Obituary – John Brookes MBE 1933-2018

Yesterday saw the passing of one of the greatest influences on contemporary garden design.  This obituary, written by his protégé Duncan Heather, describes some of the key milestones in his remarkable life.

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Chelsea Flower Show: Some Self-Seeding Inspiration

It’s been a while since my last post – there’s been a lot going on, but simply not enough time to compose some coherent words here (you can follow some of our current projects on our Facebook page).

One of the highlights of the year is, of course, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and, as professional garden designers, I always feel we should have something positive to say about the show.  Unfortunately, I’m inclined to share some of the media pundits’ increasingly negative reactions to the show gardens – basically they’re all getting to be a bit predictable.

I was rather pleased then,when a link to this article on the American website popped up in my inbox this morning – here was something I could share with you that epitomises the “feel” of many Chelsea show gardens, planting ideas that should work really well in most people’s gardens around the UK.

(You can scroll through the slides, or follow this link for the full article.)

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A Contemporary Cornish Garden

A couple of weeks ago (it was the October 2013 “hurricane”) I was in Cornwall to set out the first batch of plants for a newly built garden, and I thought you might like to see hear a bit more about this project.

Cornwall garden design 1

The back garden – a dramatic transformation!

We first visited this creek-side site near Falmouth in late November 2011 (it was pouring with rain, and blowing a gale then, too).  The garden was part of a much larger project to demolish the existing house and build an entirely new, contemporary style home designed by award-winning Brixham architect Stan Bolt.  We completed the conceptual design in January 2012 and, once the local planning department had confirmed they were happy, we proceeded with detailed design drawings and specifications.  These were completed in June 2012, by which time work on the house was already under way, and the planting plans were completed in November 2012.

Cornwall garden design 2

The forecourt paving layout complements the asymmetric angular design
(sorry about the poor photo – did I mention it was blowing a hurricane?)

The house build was managed by the client as a self-build project, with one main building contractor, and was sufficiently complete to allow the landscape contractor to start work in July 2013.  The client chose to include all removal of rubble etc., importing of topsoil and re-contouring, and also construction of the hardwood deck, within the building contractor’s scope of work.  This did create some difficulties – the deck was built somewhat smaller than specified, and the levels in the rear garden also proved to be lower than planned, although neither became apparent until the landscape contractor had started work.

Cornwall garden design paving detail

Carefully detailed paving and steps replaced the derelict garage.

We placed orders for trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials in August 2013, with delivery in two batches – the majority in September (subsequently delayed to October), and the trees and balance of shrubs and perennials due in December.

I’ve posted some more photos of the planting on our Facebook page, and the design is described on our website.


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What happens when the Planning Permission process fails…..

Planning Permission is a subject that often evokes a negative reaction – either because of the perceived difficulty in obtaining it, or because it is granted for developments that we consider inappropriate.  Last week the architecture magazine Building Design had already received more than 20 nomination to its annual “Carbuncle Cup” for the University of Oxford’s new Castle Mill flats adjacent to Port Meadow – a development that has irredeemably devalued one of Oxford’s most famous landscape views.

This development, which is now the subject of an application for judicial review, is a perfect example of failure to consider even the most fundamental principles of landscape design.  As University of Oxford Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch wrote in his nomination letter, “Its roofline does what no other recent development on the edge of Port Meadow has achieved, violate the treeline which is the essential boundary of this rural view…..”.

Before – Oxford’s dreaming spires (photo “Protect Port meadow from Oxford University” Facebook page)

Desecrated Oxford landscape

After – skyline dominated by 4 and 5 storey flats (photo – Jonathan Bowen)

There seems to have been a trail of either error, negligence or deceit leading up to the granting of planning permission – the Council Heritage Officer’s damning report apparently never reached councillors making the decision, the University claimed “Following careful assessment it has been concluded that the development will not be visible from the majority of Port Meadow”, and the application incorrectly stated the land (former railway sidings) were not contaminated.  This last point is the crux of the application for judicial review since, had the land been identified as contaminated, an Environmental Impact Assessment would have been needed – including a full visual impact assessment.

