I am NOT a garden designer….

You know all that ‘I am a garden designer’ stuff that’s been going on in these pages over the past couple of years? Well, I’m going to let you into a secret. It’s all bollocks. And I’ll tell you for why.

Just because you do a garden design course for a year doesn’t make you a garden designer. Or at least it doesn’t make me a garden designer. What it does make me – or rather what it did make me – was slightly insane.

It’s taken me a year to realise this. But now, with a new year beginning, it’s time to set the record straight. Because –


There I’ve gone and said it. And boy, oh boy, does it feel good. Cos here’s the thing…

The reason I chose to do a garden design course (as I explained when  I signed up) was because friends had been asking me to help them with their gardens, make suggestions, offer advice. Which I was keen to do. But before I waded in I felt I could do with a bit more knowledge. I wanted to feel more confident that what I was suggesting was the right thing to do. I wasn’t looking for a full blown, start at the bottom and work my arse off career. I’d been and gone and done that thing once before in my life. I really didn’t need to do it again.

Added to this I had just been through a bumpy couple of years, with loads of family stuff going on, and I wanted to do something for me, something rewarding, enjoyable, challenging. What I was looking for was the life enhancement and fulfilment that I believed would come from learning about a subject I loved. Which is why I signed up for the garden design course at Hampton Court Palace.

So…? How was it? Challenging? Yes. Rewarding and enjoyable…? Hell, no.

The palace was fabulous. The people were lovely. The course was… a frickin’ nightmare. It was. I’m not exaggerating. And it all started out so well.

I loved the early stuff; the sketching, the garden history, the plant knowledge. But, after the first couple of weeks, it all went pear-shaped. To become a garden designer there is so much you need to know. If you’re going to go into someone else’s garden and start shifting earth around, knocking things down, building things, planting things that are going to live, die, grow big, take over… you really need to know your onions. (No pun intended.) You need to be an expert in design, know all about construction, about plants and planting, the climate, all that insurance and liability and who’s responsible for what stuff. You need to know how to sketch and draw, how to design using a computer. You need to know how to set up and run a business. These are vast subjects in themselves. Two days a week for a year can’t begin to do them justice.

So it was mad. It felt as if there was too much to learn crammed into too little time to learn it. Which for a raging perfectionist like me was complete hell. Added to which it seemed to me that we spent far too much time on the superficial stuff, and not enough on the nitty gritty. I wanted more substance and less packaging. For me it was too much about the presentation and not enough about what we were presenting. We were concentrating on, and being assessed for, drawing pretty pictures, when I wanted to learn about what makes a great design, how to manage space and utilise mass and form, the philosophy and guiding principles for putting together a planting plan.

I dropped out, went back, and dropped out again four weeks before the end. I came out of the experience feeling less able rather than more. And I lost myself in the process.

So do I regret doing it? Well I don’t believe in regret – and good stuff has come out of it. This blog for one thing – which led me back to writing. Which in turn encouraged me to have a go at self-publishing The Greenyards Legacy. Which in turn has encouraged me to have a go at writing another book. For this I am eternally grateful.

But if I knew then what I know now, would I have done the course? The answer is a resounding no. It’s entirely personal, but it seemed like a very expensive way of finding out how little I knew about garden design. Given the chance again I would find more practical, hands-on ways of learning how to be a garden designer. If being a garden designer was what I wanted to be. As it is I’m leaving it to the experts, and I’m going to stick with writing.

Will I carry on with this blog? I’m not sure. It depends whether I’ve got anything to write about that I think people might want to read.

Which means that this is yet another one of those watch this space moments. Only this time I don’t know if I’ll be back.

So now what….?

You know how it is when you’ve got a really good friend you’ve been meaning to ring….

The thing is that you haven’t spoken for a while and there’s a lot of catching up to do. So you keep putting it off until you’ve got enough time for a really good gossip. But the longer you leave it the more there is to talk about. And before you know it weeks have passed and you haven’t made the call and she (or he) is beginning to think you’ve forgotten all about her and don’t love her any more.

