Tuesday, 30 November 2010

A front garden with not much promise...?

When a contractor I work with regularly asked if I'd be interested in doing a design for a front garden in Edinburgh that he'd been to see, my heart sank when I heard that the client's priority was parking for his cars and originally wanted to just re-tarmac the whole thing. The contractor mentioned to him that talking to a garden designer about it could give him a space that would not only fulfil his parking needs but make it feel like a proper garden, and potentially save him money. Gathering the brief from the client I realised there was much more potential for this front garden that just a glorified huge place to park. It was large, not overlooked (it was surrounded by beautiful stone walls & electric gates) and got sun until late in the afternoon. When I documented in my design proposal that I could include 3 parking spaces but also add a place to enjoy breakfast, store wheelie & recycle bins, room for the kids to play safely as well as include lots of planting, they didn't seem too convinced. This was it before:
Not very pretty or inspiring, so I could understand their scepticism. I drew up the survey and an informal bubble diagram emerged in the process:
Trying to park 2 cars at the north end of the garden, whilst leaving space for a 3rd car and/or access to the garage seemed like quite a tall order. I had to accept that there would be more hard landscaping than planting areas, and we'd agreed that a majority of this would be pale creamy coloured paviors to tie in with the house façade.But how to not make it look like a supermarket car park...? Hmm.
The above concept was created, and using the simple device of using curves, circles and a 2nd colour of pavior really helps break the large parking space up. The area to the side of the house was very private and got lots of sunshine, so there is included a good sized circular patio, surrounded by planting, which separates it from the more utilitarian parking areas & rest of the garden. A small step from it leads to another circle which allows the clients to reverse their cars and get out of the gate easily. A 3rd contrasting circle provides an attractive welcome for visitors at the top of the stairs and helps link these to the front door. 
I'm often written blog posts about the value of Sketchup (and no I'm not on commission!), especially for tricky sites on slopes and the like. But sometimes it's just really good at convincing clients that something that looks nice, but pretty ordinary, from above can look great when you're actually in it. I always prepare 3D models to clients now, it really never fails to get them to see your vision. I took these along at our first design meeting.
The not only look good from a distance, but the view at person height in the garden shows them how well the accentuated curved planting beds can make it feel like an attractive garden and not just a place to park. The plants especially on either side of the front door really help anchor the house with the landscape without taking up too much room. The kids too can zip up and down the whole garden on their scooters and roller skates in safety.
And this view showed them that the breakfast patio is tucked away and could be a nice place to be.
The clients were delighted with the design and wanted to go ahead without changing a thing. So the final design drawing was produced. As usual the clients get a copy which is done in Photoshop. 
But as I've mentioned on other blog posts, the Sketchup drawing is the one that allows me to provide the contractors with the dimensions & areas for them to provide a quote. And once the build commences a great tool for marking out. I also use Sketchup to create my planting plans (more of that in another post), so the design outline can be re-used for that too. This garden had virtually no straight lines, so the measurements for triangulating centres of circles and well as line to create quite precise curves was easy to document. Marking out was a doddle!
We have started the garden now, it took quite a bit of clearing (tarmac over a foot deep in places). The weather has been against us, very wet and the guys have done a really good job so far considering how many paviors they are having to lay. We started with building the circles:
And the rest is following on quite nicely. Some bare root pleached trees are going in over the winter with the majority of the planting being done in the spring, which will hugely help in softening off all the hard landscaping that exists there at the moment.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Top Ten New Plants - well to me.

