How to create a workable garden on a steep slope

Client Brief: create a new level lawn for their children to play on.

Problem: how to create a workable garden on a steep slope.

Solution: build two retaining walls and an intricate series of steps that facilitate a level lawn area.

Gardens with steep slopes are obviously full of challenges – however our recent design & build in Cold Ash proves that you can achieve surprisingly good results.

The most important stage in the build was to construct two retaining walls, one metre each in height to raise the garden by 2 metres overall. This was a time consuming job and difficult to achieve, especially as most days proved to be wet in this early stage of the build. It involved importing 60 tons of grade A top soil all of which had to be moved from the front of the house round to the garden at the back in order to shore up the retaining walls.

Another tricky part of the build was moving the heavy oak sleepers down the steep slope in the wet weather conditions although my foreman Andy came up with an ingenious idea of bringing his bicycle into work. By resting the sleepers on top of the bicycle they were safely steered into place with no injuries to the workforce!

The before photo - there is a lot of work to be done before the transformation!Andy my foreman safely transports the oak sleepers down the slope with the help of Jake and BrettRetaining walls constructed from new oak sleepersA new more level lawn is created as per our clients' briefThe internal pathway leading to the bottom of the garden showing the anti-slip treads

The retaining walls now create an attractive feature at the bottom of the garden, they are constructed from new oak sleepers and in total we used 260  – a record for ALDA Landscapes! Either side of these retaining walls we constructed two sets of steps leading down to the bottom area of the garden, the step pathway on the left was constructed as an internal pathway adding a distinctive feature to the garden, whereas the pathway on the right hand side consists of open steps.

Both sets of steps were topped with slate mulch chippings and fitted with an anti-slip tread to eliminate the possibility of someone slipping in the wet winter months. A cobble path was laid at the bottom of the garden linking these step pathways together and making this area more practical throughout the year.

The build was completed by laying turf on the newly raised area above the retaining walls.

Alison's update

Alison’s Update – July 2016

At this time of year, I like to get out and about with my camera – taking photos of gardens we have recently completed to show people on our website, and in our blogs.  But the inclement weather in recent weeks has meant that I have had to postpone my photo shoots until later in July and August.

So, in the absence of photos of new gardens, I thought I would share a few updates – some more recent photos of gardens we have worked on in recent years.

My own garden

Firstly, a quick update on my own garden (see previous posts here and here).  As you can see the veggie coffins are in full use (blog on lessons learnt to date to follow soon) and proving very productive (too productive if you are a courgette!).  The Box hedge is in and some planting done in the courtyard and planters.  But the main borders are still to be planted.  And it’s a shame the lawn was too wet to cut before this photo was taken!

Alison WIP

Artificial lawn update

Next, you may recall John’s recent blog posts on the installation of an artificial lawn (here and here).  Well, here are some recent photos of the garden  – in Maidenhead – now with plants (we had to do battle with the ground elder prior to planting).  The client’s daughter installed the sheep……!

Open plan front garden

Then, you may also recall a blog of mine back in September 2014 – a case study on an open plan front garden in Hartley Wintney.  Well, the client has just sent us these pics of the garden now.

A lush little oasis

And this is a garden in Wokingham we helped adapt and plant many years ago.  Jim, our senior soft landscaper does the main pruning and sprucing twice a year.  A tidy but lush little oasis.

Hornbeam Close 2016

A front entrance courtyard

And this is a little enclosed front entrance courtyard in Spencers Wood (before and immediately after pics).  We landscaped the back garden a year or so ago, and the clients asked us to “do something nice, simple and low maintenance” with the shady inhospitable front area.  As you can see, we have made it into a little courtyard with some paved feature areas (currently missing their final features!) and some specimen plants with a varied foliage tapestry, including a very nice Japanese Acer.

And a long term restoration project

Finally, a much bigger garden, and a long term restoration project.  We renovated the front drive and entrance of this lovely rambling old property in Tidmarsh a couple of years ago.  Earlier this year, we embarked on the task of removing  and infilling / turfing the dilapidated sunken garden, and upgrading the main terrace.  We also restored the water feature.  As you can see, there is plenty more to do, but the garden is already becoming much more usable and somewhere the clients can relax and enjoy the garden.

That’s all for now.  Watch out for some all new gardens over the next few months!


