Is it too late to plant herbaceous perennials?

Last spring Judy and I were invited to visit a newly created garden in Warwickshire that had been planted up the previous autumn, and we were shocked to see many apparently hardy plants had been killed by last winter’s frosts.  Obviously, when we design a planting plan, we are careful to select plants that are suitably hardy.  So what caused these plants to succumb last winter?  (It wasn’t one of our designs, by the way.) And if we plant new herbaceous perennials now, will they suffer the same fate this winter?

It’s the formation of ice crystals, which rupture the plant’s cell walls, that causes frost damage.  Some plants are not at all hardy, whilst others are hardy to varying extents.  A plant’s ability to withstand freezing temperatures derives from its physiology and acclimatization.  Hardy plants use certain “tricks” to help withstand frost, including:

  • strengthened cell walls;
  • desiccation: they lower the water content in the cells during the winter (ice in the spaces between cells is much less of a problem for a plant);
  • natural anti-freeze: they manufacture chemicals inside their cells that inhibit freezing.

Importantly, hardy plants generally deploy these survival techniques as a reaction to shortened daylight hours and lower temperatures.  This process takes time (which is why locally grown stock is hardier than plants imported from somewhere warmer).  New growth is more susceptible as the cell walls are thinner and, by implication, growth means warmth and so less time for acclimatization.

Geranium "Jolly Bee", Aster Lutetia and Erygeron Karvinskianus

Geranium "Jolly Bee", Aster Lutetia and Erygeron Karvinskianus in 9cm pots, waiting to be planted.

Last winter was characterized by some very severe frosts – down to -15ºC here in south Wiltshire – and the frosts came in late November, which is early for such severe frost.  It was the combination of (early) timing, and severity, which was to blame for the damage.  The cold weather also lasted for a considerable time – several weeks – which allowed the frost to penetrate deep into the ground, reaching roots that would normally remain frost-free.

And what about soil water content?  Well, it is certainly true that wet soil will lose heat much more quickly than dry soil, and so will allow a frost to penetrate deeply.

OK, enough science – is it too late to plant?  No, it isn’t.  In fact, as long as the plants are sufficiently mature (not just new growth) and have been properly acclimatized, there is no scientific reason why you shouldn’t be able to plant all year round (as long as the ground isn’t frozen solid!).  As they start to go into dormancy, plants are less likely to suffer from the “shock” of transplanting, and there’s still plenty of warmth in the ground at the moment for the roots to get established.  Another great advantage is that autumn transplants are much less likely to suffer from drought.  Of course, it does all still rely on adequate soil preparation, but that’s another story.

But, and here’s the catch, how do you know if your new plant purchases are acclimatized? Perhaps they arrived on a lorry from the continent only yesterday!  (And that little locally propagated 9 cm pot may be much cheaper than a 2 litre pot, but is the plant mature enough to survive a sharp frost? )  The one thing I certainly wouldn’t do now is pot on from 9 cm to 2 litre, as the pot will be much more susceptible to frost than a plant in the ground, and it’s quite likely to put on a growing spurt that just won’t be mature enough to survive weeks of snow and ice.

fresh from Italy?

........fresh from Italy?

But if you’ve prepared the ground well, then I’d say “go for it!“.   (And as for what caused the losses in the Warwickshire garden?  Well, my money is on plants newly arrived from northern Italy.)

Posted in Garden Design, Landscape Design, Planting | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Summer Planting

Ok, so I’ve been neglecting this blog for a couple of weeks…. well sometimes I have to do some real work.  I guess most people consider summer to be June, July and August, so I’ve left it a bit late to write about summer planting, but here goes…….

If you live in the south of England you might have paid a visit to the gardens at Exbury, in the New Forest.  It’s perhaps best known for its trees and shrubs, especially rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and acers, but there is a lot more besides – last year I actually bought a season ticket.  With so much on offer, the herbaceous borders next to the house are easily overlooked, but I think they’re really quite special.  Here is just one example.

Exbury herbaceous border

Herbaceous border at Exbury

There are some glorious hot summer colours here, with tall architectural elements adding another dimension.  Its a sandy acid soil, and most of these plants will thrive best in well drained, sunny conditions.

