In for the lawn haul

Turning a car park into a lawn is not a job for the faint hearted, but our experienced lawn man, Steve Kane, took this and the 3,500 sq metres of lawns at the Ascot project in his stride, despite it being one of the biggest areas of domestic lawn he had ever had to deal with.

Once the diggers and dumpers had left, more than 1,000 tonnes of Fawley topsoil (free draining soil from the New Forest with a similar acidic profile) was imported to raise the lawn level to marry in with the new house and provide a large expanse of flat lawn.

But the challenges didn’t end there. “The high water table led the digger to be swamped on more than one occasion and work on the lawn had to be delayed for four months due to the weather,” recalls Steve. “It was frustrating not to be able to finish the job until March, but at Abbotswood our philosophy is planting and turfing needs to take place at the right time, when nature dictates." Fortunately, the client fully understood this approach too and was prepared to wait.

With his 20-plus years' experience developing golf courses and bowling greens for major sporting events under his belt, Steve worked his magic. The end results: swathes of beautifully kept turf and a managed meadow, which created some of the most important vistas of the whole garden. 

Drive to distraction

Driveways are always a crucial part of any garden design – after all, it is the first thing visitors to the house will see – and they always present interesting challenges. The drive at the Windlesham house was no different, partly because it needed to be lowered by 50cm or so to coordinate with the sunken house, and much needed to be done to improve sight lines.

As well as contending with building site vehicles and dust and wash off from the works, we needed to move 15 cubic meters of compost to the site in order to start planting. Bordered by a collection of forsythia and other unremarkable shrubs on one side and dominated by rhododendron on the other, it took four days to prepare the soil, remove laurel hedging and winch out tree stumps.

“We were keen to take account of the woodland nature of the setting, with plants that could thrive in those conditions and continue to support the huge amount of wildlife,” says Simon. “We chose a mix of white spring flowering plants, Amelanchier lamarckii, Allium Mount Everest, foxgloves, geraniums and hellebores, combined with the limes and whites of Alchemilla mollis, Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Zebra' and Heavenly Bamboo, among others.

“The year-round scheme was completed with jeweled plantings that would make the most of the crystal clear autumn light: Fuchsia hybrida 'Mrs Popple’, Anemone hybrida ‘Whirlwind’, pheasant tailed grass Anemanthele lessoniana and a selection of arching ferns.”

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Just how do we design a garden?

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We offer a peak behind the Abbotswood garden design process, showing you the first steps we take in creating dream gardens for our clients…

Consultation

Meeting face-to-face with a prospective client is paramount in establishing the vision for the garden – as well as getting to know each other. This is our chance to see the site for the first time and become familiar with it. It allows us to understand what the client wants from the garden and how they are going to use it. In this first meeting, we’ll look at the basics that will influence the design, such as aspect (i.e. which way a garden faces and therefore which areas will get the most sun and shade), soil quality and light levels.

This is a chance to talk through what is realistic and what isn’t. For example, a client might want a wall in a particular place but we might discover it will pass over the roots of a tree with a Tree Protection order. New garden buildings are important but we can advise on whether they might detract from the ambience of the garden, or make the place feel cluttered. We also like to bring the house and living space into the design equation, looking at how the garden might be used and viewed from the house.

Site survey

Next we’ll conduct a full survey of the landscape, incorporating boundaries, existing buildings, trees and levels. During this stage, we can identify special requirements or major issues that may obstruct the desired design and talk through how we can overcome them. We love a challenge, so we will always come up with creative ways to remove, enhance or screen tricky garden elements such as composting and utility areas, ugly structures or materials not in keeping with the surroundings.

Concealment of boundaries is always a big consideration – but we also like to push the boundaries, perhaps showing the client something they may not have thought about doing. We’ll work with trusted tradesmen to talk through any new architecture or significant structures and come up with an initial concept. We’re looking to maximize the positive attributes of the landscape, capture its spirit and create a design that emphasizes the planting, topography and architecture of the site.

