Using gabion baskets as retaining wall

Using gabions for retaining walls – a case study

Many of the gardens we design involve gradients to a lesser or greater degree.  If the gradient is relatively steep, or if a completely level lawn is required, some sort of retaining wall is necessary.  We use a wide variety of materials for this; the option we choose/advise depends not only on personal preference, but also cost & the wider design.  Some of the more common materials for retaining walls and/or raised beds are:

  • Brickwork
  • Timber / sleeper walls
  • Log palisades
  • Rendered walls
  • Gabion baskets

We recently incorporated gabion baskets into a garden design in Newbury – the baskets were filled with Purbeck stone and used for a retaining wall.  This gives a lighter feel than a solid brick wall, and is also a relatively inexpensive option.  The Purbeck stone here blends well with the tumbled limestone paving we chose.  We paved over the top of the gabions, providing both a path at the top level, and a bit of a seat – or at least somewhere to perch as you walk down the ramped, stepped path – or in this case, if you want a few seconds break from the garden office.

About this garden

The brief:

  • This is very much a family garden – our client has two teenage children, plus a dog.  Children and friends make heavy use of the (existing) swimming pool in summer, so this was a key feature to retain.
  • There was a lot to fit into the space (including an office); levels were complex.
  • Our busy client enjoys gardening, but has little time for it.

The solution:

  • Simple, open space at the upper level, with the main patio, lawn & swimming pool (we removed some old balustrades along the side of the swimming pool).
  • Our client was originally thinking of a curved ramp/path down and around the garden (with the office to be located in the bottom left hand corner).  But we devised a cleaner, more contemporary design, and removed some conifers at the side of the garden.  This made better use of space, and allowed us to locate the office along the side boundary, making room for a private sitting area (with its own mini lawn) in the sun trap in the corner at the lower level.
  • As well as using gabion baskets, sleepers were used for the solid and tallest bit of the retaining wall, creating an effective mix of materials & form.
  • Our client opted to do their own planting, so we created a limited number of borders which they can enjoy planting & maintaining.

The result is a deceptively simple, practical and family-friendly garden – which works well for this family.

An update on our recent work

We know those of you who read our newsletter regularly love seeing what we’ve been up to recently… so here’s a quick update on the garden in Bray that we showed you back in January.  We have now completely finished the garden; the planting still has a way to go, but is beginning to get going now.  Click on any of the images to enlarge.


Tilehurst garden wipMeanwhile…

A sneek preview at something else we’ve been working on… a quirky photo of some trendy raised beds with inbuilt oak seating.

The photo doesn’t do it justice, but we’ve now finished the planting and other work, so will hope to share some more photos in a few weeks time.  The garden is really wide and shallow, so we’ve divided it up into 3 or 4 areas widthways.  More to follow…


Gravel garden

How to cope with… hot, dry areas of the garden

Hot, dry areas of the garden can be quite a challenge for the gardener, particularly if the soil is very free draining (in which case it might be mega dry after a spell of hot dry weather), or consists mainly of clay (in which case it will bake rock hard).  Not surprisingly, many plants struggle to survive in these conditions and lawns become like straw.

One solution to the problem is to install irrigation.  But this can be expensive and is considered eco-unfriendly by many people.

So rather than battle the conditions, why not work with them – it’s far easier and more rewarding.  Some tips for doing so:


A hot sunny area is an ideal spot for a “gin and tonic” seat or sun terrace.  In fact, the area might be too perfect, and you might like to also consider locating the seating area under a pergola or awning.  Just imagine summer holidays sitting under a vine clad pergola…!  Or perhaps a light canopied tree could be planted to provide partial shade over the area.


When it comes to planting – as we said at the outset, it’s far more rewarding to work with the conditions rather than fight against them.  So think of plants which thrive in hot, dry conditions – a good starting point is to consider those that grow well in the Mediterranean or semi desert conditions.  Grey leaved plants, many herbs and a lot of grasses all do well with plenty of warm sunshine and good drainage.  Many aromatic plants contain oils which help prevent them from drying out.

But because we know you like detail, we’ve also put together a list of possible plants to try (linked to more information on each on the RHS website):

Cistus, Helianthemum, Halimiocistus, Lavender, Perovskia, Santolina, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Origanum, Teucrium, Verbena bonariensis, Anthemis cupaniana, Dianthus, Cerastium, Erigeron, Salvia, Verbascum, Nepeta, Euphorbia myrsinites, Buddleja, Caryopteris, Convolvulus cneorum, Gaura lindheimeri, Festuca, Helictotrichon, Stipa tenuissima, Pennisetum.