Masses of vibrant yellow and orange lilies fill the foreground, including the bright orange Lilium “Brunello”.  The sword-like leaves and upright trumpet shaped flowers of the lilies contrast with the softer clusters of green leaves and bright yellow-green bracts of Euphorbia cornigera “Goldener Turm” – all interspersed with the tall, thin, spear-like stems of Pennesetum macrourum, whose thickened seed heads sway above the dense yellows and oranges and serve to lighten and enliven the whole effect.

Lilium Brunello

Lilium "Brunello"

Euphorbia cornigera Goldener Turm, Exbury Garden, Hampshire

Euphorbia cornigera "Goldener Turm"

Echinacea purpurea Magnus - Exbury Garden Hampshire

Echinacea purpurea "Magnus"

Helenium Moorheim Beauty - Exbury Garden Hampshire

Helenium "Moorheim Beauty"

Cephalaria gigantea

Cephalaria gigantea

In the middle distance the dark copper-red flowers of Helenium “Moerheim Beauty” combine well with the dark-centred pink daisy Echinacea purpurea “Magnus”, and a haze of round white Cephalaria gigantea lightens and enlivens the show, just as the Penesetum does.

In my view, an interesting example of how different plant structures and form combine to create something that is greater than the sum of the parts – without the Penesetum and Caphalaria, this would appear quite different – heavy and static.

PS Sorry about the random photo arrangement – WordPress has defeated me on this occasion!
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Oxford College of Garden Design 2011 Student Exhibition

A couple of overdue errands in Oxford provided the perfect excuse to visit the Oxford College of Garden Design 2011 Student Exhibition yesterday.  It was a great opportunity to catch up with people I hadn’t seen in a while, and it’s always interesting to see how a new crop of garden designers measure up ;-) .

OCGD 2011 PGDip Student Exhibition

2011 Student Exhibition

Several students’ work was of an exceptional standard, relative even to the high level that has come to be expected from the OCGD (this is a postgraduate level course, in contrast with most other diploma courses).  At the risk of being a bit unfair to her fellow students, my “one to watch” for the future is Sophie Dixon.

Duncan Heather and external examiner Vincent Marley (Writtle College) compare notes.

Duncan Heather, OCGD Principal, is due to take a one year sabbatical from face-to-face teaching, to focus on the new OCGD interactive on-line diploma course.  The new course, which covers almost all the same material as the traditional classroom version (garden history and the thesis are omitted, as it’s not strictly a postgraduate course), looks like a very practical and cost-effective (but no less intensive) option for those wishing to pursue a career in garden design.  The next course starts 30th September 2011.

(Both Svend Rumbold and Alex Lehne, respectively the founding director and German affiliate of Rumbold-Ayers landscape designers, studied under Duncan Heather and graduated from the OCGD PGDip course with distinction.)
Posted in Garden Design, Landscape Design | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Highs and Lows of Chickens in the Garden

Keeping a handful of chickens in the garden has increasingly become the “in thing” in recent years.  We too keep a few hens, and have just acquired two new ones following the loss of the second of our original “ex-batts” last month.  I thought you might be interested in our experiences.

I had promised Judy a chicken coop one Christmas, and fulfilled my obligations by ordering a Chicube at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show a couple of years ago. I had done a fair bit of research into coops, and the Chicube seemed well made, with a convenient and hygienic plastic liner. We ordered one in oak, complete with wire mesh run, etc..  I’m sure we said “no thank you” to the offer of hens to complete the package, but when the lady from Chicube called to arrange delivery it transpired that “….oh, yes, you’re down for chickens.”  Sly one, Judy ;-) !

So it transpired we started out with three “ex-batts” – Patience, Cordelia and Esther.  The good things about ex battery hens are:

  • they’re vaccinated against many common ailments
  • they’re extremely friendly and sociable, and full of character
  • they lay eggs almost every day!

The not so good things are:

  • they’re hybrids, developed to maximise their egg production during the first 12-18 months, and so “burn out” pretty fast
  • consequently they tend not to live more than 2-3 years, unless you’re lucky
  • because they lay so may eggs they are voracious eaters, and will quickly devour your garden if you’re not careful
  • they love digging holes, too
  • they lay eggs almost every day!

