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.


Wide, shallow garden

How to Cope with Wide Shallow Gardens

Wide shallow gardens lack depth relative to their width and can appear to lack a sense of space and distance.  This problem can be exacerbated in small back gardens with high fences, where the garden can seem like a tiny shallow rectangular box.  And in front gardens, the problem can be made worse by the need to partition the garden in order to provide space for parking and a path to the front door.

But there are ways around these issues; take a look at the following photos for example:


The following garden design tips might help:

  • A strong internal garden structure and shaping will direct attention away from the outer boundaries and the closest fences
  • Bold but curving / flowing shapes (e.g. for lawns) are particularly effective
  • Locating a garden feature or feature area (to accommodate a seat for example) in the far corner(s) of the garden, and shaping the paving or lawn so that it flows out to these features can increase the apparent size of the garden.
  • Don’t be afraid to make the shallowest part of the garden even shallower, so that the garden can widen out into the corners – giving even more sense of depth and space
  • Or, you might try an alternative approach to the above, emphasizing the shortest (shallowest) part of the garden with a straight path through it. This can give a greater sense of depth, and works particularly well in formal and / or front gardens.
  • Another, and slightly unusual approach, in very wide gardens, might be to consider dividing the gardens into rooms, but running across (as opposed to up) the garden (see the second example in the slideshow above).
  • Materials can play an important role. For example, paler paving can make an area appear larger.  And finally…..
  • Not forgetting plants. Recessive colours like mauves and blues appear further away, and therefore make a garden seem deeper and / or larger than it actually is.  In contrast, really bright reds and oranges can have the opposite effect and are best avoided, at least in the furthest reaches of the garden.

If nothing else, remember to keep it simple.  This is particularly important in very small gardens, where very simple patterns and shapes, done well, normally give the most elegant and effective solution.

If you’re struggling for ideas and need some professional input, please do give us a call (0118 934 2958) or email us (


Black Slate Patio

John’s Blog: Thinking of a new patio?

If a new patio is a tempting idea then read on …………

With Spring approaching now could be the perfect time to think about installing a new patio in your garden.  If you are looking to update your garden with minimal disruption a new patio could be the solution.

At ALDA Landscapes we are experienced in design and construction of patios in all shapes and sizes ranging from small back gardens to patios that wrap around the house and lead off down into the garden.  When it comes to building patios it is often the case that a formal design is not necessary and that ideas can be discussed between myself and the client.  If your garden has a tendency to become water logged then fear not as we are experienced in providing drainage solutions and this should not prove an obstacle in achieving the patio you want.


Many of our clients find the most interesting but also challenging side of designing a new patio is choosing the right paving to compliment the brickwork or outside walls of their house and the overall feel of their garden. This can be difficult due to the wealth of choice available in paving materials from the contemporary feel that slate can offer to the popular choice and warmer colours of Indian sandstone to the traditional requests for Yorkstone or concrete slabs to many others such as limestone and granite paving.

Black Slate (laid flush with bi fold doors, with hidden damp proofing)Indian SandstoneTuscan or Antique LimestoneBlack SlateA more traditional approach...Indian SandstoneCourtyard PavingKota Blue LimestoneBlack Limestone

Even when you have made your decision about the type of paving to be used there are often decisions to be made re the colour or indeed the finish of the paving especially if your choice is Indian sandstone for example there are about 6 different colour choices ranging from mint to buff brown to castle grey – however this is where we can step in with our experience and advise our customers to make the choice that is right for them.

One client requested a contemporary look to his back garden – this was created through an angular approach to the design of the garden and by selecting the right plants but one of the major factors in achieving the impact the client desired was to use black slate paving with a smooth finish.  The choice of black slate makes the garden a stand out space and requires low maintenance throughout the year.

Most of our clients choose Indian sandstone, its timeless appeal as a traditional building material is suited to traditional and contemporary gardens and therefore provides the perfect backdrop for showing off your planting design.  It does however require some maintenance during the year, a good jet wash being the ideal cleaning method.

Another popular request from clients is to provide a flush finish and so provide a smooth transition from their inside space directly out onto their patio – again this is where we are experienced in providing solutions to our garden builds.

