Low Maintenance is not No Maintenance

Low Maintenance is not No Maintenance

When you first set up in business, the temptation is to take any work you can get.

One of our first gardens was a ‘design and build’ project, and it went very smoothly. We left behind a happy customer, and that made us happy. We discussed visiting again in the spring to arrange garden maintenance.

“I don’t think we’ll need any maintenance,” says our client.

But as promised, in the spring, we got back in touch. Our client was no longer a happy bunny.

“You don’t know what you’re doing!” exclaimed our client.

As we hadn’t done anything between the garden installation and this telephone call, we were at a loss to understand.

“The plants. They’re all overgrown!” says our soon to be ex-client.

“Really? Over the winter?” we replied.

“That’s not what I wanted! I didn’t want to have to look after the garden. I wanted low maintenance!”

As a garden designer, you very quickly become familiar with the term “low maintenance”. But this particular client didn’t want that.

Well yes, he said he did.

But what he actually wanted was “no maintenance”.

What low maintenance means, and what it doesn’t

We understand the desire for low maintenance gardens. Time is short; people are busy. We’ll be honest – we don’t even have the time to look after our own garden!

But gardens are not like pieces of furniture or hard landscaping. Gardens are living things – they grow and change with the seasons. Plants require pruning; lawns need cutting, and weeds want pulling up and mulching over.

When we meet prospective clients, “low maintenance” is by far their most popular requirement. I’d say at least 80% of our clients ask for it.

Strangely, their next most popular request is “year-round colour and interest”. That’s a tough ask for a low maintenance garden, but it’s one we still manage to achieve for our customers. Here’s how:

  • We design using perennials, rather than annuals which require high levels of attention.
  • The perennials we use are hardy plants. We don’t specify tender perennials that need digging up and over-wintering somewhere, e.g. Dahlias.
  • We use shrubs that don’t require a lot of care and attention, e.g. Fatsias or Box.
  • We specify a planting density that allows plants to grow and spread over 4-5 years before they need firm cutting back or division.
  • We use the right plants for the conditions.
  • We veto the use of requested plants that are not sufficiently disease resistant, e.g. certain types of Roses.
  • We always specify weed-resistant mulch under our planting.

Low maintenance is not no maintenance

Even with all this effort to make our clients’ gardens low maintenance, there’s no getting away from the fact that, unless you want plastic plants, some work in your new garden is going to be inevitable.

Since the days of our ex-client above, we’re a lot more discerning about who we work with. We now take great care to explain that a low maintenance garden still needs attention a minimum of 2-3 times a year. In an ideal world, a small amount of maintenance every month would be best.

Whether the client does this work themselves or pays a gardener to do it is a matter for them.

But if you’re not prepared to invest 2-3 days per year in maintaining a garden that could cost you a five figure sum to design and build, you’re probably wasting your money.

Unless that is, you really do want a plastic garden.

Image credit: © Mark Bonica

Prairie-Style Planting at Trentham Gardens

Prairie-Style Planting at Trentham Gardens

Last week we paid a visit to a client in Staffordshire. While we were in the area, decided to pay a visit to Trentham Gardens, near Stoke on Trent, where we were on the look out for some prairie-style planting.

First, a potted history: the Trentham Estate has seen more than its fair share of turmoil. First mentioned in the Doomsday Book, the Estate has been built upon, demolished, traded, expanded, abandoned and transformed many times over. It was once home to a priory until King Henry VIII got hold of it. The gardens were landscaped many times, including for a twenty year period by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

Trentham Hall itself was enlarged and redesigned by many architects. Sadly, the industrial growth of the surrounding Potteries region took its toll on the River Trent, filling the river and the lake with sewage. By 1905 the pollution became unbearable, and its owners abandoned the site.

Fast forward to 1996, when property development company St Modwen and German investor Willi Reitz bought the Estate. They pledged to restore both the gardens and Hall to their former glory.

History lesson over. Obviously, it is the gardens that interest us. Our undoubted highlights were the sections called ‘Rivers of Grass’ and the ‘Floral Labyrinth’, which are perennial planting beds laid out in 2004 by Piet Ooudolf, who is widely considered to be Europe’s leading plantsperson.


Prairie-style naturalistic planting, by Piet Ooudolf at Trentham Gardens

Prairie-style planting

Ooudolf’s prairie-style planting has been in the horticultural headlines for some time now. It is a soft, naturalistic style where plants are allowed to seed and group in great clumps, to give the effect of a meadow or prairie. Ornamental grasses are planted in-between to give a soft, hazy, gentle feel. This planting style works just as well in country gardens as in the city, where the contrast softens the hard lines of the buildings. Ooudolf’s most famous scheme is probably The High Line, an abandoned elevated section of New York’s railroad, which he has transformed into a 1.5-mile garden in his trademark style.