Well that’s what it’s been like with this blog. There’s been a lot going on, and I keep sitting down to write about it. But then there isn’t enough time. So I leave it and promise I’ll go back to it. But I don’t.  And now, how did that happen, a month has passed and I’m coming to the end of my course, and spring is here in all its fabulousness, and I’m all set to embark on the next stage of this journey called life (ooer, sorry about that…. I’ve just come over all Frank Sinatra).

Anyway, loads has been happening, and it’s exciting, and I’m just going to have to write a few posts in quick succession to bring this blog up to date. And then I can go back to the weekly updates that have been working pretty well for me – and hopefully for you – until it all went tits up and I stopped writing regularly.


Where to start?

Well first there’s the career. You know what I’m talking about? That thing you’re supposed to embark on when you get to the end of a course that has been preparing you to offer a service that people will (hopefully) pay you for. Well next week I’m going in to the KLC studios at Hampton Court for my last day, and it might sound a bit mad but I hadn’t really given much thought until now about the bit that comes next. And now it’s here, and it’s all a bit new and scary, and there’s a part of me that’s thinking that maybe I’ll just go back to writing my unpublished books and forget about the whole garden design thing.

Except for life isn’t letting me duck out of this one. The garden in Hampton that I went to see a year ago is still waiting for me, and I’m going back next week to remind myself of what needs doing. I’m helping friends to plant up their front garden in Kinston; getting on intimate terms with pleached hornbeam. My sister wants me to come up with a cunning plan for her garden in Broadstairs. And hopefully there are more people out there who want some help with their gardens and like the idea of a bit of old dog knowhow. So I can’t stick my head in the sand and pretend I was just doing this course for fun. It’s time to get out there.

Which I’m really excited about. Because now that the year is finally ending (after a fair amount of ducking and diving) I can’t wait to get started. Although it hasn’t always felt like it, I’ve learnt a lot. And now I want to put it into practice.

So watch this space. From hereonin this blog will record the ramblings of a newbie garden designer.


Back at the Palace….

So I’m back.

And you know what…. it feels great.

There I was on Wednesday morning. Panicking in traffic on the M25, crossing the Thames with the irregular outline of the palace against the sky to my right, parking the car, heaving bags and cases and presentation boards out of the boot, staggering through the security barrier. It was good to find that the old place hasn’t changed much while I’ve been away. But then it has been there for several centuries so I suppose it was unlikely to get up to much in a few months. The mellow brick, the clustered chimneys, the ring of the flagstones under my feet as I walk through the dim corridors, the smell of woodsmoke from the Tudor kitchen as it gears up for the day’s visitors, the way the light falls in the courtyards – all still the same, all still wonderful in the pinch me I can’t quite believe that I’m here way. I’m happy to be back again.

What is different is that, when I climb the stairs up to the KLC studio, the sign-in list by the door has got eight names on it rather than eighteen, and the faces when I go in are new and different. Annie is there for the Crane Park presentations, but no Humaira. Instead Juliet and Philippa and a new bunch of fellow students to get to know. It doesn’t take long though. We’re all in the same boat.

So at last I got to present the dreaded Crane Park Project and hand in the dreaded Construction File. And I’m so glad I did. Because they were both a huge amount of work – and I’ve been hard at it since Christmas finishing off what I started in the summer – so it would have been an awful waste of time not to hand them in and…. get them marked.

Hmmmm…. that’s the bit yet to come. Not looking forward to that bit quite so much. Still it’s done. And it’s a great feeling to have got the other side of both projects.

Because you know something…. I’m feeling really pleased with myself. Because in the course of doing these godammned, are you kidding me, you cannot be serious, this is a crazy amount of work, projects, I found out that I’m capable of an awful lot more than I ever thought. Which is what this course is all about.

