Archives for April 2010

Don’t be Fooled by The Landscape Man!

Screenshot Channel 4’s new series Landscape Man website

Did you watch it Thursday night? Channel 4’s new series called Landscape Man. It was pitched to be like Grand Designs but about creating gardens.

The opening episode of this new six part series was jaw dropping. A couple living in Devon had bought a 4-acre site and sunk every penny they had into developing their dream garden to the point of severe financial strain. Keith and Ros worked relentlessly to raise all their own plants in their small nursery as well as plant and tend the garden as it developed. Predictably following the traditional TV formula of will they / won’t they.

You could not fault the couple on passion and commitment but they were as ‘mad as a box of frogs’ as a friend of mine would say (in the nicest of ways). Their garden is their obsession. Keith would talk about his dream with wild staring eyes and a look of fervent determination as he explained his ideas.

Garden creator – Keith Wiley screenshot Ch4 series Landscape Man

Is Happy-Go-Lucky The Best Way?

Keith’s process to landscaping his garden was to climb in his mini-digger and spend entire days digging down into the bowels of the earth to create, what the presenter, Matthews Wilson (aka Landscape Man) would describe as ‘canyons’. He would excavate until it was too dark to do any more, every day until he had totally re-sculptured the flat landscape into a series of intricate mounds and paths which he would then plant up with his beloved flowers.

‘Canyons’ screenshot Channel 4’s new series Landscape Man

Then he started work on his Mexican garden (no, I have no idea why he wanted one in the middle of his plot either) and then his water garden, which he excavated to extraordinary depths. I was torn between being slightly aghast as he took on far too much but willing him to succeed at the same time. Apart from the tried and test television plot line, my gripe about this show is I think it is very misleading and could potentially set gardens back, not forward if it continues in the same vein each week.


The show made it look like Keith had an idea and off he went to build it without doing a design. In some ways that was true but if you looked really closely he clearly understood design. As much as his Mexican garden wasn’t to my tastes, the paths lined up with focal points and view lines, he had a thought about how it was structured. He had no garden survey or plan to work from, he did it all in his head. VERY few people can do that. I know I can’t and I’m a professional garden designer.

What About Design?

As much as I found the show to be entertaining, I’m worried that people will think that creating a garden is all about digging holes and planting things. It’s not. Keith, bless him, is a creatively passionate guy, who knows his plants and can visualise how things will look. He didn’t draw a plan because he could see it all in his mind. Honestly, not a good idea. My advice is: PLEASE DON’T TRY THAT AT HOME! Draw out your ideas first. If you are new to this blog and want to find out why design is SO important for your garden read: Why Having a Garden Plan Saves You Time and Money.

What he achieved was impressive, partly because of the sheer scale of his undertaking, and because of his unusual methods. But, just imagine what could have been achieved if he had have come at it with more design focus and less plant obsession. He would have created an absolutely outstanding garden. Passion can only take you so far.

Flower garden screenshot Channel 4’s new series Landscape Man

I’m Worried

I have visions of folks up and down the country hiring a mini-digger for the weekend and carving out their ‘dream’ garden. The results of which don’t bear thinking about! The very worst case scenario with any garden is to dig first, think later. Don’t be fooled into thinking Keith just ‘did’ his garden and it all turned out OK in the end. It didn’t. He planned his garden obsessively, day and night albeit in his head (if anything he over designed it). Be a thinker, not a tinkerer!


I do hope that future episodes of Landscape Man talk about how important design is to a successful garden. I’m very much in favour of programmes inspiring people to take action, as long as it’s done in a way that actually helps. The problem with ‘reality’ TV is it is anything but real. The budget of £10,000 is a great example of this. You can’t realistically landscape 4 acres with that amount, it would be a struggle to do 1/4 of an acre for that.

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How to Design Your Garden Part 2 – David Stevens Interview

Garden Design – How to choose the right landscaper and materials – Part two David Stevens interview. Part one of the interview is here: How to Design Your Garden.

Or to listen to the interview in full see episode 7 on iTunes podcast

Rachel: So once someone has got their design that they’re happy with and they’re ready to call in the landscaper, do you have any advice for the best way to work with a professional contractor? I mean obviously you have to pick someone that is good and that you’ve seen examples of their work, but are there any communication things that people need to get right?

David: I think with any contractor be they inside the house or outside the house whether it’s a landscaper or electrician or whatever, you need to work well and befriend them. What I would say right off the bat if you have any doubts contact the APL that’s the Association of Professional Landscapers because they assess their members as do BALI the British Association of Landscape Industries.