First sketches

Once we have the dimensions of the space and a good idea what the client requires, we can put pen to paper. These days our sketch process tends to be via computer-aided design software. We’ll input the overall shape and dimensions of the garden into a blank document, which is simplified to exclude any of the clutter of the original garden, and model, draft and build the new garden as well as overlay new versions, which can be printed out and discussed with the client. Visuals are a great way to give the client a real feel for the new space – and it’s an exciting time for them to see how their garden might be transformed.

The master plan

While every garden (and client) we work with is different, all our garden designs have common elements at their heart as we work towards a master plan:

·                      We work with overall shapes and key features whether they are buildings, distant views or trees, and look for strong axis linking key points and geometry, whether these are rectilinear or organic shapes. 

·                     We’re looking to create balance and proportion in the garden – either by mirroring sides of the garden, as you would in a formal scheme, or creating hidden balance in naturalistic schemes such as a large tree used to mirror a building.

·                     A unifying scheme is important in garden design. This might be the repetition of certain key plants, or perhaps materials used in the house and reflected in the garden. We often use materials from the locality, to allow the garden to work in harmony with its surroundings.

·                     Colour is one of our strongest design tools. In many gardens we use contrasting colours to bring energy but in others we’re looking to create calm. 

·                     We also want to create movement, and work out how the client will move through the garden, looking at sight lines and vistas. These might be highlighted by focal features such as a beautifully carved gate, a tree, an archway or a fire pit.

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Plant selection

As expert horticulturalists, planting is our specialism at Abbotswood. This can be one of the most fun parts of the project for many clients as they look to inject colour and energy, and perhaps even food production and wildlife, into their garden. We offer clients a mood board, plant list and planting plan so they can visualize the scheme.

We’re a big believer in the ‘right plant for the right spot’ and will hand-select each plant based on soil requirements, aspect, what competition it might encounter and the overall scheme. We want the plants to look good, but we also need them to flourish and grow with the garden. We’ll think about how big the plants might get, how to create year-round interest – not just a flush of flowers in summer – and also how foliage, bark, structure and seeds/fruits might also contribute. Sometimes we will suggest mature plants, such as fine specimens of trees and shrubs, which will give immediate impact.

We’ll consider how the plants will be viewed from different angles. It’s no good putting a delicately scented flower at the back of the border, for example, where it won’t be fully appreciated, or a tree with fabulous autumn colour behind a bank of evergreens. And the functionality of a plant is important. Perhaps it will offer fruits or nuts, summer screening or a fabulous wild ecosystem in a once barren space. It’s wonderful to see how a well-designed garden can transform a home, and indeed a lifestyle.                   

We’ll consider how the plants will be viewed from different angles. It’s no good putting a delicately scented flower at the back of the border, for example, where it won’t be fully appreciated, or a tree with fabulous autumn colour behind a bank of evergreens. And the functionality of a plant is important. Perhaps it will offer fruits or nuts, summer screening or a fabulous wild ecosystem in a once barren space. It’s wonderful to see how a well-designed garden can transform a home, and indeed a lifestyle.         

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From tennis court to island paradise

In part two of our Ascot garden design diary, we reveal how the Abbotswood team overcame the challenging terrains of a tarmac tennis court, waterlogged lawn and acid woodland…

One of the major excavations in the early stages of the project was the removal of the garden’s most prominent feature – an overgrown tennis court surrounded by 25m of 15m high leylandii.

“In our initial draft we toyed with the idea of keeping the court and providing some better screening, but it became apparent it was in a bad state and the client was not sure it was needed so it was suggested it should be removed,” adds Rob. “Ultimately, this became one of the best decisions for the whole project as it freed up the garden to make an uncluttered landscape maximising the views of the surrounding mature trees.”