We had a Society of Designers (SGD) cluster group meeting in Edinburgh last week, where everyone was to bring their Top Ten plants. There was about 12-14 of us and it was interesting to see the huge variety of varieties that people brought along as theirs. Some were their own personal favourites, others talked about most reliable ones they'd used in clients gardens. I decided to list ten that I hadn't used before this year that I'd definitely like to use in my own garden when we eventually manage to plant it next spring. So here goes:
1) Anchusa azurea 'Loddon Royalist':
I first saw this at a plant show this May and was bowled over by it's stunning deep blue flowers. It grows to about 1-1.2 m tall, but doesn't seem to need staking. For this reason I used it as an alternative to Delphiniums which the client was keen on & we planted it in a sunny site. It flowered for a long time and was constantly surrounded by bees. Lovely from early summer onwards and worked well with Astrantia Ruby Wedding, Cirsium rivulare 'Atropurpureum' and Echinacea 'White Swan'.
2) Actaea simplex 'Brunette':
I'm in love with dark foliaged plants at the moment, been asked a lot in the last 18 months to do schemes with lots of purples, reds, dark pink and white - so these works wonderfully. It's again quite tall, reaching well over a metre in clients garden this year. It has pink flushed white flowers from late August onwards, with dark purple triple lobed leaves. It has tiny little round buds before it bursts into flower, which is one of my favourite things about it, so I planted it against the rendered walls of an apartment block I was working on this year and it looked stunning. Used it with Penstemon 'Southgate Gem', Knautia macedonia (more on this below), Lobelia cardinalis 'Queen Victoria' and Anemone 'Honorine Jobert'. It can cope with damp shade too, so what are you waiting for??
3) Pennisetum thunbergii Red Buttons:
I used this in my own garden a year or two back,  but planted it for the first time in a clients this summer. I'm a huge fan of Lagurus ovatus or 'Bunny Tails', but it's only an annual, so wanted a perennial that would mimic it's habit - this early flowering fountain grass seemed to fit the bill. The bright red blooms last throughout the summer, and reached a height of about 60-80cm. Planted it near Echinacea 'Fatal Attraction', Salvia 'Caradonna', dark pink Astrantia and Sedum 'Autumn Joy'. Lovely, lovely, lovely.
4) Geranium pratense 'Plenum Violaceum':
I've never been fond of geraniums, they always made me think (rightly or wrongly) of badly planted public spaces. A combination of seeing how well they were used whilst on holiday in France and moving out to a cottage in rural East Lothian which contained lots of them made me start to realise their merits. There come in many colours, some of which are very pretty indeed. I used this one with double rich violet blue flowers in a traditional planting scheme in the Scottish Borders earlier this summer. Only seems to need moderately fertile soil and can cope with full sun or partial shade. Planted next to the dark purple Iris chrysographes 'Black Form', Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle' and Digitalis purpurea f. albiflora it looks great.
5) Knautia macedonia 'Mars Midget':
I've been using Knautia macedonia in my own and client's gardens for a few years now, it's one of my absolute favourites. This year I also used 'Mars Midget', which is a dwarf variety which only grows to around 50cm tall. It's flowers compare well size wise to the normal variety, and is just as deep a raspberry colour too. It flowered it's little socks off for ages after it began in July. It's planted beside Imperata 'Red Baron', Penstemon 'Raven' and Achillea 'Moonshine. Purple foliage works well, so also have it near to Actaea and in front of Eupatorium 'Chocolate' (now called Ageratina).
6) Crocosmia 'Emily McKenzie':
I'm a huge fan of Crocosmias and this one is a beauty. It goes really well with all the purple flowering plants I've been using this year but also is great with purple foliage (Sambucus 'Black Beauty', Heucheras and Phormium 'Black Velvet' to name a few). It has lovely dark red buds which open to dark orange flowers, and a favourite combination of mine are these with the Actaea 'Brunette' mentioned above. It more compact than most Crocosmias getting to about 50-60cm tall and again flowers late into the year. Another late flowering perennial it worked well for me this year was Rudbeckia 'Goldstrum'.
7) Verbascum phoeniceum 'Violetta':
Going through my purple and/or cottage garden phase how could I not include this beauty? It's often regarded as a biennial or short lived perennial, but it's still worth considering. It has the usual Verbascum saucer shaped flowers appear in around May, the colour of which is the most delicious velvety purple. It only reaches about 90cm, so good for smaller gardens. Needs a bit of staking with twiggy pea sticks to stop it flopping over. I planted with other early flowerers such as Aquilegia 'Snow Queen' and Astrantia 'Pink Pride', as well as structural shrubs such as box balls and dark purple leaved Heuchera.
8) Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah':