At Trentham, his vast swathes of grasses and perennials make for an easy to maintain, textural experience. You can’t help but run your hands through the grasses as you pass. The wind rustling the plants creates a lovely calming sound, coupled with the hum of the bees and insects that cover lots of the flowering plants, such as Eupatorium, Persicaria and Echinacea.

You might think this style of planting is only attractive in the late summer when the grasses and summer perennials are in full flower.

But no, in the spring when the plants are growing up there is space to add tulips and alliums. A good scheme will include earlier flowering perennials as well as those that have their best display from August onwards.

With this type of planting, you should leave the seed heads on the plants as they die down. The seeds are great fodder for birds such as Gold finches, and some will be scattered to increase the stocks of plants for next years display.

And even after the seed has gone, the stems of the plants and grasses look beautiful when left to catch the frost in winter.


Prairie-style naturalistic planting, by Piet Ooudolf at Trentham Gardens

Aside from the perennial grass areas, there is also plenty to do and see at Trentham at any time of year. The Italianate Garden, restored by garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith, is also beautiful but far more structured. There is a vast lake to walk around, forests and trails and even recreations of some show gardens from Chelsea. There are food outlets, and kids play areas, with plenty space to roam.

Oh, and there is a Monkey Forest. With real monkeys.

While we went to look at the gardens, retail junkies are well served by an extensive shopping area. Adjacent is a huge garden centre, which we found to be disappointingly commercial. Not many of the plants we had seen in the gardens were available to buy. It was one of those garden centres where selling plants seemed like an afterthought.

But all in all, it’s definitely worth the hour or so’s journey for a good day out the whole family can enjoy.

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Spring Bulbs for Winter Colour & Interest

Spring Bulbs for Winter Colour & Interest

Here’s a question I’m always asked:

“How can I get colour and interest in my garden all year round?”

It’s a great question. Flowers make your garden come alive, but by the time we reach the gloomy, leaden skies of winter, flowers are pretty thin on the ground.

Winter is the toughest time for creating colour and interest. Perennials are hibernating, and evergreens are, well, just evergreen. Most winter gardens take on the tired, grey-brown tinge of a tatty old jacket at the back of the wardrobe.

Most depressing.

But help is at hand in the shape of spring bulbs. These little dots of colour brighten up everything and hint at the promise of better things to come.

With a bit of planning, you can treat yourself to a parade of spring flowers from January to June, by which time your perennials will have stirred themselves back into action.

I know – you don’t have time to plan these things.

Luckily, I’ve done it for you.

I have curated a fantastic Lush Spring Bulb Collection. It’s designed to flower from January right through until June. Half a year of colour and interest, right at the time your garden needs it most.

So, what do you get?

Winter Aconites

Starting in January, we have bright yellow Winter Aconites. These cheery flowers will bloom through until March.

Mixed Crocus

Next up in late February we have mixed Crocuses in yellow, white and purple. These will be happy in a border or planted in your lawn.

Mixed Daffodils

Then through March and April, we have a host of mixed Daffodils – a sure sign spring is on the way.


Tulip 'Queen of the Night'

In April and May, we have three varieties of Tulip in white, pink and purple, including ‘Queen of the Night’ (pictured).

Allium 'Purple Sensation'

They are joined in May by tall blue Camassias.

Allium 'Purple Sensation'

To finish the party, pom-pom headed purple Alliums will flower throughout May and June. By the time these are over, your garden will be at its peak, and the Allium seed heads will look beautiful well into the summer.

So, there it is. Six months of colour, 350 bulbs in total. Enough for a small front or back garden. It’s plenty to fill out a large flower border. If you run out of space, they’ll look just as good in a container.

To buy the contents of this pack at a garden centre would cost you at least £125.

But I’m buying in bulk from my bulb wholesaler, and passing on the savings directly to you.

My Lush Spring Bulb Collection costs just £84.99. At least £40 cheaper than if you bought it elsewhere.

And if you need more, I can add a second pack for £79.99.

Think about it, but don’t wait too long. My bulb order goes to my supplier on 15th September 2017.

If you want to ensure six months of colour and interest, through the absolute worst time of the gardening year, let me know today by filling out the form below.

Happy gardening,

PS: If you’re not ready for a full pack, but would like me to add some bulbs for you as part of my trade order, just let me know, and I’ll make you a quote. But don’t leave it too long, the deadline is the same – 15th September.

Here comes the tedious small print: offer applies to UK-based customers only. Bulbs will be available from mid-October 2017. This is an offer to supply bulbs only, no planting is included. For best results, bulbs need to be planted by the end of November. Delivery options are: free pickup from Blackfordby Nursery at a time to be advised; free drop off within 25 miles of our office in Blackfordby at a time to suit us (ie when we’re in your area); or delivery by post, which will incur an additional charge (cost to be advised).