It took a fleet of 20-tonne muck-away lorries, multiple 14-tonne diggers and tracked dumpers to level the surface – and two days to remove the towering trees. Always striving to be as environmental as possible on our projects, we used soil recycled from the building site to fill the gaping hole and reused a 3m high pile of wood chips generated by the leylandii for mulches and paths. The whole area was recontoured with imported retained soil, creating sinuous, organic shapes to overcome the rectangular impression. Throughout the project, we advocated keeping as many of older trees – Scots pine, birch, oak, beech – which surrounded the site as they gave a sense of permanence, with roots in the former landscape.

It was during the tennis court excavations that we discovered the garden had a high water table – which made it prone to water logging – and the dampness of the site was further exacerbated by the roof of the newly emerging house, which currently had no gutters, which was disgorging its contents onto the lawns. With acid soil to boot, any plantings would need to be able to withstand the rigours of this difficult footing and also be eye-catching; after all, this part of the garden formed the main views from the house.

“We designed a series of island beds, which would subtly divide the expansive lawn and create mystery. These acted like an ‘entrance’ to the rest of the garden with plantings that included large clusters of winter flowering heathers and shuttlecock ferns, as well as ornamental grasses that mirrored the plantings on the terrace and the meadow beyond, interspersed with specimen trees and shrubs.”

Trees that could cope with the poorest conditions were selected for the wettest ground, such as Taxodium distichum and Metasequoia glyptostroboides, and these formed the nucleus of our planting in this area, which we came to call the ‘Pinetum’. The swamp cypress was also chosen because of its striking, coppery foliage in autumn, which would contrast with the existing conifers.

“Another key planting was a large copse of 35 white Himalayan birch, whose ghostly stems shone brightly from the surrounding backdrop of rhododendrons. We partnered these with warm, contrasting orange/red stems of Cornus sanguinea,” says Rob. “Our intention was always to plant large specimens that would seamlessly blend old with new.”

 

Find out how we turned a dangerous drive into an enchanting entrance in the next chapter of our Ascot diary, coming soon…

 

 

 

From beast to beauty: highlights of our biggest ever project

In June 2017, Abbotswood Garden Design put the finishing touches to its most ambitious project to date, a five-acre Ascot garden – transformed from swampy building site to serene sanctuary over two years. Here, in the first of six blog posts, we share some of the highs and lows…

Designing in virtual reality

It was March 2015 when our Windlesham client first approached us about designing a new garden – and the project was fascinating from the outset. Both in their late 60s, the clients had decided to knock down a turn-of-the-century country house, in which they’d lived for more than 30 years, to build a modern house more suited to their needs, so when we arrived in April all that remained was the crushed debris of masonry and brick.

Before

Before

“It’s normal for designers and landscapers to design round a house, or at least let builders finish their work before proceeding,” says Abbotswood managing director Rob Chew. “But with so much needing to be done on the landscape it was agreed we should start work straight away even though the central focal point – the house – had yet to be built!” 

The first meetings with the client, therefore, were not so much about our plans but looking at computer rendered house plans – imagining how the new house would sit in the landscape. The connection between the house and the garden is a crucial part of any garden design, so we worked closely with the luxury interior design and architecture firm Janine Stone, who personally worked on the exterior architecture, and its designer Simon Foot, who handled the interiors, to ensure the garden was fully integrated into the space.

After

After

“The new house was to be sited close to the original but orientated better so the windows would offer sweeping views of the garden. While the garden was little used previously, the client explained that it was now a big priority – they wanted a garden that was neither pretentious nor high maintenance and above all, looked good all year round from the expansive windows,” says Rob. “Given the complexity of the two-year build, it was with more than a little apprehension that we set about drawing up plans!”

 

Find out more about how we began transforming the Ascot garden in the second installment of our project diary, coming soon…

Grow an edible hedgerow

Make your hedges work twice as hard – and look good enough to eat – by incorporating trees and shrubs that are decked with edibles. We share our favourite scrumptious screenings…

Let’s face it, not everyone has Mr McGregor-enthusiasm for edibles. And when it comes to fruit, it can seem out of reach – especially if space is at a premium.

