Escape to Cornwall

Summer is when most people wake up to what’s going on in their garden, and hence it can be a busy time for garden designers.  However, we did manage to escape for a few days to Cornwall.  With its sheltered coastal gardens, full of exotic sub-tropical plants, contrasting with the exposed and rather bleak moors, it inevitably turned into something of a busman’s holiday.

Trelissick, standing on a promontory at the head of the Fal estuary, is a 1750’s house surrounded by parkland and a 20th Century garden. The 375 acres of parkland offer truly extensive walking trails and absolutely stunning waterside views.

Trelissick House

Trelissick House

The gardens comprise mainly woodland with an extensive collection of camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas, photinia and hydrangeas.  At its heart is a relatively small area of lawn and herbaceous planting, but nonetheless full of vivid colour and interest.  A new orchard, featuring local varieties, was planted recently, and there is also a “sensory garden” near the entrance and ubiquitous shop.  However, this is perhaps a garden where size, rather than interest, is its main claim to fame. (The house isn’t open to visitors.)

Trelissick - Herbaceous Border

Trelissick: Hedychium densiflorum “Assam Orange”, Persicaria microcephala “Red Dragon”, Crocosmia masoniorum, Eupatorium purpureum

Trebah, near Falmouth, manages to achieve an entirely different feel.  The main garden runs down a valley, leading down from the house to a secluded beach on the Helford river.  The plantings are truly varied, and very extensive.  Near to the house are mainly Mediterranean plants, leading succssively past the stumpery (really a fernery) and cascade, “baboozle”, gunnera passage (where you can walk under their giant leaves), rhododendron valley, various ponds, the hydrangea valley, before arriving at the little beach at Polgwiddon Cove where they even offer complimentary loan of bucket and spade, in case you’ve forgotten yours (well, I did say it was a busman’s holiday 😉 ).

Trebah - bronze fountain

Trebah – bronze fountain

Hydrangeas beside Mallard Pond

Hydrangeas beside Mallard Pond

(If you’re interested, I’ve posted some more photos on Flickr and our Facebook page.)

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Trees and Planning Permission

Pollarded veteran oak

There's life in this this old oak yet!

As some of our readers may be aware, most local planning authorities in the UK require that planning applications address the retention of existing trees on and around the site.  There is a British Standard BS5837:2005 “Trees in Relation to Construction – Recommendations” which covers such things as surveying the existing trees and ensuring retained trees are protected from damage during construction works.

A new edition of BS5837:2012 “Trees in relation to Design, Demolition & Construction – Recommendations” comes into effect at the end of April, and supersedes the 2005 edition.  This includes some significant changes, to reflect the perceived importance of trees in climate change adaptation as well as current practices and building regulations.

Some key changes include:

  • soil assessment is considered necessary at the conceptual design stage;
  • provisions added to address new planting design;
  • it is no longer permitted to displace root protection areas by up to 20%, making tree constraints much less flexible;
  • additional limitations on hard surfacing allowed near trees.

There are other changes, too.  Taken as a whole, it seems that getting planning permission for projects where there are existing trees will become more complex right from the design stage.  As such, it’s unlikely to be welcomed by developers, given the continued depressed state of housebuilding in the UK.  (However, it is worth remembering the recommendations apply equally to projects that don’t require planning permission.)

As landscape and garden design professionals, we’re ideally placed to help with the design of sites with trees.

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Building Beehives

Last week Tim ran a weekend course at his workshop, teaching how to build beehives, and it prompted considerable discussion about the health and viability of the UK’s honey bees.

Native "black" honey bee

Our native honey bee - extinct?

The importance of bees for plant pollination is enormous and, since the devastating arrival of the varroa mite, active bee management is essential for bee survival.  There are certainly some feral bee colonies in the wild, but sadly it’s currently not known whether we still have any colonies at all of our native black honey bee Apis mellifera mellifera.

The course was teaching how to build a simple beehive know as a “top bar hive” – a low cost alternative to the standard Langstroth hive that is becoming increasingly popular with amateur bee-keepers.  In a top bar hive the bees build their comb suspended from a rail or “top bar”, without the constraints imposed by the frames of a Langstroth hive.  The main reasons for the increasing popularity of the top bar hive are that only a small part of the colony is exposed when inspecting the hive, and that honey is harvested by taking individual combs, rather the whole “super” of a Langstroth hive (containing 8-10 frames).  This makes bee-keeping in a top bar hive much less invasive, and proponents claim this approach has significant benefits for the health and prosperity of the hive.

Tim Ayers' Top Bar Hive course March 2012

Tim Ayers' bee hive course - students proudly displaying their handiwork.

It isn’t all upside, of course.  The main drawbacks of the top bar hive are lower productivity, and the honey can’t be extracted by centrifuge so it’s usually produced as a honey comb – something some people consider a special delicacy.  But for many people the primary role of bees is to pollinate plants, and the fact you can only harvest part of the honey is a fair trade-off.

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Wildlife Gardening

Gardens, like so many things these days, are subject to changing fashions.  Recently, as a garden designer, I’ve seen a groundswell of interest in gardening for wildlife – insects, small mammals, amphibians and of course birds.