Order Now

If you would to bring your winter garden to life with the Lush Spring Bulb Collection, get in touch via the form below. Please leave a contact telephone number.

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Iconic Gardens: Sissinghurst and Great Dixter

Iconic Gardens: Sissinghurst and Great Dixter

My hubby is good to me. He recently took me on Bridget Jones style ‘Full blown mini-break holiday weekend!’ Fortunately, I arrived looking less wind-blown than poor Bridget did. This holiday was a surprise, and I didn’t know our destination until late in the day. We were en-route to the Weald of Kent to visit two of Britain’s most famous and iconic gardens, Sissinghurst and Great Dixter.

Our garden design and nursery work keeping us busy throughout the summer months, so it is difficult to get away. This means we’ve visited many cities and gardens in mid-winter. And while these are always interesting, you never get to see a garden in all its summer glory. So it was a fabulous treat for me to finally visit two important gardens (that have been on my bucket list for ages) while they were in full flower.


Sissinghurst Tower and gardens

Sissinghurst Castle and Garden

Sissinghurst Castle was the home of Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson. It is a beautiful large property, and not a castle at all. There are barns, a Kentish oast house, and a tower which was Vita’s retreat to study plants and gardens when she wasn’t planting.

The garden is divided up into what we now call ‘garden rooms’. Harold took great pleasure in designing doors, connections and views that separated each section. What is most noticeable is the sheer number of plants and how vast and deep the borders are. This makes for interesting plant choices and gives the scope to plant in large groups, keeping the flow of colour going for long seasons of interest. Over 200 rose species are planted throughout the gardens and a lot of hedging, so a team of gardening volunteers are required as well as full-time staff. Sissinghurst is not a low maintenance plot!


Sissinghurst Yellow Garden
Sissinghurst White Garden

The various gardens are divided into colour themes. Maybe the most well known, famous White Garden is lovely and comprised of (not entirely) white flowers. The planting includes textured, coloured or variegated leaves and lots of white flowers, but also cream flowers or those with a very pale hint of pink or blue. The other thing that was evident was weeds – the gardens weren’t pristine by any means, and there were large areas given over to meadow planting and wildflowers. Perhaps, in Vita and Harold’s day, these areas would have been maintained as ‘proper lawn’. Nowadays, even with an army of volunteers, it’s such a big garden that some areas have been left to grow more naturally.


Great Dixter Long Border

Great Dixter at Northiam

Great Dixter was the family home of gardener and garden writer Christopher Lloyd. This garden is famous for its bold planting and our visit, the next day, felt like an assault on the senses. It was overwhelming to see such a quantity of plants and the size of some specimens. Again large, thick borders had been created a long time ago. Now, these are stuffed full of very well-established plants, some of which tower overhead. In places, the garden had a claustrophobic, jungle like quality.

Further, around the garden, there is a classic chocolate box view of the house itself (a 15th century manor house re-designed and augmented by Sir Edwin Lutyens). To one side is the Long Border – a proper cottage garden style bed which is as deep as some of the small gardens I have designed are wide.


Great Dixter House and Garden
Great Dixter Colourful Planting

An unexpected treat at Great Dixter was a fantastic plant nursery. This contained plants grown on from seed or cuttings from those growing in the borders in the garden. I did buy some to take home, and no, I haven’t had time to plant them yet.

So our mini break weekend, like all good things, had to come to an end, and fortunately, Keith didn’t fall in the lake as Hugh Grant did. The long journey back home was slow, but that gave me time to reflect on just how lucky we are to have such well loved stately homes and gardens to visit in this country, to inspire us to improve our little gardens back home.

How to Become a Garden Designer

How to Become a Garden Designer

How to Become a Garden Designer

In 2007, when the UK economy was at its absolute peak, just before the onset of the credit crunch, we set up Lush Garden Design. Ten years later, we’re still here, so we must be doing something right!

During that time we’ve often been asked for advice by people looking to enter the world of garden design. We’ve answered many questions – from which courses to study to where to find work experience. So we thought we’d collect all our answers in one place. I hope you find the advice useful.

What qualifications do I need to be a garden designer?

There are two major areas where you’ll need to gain qualifications – horticulture and design.

Horticulture (plant knowledge)

To be able to design with plants you need a thorough understanding of them – for example, how they grow; what soil conditions they like (and don’t like); what affects their health, and how they reproduce.

The best place to gain in-depth knowledge like this is the Royal Horticultural Society. They offer several specialist horticulture courses, which vary in complexity. RHS Level 2 qualifications are aimed at those wishing to enter a horticultural profession, and this is a very good place to start your journey to becoming a garden designer.