So, unless you eat an awful lot of eggs, and/or aren’t particularly bothered about what they’ll do to the garden (or you plan to keep them confined to their run), you might want to consider a traditional pure breed. But at least with ex-batts you can feel good about giving them a nice home after their time in tiny cramped cages.

Patience having her pink jersey fitted

Patience having her pink jersey fitted

Patience came to us with almost no feathers, and wore a specially knitted jersey for her first few weeks until her feathers grew back.  She was by far the most friendly and inquisitive, and loved to explore the house and lead foraging expeditions down the road.  Very sadly she only lasted a year, having started to lay soft-shelled eggs and suffered repeated episodes of being “egg-bound”: we even tried regular calcium injections, but ultimately it was clear the stress of daily egg-laying had taken too much out of her. (She also couldn’t cope with being shut in the 6ft run, and had to be left free all the time – a legacy of her early life.)

As a “going away present” on the day before he left for college, our son David proudly came home from Romsey Show with a replacement hen.

“How old is she?”
“Err oh, the lady did say… I think it was 10 weeks, or was it months….. or maybe it was 18…, or 20…, oh I dunno.”
“And what breed?”
“Err… she’s really rare, an Ix something, I think.  The lady said she’d get on well with ex-batts as she’s the same size.”

Don’t you just LOVE teenagers!  Mirabel, as we called her, is an Ixworth.  She’s white, with only a very small comb, mad as a box of frogs, and Esther and Cordelia bullied her mercilessly – so much so that for weeks she refused to go into the coop, and would peck at the patio doors at dusk, asking to be let in (whereupon she would hop straight into the cat box and settle down for the night).  In the last 9 months she’s doubled in size, and trebled in weight, but has yet to lay an egg.  And therein lies the problem with traditional breeds – they just aren’t such reliable egg layers, particularly in the absence of a cockerel.  On the other hand, they do live much longer, up to eight years or more.  Ixworths are a “dual purpose” breed, so I suppose we could eat her if she doesn’t lay any eggs – at least in theory!  There are dozens of traditional breeds, ranging from Old English Game (originally bred for fighting), to the Cream Legbar (an autosexing breed – you can tell the sex from their colour).  The Omlet site has some good information if you want to know more.  Perhaps for a smaller garden a bantam type might be more suitable.

Both Esther and Cordelia stopped laying in about February, and seemed a bit off-colour ever since. Sadly Cordelia died about a month ago, asleep in front of the Aga, despite our best efforts (de-wormed, de-loused, mite powder in the coop, pro-biotics and a precautionary course of antibiotics), whilst Esther seems to have picked up again, although she is now beginning to moult.  A I said earlier, ex-batts just don’t live that long.

Egglet Emma and Limpy Lucy

Egglet Emma and Limpy Lucy - our new hens

Our new hens, “Limpy” Lucy and “Egglet” Emma are hybrid Lohmanns from a local farm where they rear day-old chicks until they go to free range egg producers as 17-23 week old “point of lay” pullets.  Out of a flock of up to 125,000 there are always a few “odd ones” that can’t be passed to the customer: these are mostly hens with leg deformities (probably a consequence of the way the male and female chicks are sorted at birth – and no, you don’t want to know what happens to the male chicks) or otherwise just don’t look right.  And a few that elude being caught!  Lucky for them, they all get to live a free-range life, on plenty of grass, until they find a loving home.

Introducing new hens can be problematic, as a new pecking order has to be established: newcomers can be severely bullied.  Received wisdom is to put new hens into the coop at night, after the others have gone to bed.  It can also help to keep them in separate but adjacent pens, so they get used to each other.  It’s a good idea to isolate newcomers for a few weeks, in case they have any parasites or diseases, especially if they are pure breeds from smaller breeders, as these birds will not have been vaccinated.

We rearranged our electrified plastic mesh fencing to create two adjacent pens – one for Esther and Mirabel, and the other for Lucy and Emma, and adapted an old dog kennel as a coop for our new Lohmanns, and all went well for the first 24 hours – we even had two eggs, the first for months :-) .  Then DISASTER!