So if you are tempted to invest in a new patio contact us! – call 0118 934 2958 or 01635 552 288.  We pride ourselves in attention to detail such as providing drainage solutions to keep your patio looking good and puddle free throughout the year.  A visit to our preferred supplier, Nigel Belcher Turf and Paving in Hermitage (01635 202700) and a browse through a paving brochure is recommended as a perfect start to planning your new patio!



Is It Safe To Plant In The Winter Months?

Some clients get very concerned if we inform them that we are planning to undertake some of the planting in their gardens during the winter months.  And clients choosing to do their own planting often ask us if it is safe to plant anything at this time of year.

As with a lot of things, the answer is… it depends.


Many plants (particularly some of the most common trees and shrubs, and winter flowering perennials) are remarkably hardy, and can be planted at any time during the winter, provided that the ground is not frozen or waterlogged.

Indeed, winter can be the best time of year to plant some plants (e.g. roses, Beech and Hornbeam hedging) as they are dormant, and can be purchased bare root or root balled at considerably lower prices than their container grown counterparts.

It is also worth bearing in mind that some of the shrubs bought and planted in spring will have spent the previous winter outside in a nursery, coping with whatever weather nature brings along.   And whilst many plants (both newly planted and well established) will succumb if we have a very long spell of cold frosty weather, snow can actually protect new plants as it acts as a good insulation blanket!

And No…

Having said all this, here at ALDA we only do a very small amount of planting during the very cold months of January and February.  This is partly due to the difficulty in forecasting the weather – it is hard to plan with certainty when and how long it is going to be too cold to plant.  There are also issues about plant availability at this time of year.  In general, nurseries have less stock during winter, and new stocks of some plants, for example, late summer flowering perennials (e.g. Asters) and slightly tender shrubs (e.g. Fuchsias) tend not to come on stream until late Spring.

Most importantly, there are some plants which we never plant during winter.  If you think about it, these plants are the obvious ones:

  • Anything which comes from a hot climate and is slightly tender won’t really thank you for taking it straight out of a cosy warm polytunnel and planting it in a cold and frosty garden!
  • Plants that come from warm and dry (and often free draining) environments (e.g. Mediterranean plants – think of plants with grey leaves) absolutely hate going straight out into the cold and wet soils that are so typical of our winters these days.

So, we would advise against planting things like Hebe, Phormiums, Lavender, and Santolina until the weather, and more specifically the ground, starts to warm up (and dry up) in spring.  These types of plant benefit from having a season to establish before being subjected to the vagaries of a British Winter.

Hope this helps!


Photo credits: PlantingBeech Hedge, Silver Birch, Rose, Snowy Garden, Santolina, Lavender, Phormium, Hebe.

First impressions count…

In my eyes, it is just as important to pay attention to your front garden as it is the back.  And now the BBQ season is over, this is a good time of year to start thinking of ways to add interest to the front.  Many of our clients prefer this time of year to have work done in the garden – when they are spending more time indoors and before the (hopefully) better weather arrives in the Spring!

Transforming the appearance of your front garden could be as simple as the installation of a new fence, pathway or drive. Or a new planting design will add colour and interest in the winter months (obviously my business partner Alison Tipping is the expert to consult on this one!)

A recent design for a client involved putting in a new shingle drive and installing a distinctive fence at the top of the lawn – these simple but effective changes help define and make better use of the garden space.  The before and after photos below illustrate the point nicely:

Before After Before After

Over the last two weeks ALDA Landscapes have been working on another front garden. This time the transformation was created by building a new brick wall along the boundary of the garden closest to the pavement and by a radical clearance of overgrown shrubs and plants.

In the before photo you can see how overgrown the ivy clad wall looked and how the abundance of shrubs obscured the view of the house. The after photo reveals a new brick wall and the garden cleared ready for a new planting scheme to take shape over the next couple of months. We were also asked by the client to repair an existing brick wall – not an easy job as the weather turns more wintry, but I’m sure you will agree it was worth it, as the photos reveal below!

Earley - before0 Earley - after0 Earley - before1 Earley - after1 Earley - before2 Earley - after2

And just for good measure, here’s a photo of another front garden we designed and constructed earlier this year (more details in this blog post):

Front Garden4

So now is a good time to get thinking of ways to improve the appearance of your front garden and up the curb appeal of your house!

Contact us if you need a hand…