The Council and University are clearly embarrassed by the whole affair – they even entered negotiations earlier this year to reduce the height by 2 storeys (although this, unsurprisingly, came to naught).  Whatever the final outcome, it will remain an appalling example of failure to understand how the landscape relates to our built environment.

You can read the full Building Design article here (you will have to register, but it is free).  The Protect Port Meadow from Oxford University Facebook page is here.

Footnote (1 Nov 2013): The project was runner-up in the Carbuncle Cup 2013.  Judicial review was refused by Mr Justice Lewis in the High Court in Birmingham, but the council and Oxford university did promise to carry out an environmental impact assessment – a small consolation for campaigners.

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Earthworms and other friends……..

earthwormsI have to confess this is something of a digression, as I ponder why one of our plantings from early summer has fared so poorly.  But, as it’s been a while since my last post, I will cut myself a bit of slack….

Many gardeners are, quite rightly, a little obsessive about the soil in their gardens: its apparent shortcomings and remediation are as perennial a subject of conversation amongst gardeners as the weather is for everyone else.  So spare a thought for those who, perhaps because they are building a new home, are faced with importing soil onto the site to create their garden from scratch.  The chances are they won’t really know what their soil comprises before it arrives, and maybe not for a while thereafter.  Unless they are very lucky, in all probability it will be a manufactured, sterile product of indeterminate origin.  Hopefully subsoil and topsoil will at least conform to generally accepted criteria and have been delivered and spread in the right order(!).  Anything more is a bonus.


There is a British Standard for topsoil – BS 3882:2007 “Specification for Topsoil and Requirements for Use” – which attempts to classify multipurpose and special purpose topsoils being moved or sold.  It addresses lots of attributes like pH, nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium and potassium content, organic matter, soil texture and contaminants.  Anyone buying topsoil would be well advised to buy a compliant product.  However, what it doesn’t address are living organisms!

All plants need topsoil if they are to survive.  I’ll say that again.  All plants need topsoil.  Subsoil won’t do.  Why?  Because plant roots can only do their job with the help of a complex ecosystem of insects, fungi, and microorganisms that enable the plant to obtain the nutrients it needs from the soil.   And the presence of that ecosystem, together with other organic matter, is what fundamentally differentiates topsoil from subsoil.  Of course, plants roots need air and moisture too, and this living ecosystem plays a vital role here as well.

Soil Organic Matter and Humous

Soil organic matter is made up of a wide variety of materials derived from plants, animals, and soil organisms, which can be divided into four categories:

  • living organisms and roots, making up less than 5% of the total;
  • residues from dead plants, animals and soil organisms that have not yet begun to decompose (<10%);
  • material undergoing rapid decomposition (20-45%);
  • stabilized organic matter (humus) remaining after further decomposition by soil microorganisms (50-80%).
Topsoil Organic Matter

Topsoil Organic Matter

Humous (the stabilized organic matter) has the longest lasting benefits for gardeners.  It is a mix of stable, complex organic compounds formed during initial rapid decomposition, which decomposes only slowly over time (about 3% per year).  Humus comprises a mix of solid particles and soluble compounds – sugars, proteins, gums, fats, waxes, resins and lignin – that are too chemically complex to be used by most organisms but improve the physical and chemical properties of soil by:

  • binding  mineral particles together into larger aggregates, which helps to improve air and water infiltration and movement;
  • improving water retention and release to plants;
  • slowly releasing nutrients (e.g. nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur) over time;
  • helping to retain nutrients that would otherwise be leached from the soil;
  • providing a “buffer” that stabilises soil pH; and
  • chelating (binding) toxic metals in soil.

