Nature As Inspiration in Garden Design

Genius Loci: How Nature Should Influences Our Design DecisionsLight Quality is vital to good garden photography.  Morning light can be lovely and soft, but late afternoon light can be used to backlight plants and grasses to great effect.

Designing with nature requires the designer to develop heightened awareness, not just of suitable plants for a specific location, but of climate, prevailing wind direction, exposure, aspect, gradient, soil type, indigenous vegetation, geology, threats from animals domestic and wild and the site's general ambience and atmosphere.


Every garden is unique and your job is to recognise, explore and exploit this genius loci – sense of place. Such wide-ranging knowledge will equip you with the confidence to make selective decisions about the garden you are employed to transform, or optimise. Nature can be a great help. Use it. Make notes on-site about every detail, positive or negative, problematical or inspirational. You will learn to look for these vital signs and keep a checklist handy. These are the building blocks that will inform every decision you make during the design process.

A fundamental precept of designing with nature is to work with it, not against it. Not everyone recognises that it's a bad idea to site a pond on top of a hill – ponds naturally occur in sunken areas, usually drained from higher land – or to attempt a tropical garden in a frost pocket.

If you are commissioned to design a garden in a rural setting, aim to fit the garden comfortably within the surrounding landscape. Echo in your ground plan or in the shapes of plant groupings the patterns, rhythms and colours of rolling farmland , outlines of hills or mountains, or the vertical shapes of tree trunks in a woodland setting.

Greystone _X4C3224

Harness the light-giving properties of water to reflect changing cloud patterns via ponds, brimming half barrels or even just a few judiciously sited wide, shallow stone or metal bowls. If there are windblown dunes of marram grass nearby, borrow this look, planting cultivated grasses that move with the breeze - another natural element. If the site is boggy and badly drained you don't need to persuade your clients to spend thousands of pounds drying it out.


Forget rose gardens, and herbaceous borders and go with the flow, quite literally. Ensure the soil is not sour or compacted and create a wetland garden. Your expertise in gaining your client's confidence is essential, as they may have fixed ideas as to what they want, but scant appreciation of the hassle and cost of achieving sometimes unrealistic or over-ambitious aims.


Houses on new or established suburban estates may not reveal any immediate natural characteristics, so can be treated more or less in isolation. However the same guidelines apply to the specific properties of the site. A small patch of soil or lawn (often containing hidden builders' rubble – beware!) can hide several different challenges – from wet to dry, acid to alkaline, shaded to sunny, sheltered to exposed.

All of these occur more or less naturally and must be observed and respected or corrected. But don't make more work for yourself and more expense for your client if it isn't necessary. You can still achieve a design that delights both of you.

Article by Sue Hook


Colour In The Garden

Does And Don't On Designing with Colour

Drive through any town or suburb and you will see many plantings that apparently aim to include every possible colour imaginable, all crammed together, with no thought at all for harmony,  balance or indeed the colours and forms of the adjacent or surrounding buildings. 

You wouldn't buy a carpet in such a riot of colours, but colour sense often literally flies out of the window when it comes to exterior colour schemes.

As a very general rule, the more bland the architectural backdrop the bolder your colour scheme can be and vice versa. If , for example the building is a shade of grey, bright colours will work in your scheme. 

New red brick is a difficult foil for successful planting because the strong colour of  the brickwork dominates whatever is close to it – and in a small garden that includes everything.  Your course will teach colour theory,  but even without that knowledge  you should be able to recognise that purples and vivid reds simply do not work against brick, even when if it is aged and weathered. 

Softer colours – pale yellows, cream, grey-greens and  light blues look much better. Why? Because they are cooler and complement  the brickwork rather than fighting it. Light peach, pink and apricot also work against red brick, being watered down versions of the brick colour itself. However these colours are more tricky to carry through into a broader planting scheme.

Even small changes of colour in your client's garden can make a positive difference. Paint a plain garden shed , garden office or summer house in an exact match or tone of one of the colours you will be using in your planting plan. 

It will immediately integrate into the overall scheme and look cool and sophisticated. Likewise any timber structures such as fences, timber seats and  arbors will last longer and act as a much more pleasing backdrop to planting if they are painted in soft earthy colours such as a clay grey, slate blue or sage green.   

For ideas try studying Farrow & Ball or Fired Earth colour cards, both of which contain colour ranges that are ideal for use in the soft light of the United Kingdom and other northern countries. The vivid colours that work so well in the bright light of  the Mediterranean or California are less successful further north, with the exception of  some ultra modern inner city gardens.

Colours can be mixed and matched in a variety of finishes such as exterior eggshell. There are several commercial wood stains and paints available but be careful –  unless you are seeking a bold and vibrant effect some are still not subtle enough for use over large areas and may need to be mixed or thinned.  

Avoid gloss paint, it gives too sharp and shiny a finish  - and don't use a spray gun as it may dribble through to the neighbouring side of the fence and cause a dispute for which you don't want to be blamed!

More thoughts on colour in the garden will follow in future blogs. In the mean time tell us what colours you like and dislike in the garden.

Article by Sue Hook


Designing For Wildlife

Creating a Balance of Horticulture and Ecology

The enemies of wild life gardens are mainly domestic: cats, dogs and  indifferent humans who may have no interest in preserving a balanced eco-system. However wildlife gardens have enormous educational value for adults and children as long as nature is not allowed to reclaim the entire garden. 

Explore ideas with your clients. 

Even if they are initially cautious it should be possible to  have them agree to create at least one small wild area within or at the edge of the garden. Start with one or more small areas of lawn in a sunny or only partially shaded site.  Inscribe a small circle, rectangle or square of grass, in scale with and set inside the larger area of lawn. 