I'm a huge fan of the grass Imperata 'Red Baron' so thought I'd give this a go as an alternative this summer. It get a good bit taller (around 80-90cm) and it can cope with drier summers (not really a problem up here!). It starts off green leaves which start to turning dark red at its tips in late June/into July and then burgundy in the autumn. It has teeny weeny pinky red flowers in autumn which shimmer and froth in the sunshine. It's needs a sunny position and looks good with other grasses (I used it near Pennisetum mentioned above) and late summer perennials (Echinacea, sedum, Asters etc). I have also used it nearby Acer 'Bloodgood' which worked a treat. I was super excited to see it planted en-masse on the High Line in New York recently, huge swathes of it planted alongside Rudbeckia subtomentosa. That's a whole other blog post...
9) Schizostylis coccinea 'Alba':
Schizostylis is a well known late flowering variety, I've used S. 'Major' with it's large deep red gladioli-like flowers before, but tried this one for the first time. It has spikes of really distinctive starry white flowers in September and reaches about 60cm high. Looks good again with other late flowering varieties - I used Sedum 'Purple Emperor' and Crocosmia 'Lucifer' and think it'd good good next to grasses too.
10) Thalictrum delavayi 'Hewitt's Double':
I'm for ever using Verbena bonariensis to get late summer transparent planting and thought I'd try this Meadow rue to see how it fared in a garden in the Scottish Borders where Vb might not too do well. I'm in love. It has dainty light tiny pom pom flowers that looks like a purple mist hovering above all the plants around it. It has dark purple stems, reaches over 1.2 metres tall and we found that when it was grown in a group they don't need any support. They work well with heavier bolder flowers - we had Coreopis, Asters, Echinacea, Anemones and Monarda. They also make great cut flowers. 

These are all definitely going in my new garden!

Friday, 17 September 2010

For someone who doesn't like yellow...

I've been working on a really lovely garden project down in the Scottish Borders since late last year. The clients have been really brilliant to work for and it's been a great opportunity for me to tackle a more traditional design than normal. When we started talking about what plants they'd like to include, Joan talked about her favourite colour being yellow. 'Eeek' I thought - I have gone out of my way to avoid yellow in my own garden and up until now, believe it or not none of my clients wanted to include it either. They usually ask for stuff like this:
or this:
or these:
So it was with a bit of trepidation that I started working on the planting plan, trying to figure out how I was going to make it look exciting and hang together well. I presented the scheme and mood board to client and she seemed to like everything I had chosen. It got planted up at the end of August and I went to have a look at it today to see how it's looking a few weeks on. To my complete surprise I have fallen in love with many plants and combinations that I never would have tried had she not wanted to include so many yellow flowering varieties. Here are some of my favourites:
1) Rudbeckia 'Goldstrum' - why had I never included this in a planting scheme before?? Goes beautifully well with dark purple foliage. I've got it next to a Physocarpus Diablo (thanks Belinda for that great idea!) and there are also purple Salvia nemorosa 'Ostfriesland' nearby.
2) Lupinus polyphyllus 'Camelot Yellow' which is a very pretty pale colour. Again I don't normally go for such 'quiet' shades but I really like this too. It's flowering quite late and next to Echinacea purpurea it looks fab.
3) Hemerocallis Hyperion is a stronger yellow than I thought it would be, but again with the surrounding hot Crocosmias and Heleniums they work well.
4) Kniphofia Alcazar: This one's a bit of a cheat, it's not strictly yellow and I've used it in gardens before. But still worth including. It's next to Aster × frikartii 'Mönch' and they are unexpectedly good together. 
5) Achillea 'Moonshine': I've used Achillea in lots of gardens, but usually the red and pink ones. Red Velvet is a favourite as is Cerise Queen. This is the staple of any late summer flowering border and I will definitely be using it in my garden when I eventually get round to planting it up.
6) Coreopsis verticillata Zagreb: Gavin at my local nursery, Macplants helped me with this little beauty. Joan also asked for lots of daisy like flowers, so this seemed a good choice - it's got really nice fine feathery foliage  & is still flowering it's little socks off.
Working on this garden and on this planting scheme is the most fun I've had in ages, it's been really nice to prove my daft pre-conceived ideas wrong about how twee and daffodil like using yellow can be! PS Included this last photo as the Asters are looking brilliant just now - not exactly yellow, but the centre has to count??  No point trying to change a girl's taste too quickly..