Garden Designer and Author David Stevens

The APL tend to be a bit more garden orientated whereas BALI tend to be a bit larger scale but two do overlap. So if you don’t have access to a good landscape or you don’t know one, look at the APL website they will list everyone in the country and you can pick up someone in your area. So you know they have reached a sufficient standard to be on that list, which was quite important.

Builders will often tell you they can landscape, don’t believe them! Builders are great at going vertically but not at going flat!

Rachel: Yes, I’ve noticed that as well!

David: Some can, but very few. I’m a great believer in selecting people that know their profession backwards. The good landscapers can do hard and soft landscaping and handle the whole contract. But I honestly think communication is the main thing, get your ideas over to them and take good advice from a contractor. Over the years, I’ve learnt a huge amount from contractors, from how to lay paving to how things work. Contractors do this all the time and know their advice very often is sound and good. So don’t be afraid of listening to their advice, it’s a good thing to do..

Rachel: Yes, it’s knowing whether the advice is to change something because it makes it easier to build and quicker or whether they are genuinely advising you, experience helps, but nine times out of ten they are doing their best to help you. The ones cutting corners tend not to discuss it! They just say I moved it over here because it was easier, and I can see that it might have been easier but it doesn’t look good!

David: And the other thing is budgets. So many people unfortunately underestimate the amount of costs involved in building a garden. It can be up to 80% in hard landscaping, the walling, the paving, that’s really where the lion share of the budget is going to go. Plants and planting are relatively inexpensive compared to hard landscaping.

Rachel: Yes people are often under the illusion that garden is just grass and plants and that’s quite cheap. And think that it is easy to put a patio down. And I think there’s more skill involved in hard landscaping and there is in fitting a kitchen for example. There are so many skills a good landscaper has to have.

David: Just things like getting the fall correct with the drainage, people forget about the damp proof course and all these basic things that should just be second nature and a good landscaper will understand all of that and lay on proper footings and foundations and all that kind of stuff.

One thing I would just point out if you are a designer just starting out, unfortunately more and more litigation is coming in, so if in any doubt, if there is a retaining wall or structure that you’re not sure about get it checked out by a structural engineer or an architect. I’ve seen some dreadful things happen over the years so it’s best to have that peace of mind and get that expertise.

Rachel: Definitely, I’ve never specified how anything should be built on a plan, because that’s not my area of expertise. Different soils will need different depths of footing, so I always make sure that the landscape professional is the one who makes a judgement call on what needs to be done, because they do have the experience and expertise to know.

Have you noticed with the current economic environment any design shifts that have evolved because of it?

David: Oh yes people are far more of veggie conscious and growing far more vegetables. And environmentally are increasingly looking at growing more in the garden and attract more wildlife. I think the wildflower meadow seems to have run its course which is good, as it was never that easy to do properly anyway, but I think people have really become conscious of Grow your own.

And all my customers that’s one thing they stipulate in the garden, even if it’s a tiny garden they want to grow herbs for the kitchen or whatever. And very often the bigger the garden, the more they want to do. Which does make sense, and it’s a cliche but when it’s homegrown it does taste better out the garden.

Rachel: One thing that I’ve noticed, which is great, is that people are more environmentally conscious and want to create an ecosystem garden and attract wildlife into their garden. One thing I always struggle with is it which materials are environmentally friendly to use. Concrete is such a big pollutant and natural stone travels such a distance and comes from countries where child labour is used, what’s your view, how do you deal with those types of issues?

David: I think you need to be aware of them and I think things like Indian sandstone are now becoming a lot more controlled. The majority of the companies that import them make sure that no child labour is used and that it is quarried properly. And the same thing with FSC Timber, always make sure you buy timber from a renewable source and it will have that sticker on the timber. Most of the big suppliers will make sure their timber sourced in that way which is important.

And also people need to become much more aware of what we call greywater, that’s the run-off of rainwater from roves and we can store it in tanks or simple water butts so that you are recycling your water and you’re not making a drain, literally, on the natural resources.

So then you need to be aware of all those things, you need to check them out. You need to know the material is that you are using, and you need to know where they are from and the social implications caused from using them.

Rachel: I say to people that if you can get stone from a quarry down the road, even though it will cost more it’s better to use it. We are certainly trying to recycle materials a lot more, my landscape contractor is very environmentally conscious and he made the good point that both of us recycle and do everything we can at home and the moment we get to work we start using concrete! So we’re finding ways to recycle as much as we can and not put things into landfill.

