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Get the garden of dreams: 10 tips from the pros

Our gardens have never been more of a sanctuary. Whether you have a bijou backyard or several acres to sit out in, making the most of our outdoor space is key. Want to steal the tricks of the trade from an RHS-winning landscape architect? Read on.

If your garden is anything like the Muddy backyard then it might just need a bit of TLC. Straggly borders with nothing in them? Nowhere to host that epic Freedom Day party you’ve got planned?!

Fortunately, we have invited the talented Charlie Hartigan – an award-winning landscape architect – to solve your garden gripes. She guides us through the knotweed maze of landscaping. Here are her 10 brilliant tips on designing a dream garden.

Get ready for some alfresco-bliss …

woman in garden

Hello Charlie, tell us a bit about you?

I’m a landscape architect with Envisage Gardens, an award-winning team of Garden Designers, Landscape Architects and Horticulturists based at RHS Chelsea Gold-winning Grafton Nursery in Worcs.

Where do you get your inspo?

I love creating dream outdoor spaces. I’m very much inspired by my clients, their homes, and their lifestyles. I’ve lived and breathed gardens since I was small, my parents owned a plant nursery so I’m a 4th gen horticulturalist (I even won a Blue Peter badge aged 9 for my design for the Millennium garden!).

In 2019 I received a Silver-Gilt medal and the RHS People’s Choice Award for the Best Large Garden in the ‘Young Designer of the Year’ at RHS Tatton Park. As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field it made me very proud.

What mind-blowing gardens have you created?

“Around the World” was a garden I made for a well-travelled couple. I designed a series of themed ‘rooms’; an English rose garden with box hedging, a Mediterranean-inspired garden; an Alpine garden with rough stone textures and sweet pink and white alpine plants; a Japanese-inspired area with a Tsukubai, and Japanese maples for gorgeous winter colour; and a traditional ‘Lapa’ garden building for BBQs surrounded by the bright colours and wild textures of South Africa.

We also installed a 3-acre arboretum for a client who wanted to transform a paddock into a carbon-sinking, wildlife haven. I call it the ‘jewellery box’ as it appears to be a native woodland from the outside but when you wander within, there is a wildlife pond with ornamental willows that light in the winter, a Magnolia walk for stunning spring blooms, an Acer (Japanese maple) glade for good colour in the summer but stunning hues in the autumn, and an American Dogwood Grove which have stunning flowers – one of which is called the ‘wedding cake tree’ and takes centre stage!

Right – the reality check! What budget do we need?

Estate agents say spend 10-20% of the value of the house on the garden as that it how much a well-executed garden can add to the value of the house, it’s also said a good-quality garden build costs £200-300 per square metre; which is considerably cheaper than an extension at £1,000-2,500 per square metre! Spending £30,000 – £50,000 is pretty standard for a high-end garden of about 160 square meters. If you see a garden that you like the look of, ask the designer or landscapers how much it actually cost to build. If you don’t know of anyone you might ask, take a look at @dreamofthisgarden on Instagram where they publish finished projects and the cost to build it.

It can sound scary, but people can spend that much on a wedding, a new car, or a few trips to Disneyland! Yet a well-designed and soundly built garden for the same price will last a lifetime.

If you don’t have a large budget for a total garden transformation you can create wow-factor by plating up an existing border or buying the largest planter you can find and filling it with exuberant seasonal colour. This would act as a great focal point for the garden.

Describe your no-limits dream garden?

My absolute DREAM garden (if money was no issue!) is an enormous red-brick Victorian walled garden. They have such a special atmosphere; warm, still, comforting.

I would divide it into several garden ‘rooms’, each with a different theme for all-year-round interest, with a fragrant rose garden, a water garden pool, a formal Italianate garden, a cottage garden with exuberant perennials, a Spring garden stuffed with early tulips and late-flowering daffodils, an orchard with rare species, a tennis court with fragrant honeysuckle and rambling roses growing up the fence, and a huge glass & wood greenhouse … not much to ask! Oh and a big space for parties with pizza oven and wine fridge, of course!

What’s trending in gardens right now?

Putting nature first. People are loving wildlife-friendly schemes that are packed with plants for pollinators. Likewise fruit and veg patches are really big too. Also, entertaining from home, there’s a surge in outdoor kitchens such as tables on solid stone patios with downlighters and hidden speakers. Garden spas too. Wood-fired hot-tubs are really popular. Multifunctional spaces are big too – garden offices which people are using as gyms, art studios or even bars!