Also Centranthus, Echinops, Agapanthus, Sedum, Sempervivum, Cynara, Osteospermum, Alcea (Hollyhocks).

A few of these are slightly tender (e.g. Convolvulus) and don’t like very cold, wet winters, so it is wise to think about how conditions in the garden change throughout the year.

These plants can also be planted along with some attractive rocks and chipping / gravel to form a feature gravel garden, perhaps with an attractive central feature – maybe a small water feature.

Soil, Watering & Mulching

Before you plant anything (as always!), think about the soil.  Digging it over deeply and adding copious amounts of well rotted manure or a good garden compost will make the soil more moisture retentive.  It will also encourage the plants to develop a better root system – and thereby make them more resilient to drought conditions.

And remember – even if you choose the right plants for the conditions, they will still need to be watered regularly until they are established.

Finally, think about mulching.  This will help to conserve moisture.  The type of mulch used may also be important – bark is a good mulch, but be careful about applying it thickly around some plants.  A lot of the hot, dry weather lovers don’t appreciate sitting all winter caked in cold, soggy bark and are therefore prone to rot if you treat them thus!  Gravel may be a better option…


No more garden flooding! Drainage case study update

Back in January, we blogged about garden drainage and specifically mentioned two projects where drainage was a key ‘challenge’ (and that’s putting it mildly!).  Now the gardens are complete, we thought you might like to see some photos of how things turned out…


Crowthorne garden WIPThis garden is situated at the bottom of a dip in the surrounding area, and alongside a small stream.  The garden has always tended to get quite wet after heavy rainfall and during the excessive rain before and after last Christmas, the garage floor was submerged under 50-200mm of water.  Our client had to make frantic efforts to prevent water entering the house.

Crowthorne garden WIP3The solution involved installing a mini sewage pumping station underneath a gravel path that winds its way across the garden.  We also regraded the soil before returfing the lawn, so that the rain now runs down gently from all sides towards the path and hidden pumping solution.

The rain is then pumped off to the side of the garden, under the new raised patio, and from there is fed out into the little stream that runs along the side of the garden.  We have subsequently prepared a planting plan for all the new borders, and will be supplying and planting the plants in September / October.

Despite copious amounts of rain falling since installing the new system, the garden has not flooded since.  Our clients are certainly sleeping much more peacefully now!!

Lower Earley

Lower EarleyThe other garden we mentioned was a small back garden at a considerably lower level than the houses beyond (perhaps 2-3m lower).  Also a tiny bit lower than the gardens either side.

Here, as well as installing extensive gulley drains, connected to a huge new soakaway, we went on to install a permanent, gravity-fed pumping system.  Permanent pipework was installed under the garage floor, allowing water to be pumped out to the rain water pipes and storm drainage at the front of the property.

The Result

These two projects serve to show that with careful planning (and also the ability to adapt and modify plans as a project develops), flood-prone gardens can be dealt with!  We hope that our years of experience of planning for a wide variety of constraints has given us a can-do attitude, where problems are there to be solved, not walked away from!

The result?  Two happy clients with happy, flood-free gardens!



How to cope with… a long narrow garden

Long, narrow gardens have several drawbacks, particularly if they are very narrow:

  • the patio can seem very cramped for space (although the overall area of the garden may be quite large)
  • being in the garden can feel a bit like being in a tunnel or corridor, through which you are being ushered at an uncomfortably fast pace
  • the garden can appear very straight and rectangular

Below is just one example of a plan for a garden where the length far exceeds width, albeit in this case the garden is still rather wide.  The same principles apply to smaller scale gardens of similar proportions.  It is in these smaller gardens, where the width is perhaps only 4 or 5m, that the problem is particularly accentuated – and so the benefit of some of these ideas will be particularly conspicuous.  Notice the following:

long garden
  • We’ve divided the garden into separate ‘rooms’ or areas, with each section of the garden having its own character and / or purpose.  This “slows the pace”, and creates more of a sense of width relative to depth.  The garden can be divided using trellis, fencing, walls and other hard landscaping methods, but here we’ve employed a much softer, more subtle, yet equally effective division using plants.  As well as hedges, informal shrub borders can work very well.
  • The different compartments in the garden can be purely functional – the sitting area, the vegetable garden, play lawn, utility area etc; or they can relate to the character of the garden or its planting – see the Spring glade/walk to the right of this plan for example, with spring flowering trees; also the cottage garden to the top left, with everything on a much more dainty scale.
  • The different rooms can, if you wish, be angled differently to the rest of the garden – perhaps diagonally, or at 90 degrees – the latter is particularly useful if you want to have, say, a quiet space to contemplate in the garden, and is therefore often used in conjunction with seating.
  • Notice how the materials used to divide the garden (hedges and trellis for example) are also useful as a means of disguising less attractive elements such as sheds, compost and bins.
  • To avoid the (divided) garden looking much smaller than it actually is, we’ve allowed small gaps in the planting – revealing glimpses of what lies beyond.
  • If the garden isn’t too narrow, (and finances permit) you might consider laying a path up the garden.  HOWEVER…!  Make sure it’s not a long straight path (which will only reinforce and emphasise the long narrow dimensions), but a path which sweeps and curves its way up and across the garden.  The path could perhaps start on one side of the garden, and end up on the other – with lawns, borders and other areas connecting to the path.