David : Yes it makes absolute sense to recycle the paving instead of putting into landfill. You can often put materials to other uses.

Rachel: The last thing I’d like to ask you is you’ve written some amazing books, 22 my research tells me, which is phenomenal! For homeowners just starting out with their gardens which one of your books would you recommend?

David: I think the best one is a book called The Garden Book which I did with Urshala Buckhan it’s a Conran Octopus one and she is a brilliant horticulturalist, we get on very well and I did the design side and she did the horticultural side and it’s a super book. It’s a big book but it takes you right through the design, construction and planting process.

Rachel: Actually that’s one I really love as a designer. So next question is for new designers which book would you recommend?

David: Backyard Blueprints. It’s a neat book with a lot of practicality about building gardens. I like practical landscaping, I don’t trust garden designers with clean Wellington boots, do you know what I mean!

Rachel: Yes I do!

David: Practicality is important.

Rachel: Yes you’ve got to be able to build the thing otherwise there’s just no point!

David: Absolutely.

Rachel: Well, David thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today, I know that it will help so many people.

David: Pleasure!

Here are links to the books we discussed in the interview (with Amazon affiliate)

Backyard Blueprints

Garden Book: Planning, Planting and Design

If you are planning to design your own garden, you may find our online garden design courses quite useful.

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Plants – How to Choose the Right Ones for Your Garden

Plants are the vital last piece in the landscape design process. But up until now I’ve avoided discussing how to use plants correctly in the garden and have focused heavily on design. The reason is because everyone thinks that it’s plants that make a great garden and therefore, plants get more than their fair share of airtime already.

However, now, as I’m in the middle of doing possibly the toughest planting scheme I hope I ever have to do, it seems a good time to bring plants to the forefront of our design discussions.

What’s So Tough About Doing a Planting Plan?

Normally, they are fairly straightforward. I consider the location and environmental aspects, what colour the clients like and the look they are going for be it traditional, exotic, contemporary or anything in between. But this time I’m faced with doing THE dreaded planting plan…

The one where I don’t have much control over what plants get used, the one that makes me pull hair out because the demands of the client are like nothing I’ve ever come across in my life before.

To read the backstory on this, read Plant Passion v Precision (Or When it All goes horribly wrong for a garden Designer!). OK, now you’re up to speed with situation and if you’ve seen the video tutorials you’ll know that the Spanish Courtyard Garden we featured is close to being finished with the paving and planting being done over Easter.

So it is from sunny Spain that I sit and write this. I’m typing away on the beach waiting for the bar to open so I can get internet access (yup, tough life).

Anyway back to this planting saga.

I look at a planting plan from a designer’s perspective – every plant must earn its place. If you think about it, plants usually spend most of year without flowers (in the UK anyway), so it’s important that the whole plant looks good, not just the flowers. Botanical curiosities that require a microscope to see their flowers don’t cut it. Having a beautiful flower that is gone in the blink of an eye to leave a fairly ugly plant behind, again, is of little use.

What Plants Should You Choose?

In any design, shape and form play a critical role. I mentally divide plants up into round, spiky, upright, arching, oval and flat. Unless you are planning a natural meadow, it’s a good idea to put different shaped plants next to one another, it gives clarity and definition to the scheme.

The Eternal Dinner Party

Think of doing a planting plan like planning an enormous, meal seating plan. It’s really vital you put the right people next to one another; putting two big sprawling loudmouths next to a very shy, timid person would be smothering for the quieter one. The same with your plants, you need to not only think about the shape, height, spread, flowering-time. You must consider how each plant looks and works with the plant next to it.

The Here and Now

With regards to the Spanish courtyard garden, I’m resigned to the fact I have very little control over what plants will go into it. BUT the one and only thing I can do is make sure that the oddest collection of plants a garden has ever seen are correctly positioned. I can make sure that the right shapes and colours end up next to each other. You’ll be pleased to know he’s gone off the idea of pansies with palm trees in the garden. The current favourite is daffodils… come back pansies, all is forgiven!

I’ll show you the end result in a week or two when it should be more or less finished (some plants we are struggling to get hold of).

Very Cunning Plant Tricks You Need to Know….

If you’d like to know some simple but cunning tips and tricks for choosing the right plants for your garden, then head on over to the 5 Minute Plant Expert.

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