A visit to Beech Gardens, Barbican 
January 2020 
Last year on attending the Society of Garden Designers Spring conference, I heard Nigel Dunnett talk about his planting of the Beech Gardens at the Barbican. This informal garden of sweeping fluid borders around a simple fountain feature with elevated seating areas is overlooked by resident’s apartments of the Barbican complex developed and opened in the ‘70s. The gardens were replanted in 2015, this time taking on a more naturalistic, prairie style scheme, intended to develop and change with the demands and proclivities of the plants rather than determined by the hand of man. 
A visit was in order and perversely I like to check out hallowed gardens in the winter and assess their merits at ‘the fag end of the year’ as a client once termed it. In winter the bones of the garden can be seen, where woody structure of shrubs and trees is revealed, often at their most interesting. Gardens can also look like they’ve just dragged themselves out of bed after a rough night and indeed the Beech Gardens were looking pretty ragged, although to be fair, five years on it still had plenty of flesh. 
A palette of not more than 10 -15 plant species have been used (though a few more could be identified on closer inspection) which on this scale gives the scheme a cohesive look and adds to the principle of a natural feel. First to be planted were the ‘woodies’- multi stemmed birches, beech and spindle, either randomly or in small groups of three with Viburnum bodnantense flowering sweetly now and a few Philadelphus, Sambucus and Buddleia. Dominating the scheme were Euphorbia characias wulfenii – I’m sure not quite so many were originally planted but this is a genus that seeds itself readily and is quick to establish. And a welcome site they were their acid green heads already beginning to nod through this mild winter. 
Another trooper was Helichtotrichon sempervirens, enjoying the sunnier side of the garden and coping well in an open site that even in the city will be buffeted by gusty winds in the canyon of the Barbican complex. Miscanthus was used quite sparingly, their beige stems and fluffy plumes by now looking a bit battered and soon to be cut down next month. Other perennials, Phlomis russeliana, Libertia grandiflora, Aster divaricatus and Anemone japonica were left to run to seed and find their way – much of the planting were perennials that in summer would provide a subtle pallet of colour while billowing into weed suppressing clumps. 
It is inevitable that some plants would thrive while others would recede, providing space for seedlings to get a toe hold and creating an ever shifting matrix around the more permanent trees and shrubs. Rather than planting in broad swathes knitted together in patch work effect, the plants were grouped and woven into each other more casually, and left to sink or swim and settle into comfortable communities. 
It’s quite a skill to create a scheme that looks like nature has had total control – and a strong nerve to let nature do just that once the gardeners have walked away. Maintenance was probably intended to be minimal; I did notice a lone lady gardener doing an annual weed. This was a ‘hands and knees affair’ removing annual interlopers by hand although I’m hoping this was a once a year job. 
I liked it; not only the use of some of my preferred plants that perform well throughout the seasons but of multi-stem native trees that will fill out in time and not get too tall to shade out plants beneath. It has a long term strategy that will mutate over time requiring subtle tweaking by human hand at intervals. As a contrast to much of the planting in London’s parks and gardens, Beech Gardens feels like organised chaos, a plant party guarded by the stoic modern architecture around. 
I shall revisit throughout the year and expect a glorious riot in summer. 
Alison Bockh 
January 2020 
As a designer there are two things my clients refer to most – easy maintenance and colour. 
Easy – or low maintenance, is a debatable subject and not one I intend to deal with here – but when colour in our gardens is mentioned, one generally thinks of flowers and many old favourites spring to mind. Planning a planted border is one of the most difficult aspects of designing a garden scheme- there are somany things to consider: site, soil, geographic location, drainage issues, sun or shade, not to mention the client’s taste, budget and gardening skill. Do they have any – of all three?! 
Come spring there is a rush of spring flowers that quickly tumbles into summer – and I often hear gardeners sing the merits of roses, Lupins, Lavender, Irises and other cottage favourites. But wait, many of these are early summer flowers- by late June their star has faded. Depending on where you are and the nature of your soil there is always a selection of later flowers; here in Devon where I develop most of my planting schemes I have several favourites suited to our heavy clay soil. 
