I don’t know about you but I’m slightly paralysed by the idea of garden design. I’m completely happy with paint and paper and chairs, but the thought of plants and fences and pots and I freeze. This, according to Sarah Mitchenall, is a common problem and one she seeks to address when it come to how she designs gardens, both her own tiny, city plot and larger ones for her clients.
Some of you will remember Sarah, the garden designer who won the 2016 series of the Great Interior Design Challenge, before returning to her first love of gardening. Sophie, who has just hired Sarah to sort out her own one acre rural garden, interviewed her for the podcast this week.
Now we also spoke about staycations and I recalled some of my more memorable family holidays in tents in the Lake District, so do listen here, and we also talked about really good ways to deal with hiding the TV, which I shall return to in a later post. This is the first of the new series (8 can you believe) and we are thrilled to be sponsored by Neptune (who I wrote about here as the makers of rather fabulous kitchens and paint colours).
Back to garden design and one of the reasons that Sarah is so good is that she sees it from both the interior and the exterior point of view and points out how few of us consider both aspects when we are planning building work. And how many of us have watched Grand Designs only to realise at the end that the garden is a mudbath that will take years to come right and how it detracts from the overall beauty (or not) of the building project. It has to be said that, for me at least, the most successful projects are the ones where the garden design has been designed (and priced) in so you can better see how the new building fits into its landscape.
Sarah believes this is absolutely crucial to a successful renovation. Any extension, or building project, should factor in the view from the inside. And don’t forget your garden may get smaller if you are about to build on it. And, if you are digging out for foundations maybe that soil can be used elsewhere in your garden to create new places of interest – which might save money have it removed and then (sideways look) having to pay to have some more traipsed through the house in three years time when you eventually get round to the garden.
So the first tip is think about landscaping the garden at the same time as building work even if you don’t get round to planting for a while.
The next point is to treat it like a room. And I know we hear that all the time but listening to Sarah and you begin to understand what she actually means. Her own city garden (in the centre of Brighton) is about 5m x 7m (or the size of Sophie’s sitting room to give it context). In that she has a home office, a bit of lawn, a couple of fruit trees, a hanging chair and a basket ball net. During lockdown, the family has lived in this space which has room to eat, to drink, to relax and play and work. So, it’s not all about size.
And now that we are living in our gardens more, Sarah points out that we are much less precious than our parents might have been. These days we don’t care as much if a football ends up in a flower bed, or if the lawn is a bit raggedy. The modern garden is another room for living in and not the blade grass perfect lawn of our childhoods.
If you like me you freeze at the thought of caring for plants, or even choosing plants, Sarah’s advice is to forget all the practical stuff to start with and think about the layout. How are you going to use the space?
Because the reality (and this is where it is like designing a house) is that you may think that decked area at the bottom of the garden is perfect for summer dining but are you really going to schlep all the plates and glasses and food all the way down there?
No, you are not. These days you are more likely to want to step outside the back door with a cup of coffee or a bowl of salad and sit right by the house. Where it’s easier to manage and more relaxed for a casual supper with friends.
But don’t forget that nice spot at the bottom. Perhaps that’s a good spot for a firepit and an evening drink when you don’t have to carry more than a glass and a bowl of nuts. Already Sarah’s simple advice is winning me round.
Once you have pondered the layout in these terms, you can start to make a wish list of what you want: firepit, hammock, dining area, football net, relaxing area. And then, just as you would in a house, cross out the unrealistic ones and add some practical ones. I’ve lost count of the amount of gorgeous gardens I’ve seen on instagram that are full of cushions and rugs and all I can think about is what happens when it rains? I’ve got three cushions for my outdoor sofa and chairs and no shed. And I’m mostly furious in winter when these large cushions have to live in my office.
List made then think about the sun and how it travels round the garden. Will you need to add an umbrella to your ideal breakfast spot. Can you plant a tree instead? Most of the time you will be close to the house so what is the weather like there?
If you are adding a firepit far from the house, do you want to add trees for shade or to create an orchard area down there as well? This is, effectively, a different room.
Once you have sorted that you can start to think about plants. Sarah isn’t a fan of painting fences; “they are the most boring part of the garden”. But if you want to she says black is the best foil for greenery. Instead think about layering plants in front of them – think curtains and pictures – at different heights.
Consider adding a pergola for height so it’s not all about flowers in ground level beds. Think about trailing plants and climbing ones as well as shrubs and flowers.
And remember the romance of the remembered gardens of your childhood. The delight of following an overgrown path and turning a corner to find a hidden bench. Gardens are much more informal now and much more inclined to include environmentally friendly ideas such as unmown patches of grass for the butterflies and meadow areas of wildflowers. So go with that – it’s less work too.
As a final point Sarah notes that bees love purple, and tubular native flowers so if you can include some of that then do. And for the reluctant gardeners among you can I suggest Laetitia Maklouf’s The Five Minute Garden. Last year she left round patches of her lawn un-mown to encourage wildlife and it looked so pretty too.
I hope that has given you some food for thought. I thought it was one of the most interesting and useful interviews I have heard for a while and I’m totally inspired to re-examine my own garden. Don’t forget you can listen here and if you want some tips on renting holiday homes then you will find those in the podcast too.