Picture this – you’ve designed a lovely garden. Everyone is happy with it. Even the builders have followed the plan to the letter, no one has changed or accidentally botched the design! It’s almost finished. You know on completion it will look great…

All that remains is to complete the garden design is to put in the perfect planting scheme and viola! It’s done! (Yes I know I’ve spelt “voilà” incorrectly but as you will see, my version is more relevant!).


I’m commissioned to do a garden design in Spain. It is situated in a stunning location. Beautiful house, beautiful scenery. Awkward shape garden (the type I love to design) and the potential to create a lovely courtyard garden. And it’s in SPAIN, did I mention that? They have sun there!

I get the call to go out and do my thing at the exact point I’m beginning to set up the Successful Garden Design website to help show people how to design their garden. In order to help people understand about garden design, it helps to show examples. So with permission from the owners, I video the whole process from garden survey to the build.

Super – my first set of garden design video tutorials will be set in a beautiful location (with sunshine). Much nicer for viewers, much nicer for me. The garden is built, bar the paving (that’s being shipped over next Spring). It’s November and a good time to get the plants in.

Falling Flat on Face Time…

Garden Design Plan

Here’s where it’s turning into a bit of a drama/unmitigated garden design disaster (depending on how melodramatic you are feeling). Now it’s come down to plant choices I’m tearing my hair out. Mr Client wants to bring half of England out with him…

Going back to where we are, in Spain, with its Mediterranean climate, the sentence “I want to bring out a load of winter-flowering pansies” wasn’t something I was expecting to hear. EVER! At first, I thought it was a joke and laughed. Big error on my part – it is no joke. Seriously pansies! I asked “Why?” and the answer was “Because it’s not something they have out here”… No kidding!

And the list of unsuitable plants for this garden design doesn’t end with pansies. Normally I’m very good when it comes to client wishes. I am very aware that it’s their garden. I don’t let client changes upset me, I work with them. So what’s happened this time? This time I’m emotionally involved. I’m passionate about this garden design because I’m making the FATAL mistake of viewing this as ‘my’ garden.

The full picture…

There is one more piece of information you need to have the full picture. The clients I’m working for are my parents. They say never work for friends or relatives and now I see why. I’m incapable of being impartial. I thought I could be but I can’t.

I think the main issue is coming at the garden design from two different perspectives. I want the garden to look good and work from a landscape design & location perspective –  I see exotic, Med planting with palms and Bourganvillias. A wonderful opportunity to grow all the plants we can’t grow well in the UK.

My father, on the other hand, is a plantsman, garden design isn’t his first priority. He loves plants as much as I love design. He is passionate about individual plant characteristics. He loves each and every plant and views them as living, breathing beauty. He’s not a plant snob. If he likes something, he likes it – including winter-flowering pansies.

He also wants the palms but he wants to put them with everything else on his list. And I’ve not yet mentioned his love of colour – bright daffodil yellow and shocking pink together have been past favourites…

The Key to a Successful Planting Scheme

I am beginning to feel like the cruel daughter as I write this but the designer in me knows that you can’t just put all your favourite plants together and have it look good. It’s not as simple as that. Good planting design is about shape, form, colour and control.

Can you imagine what a disaster it would be if you were cooking and put ALL your favourite ingredients into one dish! And I mean everything – every single thing you love to eat in one dish. Imagine the conflict on your palette!

Designing a garden planting scheme is no different from cooking a good meal – you need to be disciplined with the ingredients or it will be disastrous. Too many random ingredients and your visual palette will get indigestion.

Even if you cut down on the ingredients, you still need to have harmony with the flavours you are creating. Mustard and marshmallows, for instance, are going to be an awful combination. I feel the same is true about palm trees with pansies.

Not entirely sure how I’m going to resolve this situation – I may have to face facts that I can’t and let my father get on with it – it is his garden after all…

Have You Had Garden Design Disasters?

Out of all the gardens I could have chosen to spend months filming from start to finish, the one that’s meant to promote the Successful Garden Design Course and show hundreds/thousands of people how best to do a garden could turn out to be my worst design nightmare!

Do feel free to laugh/commiserate or offer pearls of wisdom – leave your comment in the box below. In the meantime, I have hair to pull out!


