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Two months ago we were in Spain and I really don’t know how we’ve got to the end of November quite so quickly.  I’ve been rather remiss at writing anything here but, despite the delay, I still wanted to share some of the photos I took whilst we were away.

We started the break in Valencia because my stepson had his graduation ceremony from the university there. Something to really celebrate after 4 years of his hard work, just a shame that we couldn’t understand a word that was being said!

We then travelled south and inland to a villa in the mountains.  By September the landscape was looking pretty scorched but we were set amongst olive and almond trees, which was absolutely gorgeous.

I always feel most inspired when I’m in the mountains and it’s my favourite place to walk, possibly because you’re rewarded with a view when you hike up a big hill, but also because it lights up something inside me.

It was quite hot whilst we were there, which we hadn’t really expected for the end of September, but we weren’t complaining.  We were able to make the most of the kitchen garden with the most amazing tomatoes, aubergines, figs and peppers and we also cooked paella on the open fire more than once.  The landscape around the house was also full of wild herbs.

Early one morning we decided to walk up the hill at the back of the house to take some photographs at dawn.  We were very close to a reservoir so the landscape was a little greener on the other side.

I always get inspired when we’re on holiday, perhaps because there’s nothing mundane occupying my mind.  We didn’t do much site seeing at all, but I needed 2 weeks to switch off without an agenda so this was absolutely perfect.

Although the autumn colours have been amazing this year, it was quite nice this morning to look back at the photos and remember the warmth of the summer.

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Last year I worked with a couple near Llanishen in Monmouthshire to redevelop the garden areas around their beautiful barn conversion.  What sparked their initial call to me was that they’d ordered a hot tub and then didn’t really know where it should be located.

Hot tubs can be a challenge to incorporate into any garden because they’re not particularly pretty and for this open rural site, we wanted it to blend in somehow with the surroundings.

The first thing to do was to think about sinking it into the ground.  You can just see it in the above photograph, but now that the planting has filled out it’s really not that noticeable anymore.

The garden before it was redesigned, looked like this…

It was really just like a field, without any sense of garden about it at all.  This is the same view now…

Quite a difference isn’t it?

This area of the garden incorporates an outdoor kitchen area, space to sit and eat, more comfortable seating for relaxation and it also incorporates the hot tub and a fire pit area for cooler nights.

What I was keen to do was to connect the garden back to the main house which, the stone walls and terracing really help to do.  The soft planting gives it a less formal feel which I think was really important given the rural setting.

This is phase one of the project and there are plans for a kitchen garden and wildflower meadow area further out into the garden, but what this space has done is to inspire my clients, David and Sarah, to spend more time outside.

The tall planting gives them some privacy when they’re sitting out, but it doesn’t block out any of the light, neither does it feel enclosed and penned in.

There is also a courtyard area at the side of the building which we kept really simple with a Mediterranean feel.  Two gorgeous olive trees give the space height and interest all year round and there’s a small bistro table and chairs for breakfast outside in the sunshine.

The other area that’s in progress at the moment is the large courtyard at the back of the house, which used to be the farm courtyard area.  The use of cobbles and planting help to connect the back door to the main garden area whilst still allowing it to be a practical space for parking etc.  I don’t have any photos of that yet, but I’ll be sure to share them when I do.

I’m so happy with the way the garden has all come together and I can’t wait to see it all finished, even if that does take a couple of years to complete.

Rural gardens can be tricky to get right because they have to sit comfortably within the wider landscape (as do all gardens of course).  The key here is the use of local stone to tie everything back to the house, and choosing plants that have a less formal feel to them.

 

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I’m working on the detail for a project near Cardiff at the moment and we’re looking at different wall cladding which will enhance the garden and help to zone each area.

As part of the project we’ll be removing the existing bank and replacing the boundary fence with a wall which will make the garden usable and inviting and also much bigger.

As the barn conversion is built with the original stone, I’d like to bring some stonework into the equation, but I think to face the whole boundary wall will make it feel too enclosed and overpowering so I want to bring in some light, more elegant materials which will reflect more light and make the whole garden more welcoming.