The key to attracting wildlife into our gardens is the use of native plant species, rather than the exotic ones we see at our local garden centre from as far afield as China, the Himalayas, South Africa and the Americas.  Attractive though they may be, they don’t do a lot for our native fauna.

Thankfully, there are plenty of native plants to choose from.  If your garden is big enough, an oak tree can support nearly 300 species of insects (plus up to 150 species of mites).  Willow, birch, hawthorn and blackthorn are the next highest ranking, so a traditional mixed hawthorn and blackthorn hedge, with the occasional elder, alder buckthorn and hazel mixed in, is a great habitat – and the haw berries and sloes will feed the birds well beyond Christmas.  Other small trees and shrubs you could consider include crab apple, wayfaring tree and guilder rose.

Herbaceous plants are perhaps more of a challenge.  A weed is often defined as simply a plant growing where we don’t want it, and that certainly applies when designing a wildlife planting.  Some of my favourite natives for the garden include ox-eye daisies, bisort (Polygonium bisorta) – which is also useful for its foliage, angelica (very structural), foxgloves, fennel, harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) and giant bellflowers (Campanula latifolia), as well as native bluebells. The daffodil is a native, too.

Nettles and thistles are ideal for butterflies, but if you’re worried your garden will end up looking like a collection of weeds, how about a wildflower meadow?  A strip of long grass, cut only once a year to encourage flowers to seed, can provide a miniature wildlife corridor to connect separate areas of native planting.  Wildflower meadows have a reputation of being problematic, but one of the easiest techniques is to simply strip off the top 2 inches of topsoil and lay wildflower turf.  (You can see some photos of a project where we did this on our Facebook page.)

Even if you only have a tiny, paved courtyard, you could still make your own “insect hotel”!

Insect hotel seen in a garden in Germany could consider an Insect Hotel

Whatever you choose to do, by including some wildlife-friendly areas in your garden you will be making your own unique contribution to our wildlife.  You could even enter The Big Wildlife Garden competition organized by the RHS and Wildlife Trusts – see

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SLANT Garden Design Competition 2011

Certificate of MeritI am delighted to report that we (Alex Lehne and Svend Rumbold) were awarded a Certificate of Merit for our short listed design “Magic Bavaria” in the SLANT Open International Garden Design Competition.  (As some of you may know, Rumbold-Ayers draws on the skills and expertise of a small core team with design and related skills; Alex and I are landscape and garden design specialists.)

The competition was organised by Irish designer Hugh Ryan, who was joined in the judging by Anthony Paul and John Brookes MBE.  Such an illustrious panel of judges makes the effort that goes into preparing a competition entry all the more worthwhile.  In fact we prepared two entries, one located in Bavaria and another set in the Sussex downs (which made the long list).

I thought you might like a short insight into the design process.

  1. Site Analysis:  normally we would visit the site and take photos etc., but the competition rules left us free to choose the location and topography of our garden, so instead we assembled photos from various sources, to convey the look and feel of our imaginary site. We prepared a site analysis diagram, showing the principal influencing characteristics.

    Site Analysis - "Magic Bavaria"

    Site Analysis - "Magic Bavaria"

  2. Sketch Plan: establishing the the allocation of space across the site, routes of flow, and the size and shape of all significant features.  This is the heart of the creative process, and we applied a technique known as pattern analysis – best illustrated by the trial-and-error evolutionary sketches that ultimately led us to the plan.  We spent 5 days working together, culminating in hand drawn sketch plans for the two designs.

    Sketch Plan Development - "Sussex Downland Garden"

    From Pattern Analysis to Sketch Plan - "Sussex Downland Garden"

  3. The final stage was to refine the details and prepare the illustrative visualisations that would make up the competition posters* (four A2 or A3 sheets).  We used 2d and 3d CAD (computer aided design), with hand and computer rendering, prepared plant lists and indicative planting details, and collected photographs to help illustrate the design.
    Sketch Plan - "Magic Bavaria"

    Sketch Plan - "Magic Bavaria"

    Perspective Views - "Magic Bavaria"

    Perspective Views - "Magic Bavaria"

    Planting Mood Board - "Magic Bavaria"

    Planting Mood Board - "Magic Bavaria"

The competition attracted entries from all over the world, and we were pleased to see both our designs make the long list (final 30).  When the short list was announced, “Magic Bavaria” was one of only three UK entries listed (and two of those, including ours, were actually UK/German team entries).  The winning design was by two young Portuguese landscape architects Ricardo Alexandre Lime Gomes and Daniels dos Santos Silva.

*The competition rules called for posters to be submitted, rather than drawings we would normally prepare for a client.

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Is it too late to plant herbaceous perennials?

Last spring Judy and I were invited to visit a newly created garden in Warwickshire that had been planted up the previous autumn, and we were shocked to see many apparently hardy plants had been killed by last winter’s frosts.  Obviously, when we design a planting plan, we are careful to select plants that are suitably hardy.  So what caused these plants to succumb last winter?  (It wasn’t one of our designs, by the way.) And if we plant new herbaceous perennials now, will they suffer the same fate this winter?