We’re all familiar with the zingy oranges of Crocosmia nodding through the late summer borders. It’s become a bit of an invasive weed all along the South West coast and indeed it’s perhaps best suited to the wilder parts of a larger garden where it becomes a useful colonizer. There is a vast array of bold cultivars availablewith colours ranging from golden yellow to bright scarlet and sizes to suit every garden – sweet petite ‘George Stevens’ to compact show stopper ‘Emily McKenzie’ and of course the stunning,statuesque, scarlet ‘Lucifer’. 
To contrast with the yellow – orange spectrum blues come into their own; Agapanthus with their umbels of flowers on stout leafless stems reign supreme from July through to September and often later. A prima donna, they demand a sunny, warm spot at the front of the border – they won’t tolerate being crowded by the chorus line. Evergreen forms therefore look very well in a large tub on a patio or courtyard and can be moved to a more sheltered position in the winter. Deciduous types are hardier and better in the ground although the modern cultivars with colours ranging from white through blue grey to lilac and deepest blue, are far hardier than the original A. praecox from South Africa. 
A plant more suited to a cottage gardenAgastache is gaining inpopularity. With a colour range from palepink to deep blues and magenta this member of the Hyssop family prefers a drier, sunnier spot.Its spires of flowers will persist for months from May to November, essential for all bee lovers - and bees. 
For a slightly shaded border needing some height try Aconite, stately plants with fine cut foliage and tall spires of deep purple flowers from July to September. Aconite is a particular favourite of mine as a good alternative to Delphiniums which are often bedevilled by slugs before the bees get a look in. Not so Monkshood, as it’s commonly known – every part of the plant is poisonous but don’t let that put you off. Slugs avoid it for that reason even when it arises from its winter sleep in bright green ferny mounds long before other perennials – an added bonus for the spring border. 
Other contenders for the back of the border are Anemone japonica with their wiry stems and exquisite open flowers in shades of pink and white,the latter being particularly lovely. You’ll never get rid of them once they’ve established, popping up where you didn’t expect but only a complete churl would part with them once they’ve cast their spell in September. 
Sedums are another favourite - I use them a lot at the front of a border as they tend to stand up and not flop over the lawn, Sedum spectabile and S. ‘Autumn Joy’ are particularly well behaved in this respect. Their grey green fleshy leaves and later, flat umbel flowers provide a long season of interest, bursting into rosy pink colours beloved by bees and all things stripy late in the season. I leave them to stand over winter as they take on umber tones in the winter garden protecting the new grow coming up in spring. 
I could go on but will stop here with the indispensable Geranium ‘Rozanne’- a ‘sprawler’ for the front of the border,her mounds of foliage are covered in intense blue flowers with a white eye for months from May to November. Smothering all in her path, give her plenty of space as she cascades over walls and paths. She has a few cousins with a similar if slightly less robust habit of sending out long non rooting stems – look out for Geranium ‘Azure Rush’ with more lilac flowers, Geranium ‘Havana Blues’, a softer paler blue and Geranium ‘Lilac Ice’ a very pale, almost white mauve. 
Try planning your border with a third of early flowerers – Roses, Lupins, Dicentra, and Clematis - but the other two thirds of your choices should be later performers extending the season through summer into the colours of autumn. 
A final but important tip - don’t forget that colour in the garden includes leaves and stems, and there are many shades of green. Consider a few shrubs that will reward you with a change of tone in the autumn such as Cotinus, Euonymus alata, Acers and Amelanchier will provide a blaze as the growing season ends. 
Alison Bockh Garden Design, September 2019 
Planning a Vegetable Garden 
Recently I was asked to write a blog for Sitting Spiritually – purveyors of the finest swing seats so I thought I’d share it with you here: 
Much is made in horticultural circles of ‘the end of the season’ – which generally means the garden centres are stocking up with Christmas decorations. 
