Recessed manhole cover banner

Mastering manhole covers

Mastering the problem of a manhole cover….. manhole covers might not seem the most exciting topic when considering a new paving area in your garden but it can be hugely satisfying finding an attractive solution to what can be an ugly eyesore.  The ideal solution and one we have implemented for many of our clients is to construct a recess cover and so create a seamless transition throughout the paved area.

A recent design project in a front garden in Maidenhead is a good example of how a manhole cover does not need to spoil the look of your paving – it involved incorporating a recessed cover into the design of an Indian sandstone paved area and even though it is an extra large cover, it translates smoothly into the design.

Recessed manhole cover 1

As the photos below of other gardens where ALDA Landscapes have installed recessed manhole covers illustrate, our clients are not limited in their choice of paving materials, these can be achieved equally well when installing brick paving, Indian Sandstone, slate or whatever takes your fancy!

p.s.  What I’m enjoying in my garden this week – Rosa ‘Gwent’: a yellow ground cover rose, which is creeping up over the flower border and starting to travel along the patio.  Sitting with a cup of tea in hand at the end of the day, it’s a real treat to watch its progress!

Beautiful vegetable garden

Making room for vegetables

I have been asked on numerous occasions over the years to give some tips and advice about growing vegetables and how to design a vegetable garden.  Up until now I have held back – whilst historically I have grown many types of vegetable, I do not consider myself an expert, and I have never had an allotment.  But then it occurred to me that perhaps this was the very reason why I should write a blog or two on designing vegetable gardens – because I am in much the same position as my own clients!  So this blog post is the first of a series on growing vegetables and how to incorporate vegetables within a hopefully beautiful garden.

Future posts will explore what veggies to grow, where to grow them and how to grow them, but this introduction is simply a gentle call to action aimed at encouraging everyone to grow a few vegetables, herbs or salad crops in their gardens.


Most of us like the idea of growing a few vegetables:

  • it is rewarding in its own right
  • many vegetables (runner beans for example) taste so much better than anything you can buy in a shop, and are normally cheaper
  • it’s eco friendly
  • you can involve the kids
  • and for foodies like me, it provides an opportunity to grow things that can be difficult to find in the shops

Starting Small

Whilst very keen “grow your own” enthusiasts may opt for large vegetable gardens or allotments, which require large amounts of both space and time, it is entirely possible to grow a few plants in a small space and with relatively little time input.

Small raised beds are one option for growing plants in a confined space, but timber planters, bags, containers are also possibilities. And you don’t necessarily need a separate vegetable garden – runner beans can be grown, for example, up obelisks within a border.  In fact, a number of plants can be grown as simple shrubs or annuals within a border, for example gooseberry bushes, or perhaps things like beetroot with its ornamental leaves.

It must be said, however, that when growing veggies in borders, I do need to curb my natural designer inclination to fill borders – most veggies like a bit of space.

Looking Good

Vegetable areas don’t need to look too utilitarian.  They can be made to be attractive gardens in their own right.  A favourite trick of mine is to make small vegetable gardens semi-formal in style, with some symmetry and perhaps a central feature.  Almost a mini potager! (On a rather more grand scale, these photos of ‘Le potager animé’, Château de Mesnil Geoffroy, demonstrate the point – a vegetable garden doesn’t have to look boring! Photo credit: isamiga76).

Be Realistic

Having shared those photos above, a word of caution: be realistic!  Many vegetables are in effect annuals.  An unused and / or untended large veggie garden can quickly become a weed infested eyesore.  Think about why you are growing vegetables, how much time and space you have, and what veggies in particular you want to grow (and what the minimum needs of these plants are).   Perhaps start off small scale, with a view to expanding your veggie garden as your experience and enthusiasm grows!

Until next time……


Photo credits: isamiga76, Paul Stainthorp, ccharmon, Korye Logan, Greg Traver.

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’

Plant Focus: Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’

Following on from last month’s look at Euonymus alatus, this month I want to share another of my favourites with you. Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ is an attractive, really useful low growing, spring flowering herbaceous perennial.

Whilst it dies back in the winter, it provides a really long season of interest in terms of its foliage and flowers.  Blue forget-me-not like flowers appear from April to early June, followed by heart shaped variegated leaves, which form a neat mound of ground cover into autumn.