My Top 6 Highlights of Chelsea Flower Show 2016

The sea of 5,000 red crocheted poppies representing the fallen of World War IMing Veevers Carter's magnificent 3D portrait of Her Majesty, using more than 4,000 bloomsThe multi-coloured riotous planting in Diarmuid Gavin’s 'The Harrods British Eccentrics Garden'

As I look back on my visit to Chelsea Flower Show this May it is the explosion of colour on many levels that stays with me and even surpasses previous years. Whether it is the stunningly moving scene of the sea of 5,000 red crocheted poppies cascading over the steps of the Chelsea grounds representing the fallen of World War I – or the multi-coloured riotous planting in Diarmuid Gavin’s ‘The Harrods British Eccentrics Garden’ –  or the magnificent 3D portrait of Her Majesty created by florist Ming Veevers Carter, using more than 4,000 blooms in bands of distinctive colours to create a rainbow effect… Chelsea was a feast on the eyes! My top 6 highlights:

1. Matthew Wilson’s show garden – God’s Own County – A Garden for Yorkshire

Matthew Wilson’s show garden, Chelsea 2016Matthew Wilson’s show garden, Chelsea 2016

Perfection on so many levels I loved this garden for the quality of both the soft and hard landscaping.  Wilson’s unique inspiration for his garden is the medieval Great East Window at York Minster.  The planting design beautifully echoes the colours in the stained glass, to achieve this Wilson explained he had to incorporate the use of white flowers to provide the perfect backdrop to the striking reds purples yellows and blues that appear in the garden!

Not only is the planting impressive but it is matched with the attention to detail in the hard landscaping.  A cathedral like structure at the back of the garden is constructed from wood with turrets made from York stone, leading up to this are what appear to be polished limestone shallow steps with a water channel running through the steps.  This creates simultaneously a luxurious modern feel as well as reminding us of the cathedral theme.  Both the workmanship and materials are derived from the county of Yorkshire.

Awarded a silver gilt medal by the judges, providing controversy at Chelsea this year, Matthew Wilson was then awarded best show garden as voted by the public a decision I very much agree with too!!


2. A concrete seat in the ‘Cloudy Bay Garden’ designed by Sam Ovens


It is for its simplicity and design impact that this concrete seat gets my vote.  It sits beautifully on the red cedar timber and provides a stark contrast to the delicate grasses that dance next to it.  If you look closely you can see the timber markings left after the concrete has been poured into the wooden shuttering that has created its shape.


3. The return of the rose at Chelsea

Roses in Hay Joung Hwang's ‘The L.G. Smart Garden’‘Simple Peach’Elizabeth Casson

Trending in many of the gardens at Chelsea this year was the return of the rose, normally in pale pink to mid pink tones.  It suited perfectly the delicate pink to lilac planting scheme of designer Hay Joung Hwang in ‘The L.G. Smart Garden’.  Pale pink and white roses could also been seen in Diarmuid Gavin’s planting design for ‘The Harrods British Eccentrics Garden’.  In the Great Pavilion amongst many great roses my favourite was a mid pink rose called ‘Simple Peach’ and another called ‘Elizabeth Casson’ both from Harkness Nursery in Cambridge.


4. The sculptural bronze seat in ‘The Chelsea Barracks Garden’


In Jo Thompson’s gold award garden sits this beautiful bronze metal sculptural seat.  It mirrors the gentle curve of the lawn and pathway that runs along the back of the garden.  It also ties in with the bronze sculptures that are dotted throughout the garden designed in honour of the Barracks former residents.  Popular at Chelsea the seat was chosen for many of the TV interviews, a perfect place to sit and contemplate this peaceful English garden. Interestingly Jo’s show garden appeared to be the only one with a lawn incorporated in the design adding to its feel of Britishness.


5. The window of water in the ‘Senri-Sentei – Garage Garden’


The importance of water features in garden design cannot be underestimated as revealed in Kazuyuki Ishihara’s artisan garden.  The beauty of this window of water lies in its simplicity – it sits snugly in a vibrant green wall of hedging and allows the viewer a distorted glimpse of the garden beyond through which you can see the contrasting white modern staircase that leads to an upper level. Water features of one sort or another appear in nearly all the gardens at Chelsea – another wall of water appears in Jo Thompson’s garden where water cascades down a large dark stone wall –  to a barely there trickle in the arid conditions of the  ‘L’Occitane Garden’.


6. Diarmuid Gavin’s ‘Harrods British Eccentrics Garden’


In all the perfection of the show Diarmuid Gavin stood out as the designer who brought a sense of humour and theatre to garden design at Chelsea.  His garden was based on the theme of British eccentric inventors such as William Heath Robinson. The crowd loved Gavin’s on the surface mad idea of spinning conical bay trees, window boxes and round topiary balls that moved up and down in what can only be described as a dance sequence.  This event took place every fifteen minutes and after the performance I watched, the door of the red brick building at the end of the garden burst open to reveal Diarmuid Gavin, just like the mad inventor waving to the crowd that had gathered to admire his creation.