Charlie’s 10 Brilliant Tips to Transform your Garden

1 Do your research

Ask yourself these questions; how you want to use your space and how should it feel? Cosy, restful, colourful or fragrant and energizing? Who uses the garden and what needs or hobbies do they have? Do you have a dream look or feature? If it’s all a bit much, consult a designer early on so that they can untangle your thoughts. Don’t forget to issue them with a ‘build’ budget early on to prevent any surprises.

2. Give your garden a sense of identity

Do you have something that makes you scream, “that’s so me!” It might be a colour, pattern, fragrance, design era, or something that inspires you. For example, neon colours remind me of a one friend, whilst William Morris prints remind me of another! Use this method to draw out elements of your personality and find inspiration for your design.

3. Keep it simple

If you find yourself drawn to lots of styles, pick one era, colour scheme or feature that you couldn’t live without and use that as the central point to which all other decisions are based around. Too many different themes will clash and, although ‘eclectic’ is very in vogue, it is incredibly difficult to achieve – you’re at risk of it looking less like a garden and more like a trade showroom! I like to work with one theme for one area, and blend it into another theme, keeping them coordinated and complimentary e.g. traditional paving with a formal layout and heritage features closer to the house, blending into a semi-modern, naturalistic planting scheme, with a wild woodland garden in the distance.

4. Pour over mood boards or visualisations

Muddy’s moodboard would feature tons of Wisteria

Your designer should offer some form of artistic impression of the space. Depending on your budget, this may be an impressive ‘walk though’ CGI piece, akin to something you’d see in a movie! But these are pricey so it could be a couple of eye-level pencil sketches and a printed mood board with pictures of the materials. If you can’t picture it, ask for more information. If the designer has already fulfilled their contractual obligations they may ask for a little bit of paid time to do more sketches, but it is worth it in the long run.

5. Create a journey

Consider carving up large spaces into smaller, but still useable, ones. Stagger paths and create mystery by obscuring some of the view with large shrubs or free-standing screens. Arranging small spaces on the diagonal can help to lengthen paths and create that sense of traveling through the garden.

6. Include a bit of tech

Fairy lights look sweet but, trust me, mains-powered garden lighting is better. Go for bollard downlighters nestled amongst the planting around your paths and terraces, and recessed lights that wash along steps. Hidden speakers add wow-factor unify house and garden as you can carry your summer soundtrack outdoors. Ensure they’re on a timer or an easy-to-reach switch. Take internet out into the garden by wiring a router into a safe place if it’s too far from the house WiFi. We have also installed several data cables for clients wishing to monitor their greenhouses remotely! Viewing the ‘plant-cam’ and opening vents without having to leave the house!

7. Dedicate space to an outdoor kitchen

If a full-blown countertop, sink, fridge and grill isn’t your thing, create a BBQ nook, or even some space to site a buffet table or a hired-in caterer. You’ll definitely be throwing the party of the century if you have space for a cocktail bar and there’s still enough room left on the patio for dancing!

8. Review your wider views

Consider pruning any foliage that blocks a magnificent view; open up your garden boundary to borrow some of that surrounding countryside and create wow-factor. Conversely, you may wish to reinforce your perimeter to improve privacy and create a more cosy space. Got a neighbour that likes to practice naked yoga in their floor-length upstairs window? (Yes, this really happened.) Screen them out with instant trees or a stylish trellis panel atop the fence. Always remember though, you may not own one of your garden hedges or fences, so tread with caution!

9. Find that perfect evening ‘sweet spot’

Work out where you get the summer evening light in your garden and create a seating area. Include outdoor sofas, blankets and a fire pit for a glorious space for drinks with friends whilst watching the sun set. Surround it with fragrant planting such as Honeysuckle ‘Rhubarb and Custard’, Rose “Gertrude Jekyll”, Mock Orange, or English Lavender. The bees will love you for it.

10. Use the best quality building materials you can afford

This is absolutely crucial! And don’t skimp on the installation. Ensure you’re getting deep foundations, thick layers of hardcore, continuous mortar beds etc. We have had to correct serious problems for clients and the long-term damage was catastrophic. It can seem expensive when you only see the surface of any heavy-duty garden structure, but it is worth it; the majority of your investment is buried underground making what’s on top stay looking good for years to come.

garden

To book your garden consultation head to www.envisage-gardens.co.uk or call 01905 885 321. With more than 30 years experience Charlie and the team can help with any sized landscape design and build project, from small urban gardens to country estates. Find them on Instagram @envisage_gardens.

Want some more garden inspo? Click here for more gorgeous garden ideas.

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