Soil supplied to BS 3882:2007 should at least have a modest organic matter content: the specification for general purpose topsoil is 3-20% (a rather wide range).  However, it doesn’t distinguish between the different categories of organic matter, and could still be completely devoid of that all-important humous: in such a case it could take several years before a satisfactory humous content is established.

Soil Organisms

Of the circa 5% of topsoil that is typically organic matter (it can be up to 30%), about 0.2% comprises living organisms, albeit mostly invisible to the naked eye.  One cup of undisturbed soil typically contains:

  • 200 billion bacteria
  • 20 million protozoa
  • 100,000 meters of fungi
  • 100,000 nematodes
  • 50,ooo arthropods

Some of these have a close symbiotic relationship with plants, including rhizobia and mycorrhizae.

Rhizobia are bacteria that establish associations with plants such as beans and peas (legumes). They form nodules on the roots where they “fix” nitrogen gas from the air and in return the plant supplies the bacteria with essential minerals and sugars.

Mycorrhizae are specific fungi found in most soils that have symbiotic associations with plant roots. They are very host-specific (i.e., each plant species is associated with specific species of mycorrhiza) and enlarge the surface-absorbing area of the roots by 100 to 1,000 times by creating filaments or threads that act like an extension of the root system. In exchange for making the roots of the plant much more effective in the uptake of water and nutrients, the fungus gets essential nutrients from the roots to fuel its own growth.  Mycorrhizae enhance the plant’s ability to tolerate environmental stress and reduce transplant shock.

Glomalin, which improves soil tilth, is a glycoprotein produced as a by-product of mycorrhizal activity.  Glomalin, together with humic acid, is a vital constituent of soil organic matter that improve soil structure by binding the tiny clay particles together into larger aggregates, which in turn increases the pore space and helps to create an ideal environment for roots.

There are many other indirectly beneficial soil organisms, including microorganisms, insects and worms, which act to decompose soil organic matter into forms that can be used by plants, and also improve the soil structure.  Most of the soil-obsessed gardeners I mentioned earlier will know organic matter improves soil structure: perhaps not everyone knows the beneficial properties are only realised with the help of soil organisms.

Earthworms are perhaps the best known soil organism – described by Aristotle as “the intestines of the earth”. In fact there are many different species of earthworm, which fall into four different categories:

  • Anecic  earthworms build permanent burrows deep into the soil. They feed on leaves on the soil surface that they drag into their burrows.  Our dear friend Lumbricus terrestris is probably the best known species:  it lives in a vertical burrow up to 3m deep, which it occupies for its entire life cycle.  L. terrestris reaches sexual maturity in about 52 weeks and they can live for up to 10 years. They are typically dark coloured at the head end (red or brown), with paler tails.
  • Endogeic earthworms live in, and feed on the soil. They occupy  horizontal, non-permanent burrows in the upper mineral layer of soil, and are not usually noticed except after a heavy rain when they come to the surface. Some can burrow very deeply in the soil.  Endogeic earthworms are often pale colours – grey, pale pink, green or blue.
  • Epigeic earthworms live on the soil surface in leaf litter. They tend not to make burrows but live in and feed on the leaf litter. Epigeic earthworms are also often bright red or red-brown (but they are not stripy).
  • Compost earthworms are, unsurprisingly, most likely to be found in a compost pile. They thrive in warm, moist environments with a ready supply of fresh compost material (which they very rapidly consume). They also reproduce very quickly. Compost earthworms are mostly bright red and stripy.

In all, there are some 26 species of earthworm in the UK.  Charles Darwin wrote a paper on earthworms during his later years, in which he speculated that almost all of the fertile soil on earth must have passed through the gut of an earthworm. Perhaps he exaggerated, but ….

Lumbricus terrestris

Lumbricus terrestris

Earthworms are just a few of the many organisms that decompose organic matter in the soil and improve the soil structure.  The deep burrows of anecic earthworms create passages for air, water and roots, facilitating the exchange of soil gases with the atmosphere – clay soils particularly benefit from extensive earthworm burrows.  Anecic worms enhance soil organic matter and humus by dragging litter into their burrows.  Endogeic burrows contribute to soil tilth, increasing soil porosity.  (If you’re interested in learning more, you can even join the Earthworm Society of Britain :-) .)