It’s a north-facing garden so gets very little sun throughout the day.  Choosing the right materials is therefore really important.  A painted rendered wall, for example, will essentially be a maintenance nightmare as it’s likely to need repainting every year.

One option I’ve been exploring is a material called DesignClad, a relatively new 5mm thick porcelain cladding from London Stone.  It’s virtually non-porous and highly scratch resistant, available in large sheets and various finishes.  My favourite is the corten steel finish (as above), but a lighter colour may work best in a dark garden.

As it’s porcelain it will be really easy to wipe clean and it can be fixed to a basic concrete block wall with exterior tile grout.  This garden will also have a water rill so if we do use this for part of the wall it might be nice to clad the inside of the rill with the same material.

Another option is to use composite decking.  I love natural timber but, again, in a shady garden it comes back to maintenance and how easy it is to keep the garden looking top notch with the minimum amount of effort.

We’re likely to use some composite decking within the paved areas so it might make sense to use some on the wall too.  The material of choice I think will be Millboard.  It’s at the higher end of the composite decking market, but it looks classy.

The image above shows the weathered oak range in an embered finish.  This will probably be too dark but there is a lighter colour that I’m thinking might work.

The weathered oak range has a rustic feel to it, but the enhanced grain decking would also work really well, especially in a more contemporary space.

Another thought is to perhaps highlight a section of wall using a decorative aluminium or corten steel panel.  Grace & Webb do an amazing range of different patterns and finishes, including a copper colour which I love.

The image above shows Laser cut corten wall feature by Grace & Webb for The Graduate Gardener’s Malvern Spring Show, designed by Ann Walker.   This is obviously a bold pattern, but it completely lifts the garden, especially with the lime green wall behind it.

The aluminium panels can be powder coated in any RAL colour.  It’s also possible to design your own pattern for something truly unique.

I’ve only covered three options here, but there are plenty more things to consider.  Stone wall cladding I don’t think will work because it will fight with the natural stone walls on the house.  Any stone work in the garden needs to tie in with that.

Essentially we need to choose something that lifts the whole design and enhances the space.  I’m meeting my clients on Monday with lots of samples so looking forward to making our choices then.

(Images: London Stone, Millboard, Grace & Webb)

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I was supposed to be planting last week at one of my local projects but the ground is so hard and dry, and the weather so hot, that we have postponed it until we’ve had some rain.  Amazingly we haven’t had a drop here for over 3 weeks.  Even the promised thunder storm seemed to miss us last weekend.

Our garden is parched and the grassy road down to our stables is completely brown.  A sight you often see in the South East, but not something I suspect is so often seen in Wales.

But I’m really not complaining because it’s be wonderful to sit out until late in the evenings and watch the sun set over the Brecon Beacons.  At this time of year it sets pretty much in the middle between the Bloringe and the Sugar Loaf so it’s a pretty special place to be when you get a clear night.

What we’ve noticed this year is how the sky actually gets more vibrant long after the sun has disappeared behind the mountains.

Capturing it on camera is a tricky feat which I’m not very practised at.  I think because you don’t have much time and, if the camera settings aren’t quite right, you very easily miss the moment.

Last week I set up the tripod and gave it another go, so I thought I’d share a few of the shots I took.  I hope will at least give you a sense of how it feels to be in our garden on a summer’s evening.

(Images: Lisa Cox)

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I’ve recently been working with a couple near Monmouth who want to make better sense of their front garden.  As with many sites around this area, the garden slopes steeply so I’ve tried to make better sense of the levels to facilitate a much more elegant route to the house and to make it more inviting.

This is how the garden looks now…

The steps are a bit haphazard and not very easy to navigate and the planting is now a bit tired and in need of a bit of a revamp.

The catalyst for wanting to do something with the front garden is the rather ugly garage which is a focal point when you come in the driveway and also when you look out from the house.  Because it houses the bio mass boiler for the central heating it can’t be removed so we wanted to make sure it attracts attention for the right reasons.

As you can see, the steps up to the pedestrian door are taking up a large part of the walkway and, with such a big drop to the right hand side, it makes navigation along this terrace a bit dangerous.

