The downside….

Ok….

Bit of a bummer….

I’ve discovered an unexpected downside to doing a garden design course. Which is that my critical eye has got more critical…. Now when I look at my own garden I’m seeing what’s wrong with it, rather than what’s right. And I’ve got a worrying feeling that the only answer is a bed by bed overhaul. I think I might have rather a lot of work ahead of me.

The good news is that the basic structure looks as good as ever. How lucky was I that before I properly appreciated what a really good garden designer could achieve I had a really good garden designer as a friend. Thanks to my mate Judes there is absolutely nothing wrong and absolutely everything right with the way the garden is laid out so the backbone is there. And luckily, thanks to her, I realised pretty quickly how important it is to provide a framework of trees and shrubs. So the structure is all there too.

It’s the bits in between that I’m thinking could do with a bit of reworking. And I’m starting with the front garden. To be fair my front garden has been work in progress for the past – shameful to admit it – over two years. Which is when we moved our front door from the side of the house to the middle.

We’ve lived in this house for coming up for fourteen years, and the thing that never worked terribly well for most of that time was the front entrance.

Fourteen years ago we moved in….

It was tacked onto a corner, from the days before we moved in when the house was smaller, with the porch leading through a front door into a narrow corridor. So that people came in and were surprised that there was more house than they expected.

The dining room window is the one in the middle....
In those days the front garden left a lot to be desired….

And it’s going to sound really sad, but I spent years trying to come up with a solution. Move walls here, put doors there, make this room smaller, that room bigger. Nothing seemed to work and I ended up thinking that we would just have to live with it the way it was. Until Christmas three years ago when I had one of my Eureka moments (they come if you wait for them) and realised that the thing to do was to lose the dining room, because it was never a very nice dining room, and we were always happier in the kitchen; turn what was the dining room into an entrance hall; turn the existing entrance ‘corridor’ into a downstairs loo; turn the existing downstairs loo (never great because of a difficult sloping ceiling) into a rather wonderful cupboard/walk in larder. And hey presto. A reworked house that worked the way it should have always worked, but just never did. Hurrah!

Except that when you move a front door from the side of the house to the front, the front garden needs reworking too. And it coincided with me being tied up with family stuff, and then I started the garden design course…. And time got taken over. And it slipped away the way it does.

So suddenly it’s two and a half years later, and the front garden still looks like it did when the builders left but a bit tidier.

Except for now I’m a garden designer. So that’s not great…..

But finally, a couple of weeks ago, I get round to looking at it. And it’s my first chance to put some of the stuff I’ve learned into practice.

Posh huh....
Posh huh….
Box balls in waiting....
Box balls in waiting….

So I did. And although you might not be able to see it yet, I think its going to work. I actually did some sketching to help me work it out. And I planned it properly. When I walk through it now I’m really pleased with it. More than pleased with it. I’m really excited about it. Because when it’s all grown up I think it’s got the potential to be a front garden I can be proud of.

Give it some time....
Just give it some time….

And these days that matters.

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.

So….

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.

BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT I AM.

My Eureka Moment….

So – to borrow from the Olympics – I’ve negotiated the rails, executed a couple of backside 360s, a pretty spectacular frontside 720, and the finishing line is in sight.

Project 5 is presented and put to bed, and we’ve had a few days to dust the snow off our bobble hats and clear the ice from our goggles. Tomorrow we pick up the brief for the final part of this mad, bad and dangerous to know….

….garden design course.

Ok, so I know it’s not a dangerous sport. But it hasn’t half felt like it! In the course of the year I’ve laughed, cried, decided that garden design most definitely wasn’t for me, dropped out, and dropped back in again. I’ve cursed, thrown things, had several nervous breakdowns…. But I’m nearly through. And the last few weeks have been a bit of a revelation for me. Because I’ve realised that…. you know what…. I can actually do this thing.