This is just one solution; if you don’t feel like dividing up the garden, another option is to use / shape the lawn a bit like a river – allowing it to meander its way, Picasso style, up the garden, deviating here and there to points of interest.  Not all of the lawn needs to be visible at once; borders and other areas can be used to define views and hide, for example, private sitting areas.  The benefit of using the lawn like this is that it overcomes the rectangular feel of the garden.  But it is essential to ensure that the sweeps of the curves are generous (like those shown on the plan above), not tight and fiddly.


 Image credits: Dave Catchpole (cropped & colour altered), ALDA.

Chelsea Show 2014

Reflections On Chelsea 2014

This was my first visit to Chelsea for 4 years – and so I was on the search for any new plants, styling ideas and features that would provide inspiration for both me and our clients!

My friend and I duly filed, penguin style, past the show gardens, before going on to marvel at the floral displays in the Grand Pavilion.  I can’t say I was overly wowed by the show gardens; the same plants did seem to keep on appearing from one garden to the next.  Having said that, I very much enjoyed taking in all that they had to offer – and none of them were trying to shock or show off for the sake of it.  Perhaps the budget constraints caused by the recent recession have done some lasting good in that respect!

I came away from the show with a few ideas and thoughts:



My Favourite Garden

My favourite garden (by far) was The Daily Telegraph garden.  Classical yet contemporary; it looked so simple, but contained so much.

Simple elegant planting.  Simple elegant hard landscaping.  Green and tranquil.  Wonderful execution.  Ok, so maybe I was overly wowed by this one!  Methinks the lesson here is that elegant simplicity looks deceptively easy; in reality it takes a lot of hard work and inspiration to achieve.



Or to be precise, a single, life size, enormous Gorilla.  Hmm.  Perhaps a timely reminder that garden designers should never be arrogant enough to think that they are the custodians of good taste!  Along with the gorilla, there was a variety of other life size sculpture on show.  Tasteful? The jury’s still out.



Another thing that struck me was that although the planting in the show gardens and the floral marquee was truly stunning, most of the plants that I saw have in fact been around and in common use for many a year.  Which just goes to show that good design is often the difference between ordinary and extraordinary.

Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’Having said that, there were a couple of perennials, amongst the ubiquitous Alliums and Irises, that stood out in my mind as plants I should be using more often in my planting schemes:

  • Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ (top right) – an excellent and long flowering accent plant, with wine red small thistle like flowers on tall stems
  • Lysimachia atropurpurea ‘Beaujolais’ (bottom right) – not the normal loosestrife, but one with attractive curved open spikes of burgundy flowers over silver grey foliage. Also long flowering.

Lysimachia atropurpurea ‘Beaujolais’Both of these looked wonderful amongst the blues and whites around them.

A new plant (to me at least) on display in the big marquee: Clematis ‘Bijou’ – a dwarf pale blue, purple Clematis, which grows in a neat and slightly arching mound just 1-2’ tall. It looks like it would be great in pots and even in borders, and perhaps too for hanging over a retaining wall. It just needs hard pruning once a year. Think I might be trying this one out in my own garden this year!

And a final tip… always ask the price of the pink champagne before ordering two glasses!


Image credits: Herry Lawford



Attracting birds to your garden

3025912642_5c2df3ece7_mAs a lifelong bird fan, I love seeing birds visiting my garden. Well yes, ok, some of them can be pests in terms of the mess they make (and admittedly, no-one wants their prize plant eaten or a promising crop of cherries nabbed).  But there aren’t many people who don’t derive pleasure from the site of blue tits hanging acrobatically from a feeder or branch, or baby starlings taking their first flaps in the bird bath.  At a conservation level, gardens are potentially very important and beneficial places for birds.

If you want to do more to attract birds to your garden, the good news is that it is easy. In fact, even a handful of plants in an otherwise barren plot will help.  And making a garden attractive to birds can often add to it’s general appeal for humans too – bird feeders, bird baths and ponds can all be beautiful in their own right.