For all the fun of this garden Gavin made sure that it delivered in other ways that impressed, for example the hard landscaping of the red brick building was beautifully constructed as was the York stone paving that ran along the water channel up to the black iron gates.  The garden was also unforgettable for its rich and vibrant planting scheme with many tall stemmed flowers vying for your attention.


I hope you agree that my top 6 were worth a mention, it was a hard decision to select just a few out of the many deserving gardens and ideas on show! As you can see a trip to Chelsea is not to be missed, no doubt it will give me inspiration throughout the year and I’m already looking forward to 2017!


Pyrus calleryana 'Chanticleer' (Rosaceae) flowers and leaves

Plant Focus: Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer’

Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer’ is a really useful, attractive and elegant medium sized garden tree.  Whilst it is deciduous, designers like me often use it for screening, as it has a neatly upright shape, and it is one of the first trees to come into leaf in the Spring.  It also holds its leaves for a long time, until well into the Autumn (it is one of the last trees to lose its leaves), when they normally turn a bright orange-red before falling.

Whilst in leaf, the leaves are a bright, clean looking glossy green.  It also flowers very early in Spring (a mass of white flowers) making it a cheery plant to have in the garden at the end of a long dreary winter.

What is it?

It is actually an ornamental form of Pear, but only very rarely does it produce its small fruits.

Where can I use it?

It is also extremely tough – tolerant of most  soil types, not minding a bit of pollution and very hardy.

Whilst its characteristics have made it popular as a screening tree, it is an excellent general garden tree, and can also be used for avenues, pleaching etc. And whilst it is perhaps not quite as spectacular as some trees (Acers for example), in my opinion it is worthy of a place in all but the smallest of gardens.

You can see more photos (including one of the lovely autumn colour of the young trees) on the Barcham website.


Image credits: Magnus ManskeMatthew Field, Famartin, Daderot


Paving Comparison: Slate

Like sandstone and limestone, slate is a natural stone which has been used for hundreds of years as a building material due to its durable nature and striking appearance.  Often used as a flooring product inside the home, slate paving can be laid internally and externally so providing a smooth transition from home to garden.

What does it look like?

Photos of slate paving used in a garden designed by Alda Landscapes.


Known for its dramatic and contrasting look, most slate paving comes in the darker shades of various blacks such as blue-black.  However other options are available such as ‘copper slate’ which as its name suggests has a striking combination of blues, beiges, browns and golds running through the paving.


Compared to some other paving products slate is normally associated with the colour black with other colours such as blue or green trending through the stone. This is why it is considered to be one of the best choices to use in a contemporary garden as it compliments so well a modern design.   However as previously mentioned it also comes in multi-coloured shades such as the ‘copper slate’ (the latter can be sourced through Peppard Building Supplies of Reading 0118 972 2028).


Slate paving is an attractive option for a patio due to its hardwearing nature.  To add to its longevity a protective sealant can be applied once the paving has been laid.


When it comes to cost slate paving is comparatively expensive – for example it is normally a third more than Sandstone paving.  However for many it’s distinctive look more than makes up for its higher price tag.


Paving Comparison: Limestone

Natural limestone has been a key building material throughout the ages and used all over the world – even the Egyptian pyramids are made from this stone.

What does it look like?

Photos of limestone paving used in gardens designed by ALDA Landscapes.


Visually appealing limestone has a less riven texture than Sandstone. One of its attractions as a paving product is its strength and durability – it isn’t as porous for example as its Sandstone competitor.

Surface Finish

Limestone paving comes in three types of surface finish:

  • in a hand cut finish
  • in a tumbled surface finish and edges
  • in a honed or sawn surface finish and edges

The tumbled finish is probably considered to be most suited in a more traditional garden design whereas the sawn surface finish is perfect in providing a modern clean cut look in a contemporary garden.  This is particularly true of the ‘black sawn edge’ limestone paving, once laid it immediately creates a striking modern look to a garden design.


Limestone Paving Colours - Reduced

Limestone paving comes in a variety of colours for example:

  • Cotswold Yellow limestone
  • Antique Yellow limestone
  • Kota Blue limestone (see photo top right)
  • Black Sawn Edge limestone

(All the above can be sourced from Nigel Belcher – our main supplier of paving).


If low maintenance is a high priority for you when choosing paving for your patio, limestone would be a good choice.  As previously mentioned its natural strength and low porous characteristics keep it looking good throughout the years.