Soil organisms can be encouraged by:

  • Adding organic matter: organisms require a food source.
  • Applying an organic mulch: helps to stabilise the soil temperature and moisture, and helps prevent compaction.
  • Avoiding the use of pesticides, some of which are devastating to soil organisms.
  • Minimising cultivation, which can kill earthworms, destroy worm burrows and mycorrhizae, and damage the soil structure.
  • Maintaining moist soil conditions (but avoid over watering).

As I mentioned earlier, the BS 3882:2007 standard doesn’t address soil organisms at all.  In fact quite a lot of commercially available topsoil is completely sterile – devoid of any organisms, and with the organic matter provided simply by adding fresh mulch-type material from recycled “green waste”.  Obviously, it could take several years before such a “manufactured” topsoil exhibits the level of fertility we would expect.

So, if you need to import topsoil, it really is worth trying to find a local source of natural topsoil, for example from a local construction project.

And what about that struggling planting I was supposed to be investigating?  Well, the manufactured subsoil and topsoil complied with BS 3882:2007 and were certified by a soil consultant to be suitable for landscape planting.  But with a soil texture that sets like concrete when dry, a pH of 8.3 and an organic content comprising a smattering of woody lumps, I’m wondering if it isn’t just  a mix of clay, crushed concrete and wood chips!   It could be a while before our plants thrive :-( .

A Footnote on Soil Inoculation:

Generally, the results of  inoculation with mycorrhizae can be inconsistent, because they are species specific.  They also have a limited shelf life so, if you do want to try it, buy a fresh product.  Commercial farmers growing legumes may use rhizobium inoculation, but the best tip for the gardener is simply to grow your runner beans on the same patch each year (against our crop rotation instincts, I know, but it generally works).  Inoculation with other organisms is generally not necessary.


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Escape To Cornwall

Summer is when most people wake up to what’s going on in their garden, and hence it can be a busy time for garden designers. However, we did manage to escape for a few days to Cornwall. With its sheltered coastal gardens, full of exotic sub-tropical plants, contrasting with the exposed and rather bleak moors, it inevitably turned into something of a busman’s holiday.

Trelissick, standing on a promontory at the head of the Fal estuary, is a 1750′s house surrounded by parkland and a 20th Century garden. The 375 acres of parkland offer truly extensive walking trails and absolutely stunning waterside views.

Trelissick House Rumbold Ayers Garden DesignThe gardens comprise mainly woodland with an extensive collection of camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas, photinia and hydrangeas.  At its heart is a relatively small area of lawn and herbaceous planting, but nonetheless full of vivid colour and interest.  A new orchard, featuring local varieties, was planted recently, and there is also a “sensory garden” near the entrance and ubiquitous shop.  However, this is perhaps a garden where size, rather than interest, is its main claim to fame. (The house isn’t open to visitors.)

Trelissick Assam Orange Rumbold Ayers Garden Design

Trebah, near Falmouth, manages to achieve an entirely different feel.  The main garden runs down a valley, leading down from the house to a secluded beach on the Helford river.  The plantings are truly varied, and very extensive.  Near to the house are mainly Mediterranean plants, leading succssively past the stumpery (really a fernery) and cascade, “bamboozle”, gunnera passage (where you can walk under their giant leaves), rhododendron valley, various ponds, the hydrangea valley, before arriving at the little beach at Polgwiddon Cove where they even offer complimentary loan of bucket and spade, in case you’ve forgotten yours (well, I did say it was a busman’s holiday ;-) ).

Escape To Cornwall Rumbold Ayers Garden Design

Trebah – bronze fountain | Hydrangeas beside Mallard Pond
(Click To Enlarge)

(If you’re interested, I’ve posted some more photos on Flickr and our Facebook page.)