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ - Spring flowersBrunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ - Spring flowersBrunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ - Summer foliageBrunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ - Spring flowers


  • Low growing, spring flowing herbaceous perennial
  • Forget-me-not like blue flowers begin in April and continue until early June
  • Flowers are followed by large, heart shaped variegated leaves throughout the summer and into autumn

Why I like it:

  • Long season of interest
  • Neat, interesting ground cover throughout the summer and into autumn
  • Shade tolerant
  • Low maintenance (see tips below)

Where to use it

  • Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ is shade tolerant and in my experience much happier in dappled shade than full sun.
  • The flowers look great alongside other Spring flowering perennials such as Primroses, Cowslips, Candytuft, Viburnum plicatum, Geranium phaeum, and Dicentra spectabilis (now sadly renamed Lamprocapnos spectabilis), as well as the unfurling fronds of lacy ferns and maybe the odd Hosta.
  • In Summer and early Autumn, the silver foliage works really well with the bronze leaves of Heuchera, or to lighten the mood amongst the stodgy dark green of Viburnum tinus and other shrubs.  It also looks good with golden foliage – that of Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’ for example.

Planting & plant care tips:

  • It does prefer a good quality soil, so add plenty of organic matter to the soil prior to planting
  • As mentioned above, it prefers dappled shade. If planted in sun, it will benefit from watering in very dry weather.
  • Trim over the plant after flowering and remove the old flowering stems – the plant will then stay a fresh, neat mound all summer. Then simply tidy up the dead leaves in late autumn /winter. It’s as simple as that.


Image credits: Patrick Standish, ALDA, peganum

Purples, oranges and blues at Chelsea 2015

Creations at Chelsea

As soon as I walk into the grounds of Chelsea Flower Show I know I am in for a creative and visually stimulating experience and this year the talent of the designers, plant breeders and everyone involved didn’t fail to deliver!

Grey coloured paving such as slate and limestone seemed to be a popular choiceOne of my favourite show gardens – The Beauty of IslamAlliums standing to attention in the Great PavilionAnother of my favourites - a small purple climbing rose

This year’s trends

So much to take in and yet there were definite trends in landscaping and planting design which stood out and caught my attention.  Grey coloured paving such as slate and limestone seemed to be a popular choice with the designers of the show gardens and it does make a perfect backdrop to show off the lush green planting and the highly coloured planting schemes.

Purple, orange and blue were colours often used together and became a repeating motif in the planting designs used in the gardens – although one of my favourite show gardens – The Beauty of Islam – was based around an effective white and green planting scheme which conveyed a feeling of peace and relaxation.  Water troughs filled with stones also made a regular appearance such as in the Urban Retreat garden and would make a modern statement in any garden.

Jaw dropping perfection in the Great Pavilion

As to the Great Pavilion… where do you start – it was an overwhelming celebration of different plants – you smell the hyacinths before you see them and the rose area was one of the busiest stands and smelt wonderfully fragrant, my favourite being a small purple climbing rose called Violette Rambling Rose.  Different shades of purple alliums stood to attention as you walked by and one of the most jaw dropping stands amongst all this perfection was one displaying multiple variations of the simple daffodil and had won a coveted gold medal.

Chelsea is not to be missed if you are a fan of sculpture or water features in your garden –  gigantic and beautiful drift wood sculptures of horses and dragons appeared around one corner and then close by a stand of copper oriental style flowering fountains gushing water catches the eye.

The only problem with Chelsea is there never seems enough time to see everything before you are rushing to catch the train home!


Image credits: ALDA, Rictor Norton & David Allen

artist or problem solver

Garden Designer: Artist or Problem Solver?

When I meet people for the first time and tell them I am a garden designer, their first response is often something like:

how lovely to spend your time creating & dreaming up beautiful gardens for people!

It seems that they have the impression that I spend my day at the drawing board, a bit like the stereotypical genius artist at the easel, madly creating drawings and sketches for whoever cares to look at them.

The reality of course is normally very different.

Artist or Problem Solver?

I do indeed love creating what I hope clients will think are beautiful gardens that they want to spend time in – this is a truly rewarding part of my job.

But I think of my role as being more of a creative, yet practical, problem solver, and not an artist.

Masterminding requirements


Garden designers need to assimilate a lot of information about a garden and its challenges, and about the wishes of the client, and then devise a garden solution which pulls everything together, and works at a practical level, and which is within budget.

Building on what’s already there


Very few clients want, or can afford to adopt a total “destroy and start again” strategy in their gardens, and as a garden designer, in the vast majority of cases,  I would not want to sweep absolutely everything away and start again – I would always want to build on something within the garden if possible as this is what gives a garden its character and soul.

Therefore, an important aspect of my role is the ability to turn what appear to be negative aspects of the garden into something more positive.  Some of these negative aspects may, of course, not even be in the client’s garden, but on neighbouring property and out of the client’s control.