For all its qualities limestone is generally considered to be a reasonably priced paving product – however it is usually more expensive than Indian Sandstone.



How to cope with a wide / deep border

We often receive calls and emails from people who have recently moved into a new home, feeling overawed at taking on a mature garden with very large and deep borders. Inexperienced gardeners understandable find the prospect extremely daunting and so come to us for our advice.

While deep borders can take a bit of looking after, they are not necessarily high maintenance. So, when thinking about what to do with the borders, here are a few tips and pointers:

Review the planting

Is the border full of large shrubs, which look glorious in their natural shape and are doing a good job at covering the ground and suppressing weeds?

If the answer to this is “yes”, then you might not want to do anything at all! But if the border is half bare / weed ridden, or full of small herbaceous plants (for example) requiring more frequent tending and weeding, then you might want to consider changing the planting to something requiring lower maintenance. Contact us if you need help with a new planting scheme.

Sometimes the problem can be that a particular shrub has taken over too much of the border. Here you will need to consider whether it can be dramatically pruned (a lot of shrubs will stand up to some drastic pruning), or whether it needs to be removed entirely.

Consider reducing the size of the border

Would it be helpful to reduce the size of the border, and thus introduce more space or an extra feature into the garden?

The easiest way to reduce the size of a border is obviously just to convert part of it back to lawn (or gravel, or…). But this exercise can be viewed in a creative way. For example, could the garden be made more interesting at the same time by reshaping the lawn and borders to introduce curves, where the borders are wider in some areas and then narrow down in areas where lawn has been added?

Or, you could add a feature area or seat area within the border, which will enhance the garden but also reduce the planting space?

Making tracks…

How does a path sound? They can add real appeal to a garden (children love them too!)

Installing some form of path through a border can add genuine interest to a garden while also reducing the plant maintenance and helping in terms of accessing the deeper recesses of the borders.

When a border has a path running through it, the front section of the border effectively becomes double sided so that as you walk along the path you can disappear from view behind taller plants located towards the back of the front section of the border. And as you walk along the path, you might want to see some smaller plants located at the path edge in the middle of the border.

The planting can become complex (let us know if you need a hand!)… but very interesting!

Plants, plants, plants…

Are you really a true plant lover at heart?

Not everyone is looking to reduce planting space to reduce maintenance (although no one ever asks us for a high maintenance garden!).

To a plant lover, a deep border is a really exciting prospect and enjoyable to plan and plant – with large shrubs located towards the back of the border forming a mixed and varied foliage tapestry, and with the height of the planting gradually graded down towards the front of the border, perhaps with some neat low edging plants at the front of the border, and a central layer of colourful perennials and smaller shrubs in the middle of the border.

The benefit of a deep border is that plants can be allowed to grow naturally without being constantly trimmed to keep them in bounds. Enjoy the freedom!

There are of course also more general ways of reducing maintenance in deep borders – mulching being an obvious example.

As always, if you need some creative input or simply some help maintaining your existing garden, do let us know.



Plant Focus: Cotoneaster ‘Cornubia’

Cotoneasters are generally very easy to grow – and fast growing – evergreen and deciduous shrubs, with white spring flowers, followed by (usually) red berries in the winter.  The various types have a mulititude of uses – as border shrubs, for hedging, and some forms are often used as ground cover, especially on banks and in supermarket car parks.  Perhaps as  result of this, they seem to have gained the reputation for being rather boring, lax plants.  This is a shame because there are some lovely and really useful Cotoneasters readily available, including my favourite: Cotoneaster ‘Cornubia’.

Why I like it

Cotoneaster ‘Cornubia’ is a large evergreen or semi-evergreen shrub, with long, dark green leaves.  It has a mass of white flowers in late spring and early summer, which are very attractive to bees, and a wonderful display of large bright red berries in the winter.  The birds in my garden seem to prefer Pyracantha, Rowan and other berries, so my Cotoneaster manages to keep its berries until we have a spell of really cold weather in January and February – then flocks of hungry Fieldfares  and Redwings devour the mature berries in no time.

Looking after Cotoneaster ‘Cornubia’

It is fully hardy, and will cope with any aspect, or any half decent soil, and is happy in sun or partial shade.  As it is fast growing, it does need some light pruning in late winter / early spring to keep it tidy and in bounds.  Left unpruned it can reach 6m high and more.  It can suffer from the odd aphid attack, but compared to the vast majority of plants, it is remarkably trouble free.