P.S. I will be answering your garden design queries in the next post –  if you have trouble visualising your finished garden design, we will look at how you can use that to your advantage…

In the meantime, if you would like the Successful Garden Design cheat sheet and video on how to add the WOW factor to your garden please add your email address below (don’t worry we don’t spam and will NOT pass on your address to anyone else!).



Rachel Mathews
Rachel Mathews

Professional international garden designer for over 30 years. My mission is to de-mystify garden design and make it easy for people to successfully design their own garden - without needing to spend a fortune!

    22 replies to "Plant passion v precision (or when it all goes wrong for a garden designer…)"

    • Scott Hokunson

      Whoa boy, do I know how you feel! I have always stated, that the toughest clients I have ever had to work with, were/are my parents. I suggest flowing bed lines, natural plantings and beautiful stone hardscapes, Dad wants concrete (painted), sheared yews and straight bedlines. I suggest developing the shade garden (their lot is treed), Mom constantly picks full sun perennials and annuals. I have resigned myself to pleasing their tastes, and satisfying my creativity with my my clients. All of your points are right on, but in the end, you make the best point of all, It is their garden. Ooooh that is so frustrationg to say!

      Best of luck,


    • Alison Kerr

      Oops, best of luck figuring it out with your parents! I say forget showcasing sunny Spain, who doesn’t love an English garden?

    • Rachel Mathews

      Hey Scott thanks for your comments – your dad sounds worse than mine! I feel so much better now – at least the design got through – it is *just* the plants! And plants can die, I’m sure there must be something in Spain that eats pansies (I will find something – should they appear!).

      You have a great website, by the way ;o)

      Hi Alison – good point, I should have perhaps stuck to English gardens! Oh well plenty of opportunity to film those…

      • ann

        Won’t the sun “cook” them? What if you “forget” to water?

        [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

        • Rachel Mathews

          You can’t forget to water things in this part of Spain, Ann or they end up as toast! Most gardens put in automatic watering systems. They are not without their faults but better than nothing!

    • Tim Matcham

      My heartfelt commiserations! Mind you it will probably serve to illustrate some of the issues you face when designing gardens.

      Understanding what your clients want and delivering to their wishes is always challenging, I nearly got involved in trying to advise my parents on their garden recently. I would have needed to transport myself back to the great Percy Thrower to even come close to understanding what they thought they wanted, so I gracefully backed away leaving them to argue the finer points! Neither had any real idea of what they wanted or why, which made it all the more difficult – at least your father knows what he likes – violas or otherwise!

      Good luck!

    • Rachel Mathews

      Hi Tim

      Yeah, that’s what I thought – things don’t always go according to plan! It’s good to show that and it helps people see why things need to be done in a certain way.

      Sounds like you definitely did the right thing with your parents – my viola problem, is beginning to look much smaller now! Thank you.

      Seeing you here has reminded me I’ve not logged onto the https://www.garden-network.co.uk/ for a while – will go there now and see what’s new in the world of gardening…


    • […] The sketches and models are for reassurance but they aren’t totally necessary if you draw your garden to scale and work on a proper plan. I’ll be doing a series of how to measure and draw up a plan to scale, coming soon on the blog (yes the infamous set in Spain videos!). […]

    • Simon Clew

      I’m still laughing! It will, in the end look fabulous… through the frustrations and difficult colour matching, it will look grand. Looking forward to seeing the videos and the finished project.

      Now, you have sparked my interest in a mushroom and mustard rissotto….

    • […] NEXT WEEK – the long awaited set in Spain series on how to survey your […]

    • […] we finally have the first of the infamous garden in Spain video series up and running…. hoorah – well not quite hoorah, more horror. I […]

    • Rosalind

      I really liked the look of your site but then you lost me at –

      ” The garden is built, bar the paving (that’s being shipped over next Spring).”

      What, Spain dosen’t have local paving materials? or maybe your environmental impact hasn’t occurred to you?

    • Rachel Mathews

      You make a good point Rosalind. Which building materials to use has been something that I’ve really tussled with over the years. Natural stone has to be shipped a long way, not to mention, taken out of the earth and the alternative products cause a lot of pollutants and use a lot of resources in the production process.

