What to consider in your garden design brief

When engaging a garden designer the first thing you need to consider is the brief, that is, a list of your wishes and requirements for your garden. The designer will use this information to inform the design process and come up with appropriate solutions, so spending time thinking about this from the outset will be time well spent.  During the initial consultation, the designer will be able to steer the discussion to ensure all aspects of the garden are considered, so don’t worry if you don’t feel confident compiling a brief beforehand.

To help you feel more prepared for this meeting, here’s a few suggestions of things to consider.


  • A good starting point is to flick through books and magazines and tag images of gardens, features or plants that particularly appeal to you.

    Think about what you want from your garden

  • Spend some time in your existing garden thinking about any aspects or elements that you particularly like or dislike. For example, are there any eyesores or neighbouring properties that need screening.
  • Think about how you would like to use the garden – for entertaining, sun-bathing, children’s play, encouraging wildlife, growing your own food, etc.
  • Consider how you want the garden to feel – wild and romantic or more formal and structured. Is there a particular style that best describes the character you desire – cottage garden, Mediterranean, urban chic, minimal, classical, exotic, Japanese, etc.?
  • How much maintenance are you prepared to do?

    How keen a gardener are you and how much time will you want to spend maintaining your garden (or paying someone else to)?

  • Are there any specific functional requirements to consider such as storage space or an area for wheelie bins?
  • How much do you want the garden to embrace issues of sustainability, such as composting and re-using all green waste on site, harvesting rainwater to irrigate the garden, planting to encourage greater biodiversity, adhering to organic gardening practices, etc.?
  • Would you like to incorporate water into the garden and, if so, for what purpose, to create a cooling tranquil effect or to encourage wildlife such as frogs and newts?
  • Would you like any ambient lighting to allow viewing and use of the garden at night?
  • In terms of planting do you want lots of seasonal flower colour or more foliage planting? Are there any plants of particular significance to you that you would like included?
  • Finally, think about what budget you are prepared to spend on the garden. You may not feel comfortable discussing this, but it is extremely helpful for the designer to know this from the outset, to ensure your expectations are realistic and to avoid wasting anyone’s time.

The initial consultation and discussion of the brief should be an exciting and enjoyable process, the starting point of a journey towards realising a new outdoor sanctuary that will improve your quality of life for years to come.


How to bring scent and colour to the garden in winter

The garden in winter can seem cold, drab and lifeless. But this doesn’t have to be the case as there are winter flowering shrubs that not only provide welcome colour during the darkest days, but also pump out delicious perfume as well. To cope with harsh weather at this time of year, flowers in winter tend to be small, giving them a more subtle understated charm. And to attract what few pollinating insects there are around, they’re usually highly scented too. Positioned by a front door or path, they can work wonders to lift the spirits, so here’s my recommendations of ten scented winter flowering plants.

Chimonanthus praecox (Winter sweet) – a fairly non-descript shrub in summer, so best planted with summer flowering plants, but in winter yellow bell-shaped flowers with a slight spicy fragrance adorn the bare stems. It grows best in a sunny sheltered position.

Clematis cirrhosa – an evergreen climber with scented bell-like speckled cream flowers throughout winter. It looks great over a pergola or arch where the flowers can be fully appreciated.

Coronilla valentina ssp. glauca ‘Citrina’ (Scorpion vetch) – this evergreen shrub is a member of the pea family so has distinctively shaped flowers like miniature sweet peas. The flowers are lemon yellow, sweetly scented, and bloom from late winter into spring and then again in late summer – double the value! The flowers look fabulous against the blue-grey leaves. It does need a sheltered position so does best against a south or west facing wall.

Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ – a small neat variegated evergreen shrub with strongly scented pale pink flowers throughout winter. The glossy dark green leaves have yellow margins. It prefers a sunny sheltered spot so is a great choice beside a south or west facing front door.

Edgeworthia chrysantha ‘Grandiflora’ (Paper bush) – this deciduous shrub looks quite unusual when the large rounded heads of small tubular, bright yellow flowers appear on the ends of the bare stems in late winter. It has a clove-like scent and needs a sunny sheltered spot to grow.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ (Witch hazel) – unusual and distinctive spidery orange flowers appear throughout the winter on the bare stems of this slow growing deciduous shrub. The flowers are slightly scented. There’s also another fiery display in autumn when the leaves turn shades of red, orange and scarlet.