It took Project 5, set at the beginning of this final term, to show me the light. Our brief was to come up with a design for the private garden of the Chief Executive and Information Department Staff at…. drum roll…. the one and only, wonderful Hampton Court Palace. My favourite place…. How lucky was that…..

It wasn’t an easy brief. Oddly shaped garden, split into three awkward areas with limited access, which needed pulling together and turning into an inviting space to tempt the staff outside to use it, while delivering year round interest for those inside looking out while they worked. They wanted fragrance, cottage style planting, places to sit. All this had to be achieved without obstructing the view of the building from the outside. So quite a challenge.

But you know what…. I did it. I came up with a concept, design and a planting plan that really worked. That had cohesion and flow and functionality. That I would have been happy to see turned into reality. And that has given me great confidence.

Ok so the presentation of the concept was…. well let’s be honest…. it was pants. Because I came up with the concept, layout and planting in reasonably good time. And then spent the next couple of weeks doing battle with the technology.

Computer aided design – three words that strike fear into the depths of my soul. I lost entire planting plans never to be found again. Spent days trying to work out why I couldn’t get the plants to appear with their names. Prepared lists and schedules in one part of my computer that I simply couldn’t find out how to transport into a place where I could print them out. Things appeared in one shape and size on my computer screen and came out of the printer looking completely different. It was a nightmare. But in the end I managed to produce a master plan and a planting plan.

Master Plan/Hampton Court Project

So I’m getting there. Slowly, in my own time. There is light at the end of this particular tunnel. I won’t get a good mark for my presentation. But that’s fine. Because now it’s just a question of polishing up my skills. You can learn this stuff, this computer generated, bells and whistles, walk me through a 3d model of your design, technology. It’s not rocket science. (Ok so maybe it is. But it’s rocket science for mere mortals like me.) The important thing is coming up with a good design in the first place.

And I can.

Who knew….

I’ve got a confession to make.

This post was supposed to be all about the lightbulb coming on, by George I think she’s got it, moment that I had this week. The ‘you know what, I think I might actually be able to do this garden design thing’ discovery.

But telling you about how I got on with Project 5 will have to wait for another couple of days. Because first I’ve got to own up to a guilty secret.

You know all this weather we’re having….

Well I think it might be my fault. Actually not entirely my fault. My husband Graham has got to take his share of the responsibility. But the finger of blame is pointing straight at us.

I really had no idea, didn’t think, it never occurred to me. When I got myself organised at the start of December, ordered the hessian online, found the string, I thought I was doing the right thing. Just shows you how wrong you can be. Wrapping my tubs to protect them from the icy grip of winter seemed like such a good idea at the time. For the last few years they’d been naked and defenceless, cracking and crumbling as the relentless frosts did their worst. This time it was going to be different.

Then Graham went and got winter tyres for his car….

So there you have it….

What can I say except for I’m sorry. We should have thought. Tubs wrapped in hessian AND winter tyres. Of course it wasn’t going to get cold this year.

All I can say is that I promise we won’t do it again.

And for next winter we’ve ordered a WaterCar.

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.

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 10.57.25

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….

Back to the Drawing Board….

Literally….

Because I am. Back at the drawing board I mean.

I thought I was done with all of that stuff. Wind back a couple of months and there you have me shutting the door on my little office in the garden and vowing never to go back in there again. I packed up the drawing board, put away the pens and the layout pads and all the stuff that goes with trying to be a garden designer, cleared up and threw sackloads of rubbish away. My unfinished novel was calling to me.

But the moral of this particular story is never say never….

The unfinished novel is still calling. But it will have to wait a little longer. My final term at KLC, which should have started last September and finished in December, commences on January 15th. It’s an odd feeling – going back after a few months off, to the same place but to different people. My fellow students from Diploma 6 are all done and dusted, embarking on their careers as…. well as whatever they are embarking on. And here’s me going back to school again.