The new design will make much better sense of the levels and create a safer and more elegant route both from the driveway and down through the pedestrian gate along the side of the garage.

The garage will be clad with sections of cedar and the other sections will be painted dark grey to give it a modern contemporary feel.  We’ll also create a new entrance at the side of the garage to enable a much safer passage where the existing steps are located.

Construction will start at the beginning of August so I’ll post some pictures when it’s in progress and also at the end when the plants are in the ground.

The planting palette is simple with grasses and evergreens that will look great all year round.

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If there’s one thing that gets me going it’s when I arrive at site to carry out the planting and I have to pick up a fork because the beds aren’t prepared properly.

It can be tricky when you’ve had machines on site and the ground’s been worked a lot, but a good landscaper will think ahead when they start the job and retain any decent topsoil for re-use later.

I’m most suspicious when the beds look too good to be true, with a smooth covering of, what looks like, perfect soil.  Often that means it’s covering up something far less ideal.  Dig a hole for a shrub and the evidence is clear that things have been buried beneath the soil and it’s going to be a very hard day!

I appreciate that I’m having a bit of a rant, but good bed preparation not only gives the plants the best start possible, it also ensures that you don’t waste decent soil, time and money.

Even if the beds are rotavated or dug over with a machine, they still need to be hand dug.  This will ensure that the soil has been forked through properly and that any large stones and plant material can be removed before the plants go in the ground.

If you need to top up the beds with more soil then it’s worth the extra money to buy manufactured topsoil.  Screened soil essentially comes from skips or clearance from other sites so, even if it’s up to the British Standard, it still might have some contaminants that you don’t want around the roots of your plants.

Screened soil is fine for levelling off a lawn area before the turf is laid, but the beds need something a bit better in quality.  Often screened soil has small fragments of brick so it’s quite easy to spot.

The added bonus of manufactured topsoil is that you can order it with organic matter/compost already mixed in.

If you’re not bringing in any new topsoil then ideally you need to dig in some sort of organic matter which will help to enrich the soil and improve the structure and this should be forked through the soil by hand.

It really isn’t rocket science, if the beds are prepared properly it will give your plants the best possible start.  You’ll reap the rewards quickly when they establish much more quickly and your garden starts to flourish after just a few months.

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I’ve recently been introduced to Iron Fire, a Wiltshire-based company who use an ancient Japanese technique for preserving wood called Shou Sugi-ban.

The process, traditionally used for cladding, makes the timber extremely durable, which means that it can stay outside all year round.  It protects it from rot, parasites and UV and it’s also fire resistant.

Each table is made using sustainably sourced FSC approved Douglas Fir.  The process involves burning with traditional hand waxing, painting and turning which means that each piece of furniture is unique. – which preserves the wood and protects it from rot and parasites, and ironically makes it UV and fire resistant.

I have a couple of garden bugbears, washing lines being left out when not in use being one of them! The other is covering up garden furniture in the winter or taking it inside.

Garden furniture is made to stay outside – it’s an integral part of any sitting area so it should be there even when you’re not.  When you look out, even on the bleakest of days, you should be drawn outside.  Looking at a lump of tarpaulin or an empty terrace probably won’t have quite the same effect.

Perhaps this furniture from Iron Fire provides the perfect solution. Even the cushions for the chairs have undergone rigorous waterproof testing, although I might forgive taking the cushions in over winter as long as you leave the chairs outside!

So much of the garden furniture on the market has a similar look and feel so it’s really nice to find something a little bit different.

In addition to the furniture, Iron Fire also make industrial style fire pits, planters and pendant lights of which you can see a full range on their website.

(Images: Iron Fire)

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I’m very excited to be able to share some pictures of my Cheshire project which is well into the construction phase.  You may remember me sharing the design with you some time ago but, if not, here’s a reminder…

I’m some distance from Cheshire so I haven’t been overseeing the build, but I’ve been kept up-to-date with progress and my client, Simon, has been sending me lots of pictures.

This first photo shows the main terrace looking from the existing breeze house.