So here are your key tips:

  • 4307091739_43a5dee890_mProvide cover so that birds can hide from predators, together with some perches as safe look outs. All plants help in this respect, but native trees are great, as are dense shrubs, or climber clad fences.  If you are bemoaning a recent move to a home with an Ivy covered fence, save yourself the job and keep it as an Ivy hedge, simply trimming it every year (late Autumn) – the birds will love it both as cover and for nesting.
  • Provide food. This could be natural food such as berries from plants such as Cotoneaster, Pyracantha, Rowan etc, or seeds such as Teasel, or via plants which attract the insects which the birds love to eat. Garden features such as rockeries will attract slugs and snails – and also therefore, thrushes and blackbirds. An open expanse of lawn will attract larger birds to come looking for worms, and also birds like green woodpeckers looking for ants.
  • 3353134665_6eceefdefb_mBird feeders are great for providing food for the birds at all times of the year. Different types of feeds and food will attract different birds.  The RSPB and BBOWT websites have specific information and advice that is worth checking out.
  • Locate bird feeders close enough to cover, but not too near to shrubs where predators such as cats might be lurking. Some people like to plant prickly plants near feeders to deter cats, although they can of course also be hazardous to humans!
  • Provide water – it must be clean – for drinking and bathing. Bird baths, ponds and water features all have a role to play. It is worth bearing in mind that many containers can be converted into water features (via the use of flanges etc) – for example a shallow circular pot can be turned into a bespoke bird bath gently overspilling into a gravel area (and sump) below.  Try searching on Google for inspiration and instructions.
  • 10851776205_49a1cdd60d_mIf you want your garden to be more than just a birdie restaurant, provide places for the birds to nest and roost.
    • Nest boxes are easy to install and may provide some fascinating bird watching opportunities up close.  Unless the nest box is shaded, it should be positioned so that it is somewhere between north and east facing – providing shelter from direct sunlight and the wettest rain!  More advice on siting a nestbox can be found on the RSPB website here.
    • Also think about the more natural alternatives – providing enough shrubs, growing a native hedge (even just a short stretch of, say Hawthorn), or allowing (dare I say it) a small area of Ivy to grow on a patch of the fence.
  • Be diverse. The wider the range of habitat, cover and food you provide, the more birds – and indeed other forms of wildlife – you are likely to find visiting your garden.
  • 9804782305_4520afde35_mBe a tiny bit untidy. Most people like their gardens to be neat and tidy, but birds are more likely to feel at home in your garden if it is a little more natural. This doesn’t mean that your garden has to be a tip!! Even simple little things such as allowing the dandelions in your lawn (assuming your lawn isn’t so pristine that it never has them!) to go to seed occasionally will attract lovely little birds like Goldfinches into your garden (finches also love Niger seed – useful to know if you don’t have any dandelions to hand!).


 Photo credits: keith elwood, johndal, Dan Davison, nosha, petel vogel, Jacob Spinks.


How To Cope With Rooty, Shady Areas Under Trees & Large Conifers

Let’s face it, there is shade, and there is gloom.  It’s all very well people suggesting long lists of shade tolerant plants (ahem, see below), but some areas under trees and conifers are so gloomy that even the most shade tolerant of plant will struggle to grow.

Even for those that are less gloomy, the normally very dry soil, coupled with the fact that the soil is so full of tree roots that it is difficult to hack a hole big enough to plant anything in… no wonder many people simply give up on these areas.

In this post, we’ve given you a list of shade tolerant plants, but you’ll also find some other ideas for those areas where plants just won’t grow.

Make it work for plants

  • CyclamenConsider having someone crown lift / raise the canopy of the offending tree(s), to allow more light in
  • Unless you are faced with total gloom, there are some plants which will grow in most conditions.  Think about:
    • Yew
    • Box
    • Holly
    • Aucuba
    • ScillaRubus
    • some ferns (e.g. Polystichum)
    • Lamium
    • some Hellebores
    • Bergenia (which will  manage around the trunks of trees)
    • hardy Cyclamen
    • bulbs like snowdrops
    • Scilla
    • BergeniaWood Anemones

- to name but a few.  The soil will need to be very well prepared, with plenty of compost added.

  • Where the shade is caused by deciduous trees, then you should have a period from late autumn through to mid spring where more light percolates down to the soil. So think about planting winter and spring flowering plants and bulbs.  Remember that most woodland plants flower in the spring before the tree canopy greens over.
  • Because the soil will be very dry, watering will be important.  Some simple irrigation may open up a whole new list of plant options – Hydrangeas, for example, thrive in the shade, but do need plenty of water.  Mulching may also be worthwhile.
  • If the soil is mega rooty, might it be feasible to construct some simple raised beds?  A timber raised bed is relatively easy to construct and will lift the borders out of the roots.  Or for an even easier option, why not consider using containers?