A spine-chilling wail of despair from Judy brought me out of the office, to find her cradling an apparently lifeless Lucy, while calling Esther all the names under the sun.  Lucy had managed to strangulate herself in the mesh fencing, and Esther had been viciously pecking at her head, which was covered in blood.  Some quick work with the scissors had Lucy released from the fence, but it was a minute or so before she revived.  Two trips to the vet later, one to collect some anti-inflammatory painkillers, and a second, once Lucy had a chance to recover a bit, to get her badly mauled eye looked at, and we began to think she might survive. (If your hen suffers an eye injury, its really important to keep the eyelids from fusing together, so do get it checked out by your vet.)  She spent the rest of the day indoors, in the cat box, but by evening she seemed well enough to rejoin Emma, who had been looking very lonely and anxious and was obviously relieved to have her friend back.  And Lucy even laid an egg for us! After a night indoors, she’s now back outside pecking about and receiving daily painkillers and twice daily eye drops.  Her bruised face has gone quite black, but  Lucy gave us another egg today – what a good little girl!  Fingers crossed, she’ll be fine.

Poor Lucy has taught us one important lesson, though: if you do choose to use electrified plastic mesh fencing, make sure you use a fairly powerful energiser.  Netting takes quite a lot of power, and chickens are well insulated by their feathers, so our little battery unit just wasn’t enough to discourage her from poking her head through the mesh.

All in all, our chicken keeping has been something of a roller coaster ride, and our eggs have hardly been cheap, but it has been hugely rewarding.  If you’re thinking of getting your first hens and have a specific question, just post a comment and we’ll do our best to help.

Footnote about Vets
Although there are some poultry specialists out there, they tend to work with commercial operations and their advice is often influenced by economic considerations.  If you’re like us you will probably be willing to spend a little more money on veterinary treatment than the replacement cost of a hen (£25-50 for a pure bred, and £8-12 for a hybrid).  We’ve chosen to stick with our small animal vet, Sandra.  If she prescribes anything she only charges for the prescription, not the consultation, so our costs have generally been quite modest.  The biggest, by a long way, was £60 to check a poo sample for pathogens (which came back negative).
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Chalk Downland isn’t Just Buttercups and Daisies.

Most days I take the dog for a walk over Fovant Down, and around this time of year the grassland bursts into a mass of wild flowers.  It’s all too easy to look no further than the familiar buttercups and daisies, although you could hardly miss the sea of yellow cowslips (Primula veris) from mid April.

Primula veris

Cowslips - Primula veris

Bright blue clumps of chalk milkwort (Polygala calcarea) follow on soon after.  But a closer examination reveals plenty of other surprises.  In amongst the blue chalk milkwort are scattered clumps of white, and even occasional pink forms. In the more shady spots, next to the scattered blackthorn and hawthorn clumps, there are blue flowers of a different kind – germander speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys).

Chalk Milkwort (Polygala calcarea)

Blue, white and pink forms of Chalk Milkwort - Polygala calcarea

Amongst the ubiquitous buttercups are plenty of “dandelions” (Taraxacum) – but on closer examination these are not all the same: with over 200 species and microspecies, telling one from another is a science in its own right.  Experts are known as “taraxacologists”.  But that isn’t the end of it: not all of those familiar yellow flowers are dandelions at all: the rough hawkbit (Leontodon hispidus) is a common plant on calciferous grassland, distinguished by its hairy stem, as is the mouse ear hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum) which has leaves that are… well, more like rabbit’s ears, actually.  And then there’s the beaked hawksbeard (Crepis vesicaria).  And…. well, let’s just say that on unimproved chalk grazing many of those yellow flowers are probably not dandelions, which tend to prefer disturbed ground.

Mouse Ear Hawkweed and Birdsfoot Trefoil

Mouse Ear Hawkweed - Pilosella officinarum (left) and Birdsfoot Trefoil - Lotus corniculatus (right)

With so many buttercups and dandelions, hawksbeards and hawkbits etc., it would be easy to miss some of the other yellow flowers.  Birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) is sometimes known as “eggs and bacon”, because of its mixed yellow and orange colours.