As you can see, the shape of the lawn and tiered planting is now starting to take shape.  This is how the aspect looked before…

The main paved areas around the house are now in place and this photo was taken quite early on…

This was the concept sketch I put together…

…and this is how the garden looked before I started the plan…

The formal garden and kitchen garden is also starting to take shape.  The retaining wall is pretty much finished and the base for the greenhouse is also in…

Here’s the sketch I did with the initial plan…

But the most exciting part for me is the ha-ha which is now almost finished. I really can’t wait to see this in the flesh…

I think the top picture shows the angle of the wall to best effect and the inside will also be faced with stone.

It looks a long way off finishing, but the reality is that most of the hard landscaping isn’t too far off completion now.  I so wish I was just down the road, but it’s so nice to see the progress from time to time.  I’ll definitely be making a trip up to see it when it’s all finished.

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Working to budgets is part of what I do, but it’s not always easy when there are so many choices available and if make tweaks along the way.  We’re undertaking a small building project at home and it’s exhausting making decisions, even though we’re doing some of it ourselves and therefore don’t have any time pressures.

In the day job, I work with clients to ensure we’ve thought of everything we possibly can before the landscaper prices for the build phase of the project so he can be pretty accurate with his pricing.  The only variance when it comes to construction is when things are changed after the work has started or if something is discovered during the build that couldn’t have been foreseen otherwise, normally under the ground.

I do think it’s easier to budget for the garden as there are less intricate details to take into account (door handles, light switches, paint colours, the list is endless indoors), but without the detailed drawings and specification the spending could easily go through the roof.

So how do you budget if you have a fixed sum of money and what should take priority?

I think planning is the key.  Take the time up front to really hone in on the design and what it will take to bring the design to life.  If you have  sloping garden, for example, there are ways you can work with the slope rather than building expensive retaining walls.  You can plant a slope easily, often with greater effect and it will be much cheaper.

If you know the size of the terrace, the layout and where you might need other hard landscaping materials, it will make your landscaper’s job of quoting much easier.  Equally, if you’re doing the work yourself you’ll be able to easily work out the materials you need and how much you have in the pot for the paving material itself.

Paving can range from £20m2 to £120m2 so sometimes just changing the materials will help you to reduce the spend.  If the layout and balance of the garden is right, a compromise on materials won’t really be as obvious once the garden is furnished with plants and furniture.

When you’re planning the garden bear in mind that hard landscaping is a lot more expensive than soft landscaping.  Depending on the materials you choose, a retaining wall can cost up to £250-300m2 where as a lawn is more like £10-15m2.

Often constructing a wall in the garden is more expensive than it would be for a house extension.  This is because the wall has to withstand different pressures and exposure to the weather.  A free-standing wall, for example, has to withstand the weather on all sides so the materials used have to be fit for purpose.

If you make list of everything you need to source and think about before you get the landscaper in to quote, you’ll have a much better chance of sticking to a budget.  Drawings will really help things along as you’ll be able to work out m2 rates for each of the elements. If you don’t want to work with a professional designer, there are lots of books to help you to design your own garden.

Start with a survey of the site so that you know what’s there now and then draw a plan to scale.  You don’t have to be an artist to do this.  Think of your design as a communication tool for the landscaper and it will take on a whole new meaning.

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I’ve recently been working with a client in Laleston, near Bridgend.  The house is really old and they’ve spent some time since they brought it a couple of years ago, lovingly restoring it.

Although much of the garden will remain as it is now, there’s a small walled courtyard in the far corner of the garden that has some real potential.

At the moment it’s a bit of a dumping ground so the photographs don’t really show the extent of the space but I hope you can see that it has lots of potential.

The courtyard will be on one level, with stone steps leading up from the main garden.  We want to keep the rustic feel to the space so we’re using flagstone-style paving and cobbles for the main area.

A small traditional water feature will sit against the stone wall, a fountain from a lion’s head sort of affair, into a stone trough.

The idea is to create a sort of secret garden for contemplation and relaxation.  You can’t see it from the house so it won’t be too difficult to make it secret.

The landscaper is due to start there at the beginning of February so I’ll be able to share finished photographs with you relatively soon.  Depending on the weather, we may have to hold off on the planting until Spring-time, but it will most certainly be ready to be used in the summer.

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