All true gardeners know there’s no end of the year – just a natural turning of the seasons with its joys and laments, seasonal tasks and future plans. And vegetable gardeners in particular aim to keep one step ahead, with an eye on the weather, maximising their time and garden space. The long dark, blustery evenings of winter are for planning what to sow and grow in the coming spring; what cropped well last summer and what didn’t do so well? Hmm… maybe not so many courgettes next year… 
If you’re new to vegetable gardening and planning a veggie plot – but feel it might be all too much hard work – fear not: the key to success is in the design. 
It’s easy for newbies to get carried away on a fit of enthusiasm, intent on being self-sufficient and growing fresh, healthy veg for the family all year round. 
Stop! This way leads to overwhelm, trying to grow too much, too soon, when weeds and the weather and work will erode your good intentions and leave the plot neglected or worse – abandoned. 
I design an increasing number of vegetable or kitchen garden for my clients in Devon, as the trend for home grown veg and healthy living blooms. Increasingly the vegetable plot takes on a more central role in the greater garden scheme, rather than being relegated to a scruffy plot at the bottom of the garden with the compost bins and the ‘dumping ground’. 
And I always include a seating area within the veg plot – after all, this is where you’ll be busiest and a rest most needed! Vegetable gardens can be beautiful as well as useful – prerequisites for good design. 
The following are keys points to consider when planning your plot: 
Firstly accept you won’t be able to grow everything – it’s unlikely you will have the time, space or a suitable soil for everything on your wish list. 
The next most obvious question is: What do you want to eat? Don’t waste time, space and energy growing things that are cheap and plentiful in the shops such as main crop spuds or onions. Better to grow unusual varieties of new potatoes or shallots – easy to grow but pricey and less available. 
This also includes Asparagus and soft fruit- expensive to buy and as with so much home grown produce, delicious when fresh from the garden. 
Once you’ve compiled a list of crops you’d like to try, cut it down to the essentials – don’t let beginner enthusiasm run away with you; there’s always next year! 
To start, try three crops grown from seed and establish a couple of permanent crops – for example, new potatoes, French beans, a ‘cut and come again’ lettuce mix, and permanent crops such as Rhubarb with some soft fruit like gooseberries or currants. 
Next consider your space – be realistic about how much room you have and note where the sunny and shady spots are in the garden. Is it exposed or sheltered? Is there an obvious spot at the bottom of the garden or would it be more practical to have it much closer to the kitchen door? 
Most important is your soil – is it heavy, sticky clay or a gritty, crumbly loam? These factors will effect what you can grow well – but most soil problems can be resolved or at least improved. 
Next consider the layout. Before you site your beds and growing areas consider other practicalities such as a greenhouse for propagating seedlings, a shed for storage, a compost heap - or three - and a utility area for storing bulky items like grass clippings, leaf mould and bags of compost. You may not want all these things as space - or lack of it, is an issue, though if I were to pick one, a compost heap would be favourite. 
Now consider where to site all these things. The sunny areas are good for fruiting veg –courgettes, outdoor tomatoes, beans – as well as onions. Shadier sites will suit leafy crops like lettuces, cabbages, root crops and surprisingly, soft fruit. Gooseberries and currants are generally woodland plants and will cope well in at least partial shade. 
And the beds themselves - are these to be raised beds or open ground? Raised beds create more manageable growing space where the soil drains and warms up better, plus you can control the type of soil put in them, if your own ground is hard work. An area of open ground is useful too, for permanent or long term crops that mop up space such as Rhubarb or sprouting broccoli. 
Three raised beds would probably be enough for one household with the option of being able to put a rotation system into practice. In a very small plot it probably isn’t worth worrying about however, and you will find crops grown hugger mugger with each other grow quite happily and confuse the pests! 
Be generous with paths around the beds; most of my veg gardens are half growing area, half path – but this is not wasteful. A path needs to accommodate a wheelbarrow and the use of larger garden tools so plenty of space around beds makes working the garden more manageable – plus it looks good and you won’t feel overwhelmed with the abundant growth in summer. 