For example…


So, for example, you have just moved into a new home and inherited a scruffy Ivy clad fence.  You could go to the expense of ripping the whole lot out and installing a new fence.  Or perhaps, if the fence is reasonably sound, you could have the Ivy neatly pruned back (hard – and pruned annually), resulting in a low cost, very wildlife friendly lush green hedge.  In shady areas in particular, this could be a very attractive and low cost option.

Similarly, the tall Leylandii screen could be used as a back drop for a nice statue or other feature.  The native hedge at the boundary but in your neighbour’s garden, which is the source of all the weeds and bramble growing into your garden through the chainlink fence – ok, this is a tricky one!  But you could install a narrow path at the back of the border by the hedge (which would provide access and help limit weed encroachment).  Then you could prune your side of the hedge annually.  You might add some native perennials like Primroses and Cowslips etc at the base of the hedge – and slowly begin to give yourself a kind of “native hedgerow walk”.

Recent blogs such as the ones on coping with dry shady areas under trees and wet, boggy gardens include ideas for doing just this – turning a negative into something more positive, and working with what you have.

Of course, there will always be times when removing something and starting again will be the best  or only solution.  This is often the case, for example, when tall screen planting has been allowed to grow so large, both in height and width, that it is occupying far too much of the garden.

But with a bit of thought, many of the difficult challenges faced in gardens can be solved by working with what you have got.  And at a time when the cost of removing waste is rising rapidly, this can only be a good thing.

Fitting things together

Like the seemingly random photos in this blog – it’s about taking distinct elements, working with what you’ve got, and fitting it all together in such a way that the finished picture just… works!

And that’s why I see my role as being as being a creative, yet practical problem solver.  Not an artist.



Inspiration – Raised Beds

Are you fed up with back breaking days in the garden? Here’s a thought – why not make life easier by installing a raised flower or vegetable bed?

Increasingly clients are asking us to incorporate raised beds in the design of their garden. Rendered flower beds painted white have proved a popular choice and fit in well with a contemporary feel garden. Alternatively raised beds made out of wooden sleepers provide an attractive feature and also double up as somewhere to sit on a sunny day.

In one garden (shown in the first three photos above) the whole design was constructed around a raised bed theme – they provided a much needed feature in a garden which before had just consisted of a lawn. In this garden, we built a floating bench into each of the three raised beds – so they double up as extra seating too!

The bottom right hand photo shows work in progress at a garden in Newbury – more photos to follow.

So for a more laid back (or at least, less back breaking!) approach to gardening, why not consider using raised beds? Contact us to discuss the best options to suit your garden.


Banner - Euonymus alatus

Plant Focus: Euonymus alatus

Every garden designer has his or her favourite/most-used plants, and I’m no different.  But rather than sharing a long list with you, I want to take the time to focus on some individual plants and how/where/why they can be useful.

We’ll start this month with one of my favourites – Euonymus alatus, otherwise known as winged spindle / fire bush.  It’s quite understated… until Autumn!

Euonymus alatus - flowers in May/JuneEuonymus alatus in Autumn - the 'fire bush'Euonymus alatus in Autumn - the 'fire bush'Euonymus alatus Autumn foliage


  • A neat, upright elegant plant
  • Mainly grown for it’s autumn interest as its leaves turn brilliant red
  • Deciduous, but has corky wings on the stems, which provide winter interest
  • Simple small flowers

Why I like it:

  • For its amazing and brilliant red autumn colour
  • Not fussy, just well-behaved and attractive
  • Slow growing and tolerant of a wide range of conditions
  • Low maintenance

Where to use it

  • Sometimes you just need a plant that has small bright green leaves, to contrast with and get away from the constant dark green stodginess of Photinia Red Robin, Mahonia, Yew etc.  Or to contrast with silver variegated or purple foliage.  Euonymus alatus fits the bill really well.
  • As part of an Autumn border or just to provide wonderful Autumn interest in a section of the garden
  • If possible, plant in an area where the sunshine will play on the brilliant red leaves in Autumn

Buying tip:

  • Look for plants that are well branched down to the base.


Image credits: Matt Lavin, Jack Pearce, R. D. Richards, Matt Lavin.

A garden bench dilemma

As part of one of our most recent garden make-overs in Newbury, our client had requested a seating area at the bottom right hand area of her garden.

A floating bench had been discussed at the design stage as her preference.  However, as there was nothing to build a floating bench against – the fence panel not providing the right level of support – we had to rethink the design a little.

With the client’s agreement, I decided the best solution was to build a bespoke oak bench, made to fit perfectly in the space allocated in the plan for the seating area.

The seat of the bench is made from seasoned oak and makes a comfortable and smooth surface to sit on.  The client was delighted with the finished bench and it actually ties in very well with the other wooden elements in the garden such as the pergola.