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

I'm a designer - 3 years on?

realised recently that it's been 3 years since the completion of my first proper design job, and as well as wondering where the devil the time has gone, I started thinking about how different my business, the projects I work on and how I approach them is now to back then. And what have I learned in that time??

1) It's bloomin' hard work: I've worked longer days than I ever have before. Despite being determined to have at least one day off a week, invariably I find myself sneaking off to check my emails or visiting clients on a Sunday. Now I'm not complaining, it comes with the territory of getting any new business up & running - I just don't think I was realistic when I started out about how much time time being a designer involved! But it has been completely worth it - despite starting up just as the recession began my business has steadily grown each year. I've had 3 times as many clients this year as the 1st, and the size & complexity of the some of the commissions has grown too.
2) It can get a bit lonely: unless you're lucky enough to work in a design studio, most designers are sole traders and spend many days working on their own. I found as time has gone on and I am getting more gardens built, I spend more time with contractors and clients, so the amount of days I am completely on my own has dropped, especially this year. But there are other ways of beating the loneliness - I have found that joining my local SGD (Society of Garden Designers) cluster group was one of the best. Was able to get advice from designers who had been in practice for a while, attend various events & talks and just have some folks around who understand when things weren't going so well. Many of them are now friends, who I socialise with regularly.
3) Don't be afraid to ask questions: even after gaining a GD qualification, there is lots we need to learn when we leave college. Again, don't think I was quite prepared for how much! But one thing I know is not to try & pretend you know about something that you don't - can get you in all sorts of hot water. Most clients would prefer that you were honest and told them you didn't know the answer right now, but you'll find out for them. Having good relationships with contractors, landscape suppliers and nurseries means you always have someone to turn to get advice from. And this is another good reason to join the SGD. 
4) Use on-line resources: I have found websites and online communities an invaluable resource. I have hooked up with lots of other designers on Twitter who regularly pass on useful information, and are just nice to chat to! Sites such as LandscapeJuiceNetwork has forums where you can usually get technical advice. I have written a blog post about this (http://mcquegardens.blogspot.com/2010/03/im-designer-looking-for-work-now-what.html) but having a website is taken as read now. I am getting more recommendations now, but it was setting up a website when I got started that got me much of my initial work. Make sure you update your website portfolio at least once or twice a year, I am in the middle of re-vamping mine completely. Blogging about current projects also lets clients see that you are an active garden designer.

5) Diversity: it can take a while to earn a decent living from being a garden designer, and there are invariably going to be quieter periods in the year, especially over the winter. Apart from just pure garden design there are lots of other ways of working in horticulture and I've realised that I shouldn't discount other ways of making some money. I was offered a lecturing job, and my initial reaction was of terror and to turn it down. I have now been teaching GD and Horticulture students in Project Management, Specification & Job Estimation for the last 2 years. It's only for one term, but it earns me as much money as I'd probably earn from a decent sized design job. I really enjoy doing it and as a result I was involved in working on a show garden at this years Chelsea - http://mcquegardens.blogspot.com/2010/06/fun-at-chelsea-2010.html

Many garden designers I know do garden maintenance - specialised pruning and the like. It's good for enhancing your plant knowledge and some maintenance jobs can lead to planting or full design work. 

6) Don't be frightened to toot your own horn: by having a website we are showing our potential clients (and the world) what good work we are capable of. So why stop there? There are lots of ways of getting your name out there - I know a few designers who have had local newspapers feature interesting project that they've worked on and it is potentially free advertising. The first design job that I mentioned above was featured in the SGD Garden Design Journal Review of the Year 2008: 
And then another featured in the SGD Review of the Year 2009:

Not bad for someone in her first 2 years of business?! Toot toot.

