Whether they vocalise it or not, most garden designers have an underlying garden design philosophy, that underpins and informs their work. A designer must reconcile the competing influences on any outdoor space: the wider local landscape; the specific landscape of the space related to its building, and the functional needs and tastes of its users. Creating a design that is imaginative, beautiful and functional involves as much listening as talking, and a respectful attention to the dialogue between landscape, site and client. I try to avoid imposing preconceived ideas on an existing landscape, which will have its own tale to tell.
There is a lot of wisdom in the old phrase ‘A good garden has good bones’. A clear sense of structure is essential to a successful outside space, but this can be achieved through a variety of means. Although there is a wider than ever range of hard landscaping materials available, where possible I prefer to use living material or the earth itself as ‘green architecture’ to give structure to a garden. Hedging, topiary, sculpted landforms, mown paths through long grass can all give a subtle and natural sense of form whilst using fewer resources and providing habitats for wildlife. Such methods also emphasise the changing seasons rather than the more static impression that hard landscaping elements make.
I select materials which harmonise with their surroundings and do not ostentatiously draw attention to themselves: subtlety and precision of finish are paramount, with all elements being of a piece with their surroundings and seeming to flow naturally from what the site suggests. A garden should improve with age, and I feel strongly that fashion is best avoided in anything intended to last more than a season. Creating a garden that is timeless and beautiful needn’t mean adopting an overly traditionalist or conservative approach.
My approach to both planting and hard landscape materials is influenced by both naturalism and modernism. Naturalism inspires me to mimic natural plant communities that look beautiful and grow well together – in nature, plants never look contrived. Modernism inspires a desire to simplify and pare down to the essentials, a love of simple materials honestly used, and the belief that form must follow function.
The most valuable aspect of a garden is the way it makes you feel – it may serve all sorts of wonderful functional and ecological purposes, but if you don’t love being in it, you won’t want to look after it, and it won’t survive. Gardens can be places of serenity, contemplation, playfulness, wonder, excitement, even joy. The best gardens, I believe, manage to combine an element of unexpectedness – “I would never have thought of that” – with an element of inevitability – “that’s the way it should always have been”.