Where to use it

It is an incredibly versatile plant – often seen as a specimen shrub in the middle of the border (where admittedly it does need to be given a bit of space).  It can also be trained on a single stem to form a very nice small evergreen tree.  But I think it comes into its own when grown against a fence as an evergreen wall shrub, where it will just need a few wires or anchor points.  Grown in this way, it doesn’t need to be fancily pruned – just trimmed to keep it tidy, but it can also be fanned or trained as an espalier.  It looks really stunning when grown like this on trellis or lattice, where it can make a very attractive screen (eg in front of a shed or vegetable plot), without taking up too much horizontal space.

An Alternative

And if this isn’t enough, there are also similar Cotoneasters  with yellow berries, such as ‘Rothschildianus’ and ‘Exburyensis’, although these don’t have quite the same vigour as ‘Cornubia’.

All in all a very attractive plant that deserves to be more widely planted.


Image credit: Leonora (Ellie) Enking


Paving Comparison

With Spring’s arrival and having had a few warmer days at last, it is the time of year that many people start thinking about installing a new patio. Here at ALDA Landscapes we have received more enquiries about patios over the last two weeks than we do at other times of the year!… and this generally carries on throughout the Summer.

Over the next few months I thought it would be helpful to look at the different options available when choosing paving.  Often the hardest decision for our clients in the design of a new garden is getting the paving right for their new patio.  Not only does it have to compliment the style of their garden and property but our clients are also concerned to choose paving that is practical and requires low maintenance.

What I plan to do is cover each paving material in a separate blog post (I’ll stick the links below as they’re written), and then I’ll round the whole thing up by doing some sort of a comparison of the different options. Watch this space!

Indian Sandstone

Indian Sandstone





Sourcing your paving

At ALDA Landscapes we will normally source the paving for our clients and provide samples – this comes as part of the design expertise we offer.

Our main supplier is Nigel Belcher Turf and Paving Ltd in Hermitage (01635 202700). Nigel will guarantee the quality of the paving, which cuts down on wastage for us – if there is a problem with the paving he will happily replace it. Being able to see and touch the paving in the flesh helps tremendously in the decision making process and Nigel has an extensive range on display.

As a landscaping company, we don’t recommend buying off the internet, or using a builder’s merchant, as we’re unable to guarantee our clients the same level of quality or service as with our known trusted suppliers. If you don’t live locally, look for a well-respected, local supplier who is willing to guarantee the quality of their stone. Those that work with a lot of professional garden designers/landscapers will be a good starting point.


Paving Comparison: Indian Sandstone

Of the many options available for paving, my personal favourite is Indian Sandstone.   Currently it is by far the most popular paving chosen by our clients – in fact I like it so much I chose it for the patio in my garden (in the ‘Mint’ finish) – see colours below.

What does it look like?


As a natural stone, Indian Sandstone is a hard wearing paving product. With its subtle blend of colours, Indian Sandstone compliments most planting schemes.  This is the case whether it is laid in a more traditional garden or a garden with a more minimal contemporary theme; the choice available in colour means that you are sure to find one that suits your garden. In a more traditional garden in Reading for example, we laid Indian Sandstone in the Modak Rose colour and this suited perfectly the age of the property and the cottage garden feel of the planting.

Surface Finish

Sandstone comes in a number of different surface finishes:

  • Riven: Hand cut finish, with a rustic riven surface (generally the cheapest option, as this is how it comes out of the quarry)
  • Sawn: Often sawn on all six sides & either honed or sandblasted to give a contemporary look (generally the most expensive, as it involves the most processing)
  • Tumbled: Processed for a softer finish, with rounded edges and corners – for a vintage, time worn appearance.


Indian Sandstone Paving - Colours

Indian Sandstone comes in a range of mainly subtle colours. Our preferred supplier Nigel Belcher offers a range of six colours (for traditional riven sandstone) – Autumn Brown, Buff Blend, Mint, Grey, Modak Rose and Raj Mix. Other suppliers may use different names.

Sawn and Tumbled Indian Sandstone are available in similar colours.

Slip Resistance

One of the many benefits of sandstone is that it’s not slippery – even a sawn sandstone patio when wet has good slip resistance.


The main downside to Indian Sandstone is that algae may build up over the years, particularly on a north facing patio which gets little sunlight. Algae can be prevented by using a sealant such as Drytreat which has a 10 to 15 year guarantee.  (ALDA Landscapes is officially registered to administer this product by the company Drytreat).


Indian Sandstone is the most economical of the natural stones, especially in the hand cut finish, having a reasonable cost compared to upmarket concrete products and limestone / slate. As noted above, Tumbled and Sawn Indian Sandstones are more expensive, as they involve more processing.