But here at Abbotswood we’ve been recommending that our Cambridge clients ‘grow up’! Not in an insulting way, of course, but with a spot of vertical allotmenting.

While hedges are often thought of in purely practical terms, used as visual screens, noise barriers or to green up unsightly boundary lines, few of us consider the possibility of adding edibles into the mix.

Training fruit bushes, nut trees and aromatic herbs into hedges utilises valuable vertical space and takes up less room than conventional plantings. Planted as bare roots before mid-March, they can be inexpensive and easy to plant.

What’s more, these living walls allow you to forage as you would on a countryside verge, without setting foot outside your garden gate.

What to consider

Lots of edible plants can be trained and clipped. It pays to think seasonally, however, and choose plants that will give you interest year round. Think: winter pickings from blackthorn for sloe gin, elderberry for spring flowers and autumn berries, and dog rose for summer flowers and autumn hips.

A mixed hedge, made up of lots of different species, might be trickier to maintain as each shrub or tree will need a specific style of pruning to stay productive. However, they can look glorious on a dull boundary, attract all manner of wildlife and give the widest possible pickings.

If your hedge is used for screening, you may also want to consider having more edible evergreens in the mix. Olives, for example, stay partially leafy for most of the year unless the temperature really dips.

Fragrant fencing

Herbs can offer a loose, low growing but highly aromatic hedge. Great for flowerbed edges or graveled or decked areas, and wonderful to brush past in the height of the summer.

Try lemon balm, bay or rosemary, which can get quite big if left to romp. Or zesty aloysia citrodora (lemon verbena) and Myrtus communis subs tarentiana. The latter can look beautiful as a hedge with its leathery, evergreen leaves and edible white berries. Coloured sages and thyme also keep their shape well.

Coming to fruition

There’s nothing better than collecting punnets of fruit from your own garden too. Step over fruits that have been horizontally cordon trained are ready-made border boundaries. The best results come from spur fruiting apples trees, which you can grow from maiden whips (essentially one year old trees with no side branches). Tie the whip to a post, allowing 2m between trees, and gradually bend the tree onto horizontal wires. Be patient – it can take a whole growing season!

Damsons are excellent too. Hardier than plums they can create a fruitful windbreak up to 4-5m high. Like most stone fruit they’ll require a soil with a high pH so consider adding some general-purpose fertiliser to the planting hole and a bit of lime.

Other fruiting trees such as crab apple and quince also work well. Crab apples offer pretty, pink-budded blossom and white flowers before the fruit. The miniature apples can be made into jelly or mixed with other apples for juicing.

Chanomoles forms of quince form a dense hedge. Pink Lady has superb colour and tiny yellow fruits, which make lovely jellies and jams, or pies and crumbles when combined with other fruit.

In the semi shade of a hedge it is possible to grow raspberries and gooseberries, and redcurrants and black currants grow well as a hedge, thought the crop tends to be smaller. Loganberries are good option as they trail over a large distance, as are cultivated forms of blackberries.

Or you could go nuts! As mixed or single species hedges, hazels have a lot to offer. Lime green foliage, which turns orange in autumn, golden catkins and of course nuts. For a good harvest, ensure you don’t nip off the female flowers (which appear close to the catkins) when trimming.

 

Petal shaped perimeters

On many plants the flowers that precede the fruit can also be edible. Fuchsia splendens, for example, has a citrusy tang, while ‘Ballerina’ can reach up to 3m high.

And though elder is often grown for its berries, the flat, creamy flower heads also make a wonderful ‘champagne’. The plants have the benefit of being fast growing too, and can come into leaf as early as January.

As with all hedging, consider a dose of mycorrhizal fungi in the planting hole to get them off to a good start. Mulch in summer when the weather heats up and keep them well watered.

And the golden rule with any hedging is to plant as if they are fully grown specimens. Give them plenty of room to spread and they will reward you with lots of growth, and more importantly, lots to eat!