Plants with presence


Composing garden spaces often requires the introduction of new structure. This can be provided by hardscaping such as walls, pergolas, paths and terraces but the proportion of planting, the softscaping, really should be greater than that of hardscaping. 

Here a dozen huge holm oak columns rise either side of a simple brick path providing an imposing dominant presence. Their volume and solidity cannot be questioned, and yet this strength is only being regained as they receive their annual Autumnal clipping. 

The more mass and structure is introduced to a garden the greater the scope for looser and wilder planting within its confines. Here lavender, veronicastrum and roses ramble around the bases of the columns adding lighter shades to an otherwise dark and somber backdrop.  

Planting softening architecture


Buildings often settle better into their surroundings when accompanied by suitable companion planting. Much as planted borders can sit better within a garden framework with a skirting of planting, catmint, box or rosemary being favourites, architecture itself can be better read when domesticized with planting. 

Here we see the service wing of Lutyen's additions at Great Dixter in Sussex where Cotoneaster horizontalis and large ferns have been planted right against the north facing walls of the house. This planting serves to exaggerate the steep roof slope extending its range down to the Yorkstone footpath passing by whilst bringing softness and texture to the otherwise solid scene.    

Gardens in ruins

Many are romantics at heart. Gardens are often seen as places of escape and for romantics escaping to a remote forgotten place can be a vivid dream. 

Great gardens have been built around or alongside ruins such as Ninfa in Italy, Chanticleer in Pennsylvania and Nymans in Sussex. 

Such gardens allow old ruined buildings to give structure to the space but moreover bring imagined stories to the place, the people who have been here before and how their presence has passed, or has it remained? 

In the accompanying image we see a ruined greenhouse replete with heating pipes in a quiet corner of South West Scotland. Set within a walled garden the structure has been planted with ferns and hardy fuschias and arrests you when stumbled upon.

You can imagine gardeners past standing between the staging working on seedlings as the year gains momentum.   


Asymmetry with symmetry

Many spaces benefit from symmetry to provide clear structure, sight lines and a sense of balance and proportion. Symmetry is relatively easy to establish provided lines are taken from architecture and other design principles of desire lines, volume and texture are considered.

What makes a space truly stand out and deliver the greatest sense of well being and interest is the inclusion of asymmetry within an otherwise symmetrical layout. Here a large Malus John Downie (crab apple) tree slopes to the left and massed pots planted with pine trees and tulips sit to one side of a symmetrical view to a greenhouse. 

This juxtaposition can be seen to strength rather than undermine the symmetry beyond.

Using questionnable materials

Concrete is a material of the moment. Many clients are eager to see concrete used for paving, furniture, even planters. It comes in a  range of colours and can either be brought to site pre-fabricated or poured in situ, often a sensible decision given the heavy weight of concrete products. 

Another material often mentioned but one which we try to avoid unless it is strictly stipulated by clients is artificial grass or Astroturf. Astroturf provides a good year round surface for children to play on and is favoured by some over paving and rubber mulch. 

Here a clever architectural practice based in South London has wittily juxtaposed Astroturf set within patterned concrete paving to create a playful entrance pathway which also functionally acts as a door mat cleaning your shoes as you approach their studio. 

Dramatic plant naturalisation

Remarkable natural habitats create themselves when land is difficult to reach or is simply left unmanaged over time. Here tall flowering Agave americana and bulbous Opuntia (prickly pear) have densely colonised a granite slope between a small Citadel and the sea.

Agave die back after flowering so the landscape here will continue evolving as Opunita fill gaps left and other Agave appear and flower elsewhere.  

Canopies casting shadows

The powerful impact of shadows should not be underestimated in gardens. The shapes and patterns that are generated by trees and tall structures can enliven ground planes in a richly rewarding manner. 

Here the wiring of a pergola has been set in different directions and the shadows of the espalier apples can be seen to crawl across the gravel in opposite directions. The impact of the ground plane shadows is arguably as great as that of the espalier pergola above.  

Wild plant inspiration

Climbing to the top of a high mountain in the Mediterranean it was interesting to see naturalised lilies emerging through a low canopy of ferns. We have planted lilies in a similar manner previously in England with white lilies emerging through lemon verbena (which is a real thug of a self-seeding plant and should be planted with care).

One current project for a client who holds a annual party in early July is a large woodland garden in London. A range of ferns were already to be planted as part of the planting scheme for full and partial shade under the crowns of mature trees. The sight of these lilies in the Mediterranean suggested a perfect mid-Summer flower surprise for the annual party.   

Comfort from shade

It is easy to forget how important shade can be in the garden when the weather improves and sun shines. Some time spent directly under the sun is great, but toward the middle of the day, over lunch or tea, the need for shade becomes very apparent.

Umbrellas set in or to the side of dining tables are the most commonly used sources of shade, but why not develop this idea and install wall mounted retractable awnings or sails on frames that can be left with some flexibility to billow slightly in the wind.

We can also think beyond the Summer sun and consider more permanent structures such as elegant loggias or wooden pavilions that can provide shelter throughout the year and even act as outdoor rooms. 

Bold colour backdrops

Coloured walls can provide exciting backdrops for appropriate planting.

Luis Barragan made an art form out of constructing large plain walls painted in vibrant colours, pink, orange and yellow being much loved favourites.

For many Barragan settings succulents and cacti were set apart and took on sculptural qualities, often near a body of water or waterfall.

