Beyond Borders – The future of planting design

Society of Garden Designers spring 2012 conference London

BEYOND BORDERS – What is the future for planting design?


CHAIR: Cleve West

SPEAKERS: Raymond Jungles, James Hitchmough, Christopher Woodward, Tom Stuart-Smith


Our choice of plants and how we design with them has changed much over the years, influenced by travel, fashion, availability of labour, new equipment and materials and the constant discovery of new garden worthy plants and varieties and their availability to us through nurseries. More recently our thinking in relation to planting design has become more naturalistic, inspired by natural communities rather than by the vagaries of fashion.

Cambridge Botanic Gardens

Naturalistic Planting at Cambridge Botanics

Having a particular interest in planting design, I was very keen to attend this conference held in London to hear how those at the cutting edge of landscape design see future trends.

Most landscape designers will initially draw up a planting plan. This is a time consuming process even for the very experienced, involving many choices including the overall effect required, palette of plant materials, colour, texture, ultimate heights and spreads, seasonal interest and how it will be maintained and managed. It is not surprising then, that the ‘Planting Plan’ was mentioned quite a bit and for all of us who have laboured long hours over the drawing board or computer in pursuit of perfection, there is some good news. For these designers at least the planting plan is not the last word but part of a greater dynamic process between the designer and the site.

Listening to these very experienced designers it would seem to be the case that the deeper one becomes immersed in planting design, essential as the planting plan is, one also needs to allow that extra bit of scope, to be more flexible and hands on so that final decisions and alterations/additions can be made on the ground.

Cleve West, our very entertaining chairman for the day, made some very interesting points in his introduction and it is comforting to hear that he too has trouble with planting plans.  He doesn’t have any time for fashion and believes that clients are unaware of it. He believes planting design is strongly influenced by availability, and as small nurseries often dictate the supply of plants, they therefore strongly influence design.

Our first speaker Raymond Jungles often eschews planting plans, and his design too is often organic, springing from the landscape itself rather than from a conventional design process.  His planting is approached in broad brush strokes using a matrix, a mix of native shrubs, which he repeats to create a tapestry.  In his planting approach he also has a ‘miscellaneous accent plant allowance’ placed as necessary and appropriate.  This design approach may be somewhat influenced by the rapid growth rates of the tropical palette that he employs. Within a short space of time these plants will have grown up and filled the space.

Next to speak was Dr. James Hitchmough who began by discussing the concept of randomness in planting design. He points out that in planting nothing is random but an expression of what’s going on beneath – adaptation to local circumstances such as soil, drainage, light or competition, or even the impact of grazing or trampling by large or small animals.

He too employs the matrix as an approach to planting design. A site changes over time and he argues that a matrix allows some to adapt and others to die out through competition.  Through a complex layered planting scheme a spread of flowering times can be achieved. The plants don’t necessarily have to be native.  The matrix can then be laid out like a tapestry or cloth to have a unifying effect on space. He also recommends working on site, making it up as you go along.

The third speaker was Christopher Woodward curator of The Garden Museum in London.  This was a distinct change of focus and also of pace. Christopher’s preferred train of thought is express so his audience had to jump on and hang on tight!  In addition he peppered his audience with historical reference on gardens, garden art and literature which I frantically jotted down in the hope of improving my mind later. His incredibly erudite perspective on planting and garden design related to the creation of atmosphere and what appeals most to people’s aesthetic.

He argues that a garden is at its most beautiful and most appealing when toppling in to decay. He uses Rousham as an example and Le Jardin Plume in Normandy

As much of our response to a garden is based on our sub-conscious and on memory the senses that are most important in this regard are smell and taste, as these rather than the visual bring back involuntary memory.

He references Kim Wilkes book Led by the Land and Christopher’s talk is probably best summed up in these lines from the book on ‘Spirit’ and the ‘genius of the place’

This ‘genius’ is only partly based in physical characteristics – topography, aspect, climate and vegetation – it also covers the memories and associations that have accumulated in that spot. In other words it is the personality, identity or spirit of the place.”

The final garden designer to speak was Tom Stuart-Smith.   Like his planting his delivery is quite pared down but what he has to say is worth holding on to.

He admits to there being a time when he didn’t do planting plans but now he always does.

Tom believes that in terms of style it’s important for a designer to have a few different styles up their sleeve. This is necessary to create an integrity of place. The planting/garden should have a momentum of its own, what Tom referred to as ‘PROCESS’. He defines this as the husbandry, culture or care of the plants. In his design he likes to overlay different types of plant management.

He models his planting on ecological planting, using a limited plant palette with lots of repetition. He also keeps some float plants such as Aquilegia and Alchemilla to ‘stitch’ in to the planting later.

Lizard at Mount Stewart


In terms of overall design Tom believes that a garden should have animation – objects that imbue it with character and tension between what is familiar and unfamiliar.

In the vein of the previous speaker Christopher Woodward he references  Sir George Revesby Sitwell’s essay ‘On the making of Gardens’   which also discusses the factors which contribute to good design amongst which is the patina of time and the considered effect of design elements on the mind and sub-conscious.