Courses are a mix of theory and practical, and are run part-time, across the country.

Design courses

A qualification at RHS Level 2 should help open the door to a higher education design course. Again these courses are usually available part-time, maybe one day per week. As a starting point, look for HNC courses in landscape or garden design, as these courses usually progress through to HND and then to degree level, if you wanted to study that far.

What else do I need?

You will need to get yourself some work experience in the industry, and you will need the business acumen to be able to run your own company.

Where to find relevant work experience

One of the most important aspects of being a garden designer is being able to deal with people. Working in garden centres is a very good way of exposing yourself to how customers think and behave. Preferably this will be working in the plant area – not selling Christmas gifts or working in the cafe.

I spent 18 months working in the plant area of a garden centre and nursery while I was studying at college. As well as being great for helping my plant knowledge, I learned customer service, gained lots of hands-on planting experience, and also was exposed to retail sales and wholesale plant purchasing. This was all invaluable experience for starting my business.

Other places for work experience would be plant nurseries, or working alongside garden designers and landscape gardeners. Some of the larger public gardens also offer volunteer positions working alongside the gardeners. You’ll find it easier to get positions in these industries once you have the RHS qualification.

Once you start your design qualifications you might be able to sell your garden designs to friends and neighbours. My very first paid garden design jobs were undertaken in this way. I charged a very low “student rate”, but the experience and the case studies I gained from these jobs gave me the beginnings of a portfolio, and the confidence to know I could turn garden design into a career.

Running your own business

The world of garden design is very much a world of the self-employed. There are very few entry-level garden design positions within large garden design firms, and those will be based mostly around cities.

So if you wish to succeed as a garden designer, you’ll need to set up your own business. Before you start, think about the personal demands involved – the long hours, the low income (especially at the start), and the uncertainty of not knowing when the next cheque is coming. How resilient are you? Can you bounce back from set-backs? Are you the kind of person who learns quickly from their mistakes?

You’ll require start-up funds 
These won’t need to be huge, but you’ll definitely need a computer, some design and business software and some office space (even if it’s just the kitchen table).

You’ll need core business skills
Can you operate a spreadsheet? Do you understand how cash flow works? Do you have an understanding of marketing, sales and customer service? There are lots of hats you need to wear. In time you’ll be able to delegate some of these functions, but at the start you’ll be doing them all yourself.

Should I enter a Show Garden at one of the RHS shows?

That’s entirely up to you. Some new designers decide this is a good way to get their names out there. One designer I know of still uses their old 2008 show garden award in all their marketing material.

One possibly good reason for creating a show garden early in your career is the fact that the majority of the work involved takes place at the height of the busy season – April-July. As a new designer, you may well have no work booked in, so you’ll have time to dedicate to a show garden. As you get busier in the years to come, the temptation to interrupt your key earnings period becomes somewhat smaller!

Personally, we decided not to go down the show garden route. We weighed up the financial outlay and time involved against the perceived benefits and decided against it. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider a show garden if you feel you can make a business case for it.

Do I need to build the gardens or just design them?

This is a good question. Firstly, can you build a garden? I’m not talking about a bit of digging and planting. I’m talking about mixing concrete, laying paving slabs and plumbing in water features. There are not very many garden designers who have these skills, so the next question is, do you know someone who does? If you do, you’ll need to think about whether you can set up in business as a partnership, or agree a less formal working arrangement.

Design and build
If you bring the garden build in-house, you will need to carefully manage your cash-flow. You’ll be buying in materials for which you’ll only be able to invoice weeks later, once the build is complete. Ask yourself what would happen if a construction project went wrong, or was delayed by the weather? What if a client withheld payment over a dispute? Would you have the funds to be able to continue?

Design only
You might decide you don’t want that level of financial risk. Or you might just want to concentrate on your core strengths. What is for sure is that, whatever gardens you design, someone will have to build them. At the very least you will need to make some informal contacts with landscapers. You could rely on your clients managing the construction work themselves, but the reality is that your clients want someone to take that headache away from them. If that’s not the landscaper, it will be you in a project management capacity. And to do that, you’ll need a good level of understanding about hand landscaping practices.

What does a garden designer do in the winter?

These days we take a holiday at some point between December and February, but other than that we are fully-booked all year round. But that wasn’t the case when we started off. In our first few years we noticed a distinct drop-off in new business enquiries between October and mid-March. We tried advertising special offers. We tried seasonal plant-related sales efforts. I even took another part-time job. Just be aware that as a new business, your financial plan needs to be robust enough to manage through the trough of winter.

Do you have any questions about becoming as a garden designer?

If you do, let us know, and we’ll do our best to answer them for you.

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