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Trees and Planning Permission

Pollarded veteran oak

There's life in this this old oak yet!

As some of our readers may be aware, most local planning authorities in the UK require that planning applications address the retention of existing trees on and around the site.  There is a British Standard BS5837:2005 “Trees in Relation to Construction – Recommendations” which covers such things as surveying the existing trees and ensuring retained trees are protected from damage during construction works.

A new edition of BS5837:2012 “Trees in relation to Design, Demolition & Construction – Recommendations” comes into effect at the end of April, and supersedes the 2005 edition.  This includes some significant changes, to reflect the perceived importance of trees in climate change adaptation as well as current practices and building regulations.

Some key changes include:

  • soil assessment is considered necessary at the conceptual design stage;
  • provisions added to address new planting design;
  • it is no longer permitted to displace root protection areas by up to 20%, making tree constraints much less flexible;
  • additional limitations on hard surfacing allowed near trees.

There are other changes, too.  Taken as a whole, it seems that getting planning permission for projects where there are existing trees will become more complex right from the design stage.  As such, it’s unlikely to be welcomed by developers, given the continued depressed state of housebuilding in the UK.  (However, it is worth remembering the recommendations apply equally to projects that don’t require planning permission.)

As landscape and garden design professionals, we’re ideally placed to help with the design of sites with trees.

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Building Beehives

Last week Tim ran a weekend course at his workshop, teaching how to build beehives, and it prompted considerable discussion about the health and viability of the UK’s honey bees.

Native "black" honey bee

Our native honey bee - extinct?

The importance of bees for plant pollination is enormous and, since the devastating arrival of the varroa mite, active bee management is essential for bee survival.  There are certainly some feral bee colonies in the wild, but sadly it’s currently not known whether we still have any colonies at all of our native black honey bee Apis mellifera mellifera.

The course was teaching how to build a simple beehive know as a “top bar hive” – a low cost alternative to the standard Langstroth hive that is becoming increasingly popular with amateur bee-keepers.  In a top bar hive the bees build their comb suspended from a rail or “top bar”, without the constraints imposed by the frames of a Langstroth hive.  The main reasons for the increasing popularity of the top bar hive are that only a small part of the colony is exposed when inspecting the hive, and that honey is harvested by taking individual combs, rather the whole “super” of a Langstroth hive (containing 8-10 frames).  This makes bee-keeping in a top bar hive much less invasive, and proponents claim this approach has significant benefits for the health and prosperity of the hive.

Tim Ayers' Top Bar Hive course March 2012

Tim Ayers' bee hive course - students proudly displaying their handiwork.

It isn’t all upside, of course.  The main drawbacks of the top bar hive are lower productivity, and the honey can’t be extracted by centrifuge so it’s usually produced as a honey comb – something some people consider a special delicacy.  But for many people the primary role of bees is to pollinate plants, and the fact you can only harvest part of the honey is a fair trade-off.

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Wildlife Gardening

Gardens, like so many things these days, are subject to changing fashions.  Recently, as a garden designer, I’ve seen a groundswell of interest in gardening for wildlife – insects, small mammals, amphibians and of course birds.

The key to attracting wildlife into our gardens is the use of native plant species, rather than the exotic ones we see at our local garden centre from as far afield as China, the Himalayas, South Africa and the Americas.  Attractive though they may be, they don’t do a lot for our native fauna.

Thankfully, there are plenty of native plants to choose from.  If your garden is big enough, an oak tree can support nearly 300 species of insects (plus up to 150 species of mites).  Willow, birch, hawthorn and blackthorn are the next highest ranking, so a traditional mixed hawthorn and blackthorn hedge, with the occasional elder, alder buckthorn and hazel mixed in, is a great habitat – and the haw berries and sloes will feed the birds well beyond Christmas.  Other small trees and shrubs you could consider include crab apple, wayfaring tree and guilder rose.