Some points from the conference:

  • It is essential to work with the site/landscape rather than impose on it.
  • The planting plan is a step in the process and not a fait accompli.
  • Planting combinations are inspired by natural communities but not necessarily native.
  • The planting palette can be repeated like a matrix or tapestry to give a unified effect.
  • The process of plant development – growth, competition, management are coming more to the fore indicating an emphasis on and a need for the revival of horticultural skills.
  • The choice of plants, their subsequent maintenance and management and their relationship to the site and surrounding landscape is essential in evoking memory and creating atmosphere in the garden.



Villa d’Este Gardens Italy

Each year the Senior College Dun Laoighre Landscape Design Department go on a five day educational trip to a city of interest and at the end of January 2010 we set off for Rome. After several days of high intensity sightseeing, the walking tour of the city, the vastness and wealth of the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, the fascination of the Colloseum, we took a break from the city and gratefully boarded a train for Tivoli an hours journey from Rome, enjoying the simple pleasure of watching the city give way to countryside, to olive groves and vineyards, the train climbing higher and higher as we travelled into the Tiburtine hills east of Rome. As we neared our destination we were afforded glimpses of the Aniene River cascading from the escarpment on which the ancient city of Tivoli is built. It is this river which is the inspiration and the source of the garden we were about to see, Villa d’Este, The 16thC garden and Villa which have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Without a word of Italian between us we got directions from a local who perhaps helped by the character and legibility of an ancient town on a hill of  narrow streets, winding steps and squares, described the route in such perfect mime that it brought us right to the door,


The low key entrance was set in the wall in the corner of a small piazza. The ancient building occupying the space for so long had become tightly knit into the fabric of the town. The building started out as a Benedictine convent in the 9thC though much modified since then it still retains an austere simplicity, but like a simple but beautifully lined coat it is the contrasting and unexpected nature of what lies beneath that surprises and delights.


To access the gardens we walked through the main body of the house, one room connecting to the next and each one sumptuously decorated with stuccoed detail. The central room leading out onto a balcony was decorated as a garden complete with a fountain. From this balcony we got our first breath taking views of the garden and the countryside with Rome in the distance. I wish I could convey our excitement at that moment, as we began to comprehend the nature of this garden.


It was the first day of February but an almost summer warmth permeated the air and we arrived so off season that we had this incredible garden almost to ourselves. The sun shone illuminating the myriad spouts, sprays, cascades and pools. Exuberant, spectacular! The tumultuous sound, the reflections and iridescence, the softness of the tiny droplets of water suspended in the atmosphere appealed to every sense. Beneath this spectacular performance there was also lovely detailing, in the steps, in the proportions and location of seating, and in in the patterns of paving. Designed to be approached from the entrance at the lowest point of the garden, the visitor would have experienced the garden in a different way, the wonders of the garden slowly revealing themselves as one climbed the terraces. In the summer the garden is filled with roses, though the original planting palette would have been quite different. Original descriptions of the garden describe the lower entrance as having a wooden pergola covered in rare grape varieties and leading into a level garden of medicinal herbs, on the walls were espaliers of citron. Fruit and vines made up a lot of the planting in other parts of the garden. The trees which gave shelter and structure were elms and planes. Some of the cypresses planted in the 17thC still survive today though these would not have been part of the original planting .


The man behind this incredible garden was Cardinal Ippolito d’Este who was appointed governor of Tivoli in 1549. The governors’ house was the old Benedictine convent, modest but on a magnificent site with views over the entire region. The site behind the convent sloped away steeply, a vertical drop of 45 metres. In his employ was Pirro Ligorio described as a classicist, though from his activities he would also appear to have been an architect, engineer and historian all rolled in to one. Through his studies of ancient sites such as Villa Hadriana he had a thorough knowledge of ancient Roman hydraulic engineering. He is attributed with the idea of creating a garden here  inspired by the abundant waters of the Aniene River and harnessing its power for a water garden so spectacular that it would be like nothing anyone had seen before. The Cardinal was one of the wealthiest men of his time and a famous patron of the arts. He had an ambition to be pope and the garden would have fitted with this ambition.  In order to realise the gardens, much of the lands and city below the garden had to be acquired and demolished. The centre part of the garden was built on artificial terraces supported by pillars in order to achieve the desired proportions of 30 metres conforming to the aesthetic principals of the Renaissance. The entire garden is laced with tunnels canals and underground tubes to feed the vast array of fountains, spouts, waterfalls, basins and canals all moving exclusively by the force of gravity. In its detailing the garden is a representation of the landscape between Tivoli and Rome in microcosm, from the Tiburtine hills represented by the Tivoli Fountain to the Rometta Fountain representing Rome itself. The fountains, decorations and statuary were based on the myths and themes of classical culture and this is the unifying theme or element throughout the house and gardens.


It is the strength of Pirro Ligurios initial idea and his vast knowledge of how to make it work coupled with the wealth of a man of culture taste and ambition that the garden did indeed become “a garden of marvels” like nothing anyone had seen before. Though the garden has seen many changes of fortune, periods of neglect and restoration, many additions and alterations, it has remained true to its initial ideal. It is a garden that will remain in your memory forever.