      There isn’t a good paving solution, ideally a more natural garden without the use of paving materials but the majority of people don’t seem to want that at the moment.

      Thankfully, there is a growing awareness that we can’t carry on not thinking of the environmental impact. It won’t happen over night but we are getting there.

      Demand for environmentally friendlier products will force manufacturers to change their product range. There are some amazing eco-gardens being created and I think, the more that are done well, will make people embrace them and want one for themselves.

      The stance I take on this is, I let the customer decide what they want to use. Yes, you may view that as a cop out. But you cannot force people to change. Encouraging them by showing alternatives is the way forward.

    • Rosalind

      A cop out indeed ! and as you’re aiming to teach people with your videos a really surprising one.

      This might give you some food for thought.


      and this


      and even this

    • Rachel Mathews

      Thanks for links Rosalind.

      As far as the ethical Indian sandstone goes, we only use suppliers that have the the Ethical Trading Policy in place. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s a perfect system.

      In the course I do layout, pretty much the conversation we are having here so people can make an informed decision on the materials they use. I will read through the web pages on your feed, they may be good ones to add to the course.

      Do you have a website with this type of information up? If so send me the link.

    • Rosalind

      Not quite yet but working on it!

    • Rachel Mathews

      Good. Let me know when it is up and running.

      And if anyone else has a useful resource website, please let me know about it.

    • Jenny

      I think you should just be glad it was your parents. Imagine the fight you would have had with other clients. Or maybe this comes up all the time. I didn’t have a designer but I know how it goes. I was very tempted by a gorgeous pot of foxgloves last week and I bought it. At least I can enjoy a little bit of England in Texas for a couple of weeks. This from a girl who gives tours at the Wildflower Center, promoting native plants. Ah, well!
      .-= Jenny´s last blog ..THE WEATHER DOESN’T GET BETTER THAN THIS =-.

    • Rachel Mathews

      Actually clients tend to be much easier! I think because they are paying for the advice they tend to heed it! Or at least they wait till I’ve gone before they do add odd things!

      I’m all for indulging plant choices as long as it doesn’t ruin the overall effect, you can usually get away with bit of indulging but daffodils and palm trees is one step too far! I’m sure you’ll get away with the foxgloves.

    • […] 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 […]

    • Andy

      The title of his piece is “IF YOU WANT PANSIES.”
      Rrecently have had a garden makeover and I will put the clients point of view.
      My designer has a few “signature” effects that he likes to incorperate in his designs. Lovely as they were, it is my garden and I have to live with it. With the advent of internet research I had a really good base for the look I would like. I am not a twee person ( and nothing wrong with that!) I have a good idea of the modern contemporary design I want to incorporatate. I am not a designer but I required a designers “eye” to help with perspective and scale, ie how to make my ideas fit into the space. Thats what I asked but I did not expect a complete re-design!
      I don’t think I am being naive when working with an expert but I do expect my ideas to be taken into consideration.
      When sitting in my garden with friends I would like to be able to think “I did that”. and at the end of the day he did it. Be strong, its your garden, if you want pansies!!!

      • Rachel Mathews

        Hi Andy,

        Thanks for your comment. I don’t think you’re being naive at all wanting to have an expert to take your ideas into account. My view is that a good garden designer is the tool that helps you create the garden you want. Yes, they certainly should take your ideas on board, and find a way to make them work.

        I find the use of ‘signature’ effects a little worrying. Every garden and client are different, and each design a designer does should reflect that. There might be a certain way they do things that is apparent by looking at their work, but at the end of the day the garden should be tailored to the client.

        Creating a garden is always a team effort from the client, designer to landscaper. Everyone has to work together and listen to one another to get good results. I’ve always come from the perspective that the client has to live with the end results, not me, and therefore it must be to their taste and style. The only time I’ve failed on that was for this Spanish garden because I do have to live with the results! 😉

        We did manage to work it out in the end. Thankfully my father changed his mind on the pansies and daffodil idea and between the three of us we did a good job with all having a say and agreeing on the plants we choose. You can see the end result here: https://www.successfulgardendesign.com/small-garden-design-spanish-courtyard-update-part-5/

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