Ensure the mower can be comfortably manipulated around and between the shapes. Avoid making it too busy, but if the lawn is large you might create a pattern of, say, four neatly edged squares, or three circles of grass to be left to grow to a maximum of  8 or 10 cms taller than the remaining lawn. 

These will quickly yield low-growing wildflowers such as self-heal, a variety of grasses, daisies and buttercups. Even a tiny area will attract bees and hoverflies.  Visually it will provide a change of rhythm to the close-cut, uneventful lawn space. Be ruthless in removing invasive weeds such as docks and hogweed.

After they have set seed the mini wildflower areas can be lightly mown, with the mower at its highest setting and then retained as neatly defined areas of rough grass with late spring flowering bulbs allowed to follow through. This introduces an entirely different look, which is not wild but works well through late spring and early summer before the grasses start to grow vigorously.  

Plant short-stemmed tulips - I like to use a single colour - dotted throughout the rough grass. Spring gales can easily snap the longer stems of tall varieties and as they die down the leaves of taller plants are more noticeable and unsightly. White, or pale yellow narcissi also look wonderful scattered through rough grass. 

Experiment. Plant mid-height nectar rich flowering plants as plugs, ensuring continuity of food supply for insects. If your clients prefer the grass to revert to normal lawn height the rough grass can simply be mown and should quickly recover its normal colour with a little general fertiliser added.

Wild flower habitats will be populated surprisingly quickly by beneficial insects such as bees, ladybirds, hoverflies and lacewings, butterflies, moths, small mammals and birds that will eat some snails and slugs. If water is a part of the plan it will increase the range of wildlife considerably, with the potential to attract amphibians such as frogs and newts, exotic-looking dragonflies and even kingfishers.

Insect 'hotels' are readily available, but a small pile of logs will do just as well. Leave a small patch of nettles in a sunny corner, where a variety of butterflies can lay their eggs. Bird and bat boxes will be used, as long as they are sited where local cats cannot reach either the boxes or nearby bushes that provide initial safe resting places and shelter for fledglings.

A wildflower meadow is a bigger undertaking and is the subject of a future blog, together with suggested wild flowers to include.

Article by Sue


What Is A Garden?

The Garden Defined

This question is so fundamental to learning about design that it is worth looking at the instant image in your mind's eye of a garden.   I believe that on this design learning curve you will shed many of  your pre-conceptions and open your mind and your eyes to a myriad of new and exciting possibilities.

Gardens have been created  all over the world for many hundreds of years, arising from many different cultures. They have served and continue to serve a multitude of purposes including  the provision of shade, cool air and the conservation of  water in desert climates, as an expression of wealth and opulence, as a place of contemplation and meditation, a restorative space, a means of providing food and increasingly as an extension to the living space in the home, incorporating some or all of the above.

Alhambra, Grenada
A garden can be any exterior space that has been made by humans rather than occurring naturally in the landscape. The famous American garden designer Thomas Church observed that gardens are for people. In essence, gardens demonstrate man's ability to impose order on and thereby control nature. 

A garden is always artificially contrived, whether or not it attempts to recreate nature and even if it uses entirely natural props such as plants or boulders, because these are selected, chosen for inclusion.  It may use entirely artificial materials to achieve the ambience and style desired by its maker. 

Or it may redefine an existing natural landscape, manipulating and enhancing it with the lightest and most sensitive of touches.  It may be high on a rooftop, deep in a gulley, in the middle of a desert, on a housing estate, or on a beach. It may be formal,  contemporary, naturalistic or traditional. 
Derek Jarman's Dungeness garden
It may be wholly or partially contained and does not necessarily need to include plants, depending on its function and aims. There is no minimum or maximum size to qualify as a garden. It can be made on a tiny balcony, or in a miniscule courtyard (even in a stairwell, with some light). 

Or it may comprise several acres of managed and cultivated land. It will frequently reflect the ethos, aspirations, interests, priorities, culture and lifestyle of its owner.
Ian Hamilton Findlay's Scottish Garden
There is no limit to the possibilities for interpretation of the notion of a garden.  It may be well or badly designed, more or less pleasing aesthetically or functionally, but it is still a garden, very often crying out to be rescued with the help of an empathetic and sensitive designer. We can explore later how important your contribution will become.
Topher Delaney roof garden
A garden may have multiple uses or a single purpose for its existence.

The successful realisation of any garden depends significantly on its aspect, soil conditions and position. It may be dry, damp, wet, shady, sunny, exposed, or all of these things. A well-designed garden draws on every factor and turns them to advantage wherever possible, accentuating the positive and minimising (sometimes eliminating) the negative. 
Every garden is completely unique in its aspect, soil conditions and position.

A garden can evoke many moods. It may be relaxing, calm and peaceful, exciting and vibrant, mysterious and thought-provoking, witty and humorous.

 The role of the designer is to make the absolute most of a given space, whilst being realistic about its possibilities, its limitations and potential costs, carefully respecting the client brief while guiding your client towards the best possible outcome.  

That will usually delight him or her as you will be introducing ideas and solutions that they never would have thought possible. The making of a garden is a challenge. It is not easy but it is always exciting and you will never stop learning.

Gardens may aspire to recreate to scale elemental natural forms such as mountains or waves, or they may, less grandly provide a more intimate oasis of tranquility away from the bustle of the city, the buzz of traffic and the tensions of workaday life.

An area of  lawn edged by flower beds, a brown, timber garden shed in the background, with a bike propped up against it, some sort of path through the middle and maybe some children's toys, a football,  and a small sitting space with a table and chairs. The whole contained by fences, hedges or walls. This is just one of a myriad of examples of  what might be thought to be 'the garden fence'.

 I think it is exciting to explore and research how and why gardens have been made and doing so will inform and inspire your own progress into the amazing and challenging world of garden design.

Article by Sue Hook