Lonicera fragrantissima (Winter honeysuckle) – you tend to think of honeysuckles as summer flowering climbers, but this is a semi-evergreen shrub with sweetly scented creamy white flowers that fill the air with perfume throughout winter. The flowers are followed by red berries. It flowers best in a sunny spot.

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ (Oregon grape) – an architectural evergreen shrub with an upright habit and spiny pinnate leaves. Scented bright yellow flowers appear in erect clusters from late autumn through winter. It can work well as a focal point in a shady spot.

Sarcococca confusa (Sweet box) – a small, neat, rounded evergreen shrub with spidery cream flowers that have an intense fragrance throughout winter. It does best in a shady position, so it’s perfect next to a north or east facing front door.

Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ – Viburnum shrubs are great do-ers and this one’s no exception. As soon as the leaves fall in late autumn, clusters of intensely fragrant dark pink flowers appear on the bare upright branches. The flowers fade as they mature and last until early spring.

Unless you’re out to create a dedicated winter garden, you’ll probably only want one or two of these in your garden, especially where space is a premium. But I think the inclusion of some winter colour and scent is a most welcome addition to any garden. What’s more, all the plants I’ve recommended are pretty low maintenance, requiring minimal pruning and care, which can only be an added bonus.





Ten Top Plants for Amazing Autumn Colour

The warm fiery hues adopted by many deciduous trees and shrubs before shedding their leaves, coupled with the soft sunlight of this time of year, makes autumn a particularly evocative time. Even in the smallest garden I think it’s important to have one or more plants which provide good autumn colour.

So here’s ten of my favourite plants to light up the garden in fall:

Acer palmatum (Japanese maple) – there are hundreds of varieties of Japanese maples to choose from and most have impressive autumn tints. Their graceful forms make them ideally suited either as specimen focal points, or as a pleasing contrast when planted with other shrubs. The cultivar ‘Osakazuki’ is a particularly good choice, a small rounded tree whose rich green lobed leaves turn a brilliant scarlet red in autumn.

Amelanchier lamarckii (Snowy Mespilus) – a fantastic small tree ideal for a small garden. Trees may be either single or multi-stemmed. In spring, the bushy crown is covered in white blossom whilst in autumn the foliage turns fabulous shades of red and orange.

Betula pendula (Silver birch) – our graceful native birch tree with its weeping branch tips does not display any of the hot red autumn colours but instead turns a beautiful butter yellow, a perfect compliment to the peeling silver bark.

Berberis thunbergii (Japanese barberry) – a dense thorny shrub whose small green leaves turn red and orange in autumn. Small pale yellow flowers in spring develop into small red ovoid berries in autumn that harmonise beautifully with the foliage.

Cotinus ‘Grace’ (Smoke bush) – this large shrub is called the smoke bush in reference to the plumes of purplish pink summer flowers. But there’s no smoke without fire, and that comes in autumn when the large wine-purple leaves turn bright orange and scarlet.

Euonymus alatus (Winged spindle tree) – for most of the year this dense spreading shrub acts solely as a green backdrop to other plants. But come autumn it takes centre stage when the leaves turn spectacular shades from deep pink through to brilliant crimson. At the same time, the reddish-purple fruits open partially to reveal orange seeds. Quite a show!

Liquidambar styraciflua (Sweet gum) – a tall conical tree only suitable for larger gardens and sometimes seen as a street tree. The maple-like leaves turn through a range of colours from pale orange to deep red-purple.

Nyssa sylvatica (American tupelo) – a medium-sized tree with an upright conical habit, the leaves change to stunning shades of red, gold and yellow in autumn.

Rhus typhina (Stags horn sumac) – a beautiful low crowned tree, usually wider than it is tall. The attractive divided leaves change through shades of yellow, orange, red and purple in autumn, coupled with upright furry crimson fruit that last well into winter.

Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ (Rowan) – a small upright tree that makes a valuable addition to any garden. The white blossom in early summer is a favourite with bees, whilst in autumn the pinnate leaves turn impressive shades of red, purple and orange. The large clusters of creamy-yellow berries turn orange-yellow when ripe, lasting well into winter, before providing a welcome winter meal for birds.

Autumn’s not only a great time to see these trees and shrubs in their full glory; it’s also a great time to plant them, either as bare root or container-grown plants in pots. So strike now while the iron’s hot!

Finalist in National Garden Design Awards

It’s the first time I’ve ever entered any sort of awards so I’m delighted to say I’ve been shortlisted as a finalist in the Society of Garden Designers (SGD) Awards, for a contemporary private garden in Dulwich.