Herbaceous plants are perhaps more of a challenge.  A weed is often defined as simply a plant growing where we don’t want it, and that certainly applies when designing a wildlife planting.  Some of my favourite natives for the garden include ox-eye daisies, bisort (Polygonium bisorta) – which is also useful for its foliage, angelica (very structural), foxgloves, fennel, harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) and giant bellflowers (Campanula latifolia), as well as native bluebells. The daffodil is a native, too.

Nettles and thistles are ideal for butterflies, but if you’re worried your garden will end up looking like a collection of weeds, how about a wildflower meadow?  A strip of long grass, cut only once a year to encourage flowers to seed, can provide a miniature wildlife corridor to connect separate areas of native planting.  Wildflower meadows have a reputation of being problematic, but one of the easiest techniques is to simply strip off the top 2 inches of topsoil and lay wildflower turf.  (You can see some photos of a project where we did this on our Facebook page.)

Even if you only have a tiny, paved courtyard, you could still make your own “insect hotel”!

Insect hotel seen in a garden in Germany could consider an Insect Hotel

Whatever you choose to do, by including some wildlife-friendly areas in your garden you will be making your own unique contribution to our wildlife.  You could even enter The Big Wildlife Garden competition organized by the RHS and Wildlife Trusts – see

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SLANT Garden Design Competition 2011

Certificate of MeritI am delighted to report that we (Alex Lehne and Svend Rumbold) were awarded a Certificate of Merit for our short listed design “Magic Bavaria” in the SLANT Open International Garden Design Competition.  (As some of you may know, Rumbold-Ayers draws on the skills and expertise of a small core team with design and related skills; Alex and I are landscape and garden design specialists.)

The competition was organised by Irish designer Hugh Ryan, who was joined in the judging by Anthony Paul and John Brookes MBE.  Such an illustrious panel of judges makes the effort that goes into preparing a competition entry all the more worthwhile.  In fact we prepared two entries, one located in Bavaria and another set in the Sussex downs (which made the long list).

I thought you might like a short insight into the design process.

  1. Site Analysis:  normally we would visit the site and take photos etc., but the competition rules left us free to choose the location and topography of our garden, so instead we assembled photos from various sources, to convey the look and feel of our imaginary site. We prepared a site analysis diagram, showing the principal influencing characteristics.

    Site Analysis - "Magic Bavaria"

    Site Analysis – “Magic Bavaria”

  2. Sketch Plan: establishing the the allocation of space across the site, routes of flow, and the size and shape of all significant features.  This is the heart of the creative process, and we applied a technique known as pattern analysis – best illustrated by the trial-and-error evolutionary sketches that ultimately led us to the plan.  We spent 5 days working together, culminating in hand drawn sketch plans for the two designs.

    Sketch Plan Development - "Sussex Downland Garden"

    From Pattern Analysis to Sketch Plan – “Sussex Downland Garden”

  3. The final stage was to refine the details and prepare the illustrative visualisations that would make up the competition posters* (four A2 or A3 sheets).  We used 2d and 3d CAD (computer aided design), with hand and computer rendering, prepared plant lists and indicative planting details, and collected photographs to help illustrate the design.
    Sketch Plan - "Magic Bavaria"

    Sketch Plan – “Magic Bavaria”

    Perspective Views - "Magic Bavaria"

    Perspective Views – “Magic Bavaria”

    Planting Mood Board - "Magic Bavaria"

    Planting Mood Board – “Magic Bavaria”

The competition attracted entries from all over the world, and we were pleased to see both our designs make the long list (final 30).  When the short list was announced, “Magic Bavaria” was one of only three UK entries listed (and two of those, including ours, were actually UK/German team entries).  The winning design was by two young Portuguese landscape architects Ricardo Alexandre Lime Gomes and Daniels dos Santos Silva.

*The competition rules called for posters to be submitted, rather than drawings we would normally prepare for a client.

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