Create a feature

Under tree seatingThere may, of course, still be areas where nothing will successfully grow – or at least nothing you want to grow.

Perhaps here a more practical approach would be to think about how to make the area as attractive as possible.

  • Why not create a cool place to sit on a hot summer’s day – a simple bench, or circular seating around a tree trunk can look very effective.
  • If you’re feeling more ambitious, could the problem be turned into an interesting feature area – maybe a little shady secret garden with a feature in the centre, viewed through an “arch” or “window” cut in the surrounding greenery.  A small spotlight lighting up the central feature would add the finishing touch!
  • If fences are involved, an ornamental trellis will help add interest.
  • Or can you arrange for a bark path to run through the most difficult section of the garden to cultivate?

There really are lots of possibilities – it just needs a little thought & imagination applied!

storage areaStorage

Alternatively, of course, these tricky areas can be used to store things out of sight.  Do note though, that a dark, shady area is not the best place to “lose” the compost heap – it needs more light!

The storage area shown in this photo is one we created for a recent ALDA client, hiding away some unsightly wheelie bins and creating some outdoor storage at the same time.


Image Credits: brewbooks, Bill Murray, Jack Pearce, Candiru


The ALDA Garden Calendar

If you read our blog regularly, you’ll know that last year, we regularly posted our ‘jobs for the garden’ – topical information on what to do in the garden and when.

We’ve pulled this together for easy access – you can also access a printable PDF version of our calendar by signing up to our newsletter.

Jobs for the garden in January & February

January & February

Jobs for the garden in March & April

March & April

Jobs for the garden in May & June

May & June

Jobs for the garden in July & August

July & August

Jobs for the garden in September & October

September & October

Jobs for the garden in November & December

November & December


Image credits: photojenni, ALDA Landscapes, T.Kiya, victoriapeckham, Muffet, Kaz Andrew.

cats eyes

How do I deter cats from my garden?

One of the questions I am most frequently asked by clients and prospective clients is this:

“Do you know any way of discouraging cats from doing their business in borders, digging holes in newly planted beds and veggie gardens, and peeing on prized shrubs?”


cat2The depressing answer is that there is no fail safe way of deterring our feline friends (or perhaps rather foes).  The garden centre shelves have plenty of chemical products designed to do the job, but our experience is that they only have very limited success.  The same applies to scented deterrents like citronella or cayenne pepper.

We have one or two clients who use sonic devices, but these can sometimes also deter the wildlife you want to attract to your garden.  Some people recommend using some form of automated system which sends out a jet of water at the offending animal, but these are not always practical (or indeed agreeable to your otherwise cordial neighbours!!).

Then what oh what to do?

cat3So there is no easy solution.  We do however have a list of tips which may be of some help:

  • Keep as much of the ground covered as possible, with little bare earth.  Where low ground cover is used, try to intersperse it with rougher textured plants.
  • Avoid fine pea shingle, and large expanses of bark mulch.
  • Also avoid plants which cats are known to love – Nepeta for example.
  • Coleus caninaThink about mulching areas where cats are particularly unwelcome (e.g. under / by bird feeders) with twigs, which rustle and move when walked on.  You might even consider a few spikey or thorny twigs (which cats will hate walking on), but do so with care – these may make garden weeding and plant tendering somewhat hazardous.  A few strategically located jagged rocks might work better, or some very large gauge coarse gravel.
  • In areas such as vegetable gardens, fencing off the area completely may be the best bet – perhaps with fencing that is set so that it leans outwards (thereby making it difficult to climb over).
  • Some methods for discouraging cats really do seem to work (sometimes at least):
    • Lion dung (most frequently purchased in pellet form (e.g. Silent Roar, which is widely available), unless of course, you happen to know a local friendly zoo keeper!).  We have several clients who have had success with this product.  But it doesn’t last very long, so has to be reapplied every few months, making it a pricey long term option.
    • Things which reflect light.  Perhaps the most common example cited is that of plastic bottles half filled with water; CDs tied on a piece of string or wire is another option.
    • There is a relatively new plant called Coleus canina (aka Scaredy Cat, shown above right), which is meant to have an odour which cats find disgusting.  It is becoming widely available as plugs, and is on my list of things to try this year.

Hope this helps – a bit at least.  Leave a comment below if you’ve discovered other ways to combat this problem!


Image credits: Benjamin Watson, Sandy Schultz, Adam Woodrow, aussiegall.