So for starters there’s Vectorworks, the movie. Well not actually a movie, it’s a computer aided design package thing. Which when I started out was like trying to learn a foreign language, where nothing made sense, and when I did learn how to do even the most basic thing I had forgotten it by the following day. Well you know something – I did sixteen construction drawings with it. And used it in the Crane Park project to draw up an admittedly basic plan. And I discovered how great it is for doing planting plans. I didn’t do all the fancy stuff that some of the others did to such great effect. But hey I’m an old dog learning new tricks. What do you expect?

Then there’s Sketchup. Another computer design tool that had me a bit stumped. But hurrah for Sketchup for Dummies. So aptly named in my case. Because I used it to help me with my 3d perspective sketches. And it was a bloomin’ miracle. See….

Crane Park sketchup drawings colour version

This is a very basic rendering of my plan – which was based on the Shot Tower at Crane Park as the centre of an explosion with shock waves radiating out from it.

The other thing I did which I have never done before was make a model. This was the thing that finished me off in the summer. But luckily I took photos before I chucked the whole thing in the bin. So I was able to use it in my presentation this week.

IMG_1276Compared to the models that some of the others made – particularly Delphine’s which was a thing of absolute beauty – mine was…. well pathetic would be a fair description. But I did it and it kind of showed me something about the site and my idea. So not a complete waste of time.

And there were the watercolour illustrations of my concept.

Scan 2 And the sketches of my ideas for the burnt wood bridges and benches and fences throughout the site.

And then there was ‘The Dossier’. The leave behind folder to go with the presentation. I used Ipages to do it. That’s Ipages to the uninitiated. I hadn’t heard of it either. It’s a wonderful tool for pulling together images and words. And it allows you to put together a presentation which looks…. well see for yourself.

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When I gave up work fifteen or so years ago we were still handwriting documents, giving them to our secretaries, who typed them up and gave them back to us. We corrected them, gave them back, and finally we had them in our sweaty little hands. But only words, no pictures. And no clever stuff like colour and different fonts and sizes and moving bits around the pages. So this is like magic to me….

So I’ve learnt a hell of a lot. And it all came together this week. And now we’ve got our next project. Which is an absolute peach. Because it’s at the palace. It’s the private garden outside the offices of the chief exec and other members of staff. How awesome is that.

So hurrah for garden design. And boo to the old me who wanted to give it all up. There’s life in the old dog yet….

What a week…

Spring has finally sprung.

On Monday at Hampton Court we threw the windows open and bathed in the warm air that flowed into the studio.  (To be fair we didn’t actually throw the windows open. They are so ancient that if we were to throw them open there would be a very real danger that they would drop off and plunge to the ground, killing a few visitors on their way. So we had to ask Humaira to open them for us, which she did rather gingerly! But you get the general drift…..)

My favourite yew trees.
My favourite yew trees.

It’s hard to feel down when the sun is transforming the world, bare branches are bursting into colour in waves of glorious green, and the magnolia blossom I pass on the way to college is worth stopping the car for.

In my garden, (which is always a little late thanks to heavy clay soil and a north facing aspect,) it’s been my tubs which have been the show stoppers.


IMG_1984Certainly the bees seem to think so…..IMG_2021

Little and Large

On Monday we dodged the rain to make it outside into the Palace gardens as part of our garden history lecture. Wonderful Debbie Trentham – whose knowledge, enthusiasm and sense of humour has made learning about the history of gardens such a treat this term – took us out to show us the Privy Garden. We went to look at this recreation of Henry VIII’s private garden, recently restored to the way it would have looked in 1702 when William and Mary moved into the Palace.The Privy Garden

All very formal…. and a bit tight arsed for my taste. I suppose that was what turned them on in those days.  But see the pointy cone shaped things. Well those are yews. 

And if you look at the great trees that we see from the windows of the studio ……

IMG_0376…… those are yews too. And when they were planted they looked just like those little pointy things we saw in the Privy Garden. Which is an amazing thought.