I did have a moment’s…. well actually several moments’…. panic last week when I went to dig out all the work I did in the summer for the dreaded Crane Park Project which has to be presented on the first day back. And couldn’t find it. Had I thrown it all away? Please, please, please don’t say I had….

Well thank goodness I found it. Because if I hadn’t the thought of doing it all again was enough to make me…. well who knows what I would have done. Best not to go there….

Now you have me shut away in my office, discovering that all my pens have run out of ink, remembering what a nightmare it is trying to draw measured perspective sketches, struggling with the challenge of mastering the computer aided design programmes which still baffle me. With the wind and the rain howling outside my window. Was going to back to all of this really such a good idea?

Well you know what…. it was. Because it’s great to get the old grey cells working again, great to be scared, great to face new challenges. With more time and less panic (and Sketchup for Dummies!) I’ve actually managed to master (to a very basic extent) the art of drawing a 3d model of my design for the area round the Shot Tower in Crane Park. People who are comfortable with designing with computers would probably laugh at my pathetic attempts. But I feel like a million dollars.

So I’m presenting my work on the first day of term to a new cast – the students of Diploma 7. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it’s a bit daunting. But I’m determined to be more relaxed and less anxious about this last term of mine. I got so tired and emotional by the end of the summer that I had stopped enjoying myself. So I’m going to try and take it a bit easier, be kinder to myself. And we’ll see how it goes.

Back to CAD….

So here goes….

I’m coming clean, putting up my hands and owning up.

You know all that stuff I wrote at the end of the summer about being on a break, taking a breather, spending some me time before going back to Hampton Court for the final term after Christmas. Well I was lying. Had no intention of going back. Was embracing quitterdom with relish.

I was tired and emotional and I had had enough. I never wanted to see another 3D model again, couldn’t contemplate a CAD drawing without wanting to throw my laptop out of the window. And the thought of embarking on a perspective sketch – well this is going to sound overdramatic…. but it made me feel physically sick.

So for the last couple of months, while I’ve been editing my book and working in my garden and generally having a pretty wonderful time, I’ve been thinking that at some stage I would have to confess to this blog that I was a gardening school drop out, that I wasn’t going back, that my relationship with garden design was well and truly over.

But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. And thank goodness I didn’t. Because you know what…. I’ve changed my mind.

Last week I went back to Hampton Court for a talk to the KLC students by the wonderful Andy Sturgeon. My intention was to kill two birds with one stone, to meet one of my gardening heroes, and use it as an excuse to tell everybody that I wasn’t going to finish the course. But they say ‘never say never’…. and they’re right. Because Andy showed us some of the gardens he has designed and it was like he had a special message just for me. There was the Chelsea garden which I had used in the mood board for my interview and his spiral garden which I had used for my Everest concept garden. It reminded me of how much I had learnt in the first two terms and how much I had already achieved. How could I thin about giving up when I had come so far?

So I’m going back in January to finish what I started. And I’m really excited about it. I’ve got to finish the summer projects: my Construction File needs 13 more CAD drawings (yes 13!!!!) and I’ve got to go back to the Crane Park Project which has quite a bit more work to do on it. But I’m looking forward to it. Which goes to show what a difference a few months off can make.

I’ve actually done a few of the CAD drawings this week. It’s been tortuous because I haven’t done any work with CAD since the start of the summer term. But it’s amazing what a difference it makes when you’ve got plenty of time to play around and you’re not panicking because you’ve got a deadline looming.

So my advice to anyone contemplating doing this course is to think long and hard about it. Because when they say it’s a lot of work they mean it. To get the most out of it you need to clear the decks and be prepared to work flat out without a breather for a year…. And that includes the holidays. It’s a massive commitment.

For those of you waiting with bated breath for the publication of my book you’re going to have to wait a bit longer. I’ve finished editing but want to give it one last tidy up before presenting it to the world. But hey – I’ve been writing it for the past seven years so what’s a few more months.

So I hope you’ll stick with me and this blog for a few months longer and who knows where we might end up….