The SGD Awards, which cover all aspects of design from private domestic gardens to engaging public spaces, are the first and only national awards scheme dedicated to rewarding outstanding achievement in the garden and landscape design profession. Only real gardens are allowed, as opposed to the temporary show gardens you see at places like the Chelsea Flower Show.

Entries were open to projects with a practical completion period covering five years. This garden was approaching that time frame so has stood the test of time well. The planting is now mature with all the boundaries, shed and houses beyond effectively screened. The hard landscaping is still as good as new, thanks to the excellent construction work of a trusted landscape contractor.

Since completed I’ve been back regularly to check on the garden’s progress and have tweaked some of the planting as necessary. With the changing seasons and constant cycle of nature, gardens never stand still so some changes to the planting are inevitable. It’s been good to be involved with the garden over that time to ensure that any changes are in keeping with my original vision for the garden.

The winners of the awards won’t be announced until an awards ceremony in November, to be hosted by TV personality and designer James Alexander-Sinclair. Until then, my fingers are tightly crossed!

New School Garden Opened

This week saw the official opening of a school garden I designed for the pupils of St John’s & St Clement’s Church of England Primary School in SE15. It’s been a really interesting project to do and it’s great to see the children enjoying the finished result.

Bishop of Southwark opens new school garden designed by Tim Mackley

The initial brief for the garden involved wide consultation with pupils, parents and staff, so there were a broad range of views, suggestions and requirements to take into account. Up until now the school had no green space at all, so the two main purposes of the garden have been to create a space for outdoor lessons and to create a peaceful green environment for the children to use during playtimes and lunchtimes. 

The design solution provides a multi-purpose space that includes an outdoor classroom with curved benches and overhead shade sail, a circular sandstone nautical compass, sundial, tree seat, arch, flower beds and a winding woodland path under three Himalayan birch trees.

The garden was also designed with sustainability in mind. It was created on land reclaimed from an adjacent house owned by the school and by demolishing unused and unsafe outbuildings. Use of permeable surface materials means all rainwater now drains on-site. All the timber structures and furniture are made with wood from sustainably managed forests. A beehive-style compost bin allows for garden waste to be composted and used in the garden, whilst biodiversity is encouraged with log piles and a range of nectar-rich flowering plants to attract bees, butterflies and other wildlife.

And what about encouraging the children to grow their own food, I hear you cry. Well, there are already some brick raised beds in the main playround used for this purpose, so it wasn’t part of the brief for the new garden.

The garden was officially opened on Monday by the Bishop of Southwark in front of all the school children  – over 400 in all. And it didn’t even rain!

I believe it’s really important for children to have access to green space and to connect with the natural environment. I hope this new garden helps stimulate their learning and instill a wonder and respect for plants and nature.

The Horniman Gardens

If you are into growing your own food or would ideas and to know more about this rising trend, then I recommend a visit to the Horniman Gardens in Forest Hill SE23.

The Horniman Museum & Gardens have been redeveloped over the last three years with funding from the Heritage & Big Lottery Funds, and the gardens have now just reopened. There are lots of impressive new features to see such as the very cool and contemporary pavilion with its green sedum roof and ground-source heat system, the renovated Dutch Barn and bandstand, a musical play area and a redesigned animal enclosure (with animals due to arrive in the autumn).

But what I found really fascinating and inspiring was the World Food Garden. This new area includes an enormous range of tender and hardy fruit, vegetables and herbs, all beautifully laid out in a large plot on a south facing slope. Whilst tending a plot this size is more than most would be able to manage, there’s lots of ideas to take from here, such as what you can grow outside in London, how to plan and lay out a kitchen garden and ways to train fruit trees and protect plants from pests. All the plants are clearly labelled so its easy to see what’s what. Most of the planting is quite new and young at the moment so I look forward to visiting again later in the summer to see the fruits of the gardening team’s labours.

The adjacent Italian Sunken Garden has been replanted as a Dye Garden, showing a wide range of plants that have been used as natural plant dyes through history, with plants grouped according to the colours they are used to make. There’s also a Materials Garden showing plants used for making musical instruments and a Medicinal Garden of natural plant remedies. I also really liked the new oak gates used to access these garden areas.

If you would like to visit the Horniman Gardens, which I recommend you do, more details are on the web site www.horniman.ac.uk.

Garden Gazing

Summers are for being outside and what better way to spend an afternoon than nosing around someone else’s private patch of paradise. Every year more gardens open their gates to the public to help raise money for good causes. It can be a great source of ideas and inspiration for your own garden, but even if you’re not a keen gardener, it’s a great way to relax and enjoy a warm summer’s day.