Kidney Vetch - Anthyllis vulneraria

Kidney Vetch - Anthyllis vulneraria)

Kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria), with its protective fluffy calix, is one of the few plants that can survive on virtually bare chalk, which is probably why I found it next to the worn path. It’s also vital for the small blue butterfly Cupido minimus.

There are plenty more flowers to come as the summer progresses; these are just the ones I photographed today.  Indeed, ancient grassland on the chalk downs, lightly grazed by cattle, is probably richer in plant species than any British woodland, and it is a top priority habitat in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Oxeye Daisy - Leucanthemum vulgare

A swathe of Oxeye Daisies beside the Old Sharston Drove - Leucanthemum vulgare

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Spring Planting

It feels like spring is here, so it’s high time I got back to writing something about garden design, rather than assorted bees and beetles.

Waterperry Gardens - spring border

Waterperry Gardens - spring border

This is a quite superb scene I snapped at Waterperry Gardens in Oxfordshire last year.  To be fair I photographed it in mid May, but spring is earlier this year so I’d venture a guess it’s already looking almost as good.

Erysimum "Bowles Mauve"

Erysimum "Bowle's Mauve"

Erysimum “Bowle’s Mauve” is a short-lived mini-shrub forming a domed bush with greyish leaves.  It’s ideal for the front of the border, and also grows well in gravel gardens and even in old walls.  The purple flowers appear through most of the year, most profusely in spring and early summer.

Cynara cardunculus

Cynara cardunculus (Cardoon)

Cynara cardunculus has wonderfully architectural silvery grey, deeply divided leaves, usually spiny, and up to 1.2m long at the base of the plant.  It bears numerous thistle-like flowers, that emerge from a scaly head.  Ideal for the back of the border, it’s at its best in late spring when the leaves are young.  One of my favourites!

Tulipa "Bleu Aimable"

Tulipa "Bleu Aimable"

Tulipa “Bleu Aimable” is an old variety dating back to 1916,  they are a very long lasting tulip with slightly smaller heads of silvery lavender mauve. Late April and early May flowering.

Kerria japonica "Pleniflora"

Kerria japonica "Pleniflora"

Kerria japonica “Pleniflora”  is a vigorous, deciduous spring flowering shrub that will grow almost anywhere and soon develops into a thicket of tall graceful stems with suckers growing from the creeping roots.  Its double, yellow flowers burst out from mid to late spring and are beautifully surrounded by bright green, oval leaves. A garden classic.

Berberis thunbergii "Aurea"

Berberis thunbergii "Aurea"

Berberis thunbergii “Aurea”  This deciduous shrub, with yellow-green leaves, gives a striking display of fiery orange and red tints and red fruits.

Here are a few suggestions for companion planting:

  • Euphorbia  myrsinites -  yellow-green bracts.
  • Allium  giganteum – round purple flowers in spring.
  • Crambe maritima – silvery grey, curly leaves,  suited to the front of the border
  • Delphinium “Alice Artindale” – tall thin spikes of blue-purple flowers.
  • Tulipa “Elegant Lady” – creamy yellow flowers in late spring.

Waterperry Gardens is near Wheatley, a couple of miles outside Oxford, towards London on the A40, and is open daily 10am – 5.30pm.

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More Spring Bugs in the Garden

OK, actually just outside our garden, but hey…!

Its funny how you get to take familiar things for granted – it was only when I read about the Oil Beetle Hunt, being run by Buglife (The Invertabrate Conservation Trust) this spring, that I realised the blue-black beetles all around might actually be a bit special.

Black Oil Beetle

Black Oil Beetle "Meloe proscarabaeus"

It turns out they’re black oil beetles (Meloe proscarabaeus), and they’re from a family of beetles that are becoming rare enough to warrant priority status under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.  I must have counted over 10 beetles this afternoon, and countless nest burrows.  Our friends aren’t the rarest oil beetles, but they have an interesting lifecycle.