Here we see massed dry planting in front of a cor-ten steel wall, intriguingly matched with a yellow wooden door and plain concete.   

Ficus caria, Cistus, Rosemarinus officianalis, Lavendula, Pennisetum and Alcea rosea sway gently and delicately in the breeze playing off the solidity of the steel. 

Classic furniture design

Much as landscape design is a response to space, environment and buildings, these same characteristics should also influence the choice of all important outdoor furniture from which the environment will be taken in over time.

Some choices are relatively easy, for example, Lutyens benches will sit happily in an Arts & Crafts inspired garden and Steamer chairs will look perfectly in keeping on a wooden deck by water.

The fashion for low seating light in colour will provide an inviting and contemporary place for spending time outdoors informally, but some surroundings will take and indeed demand furniture with greater character.

A great example can be seen in these 1970s table and chairs set in sub-tropical grounds. Their shape and colour juxtapose perfectly with the lush border planting.

Yellow love hate

Yellow is the primary colour for Spring, it appears early and keeps going, from January still in the depths of Winter through to May when the sun is warmer.

Winter Aconites, Crocus, Narcissi, Daffodils, Tulips. Flowers often with bold deep yellow hues.  It is often said that many women dislike yellow flowers, yet when pressed, most like or at least tolerate yellow blooms in the Spring.

Designing planting schemes yellow is useful to lift other colours, notably blue and purple. Given strong material colours such as red brick, yellow is useful as it challenges the dominance of the material colour to the eye.

It is certainly a colour people have opinions about, and used carefully, it can be very helpful in the landscape.


Holistic landscape composition

Balance and variety are key ingredients in developing successful landscapes and here at the Chion-In Temple in Kyoto one can analyse exemplary outdoor space. 

The setting is a building at the base of a small hillside. Key components include the large trees on the hillside adding volume and the low arched bridge crossing the wide pond that runs along the base of the hill. 

Planting then develops the space with mid height acer and cherry trees along the pond gradating the space from the large trees to the low pond. 

The final touch in creating a satisfying holisitic space here is the inclusion of lilies in the pond whose circular funnel leaves add shape and interest contrasting with the slopes and curves of the temple roof and pond bridge. 

Computer generated images

Communicating accurately the anticipated appearance of a landscape following completion of construction is an important challenge. Where building construction is taking place this is best done by closely collaborating with the architectural team.

For this residential scheme in Kent the developer required images for marketing material and here soft finishes applied to a computer generated image provide a good indication of what the landscape will look like next year.   

Light water ripples

There are many reasons to include water within the landscape; harnessing the play of light off water is one of them. 

Visiting a public park in northern Tokyo, Rikygi-en, when walking around large ponds surrounded by Japanese acer trees, light broke through the dappled shade created by the tree canopies. 

Upon hitting the surface of the pond the light was reflected up onto the underside of tree boughs illuminating their leaves.

A gentle breeze then made ripples on the water creating a memorable effect of light rippling under the lower tree branches. 

Early Autumnal colour

Being driven through New York State recently it was noticeable that pockets of early fall leaf colour were appearing. Stopping to investigate what was causing some trees to change colour earlier than others, we discovered that water was the main contributory factor. 

The leaves shown in this image belong to trees growing in a bog. Wet Springs and sunny Summers are regarded as the best weather conditions for generating Autumnal leaf colour as this leads to greater quantities of sugar being produced in the leaves. 

We have noted that on schemes where irrigation has been installed trees benefitting from increased water are producing more impressive end of year colour displays than others struggling without additional water.   

Relaxed French charm

Visiting the Mediterranean garden of a French friend Elisabeth in the Midi-Pyrenees you are struck by how relaxed the space has become. In late Summer the flowers have passed and the grass is long, but the rose covered pergola and iris along the path remain pretty. 

A lesson to take from this garden is that if you have strong structure, here walls, pergola, height changes, local materials, it is possible to allow the vegetation free rein allowing the space to become totally relaxed and possibly, for some, totally relaxing. 

The restrained planting range and use of limited materials means the space doesn't require you to take in lots of different things, rather you can wander quietly and observe the details of the nature that surrounds you. 

Print versus laser

The architects we worked with on a residential scheme in Kent built a model of the scheme using a 3D printer to create the main Victorian building, being transformed into seven apartments, and used this with a cardboard model representing four new houses and the grounds we are landscaping. 

The light colours of this model contrast with the darker colours of the model recently built by model makers for a mixed use scheme in Devon (see our blog post on 15 June 2016) where the model was made from wood and cork with laser cut and engraved wooden buildings. 

The pared back colour palettes of both models allow the viewer to consider design detail without being distracted by the influence of colour and we much prefer restrained palettes when representing future landscaping through both models and drawings.



Pared back repetition

Strong design can be achieved in many ways, but by paring back elements and careful positioning their use in large numbers, we focus clearly on the beauty of the few elements employed. 

This row of trees along the Thames frames the space and creates a protective atmosphere for us to enjoy. We look at the trees, under, above and through them. 

The only other elements here are lush green lawn and a low wall along the river and their minimalism allows us to study each element in the space separately and as a whole. 

Model additional dimension

On many large developments architectural models are made to communicate new or revised architecture and its surrounding landscape. 

Models offer a different dimension to perspective drawings and are real works of art painstakingly made by model makers.  

We're hugely impressed with the way in which the model maker has been able to illustrate the large water features we have developed as part of public space for a project in Devon.