Leading the way is the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), now in its 85th year, with gardens open for charity right across the UK. A full list of their open gardens are detailed in the NGS Yellow Book 2012 which can be purchased from www.ngs.org.uk. If you’re just interested in visiting London gardens, you can pick up a copy of the NGS London Gardens 2012 booklet from garden centres, libraries and bookshops.

Then there’s the Open Garden Squares Weekend on 9-10 June 2012, organised by the London Parks & Gardens Trust. This focuses on private institutional, commercial and communal gardens and squares, with over 208 gardens participating this year. One ticket gives you unlimited access to all gardens over the two days. More information from www.opensquares.org.

In my own neighbourhood of Dulwich there are plenty of gardens to visit, all of which are conveniently listed in the booklet Dulwich Gardens Open for Charity 2012, published by the Dulwich Society. You can pick up a free copy from local bookshops, libraries, garden centres, etc..

Among other treasures in this booklet is the garden I have been maintaining and developing over the last eight years. It’s at 103 Dulwich Village, SE21 7BJ and it’s open on Sunday 17th June, 2-5pm under the NGS and on Sunday 24th June, 2-5pm in aid of St Christopher’s Hospice. At half an acre, it’s a lot bigger than your average London garden but includes a wealth of plants and features. Its style is classic English Country Garden with roses, a long herbaceous border, spacious lawn, a pond, topiary and kitchen garden. Tea and cakes are served on the lawn. Entrance is only £5 and includes next door’s garden as well. You can even buy a plant lovingly nurtured by me with all proceeds going to the NGS charities. I hope to see you there.

The Chelsea Fringe

This month sees the launch of an exciting new initiative – the Chelsea Fringe, a new festival of flowers, gardens and gardening  across London. Taking place from 19 May to 10 June, Chelsea Fringe is completely independent of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and promises to be a real treat of creativity and passion. With an anything goes attitude as long as it centres around plants, gardens or gardening, expect to see anything from grassroots community projects to avant-garde art installations. I particularly like the sound of the bicycling beer garden! In its first year Chelsea Fringe is being run completely by volunteers – so a big well done to all involved. To find out more, check out the web site www.chelseafringe.com.

The Need to Weed

Spring is a great time to watch your garden burst into life after its winter dormancy. But it’s also the time when weeds seem to appear from nowhere overnight and can quickly overwhelm your plants. As well as spoiling the aesthetics of your garden, weeds compete for water, nutrients and light so are best removed. Even gardens designed to be low maintenance may need weeding occasionally. And it’s best done sooner rather than later before they go to seed. As the saying goes “one year’s seed, seven years weed”. Or to put it another way “a stitch in time saves nine”. But that’s enough silly dittys!

Small weed seedlings can quickly be removed by hand weeding or hoeing on a warm dry day. Hoeing cuts through surface weeds without damaging plant roots and the weeds can then be left on the soil surface to dry out.

Larger weeds may need digging out with a hand fork or border fork. With perennial weeds (e.g. dandelion, dock, nettle) it’s important to remove all sections of the root, otherwise the plant will grow back.

Some perennial weeds (e.g. bindweed, ground elder) are difficult to remove by digging out alone, as the roots are easily broken and any small pieces left in the soil will re-grow. In these instances it may be necessary to resort to using a total systemic herbicide containing glyphosate (e.g. Roundup), though obviously this is not an option if you want to garden organically.

Applying a mulch over the soil, such as bark chips, well-rotted manure, slate chippings or gravel, is the best way to reduce weed seeds germinating. To be effective the mulch needs to be applied thickly, at least 5cm (2 inches) deep. Permeable landscape fabrics can also be used to suppress weeds, but are best covered in gravel or bark chips to improve the appearance.

Water Conservation

The current drought conditions and resultant hosepipe ban, due to take effect from 5 April in London and the south east, highlight the need for water conservation and sustainable gardening practices. It’s an area I always like to touch on when discussing a customers requirements for their new garden.

Probably the best measure any garden owner can take is installing a water butt. It’s a simple way to collect rainwater from the roof of a house or outbuilding to use around the garden. They’re easy to install and available in an ever increasing range of sizes, styles and colours to suit any garden. Perhaps it’s time all gardens had one. I certainly think all new build properties should have water butts installed as a matter of course. Maybe it’s time the government and water companies made this so. No ifs, just butts!