Suitable surfaces for paths include bound gravel - a fine compacted substrate that drains and copes well with wheelbarrows. Recycled crushed concrete is also a cheaper option. 
Less attractive features such as sheds and compost heaps could be screened off, and the screen itself used to support tayberries, espalier fruit trees or climbers such as beans. 
And don’t forget a sitting area from which to contemplate your labours – a Sitting Spiritually swing seat is ideal here – you’ll appreciate the rest! You may also want to consider a simple pergola or archway over the seat to train fruit trees or cordons. 
And the bees will thank you for a nearby bed with herbs and cut flowers - and repay you by pollinating your fruit and veg! 
Lastly, there is a cornucopia of information about vegetable growing in countless books and via the internet – more ‘overwhelm’!  
Call me old fashioned but I suggest you select about two well illustrated books that inspire you and you will actually enjoy reading – in your swing seat of course! -and use the internet to research specific crops as a backup. 
Alison Böckh www.gardendesignernorthdevon.co.uk 
Tel. 01805 804 322 Mob. 07772147518 
September is good time to lay turf by the way, if your lawn suffered over the summer, as most did. The ground is still warm and there be rain... 
But earlier in the year after the seemingly unrelenting wet of the winter, I hardly walked across any prospective clients lawn without the accompanying squelch - and then the Beast from the East waded in for good measure. Lawns were looking less popular.  
And suddenly summer arrived - and showed no intention of leaving! Not for me to complain but months of dry, hot sunshine brings its challenges in the garden - and not just how strong to make the next batch of Pimms... 
Lawns blanched in the heat and I put off returfing my excuse for a vegetable patch until the weather broke. See below... 
I'm often asked about fake turf - at which point I blanch in horror!  
FAKE? Fake grass!?  
Now I'm not a huge fan of the perfect lawn but I've yet to acquiese to a fake one. There'll be borders of plastic perennials next! 
But wait... 
They say the first casualty of war is the plan - as this is broadly true of any project - including a garden design. However accurate the survey and meticulously detailed the design there are always anomolies once the landscapers get on site. 
It's unforgiveable if the designer hasn't taken account of the basics like drains but all manner of unknowns lurk beneath the surface to cause the design and build team a headache. 
Most landscapers I've worked with usually are quick to point out these hitches but equally quick to come up with a solution; a good designer will anticipate likely problems and be ready to be on hand with the resolution process. They should have in mind how the finished project should look, at least in hard materials and not allow details to slide for the sake of expediancy or time. Cost is separate issue that will have been negotioated before the vans turn up and even this can subject to reveiw...Communication between all parties is key. 
Any design, however thought through and detailed, is only ever a skeleton on which to build. Many clients can be really excited about their new garden but a find it really difficult to visualise in reality. Even 3D renderings aren't the same as having it there outside your back door. Once the bones of the new garden start to take shape however, the client may start to have light bulb moments - and make changes and add details of their own. In my view this is to be welcomed - the more involved the client becomes the more likely the ultimate garden will be a success - one that they feel fully involved with and want to care for. Mananging this is really the designer's job - to listen to the client's concerns and ideas and find practical resolutions with the landscaper. 
The latest projects to arise from the mud- or concrete after weeks of hot sunshine - are a soon to be garden on a new build site - a very high spec house but on an awkward, sloping site (aren't they all?!) In this case the builder still on site felt obligated to complete the exterior so agreed to lay the patio ( for an agreed cost) rather than lay unwanted turf.  
For me this rushed the design process a bit but we all saw the benefit of utilising skilled labour ready to go. Result - clients with a patio to relax on for the rest of the summer, who were prepared to wait for another landscaper to finish the job.  
This may not sound ideal but with any project there is a need to adapt to changing circumstances - and for me working with people the clients are happy with, is crucial for ensuring good communication all round. 
What with Royal Weddings, Chelsea Flower Show and not to mention the gorgeous weather we've had lately, we've had plenty to celebrate and what better way than to be in our gardens with a Pimms or what ever is your tipple.  
