designer: The Landscape Team, Stoke-on-Trent City Council
A bright and busy garden dedicated to Stoke-on-Trent past and present, which also celebrates the city's links with Lidice, a Czech village nearly destroyed during the Second World War.

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Looking for Design Inspiration in Nature

How do you create innovative creative design? Where do designers get inspiration from.  The true it that true design inspiration comes from everything around us.  In this video architect Barry Burkus take a screwed up piece of paper and talks us through how the shape can inspire you to design a building.

In landscape design, nature is our inspiration. Probably the most famous example of this is Thomas Church’s design for the swimming pool in the Donnell Garden (a quintessential example of  Thomas Church and mid century modern design) in Sonoma County

donnell pool by thomas church, Thomas Church, Donnell Garden, Sonoma County, Landscape Design, Design Inspiration, Creative design

It was said that Church used the curve of the river in the valley below (centre top of the image) and copied it to form the shape of the pool.

For further reading on this subject I would recommend From Concept to Form in Landscape Design

The Design Process: Bubble Diagrams

This is an interesting video on the design process.  The thought patterns that go into designing a space.  In this case a house, but we use exactly the same bubble diagram/ function diagram process for designing outside space.

The Design Process: Bubble or Functional Diagrams


Award Winning Australian Design

Garden design, Courtyard, contemporary, raised planters, water feature, modern design, landscape design,This multi award winning courtyard designed by Cos Design, transformed what was a tired, old unused space into a stylish and functional outdoor room. A three level water feature hides the courtyards rear access, while custom built in bench seating and furniture, built in BBQ, raised planter boxes and screening bamboo planting, provide the aesthetics and functionality required by the clients.

The internal light well is also a feature from the bathroom window and stairwell. This garden was the winner of the 2009 National landscape of the year (Under $100k) along with 3 state awards.

[photography by Tim Turner as featured on Designhunter]

Garden design, Courtyard, contemporary, raised planters, water feature, modern design, landscape design,

Garden design, Courtyard, contemporary, raised planters, water feature, modern design, landscape design,

Garden design, Courtyard, contemporary, raised planters, water feature, modern design, landscape design,

Garden design, Courtyard, contemporary, raised planters, water feature, modern design, landscape design,

Garden design, Courtyard, contemporary, raised planters, water feature, modern design, landscape design,





Last year NASA released these rather shocking satellite images of the polar ice caps. According to its scientists and researchers at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the area of the arctic ice sheet fell to a record low in August . And it is expected to continue to retreat over the next few weeks.

The extent of the arctic ice sheet grows during the winter and shrinks during the summer. The first photo above shows the total extent of the ice sheet’s retreat in the summer of 1979. The second shows its retreat so far this summer. The orange line shows the average minimum ice cover from 1979 to 2010.

According to NASA, the seasonal minimum area of the arctic ice sheet has gotten 13 percent smaller each decade for the past three decades.