Nearby, the grass was buzzing with small black bees – solitary mining bees, I think (I even managed to snap a photo of one).  It turns out the female beetle lays hundreds of eggs in her underground burrow.  When the larvae hatch, they crawl onto flowers, and lay in wait for a suitable mining bee.  They grab a ride and, once back in the unfortunate bee’s nest, they feed on the pollen and nectar before emerginging as an adult beetle.

Andrena cineraria

Mining bee "Andrena cineraria"

Another solitary bee which emerges around now is the friendly little Osmia rufa – rather like a honey bee but with any orangey colour.  They don’t sting, and don’t do nearly as much harm to walls as people think – so please don’t harm them.  There’s more info on solitary bees, as well as downloads and links, on the Devon Beekeepers’ website.

And if you see any oil beetles, do report your finds to the Buglife survey.


P.S. A Buglife investigation contradicts the Government position on bee poisoning by neonicotinoids.  If you see evidence of bee poisoning, you can report it through the DEFRA Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme.  Only by reporting will the evidence be available to influence Government policy.

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“My Garden School” goes Live!

My Garden SchoolThis may be the news you’ve been waiting for……. John Brookes MBE, who is widely considered to be one of the most influential garden designers of the 20th Century, is just one of the renown experts who have teamed up with Duncan Heather (5-times RHS Gold Medal winning Principal of the Oxford College of Garden Design) and Elspeth Briscoe (former e-Bay and Skype director), to create My Garden School.

Duncan Heather

Duncan Heather

Elspeth Briscoe

Elspeth Briscoe

My Garden School is the world’s first online school for gardeners, and it went live yesterday 3rd April 2011.  A whole host of short courses are available, and – perhaps this is what’s so special – course assignments are actually marked by the tutors, so you get real feedback from the experts.  Check back as the year progresses, as more courses are being added all the time.

MyGardenSchool Introduction from MyGardenSchool on Vimeo.

I can’t help thinking this is a really great idea. After all, how else could you access expert tuition wherever you are in the world? And you can even ask specific questions and get expert replies, too.

….and Good Luck to Duncan and Elspeth :-)

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A Bee in my Bonnet

I have decided……. Spring is here!

I was going to post something about planting for spring interest, but that will have to wait as my thoughts drifted to spring of last year, when I kept finding dead bumble bees on my daily dog walking route, through fields of oilseed rape.  I found so many dead bees, day after day, that on one walk I collected them all up – over 30 in less than an hour!   The explanation offered by the “experts” I contacted was that the bees had probably died of cold.  But I have my doubts.

Today the UN published a report on the decline of bee populations around the world.  The significance of bees to human survival can hardly be overstated: of the crops that provide 90% of our food, 71% are polinated by bees.  The report’s findings indicate the problem is widespread, and the causes are complex.  However, pesticides are one of the key suspects.

Apis mellifera on Cephalaria gigantea

Apis mellifera on Cephalaria gigantea

Italy, Germany, France and Slovenia have all banned certain pesticides because of their deadly effect on bees.  Sadly, despite some compelling evidence, both new disclosures (check out this Independent article) as well as older news (e.g this  soil association briefing), the UK Government doesn’t seem ready to act.  Perhaps the lobbying has been a bit half-hearted – it emerged in January that the British Beekeepers’ Association had been receiving money from the pesticide manufacturers.

So, what can you do?  Well, today the British Beekeepers’ Association issued an invitation to a debate at the House of Commons, so if you’re in town why not pop along and have your say?  Meanwhile, back home in the garden we can steer clear of bee-deadly chemicals:  complimentary planting is always a good idea, there’s a list of pesticides to avoid here, and a free download from here.

Please also join the AVAAZ Petition to get neonicotinoides banned in the EU and US – as I write this over 1.2 million people have already signed up!

Lets hope it isn’t too late for our familiar honey bee Apis mellifera……..

Update 20 June 2011: Slovenia confirms neonicotinides caused bee deaths, and announce lawsuit against manufacturers.

Posted in Agriculture, Garden Maintenance, Pesticides | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Choosing a Landscape Architect or Garden Designer

I’m sometimes asked about the difference between a landscape architect and a garden or landscape designer, and how to choose one to design your garden.