But have we offered our plants a drink? Lovely though it is when spring finally kicks in, this can be a treacherous time of year for our new plants. Often they struggle and may even die later in the season from lack of proper TLC when first introduced to our tubs and borders. 
Shrubs are particularly prone - many times have I pulled a forlorn shrub easily from the ground having made no root growth and died. Often it's sitting on a wet sump of compost, having rotted away over a wet winter. We are the culprits - the prized shrub is brought home, planted with a shovel of compost in the bottom of the planting hole, a quick splosh with the hose and then left to get on with it while the owners relax and go on holiday. All appearences suggest the shrub is fine - it grows a bit, flowers - then promptly dies over winter. 
Hilliers, the nursery chain across the South claim the average life expectency of a small shrub bought from their nursery is about 3 months - not something you would think they want to shout about . But the fault is not theirs but their customers; they are not always right, apparently.  
It can be daunting faced with a new garden - and I mean a new garden. Brand new house, no garden to speak of , builders rubble lurking under the compacted soil , not so much as a weed to inspire even an experienced gardener that just possibly, an oasis will one day arise from the mud patch. 
As a new client said in her inquiring first email 'Where the hell do you start?!' And I quote. 
My answer of course was - 'With someone like me'. 
Most new clients come with at least some experience albeit unwilling, others come with a lot and very willing, but confronted with something resembling the Somme can take the shine off their brand new home. A garden designer comes to the first visit with an unemotional eye. Not without excitement mind, as this prospect is a blank canvas devoid of sentiment - so anything could happen. 
At first I just listen - where have they come from, tell me about your last garden - often a family's history unfolds and some aspects of that home will need expression here. And the important question - how do you want to spend your time in the garden? The response here is often also a reaction to the last garden - less work , more relaxing - and pottering. Truly I do not believe there is a translation into any other language for 'pottering'. 
I met a new plant today. A neat unassuming little thing, quietly minding its own business at the entrance to the shade tunnel of one of my favourite nurseries (www.millwoodplants.co.uk). Unshowy though it was I was taken aback at the fresh perfection of its lobed, heart shaped, fleshy leaves on delicate stems. While everything around is starting its autumnal decline, this little chap seemed full of the joys of - well, autumn. 
I'm reliably informed by one of the two incredibly helpful and knowledgable owners that it goes by the name of Eomecon chionanthe - yes, now repeat after me - Ee- Oh - Me - Con - Chio - Nan - Thee. A mighty big name for such a little plant. 
I rightly assumed that it obligingly dies away in winter completely, rather than hanging around looking dead or depressed. As if its pleasing leaves and habit weren't enough it flowers twice no less over the growing season, producing simple four petaled white blooms with yellow stamens - rather like a poppy being a distant relative. 
There's always a bit of a lull in mid summer - I have plenty on but happily the phone goes a bit quiet and I'm given a chance to catch up with the 'spring rush'. And just before the kids go back to school there's a bit of flurry of interest and I think - 'A smart move - potential clients who are already thinking about their gardens for next year'. 
Design projects always take longer than you think -the design process can take weeks and a landscaper might take a few more to find. As for the start date - sharp intake of breathe - that could be a few months more. So a good move is to start that process now, while we are actually in our gardens with perhaps some time to contemplate its good points - and not so good. All being well the build process can start over the winter into spring, ready to enjoy by the summer.  
This year the Christmas decorations had barely been put away befor the phone started ringing - I'm certainly not complaining, but if you really want to beat the rush, call me now! 
A shove in the right direction 
Sometimes a consultation is all need to make some firm decisions about which direction you want your garden to go. And it's always a real pleasure when as a designer you have been instrumental in helping the garden owners to get there. Earlier this month I was invited to return to a garden in mid Devon to view how the owners had developed their site and made it their own. Experienced and keen gardeners themselves the new owners loved the cottagey garden surrounding their thatched Devon long house garden but were certain it needed some bold tweaks. 
Our site uses cookies. For more information, see our cookie policy. Accept cookies and close
Reject cookies Manage settings