It’s the formation of ice crystals, which rupture the plant’s cell walls, that causes frost damage.  Some plants are not at all hardy, whilst others are hardy to varying extents.  A plant’s ability to withstand freezing temperatures derives from its physiology and acclimatization.  Hardy plants use certain “tricks” to help withstand frost, including:

  • strengthened cell walls;
  • desiccation: they lower the water content in the cells during the winter (ice in the spaces between cells is much less of a problem for a plant);
  • natural anti-freeze: they manufacture chemicals inside their cells that inhibit freezing.

Importantly, hardy plants generally deploy these survival techniques as a reaction to shortened daylight hours and lower temperatures.  This process takes time (which is why locally grown stock is hardier than plants imported from somewhere warmer).  New growth is more susceptible as the cell walls are thinner and, by implication, growth means warmth and so less time for acclimatization.

Geranium "Jolly Bee", Aster Lutetia and Erygeron Karvinskianus

Geranium "Jolly Bee", Aster Lutetia and Erygeron Karvinskianus in 9cm pots, waiting to be planted.

Last winter was characterized by some very severe frosts – down to -15ºC here in south Wiltshire – and the frosts came in late November, which is early for such severe frost.  It was the combination of (early) timing, and severity, which was to blame for the damage.  The cold weather also lasted for a considerable time – several weeks – which allowed the frost to penetrate deep into the ground, reaching roots that would normally remain frost-free.

And what about soil water content?  Well, it is certainly true that wet soil will lose heat much more quickly than dry soil, and so will allow a frost to penetrate deeply.

OK, enough science – is it too late to plant?  No, it isn’t.  In fact, as long as the plants are sufficiently mature (not just new growth) and have been properly acclimatized, there is no scientific reason why you shouldn’t be able to plant all year round (as long as the ground isn’t frozen solid!).  As they start to go into dormancy, plants are less likely to suffer from the “shock” of transplanting, and there’s still plenty of warmth in the ground at the moment for the roots to get established.  Another great advantage is that autumn transplants are much less likely to suffer from drought.  Of course, it does all still rely on adequate soil preparation, but that’s another story.

But, and here’s the catch, how do you know if your new plant purchases are acclimatized? Perhaps they arrived on a lorry from the continent only yesterday!  (And that little locally propagated 9 cm pot may be much cheaper than a 2 litre pot, but is the plant mature enough to survive a sharp frost? )  The one thing I certainly wouldn’t do now is pot on from 9 cm to 2 litre, as the pot will be much more susceptible to frost than a plant in the ground, and it’s quite likely to put on a growing spurt that just won’t be mature enough to survive weeks of snow and ice.

fresh from Italy?

........fresh from Italy?

But if you’ve prepared the ground well, then I’d say “go for it!“.   (And as for what caused the losses in the Warwickshire garden?  Well, my money is on plants newly arrived from northern Italy.)

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Summer Planting

Ok, so I’ve been neglecting this blog for a couple of weeks…. well sometimes I have to do some real work.  I guess most people consider summer to be June, July and August, so I’ve left it a bit late to write about summer planting, but here goes…….

If you live in the south of England you might have paid a visit to the gardens at Exbury, in the New Forest.  It’s perhaps best known for its trees and shrubs, especially rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and acers, but there is a lot more besides – last year I actually bought a season ticket.  With so much on offer, the herbaceous borders next to the house are easily overlooked, but I think they’re really quite special.  Here is just one example.

Exbury herbaceous border

Herbaceous border at Exbury

There are some glorious hot summer colours here, with tall architectural elements adding another dimension.  Its a sandy acid soil, and most of these plants will thrive best in well drained, sunny conditions.

Masses of vibrant yellow and orange lilies fill the foreground, including the bright orange Lilium “Brunello”.  The sword-like leaves and upright trumpet shaped flowers of the lilies contrast with the softer clusters of green leaves and bright yellow-green bracts of Euphorbia cornigera “Goldener Turm” – all interspersed with the tall, thin, spear-like stems of Pennesetum macrourum, whose thickened seed heads sway above the dense yellows and oranges and serve to lighten and enliven the whole effect.

Lilium Brunello

Lilium "Brunello"

Euphorbia cornigera Goldener Turm, Exbury Garden, Hampshire

Euphorbia cornigera "Goldener Turm"

Echinacea purpurea Magnus - Exbury Garden Hampshire

Echinacea purpurea "Magnus"

Helenium Moorheim Beauty - Exbury Garden Hampshire

Helenium "Moorheim Beauty"

Cephalaria gigantea

Cephalaria gigantea

In the middle distance the dark copper-red flowers of Helenium “Moerheim Beauty” combine well with the dark-centred pink daisy Echinacea purpurea “Magnus”, and a haze of round white Cephalaria gigantea lightens and enlivens the show, just as the Penesetum does.

In my view, an interesting example of how different plant structures and form combine to create something that is greater than the sum of the parts – without the Penesetum and Caphalaria, this would appear quite different – heavy and static.

PS Sorry about the random photo arrangement – WordPress has defeated me on this occasion!
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