7) Be prepared to get your hands dirty: I mentioned working hard and not being afraid to ask questions and both of these can be nicely linked together by getting your hands dirty. I worked hands on building some gardens, learning how to lay paving, mix mortar and build decks. It gave me an invaluable insight to a landscapers working day, got me lots of good landscape & nursery supply contacts and improved my knowledge of costs of materials, labour, plant hire. All of these have given me a source of people & organisations to ask advice of and contractors who see you have a practical knowledge of what you're designing are much keener to build your gardens. Many landscapers, rightly or wrongly, have a perception that working with designers is more trouble than it's worth and all we do all day is colour in and point at things (I wish!). By being able to talk to them about technical details and ask the odd question gains a lot of respect, and I really enjoyed doing it. One thing most designers I know bemoan is being able to get good contractors to build their gardens - doing the above certainly helped me. PS This isn't me working hard!

So there you go - it would seem I have learned quite a bit in the last 3 years - I have grown in confidence, my designs have improved and this feels like the best job in the world. Well most days anyway.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Using Sketchup & Photoshop for design work - part II

It's been a few months since I wrote about how I use Sketchup and Photoshop for my garden design work. Got lots of feedback and correspondence about it, so thought I'd look at another one. The previous one was in my first year of business, a flat, small and relatively straightforward garden. This one was late last summer, about 18 months later - although it too is small, it is very steep (2 metre drop over 10 metres long). It was also quite tricky to survey, had lots of vegetation, poor sight lines and a rockery that crumbled under our feet when we stood on it.
Again we did a radial survey, using a dumpy level, compass and measuring tape. From it I was able to draw the survey at 2D which has the boundary, where lawn was and North point:
As before I use this 2D outline to create a basic design. This is the only part of the process that is done with paper and pencil - these are just fairly small thumbnail printouts, which allows some basic design work which provides the basis for the final design. The brief was to clear the garden, create contemporary terracing and include a path to the front door. This curvy path concept was created:
These get scanned and imported into Photoshop, where they are given a bit of colour for the presenting:
Next I was able to use the heights we'd taken at all the key points to create a 3D contoured plan. This is done using Sketchup Sandbox tools (the From Contours option), which gave me this model:
I then also import the scanned concept drawing into Sketchup which allows me to create a properly scaled paths, walls but more importantly see how those will work in the context of the sloping ground. First, get the 2D elements working:
Then using my survey data, drag up all the walls, steps and path to the heights - really easy to do in Sketchup using the Push/Pull tool. This gives me a model which looks like it has really scary tall walls:
But once it is merged with the 3D model of the survey, then where steps and walls work (or don't!) become apparent:
As well as being able to double check whether this design makes any sense to build, I find it a really useful tool for presenting to clients, so as well as showing them the Photoshop concepts I have this model which I can show them. I take my laptop and am able to let them see how it feels walking up the path, view from the house etc. Really invaluable I find, especially for gardens with as many level changes as this.
Now for the final polished Photoshop treatment - this is a mounted board that gets given to the client. 
The next phase is where Sketchup really comes even more in to its own . It allows me to give the contractor 3D views and lots of measurements to not only price but build the garden. Each area of paving, walls, gravel paths is calculated automatically, so can be labelled easily and it is great for setting out on site too.
As well as measurements I can triangulate off known points (the bottom step on the left hand side) to get exact dimensions and curves of walls. Genius, accurate and much less work than mucking about with a scale ruler I reckon. 
Anyhow, build went very well and here are some pics of during and finished.
This is it all rendered and then painted in shade matched with exterior paint:
It got planted at the start of May this year, and looked like this (excuse the dirty walls, I hadn't hosed them down yet!):
This is it only 7 weeks later, bit of a grey rainy day, need to go back and photograph when it's sunny.
Although it was a pretty small garden, I would have found it much more daunting and difficult to tackle if I hadn't used Sketchup to realise the levels, paths and walls and using that same outline to create final drawing for client in Photoshop. Throw away your drawing boards and don't spend a penny more on pencils & tracing paper!