These great yews are so ancient that there is real concern that they won’t last much longer. So then the big question will be what to replace them with. This part of the Palace grounds is known as The Fountain Garden because originally there were thirteen fountains here. Now only one remains. And very beautiful it is too….


But the foundations of the other twelve are still in place. So when the great yews finally fail there is the possibility of recreating the original Fountain Garden in their place.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. It’s one of the great thing about gardens – that they don’t stand still. They have a life of their own. They develop and change and move on, even if you don’t want them to. But replacing these stunningly beautiful trees with fountains and formality seems rather tragic to me.

It’s the great challenge for the people who are responsible for managing these historic  properties. When nobody lives in a building their continuation is dependent upon their relevance as part of our cultural heritage. And the rules change.

But for now, go and see the yew trees while you still can……

The truth they couldn’t hide.

Now we get down to it.  Now we uncover the truth….

The timetable said Practical Horticulture with Amanda. An afternoon session in the Palace gardens.

Go to the Twentieth Century Garden, they told us. It’s a beautiful day. You’ll really enjoy yourselves.

It all seemed so innocent.

But this picture tells a different story.


Remind you of anything……

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And the smiles on the faces of our so called tutors…..


They look so friendly, don’t they?

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If only you knew….

The Great Vine

If you go to Hampton Court…. or should I say when you go to Hampton Court… you have to go and see The Great Vine.

On our first day at KLC we were given a tour of the Palace gardens. And as part of our tour we went to see this venerable plant.

The Great Vine was planted in 1769. That makes it 254 years old…..

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The Great Vine has its own glasshouse – and a dedicated expanse of richly fertile looking soil outside the glasshouse where the roots of the vine are fed and watered.


The Great Vine also has its own specially designated carer, a charming lady whose job it is to look after this ancient plant. She took us in to the hallowed glasshouse and told us all about its history. I thought she looked remarkably relaxed. Because if it was my job……

The Great VineHas she seen The Little Shop of Horrors? How does she sleep at night? If there was ever a plant with attitude this is it.

And even if it doesn’t turn round and look at her like she’s dinner, what happens if it starts looking a bit peaky? This vine is the largest grape-vine in the world. It’s 254 years old.

That’s one hell of a responsibility…..

A Room with a View…

… remember that thing at school.

It’s half way through double maths. Stuffy classroom, logarithms and algebra, boring teacher droning on –

It feels like hours – no, make that days – maybe even weeks –  have been ticking by while you count down the seconds until the end of the lesson. You gaze out of the window. The view outside is as uninspiring as the view inside. Tarmac paths, red brick, classrooms….

Well, it’s a bit different at KLC.

For one thing we never have time to be bored. But if we ever did have a moment to look out of the window…



And in the snow….


This is one view I will never tire of.

Going to School

One of the best things about being on this course is the walk to school.

I park the car at Hampton Court station, just over the bridge from the palace, heave my satchel over my shoulder – there’s a hell of a lot of stuff you have to carry around with you when you are a fledgling garden designer – and walk towards the river.

First amazing view……

The palace in the morning
The palace in the morning

the palace stretched out behind a lacy curtain of winter trees. Every day it looks different.

Next exciting thing…..

Going in
Going in

…going through the security gates. I have a pass. That’s right…. a security pass. I love having a security pass.

Every day I walk past the chapel. First thing in the morning there’s nobody about. I can’t help wondering if Henry VIII’s ghost is in there trying to explain the six wives. IMG_0341

At the far corner of the Courtyard there’s a wrought iron gate. This leads to the old grace IMG_0367and favour apartments. And the location of the KLC studio. The apartments are no longer occupied by the fortunate few who once lived there. But reminders of their existence still linger. The basket lowered for supplies from the top floor saved the residents from going to the effort of going down four floors to get the milk.

And Lady Peake. Who was she? What was her history? Did she love being here as much as I do?

Grace and Favour
Grace and Favour

Along the landing to a wooden door. And I’m there. The KLC studios. Let me tell you…. this is a very good way to start a day.