First, I want to say that there are lots of good landscape architects and lots of great designers too.  However, the profession is unregulated (in the UK), and anyone can call themselves a “landscape architect” or “garden designer” (but not an “architect” – that will get you into hot water unless you’re properly registered).
Svend in his studio
Landscape architects have generally studied at university for several years, and need several more years work experience before they can achieve chartered status.  They typically work on commercial developments, public outdoor spaces, parks and pedestrian precincts, often employed by local authorities, but some do specialise in residential landscapes and gardens.  Garden and landscape designers usually specialise in residential landscapes and gardens (with occasional commercial or school projects), and may either have studied at one of the universities now offering degree courses or, like me, have decided on a career change and taken a 1 year diploma course (not an easy option, believe me, as the syllabus is much the same as the 3 year degree).  Others may have come from a horticultural background.  Some, however, don’t have any formal qualifications at all.  So how do you choose?

Designers tend to be less procedural in their approach, and domestic clients often prefer this more flexible style.  Other clients will only ever use a landscape architect.  There are no hard and fast rules, but here are some suggestions.

  1. Do you get on?  It doesn’t matter how many RHS Gold Medals they may have, a clash of personality spells disaster.
  2. Is the designer/landscape architect listening to you? The garden is for you, its your money, and you have to live with the garden once its finished.  Some designers/landscape architects can be very possessive of the design – which may be fine if you’re happy to leave absolutely everything to them, but you may have some ideas of your own!
  3. Before you approach a designer or landscape architect, think about the materials, look and feel you want: collect some pictures of gardens you like.  Although you’re paying them to come up with a design, the more you can tell them about what you’re looking for, the less chance there is of frustrating rework.
  4. Unless you are sure you know who you want, ask more than one designer/landscape architect to visit the site and discuss how they would approach the design.  And make sure both you and your spouse/partner are there, too.
  5. Make sure you discuss the budget with the designer/landscape architect.  Its vital to have a clear understanding of the likely final cost.  Unfortunately, many people have no understanding of landscaping costs.  Whilst they’re happy to spend £10,000 on their kitchen flooring, they somehow expect to have the same stone on their patio (plus excavations, muck away, sub-base, screed, and everything hand barrowed 100 yards through the garden gate) for a tenth of the cost.   And some designers/landscape architects just can’t work within even a realistic budget, either.
  6. Make sure you understand and agree the design fees.  Both the Society of Garden Designers and the Landscape Institute publish fee guidance, calculated as a percentage of the finished garden cost (roughly between about 18 – 8%, depending on project cost), and many designers/landscape architects follow this approach.  You might say this doesn’t give the designer/landscape architect any incentive to keep the costs down.  Well, if you can’t afford it, it isn’t going to get built, so its actually in their interest to keep within the agreed budget.  And its also probably the fairest way of adjusting for extra work and complexity.  The alternative is a fixed fee: whilst this gives some certainty to the client, you’ll probably be paying a small premium to cover the risk of extra work.
    A WORD of WARNING: some designers may propose a very “cheap” fee, and say they like to work with a preferred contractor.  Now everyone has to eat so, unless they are designing for a hobby, they are probably getting a hefty fee from the contractor…. which you’re paying, and you have no idea how much that is.  In my view this practice is quite wrong.  I feel very strongly that the designer/landscape architect should be open and honest in their dealings with the client, and put the client’s interests first: that usually means getting competitive quotes.  Often the spread in quoted prices will be more than the design fee.  (If the designer has a preferred contractor, you can always add them to the tender list.)
  7. Make sure you have a written contract between you and the designer/landscape architect.  Ideally there should also be a written design brief.
  8. If you don’t like what the designer/landscape architect has come up with, don’t go off the deep end.  Stay calm and listen to their explanation of what they’ve proposed.  Remember, you’re paying them to help you achieve your goal – a wonderful garden that you’ll enjoy and be proud of for years to come – so listen to their advice.  Once you’ve heard the reasoning, you may come round to what they’re proposing,  But if not, don’t be affraid to say (politely) that you don’t like it.

There are probably lots more “golden rules”, but I’m going to stop there.  Good luck with your landscaping project and hopefully you’ll keep my practice in mind.  Happy designing!

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