Discover more from The Gardening Mind by Jo Thompson
A garden design how-to
How I went about designing a family garden in the heart of the town
If you’re taking part in the Small Garden Design sessions, you might already be able to guess how I went about tackling this long garden in the middle of London. This garden isn’t as small as the ones we are talking about in those get-togethers, I know, but that issue of length, that sheer forward-zooming of the eye: these are both areas that we’ve chatted about in our sessions.
One of the things we’ve been really getting up close to in these sessions is the idea of getting to know the space as it is, before embarking on any design. It’s completely natural to want to get going straight away, but I urge you to fight the urge, if you can bring yourself to do so. I absolutely need to go through this process of familiarisation; it gives me time to absorb what’s going on.
Here’s how the garden looked before:
In London, this beautiful house was being completely redesigned and reconfigured internally. The garden had nothing significant about it, apart from its size, which is pretty good for anywhere, and for London in particular. It consisted of a long rectangle of grass, with enormous overgrown hedges and huge trees along the boundaries. There were no interesting garden features, and the end of the garden was completely overgrown and unusable. The garden is 47 metres long and 11 metres wide, and the wish-list of actual items was small: a play structure, a dining terrace, and beautiful planting. That was it.
So where to start? Well, first of all, it has to be the clients.
The clients here are a truly wonderful family with young children; they firmly believe that the garden should be for everyone, and this is just one of the many reasons why we get on so well. We were totally on the same page when we chatted about the fact that the garden should be for the parents who want to entertain their family and friends, and who want to spend more time learning how to look after a garden and to really start to understand gardening. At the same time it’s for the children: they wanted to enable their children to have a beautiful, inspirational space to play in, which hopefully will ‘by stealth’ create for their children an absolute love of being outside. A place with a sense of togetherness.
Now let’s look at that surrounding landscape:
Every house is different, every client is different, every location is different, even if I design two gardens next door to each other (which can often happen, as once a neighbour sees a garden - well, you can imagine).
I go and spend a long old time tootling around the garden at this early stage, absorbing the atmosphere, studying the site and the surroundings in terms of history as well as botany and geology. This part of the process is vital in every garden, whether large or small, to see if there is anything to ‘borrow’ in the landscape beyond, again as Small Garden Designers will know. I decided I could make use of those large trees belonging to neighbours, turning them into the furthest layer in all those layers of green that I eventually introduced. The neighbouring houses do slightly overlook the garden, so I also needed to create a sense of privacy, yet at at the same time not imposing too much of a heavy screen.
Inspiration came from the notion of family and romantic adventure.
These were the words that came to me as I spent time with this family. So I found myself creating a sculptural route, a basaltitepath, along the garden, winding its way like the outline of a river through the garden, taking you to different places along the way. It's the simplest, most organic of curves tipping over from an elegant dining terrace and then weaving across and along, in itself creating the feeling of space and heightening curiosity and interest as you potter along. I'd had in my mind the idea of children running along this path, or riding their little scooters, encountering moments of surprise on the way. One of the first moments where this happens are the ‘pebble’ seats by Ben Barrell; smooth, polished concrete sculptures set against a soft background. Seating and art combined.
Once I realised that I wanted to make the most of this idea of surprise, and once I'd discounted the initial idea of a rill (you'll see later in this article how this idea was thrown out), I pondered how I could tie in the concept of surprise with water, and this is where my years in Italywere a direct influence. Thinking about the fabulous piazzas and their fountains, I realised that I could incorporate surprise, play and adventure by incorporating water jets near a sculptural cantilevered bench in bronze resin (again by Ben Barrell) which seems to float above the planting. So we have a fountain which is also a very popular, successful play area. Art and play combined.
Art definitely is a very personal choice and I really need to understand the clients’ wishes and incorporate those wishes in my vision. In a garden such as this, it’s exciting that the art is interactive and is actually used: for example, the children sit on the pebble sculptures. It makes my day when I see art functioning as well as having form: the perfect combination in a landscape.
Travelling along, the path eventually leads to a bespoke play structure at the end of the garden. As the children grow older, the hedges in front of this structure will be allowed to grow taller and screen this large element, but, for now, the young children need to be visible from the house. Practicality reigns.
So that’s all the hard stuff: the hard landscaping.
All of these hard elements have to be softened, and even though it usually comes at the end of the making of the garden, you know I’m going to emphasise how planting is integral to any design. Over the last 25 years I‘ve been bringing my softer, romantic, ‘wilder’ planting style to all the landscapes I create. It feels natural. The lines of the gardens themselves also have a feeling of being natural: they’re all softened by a mix of plants carefully selected for the atmosphere they will create when put together. And of course these plants need to be right for the location, easy to maintain, and be able to survive eventually without watering. The planting beds here in this garden are wide enough to allow a depth of interest, and to balance everything else, as that path could take over just by its existence. The choice of plants stems from the atmosphere I want to create. I knew that in this case that the client had seen the garden I created for Chelsea Barracks at RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2016, which lives on at the Royal British Legion Industries Village in Kent and which one day received a very special visitor:
Going back a little further in time, here’s my concept for that show garden which I first came up with in early 2015:
When they’d visited the show at the time, the owners of the garden featured in today’s article had loved this concept of water where children could play; the fabulous thing was that they also adored roses, and had completely bought into the idea of using this plant in a contemporary as well as a traditional way. If you’d like to know more about the plants in this garden and how I chose them, there’ll be another post coming soon which explains this.
In the meantime, I thought it might interest you to see how a design changes over time:
As you can see, the initial concept for this family garden had also contained a rill, the element that the clients had loved so much when they saw it at the flower show. However, during the design process, as we chatted about the layout and mulled over it all, we found ourselves coming to the conclusion that the rill itself was just too much. Yes, it had been perfect for that first garden. But using it again now in this garden would just be trying too hard. It would be design for design’s sake. (You may have seen examples of this “DFDS!!” as we call it when we shout out in the studio if we realise we’re trying to be too clever. It’s when something doesn’t feel quite right. Now I’ve said it, you’ll know it if you come across it, or if you find yourself doing it!)
So the rill was thrown out. Literally rubbed out, erased from the tracing paper and deleted from the layer on the computer screen:
And it was at just that moment that the idea arrived of the dancing jets of water and the sculptural bench. They wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
Imagine all of this and the rill: DFDS, right? Less is more.
There we are. That’s how this garden started to ‘be’.
I’ve always maintained that essentially my approach is ‘a gentle intervention rather than the heavy stamp of design’. I’d be interested to know what you think.
All ‘after’ photos by Rachel Warne
Grey basalt quarried in Italy
My father was Italian and I spent much of my childhood in Rome, and I studied in Venice and Rome