We hope to add this garden as a featured project once work has been completed and the planting established a little – watch this space!

Bespoke oak benchBespoke oak bench - side viewBespoke oak bench - garden yet to be planted!Bespoke oak bench

Be creative with wood in your garden

Be creative with wood… installing an arbour or archway, trellis fencing or a beautiful bespoke gate – such simple additions can create stunning features in your garden.  Featured below with the aid of photos are some examples of how clients have asked us to incorporate wooden features within their garden design.

Example 1 – Open porch

Open Porch

In this contemporary feel garden we built an angular wooden frame and painted it black and constructed a black angular open porch-like wooden frame outside the kitchen door – both of these structures make a dramatic impact in the garden and compliment the black window frames and guttering of the outside of the house.

Mini Arbour

The second, tiny arbour is half way along the house; ready for a bench to be placed underneath. This photo also shows the coordinating archway, leading around the side of the house.

Example 2 – Bespoke gate

Bespoke gate

Here we were asked to fit an extra wide 4ft bespoke gate which was commissioned from our preferred fencing supplier. The simple addition of using posts with rounded shaped tops (carved from a single piece of wood) adds to the design element and improves the overall look of this section of the client’s garden.

Example 3 – Floating bench

Floating Bench1

Floating benches are becoming more popular and can provide a contemporary twist to your garden. A successful installation of a floating bench was in a garden where an oak bench was set into a block of raised white flower beds

Example 4 – Floating bench

Another example was a floating bench built against a traditional brick wall as the photo demonstrates.

Another example was a floating bench built against a traditional brick wall as the photo demonstrates.

Example 5 – Pergola walkway

Riseley Pergola-a

The wooden pergola walkway in this photo of a garden we designed and built is an effective way to show-case your favourite climbing plants and to add a special design feature in your garden. A pergola is also a way to divide your garden into different sections – in this photo the gravel path under the arbour is leading you through to discover a new part of the garden.


Interested?  Contact us now to discuss ideas for your garden…



How To Cope With Shallow Soils Over Chalk

When we refer to chalky soil, we mean soil which has a layer of chalk below it.  Chalky soils tend to be:

  • flinty (which makes them difficult to dig)
  • very free draining (which can make moisture and nutrient retention problematical)
  • alkaline (which makes the growing of some plants (e.g. ericaceous) impossible)

The type of soil found on top of the chalk layer (clay or silt for example) will affect how easy the soil is to manage; this topsoil varies from garden to garden and region to region.  For example, a clay topsoil over chalk will help improve water retention, but combined with the chalk, can create a really sticky, heavy soil when wet.  Peaty topsoils will make the garden easier to dig, but even more free draining and prone to dry out.

The problems of chalky soil are exacerbated where there is only a very shallow depth of soil over the chalk layer below – these tend to have very little soil in which roots can get established, be very free draining and dry.  And because they are so free draining, they tend to lack fertility as nutrients get washed out so fast.  And, of course, they are extremely alkaline.

There are, however ways to help deal with these problems:

CompostSoil structure

  • Improve the soil structure and fertility using plenty of organic matter; add fertiliser to the soil if young plants begin to look sickly, especially when they are young
  • Where the soil is really shallow, think about adjusting soil levels to create a deeper layer of decent top soil over the chalk. This might just be a question of adding a good quality top soil / compost mix.  Or it might require the construction of raised beds.


  • Keep plants well watered. Perhaps consider some form of irrigation system.
  • Think about mulching borders to conserve moisture.


  • Don’t try and plant very large plants – smaller plants will be easier to establish
  • HemerocallisMost importantly, grow the right plants. There is no point trying to grow acid loving plants in chalky soil – they will become chlorotic and sickly very fast and are unlikely to survive.  But there are plants that will do well in shallow chalky soils.
    • Common garden shrubs and perennials such as ceanothus, cistus, daphne forsythia, garrya, rudbeckia, hemerocallis and many others will succeed.
    • Chalk soils drain freely and warm up swiftly in spring, so they’re loved by Mediterranean style plants such as Cistus, Lavender, Rosemary, Sage, Fennel, Origanum, and Eryngium
    • Oregano (Origanum vulgare)For the same reason, chalk soils are attractive to other plants that don’t like to sit for too long with their feet in the water, such as Hebe, Escallonia, and Choisya.  Many native wildflowers and grasses love these conditions too.
    • Vegetables such as the Brassicas can do well in chalk soils, as diseases such as Clubroot cannot establish in a limey environment.

You can find more plant suggestions for chalky soils on the RHS website here.

Need help with what to do next?
Contact us today for an informal chat.


Photo credits: Rudbeckia, Compost, Watering, Hemerocallis, Origanum.