Designing a Site Responsive Garden in an Urban Area
Updated: Jan 29, 2020
View of our new garden from an upstairs window. Image copyright Cheri LaMay 2016.
If you have seen my website you will know that I have been designing gardens since 2003. I haven’t counted but it feels like I have designed hundreds of gardens in that time. Now here’s a secret… until recently I have always lived in rented accommodation and have never had my own garden! As a Generation Xer with no feet on the property ladder and wanting to stay near Leeds centre for easy motorway access so I can reach all the gardens of Halifax, Harrogate, Ilkley and so on as well as all the gardens of lovely Leeds itself, well, property prices are high and I couldn’t get started. And, in 2015 I finally moved from a rented flat into a house with a garden which I could (sort of) call my own. That is, I moved in with my partner Gary.
What happened in the interim? A lot of DIY and scrapping about DIY; scrapping about my pulling rubbish out of skips and taking it home to make cool things; we have both been hard at work, with Gary as an architect and me designing gardens and also teaching garden design at the RHS Harlow Carr Gardens; having great times both together and with dear friends; and, yes I designed and made the garden at Gary’s house (some of it out of rubbish!). So, this is, in fact, a blog about garden design. The back story is important because I have made so many gardens for others and it was interesting and exciting to make one for us.
View to the gate from the door of the house. Image copyright Cheri LaMay 2016.
All successful garden designs start with noticing the various aspects that make up the unique character of the site. We call the unique character of the site the Spirit of Place, or Genius Loci. This is one part of garden design that really pushes my buttons! On the Introduction to Garden Design course at RHS Harlow Carr we spend a day exploring Genius Loci and look at a lot of great examples, one of which is Derek Jarman’s garden. Jarman’s garden is a true response to the place.
It is pretty much legend now: Film director Jarman had been diagnosed with AIDS; this was the eighties and there was no effective treatment. He bought an old fisherman’s cottage on a pebble beach at Dungeness, near to the headland in the south-east of Kent where the Dungeness nuclear power station stands. The area had long since been deserted. Jarman moved into the cottage, and creatively and beautifully lived out his life writing poems, making films; and making a garden. As he walked the beaches and sand dunes he found maritime plants and brought them home and planted them in the shingle around the cottage. He organised the shingle too, big pebbles and small. He brought back driftwood and flotsam and stacked these up with hagstones and fishing nets. In a way it looks as if the only human intervention has been to reorganise the things that were already present: the resulting garden is totally unique and site specific.
Jarman’s garden almost happened by accident, but if we put the same principles consciously into practice we can make gardens that sit seamlessly within the landscape or cityscape and are generous in that they feedback positively into the surrounding area and therefore lift the area, rather than snubbing it, or clashing with it. This is site responsiveness. There is little I find more depressing than a lack of site responsiveness: a grand, ostentatious garden in front of a simple home; or a humble, rambling cottage garden with a beautifully proportioned, sparsely lined Georgian house as a backdrop.
Lack of site responsiveness leads to loss of place: with global fashion trends many places within cities look the same. In some cases you might not know whether you are in London, Leeds or Tokyo if you were to judge only by your surroundings. Fast food and coffee chains are taking over high streets in towns and cities alike worldwide and where does that leave us with our sense of where we live and our own identities, never mind the permanent loss of the Spirit of Place?
Leeds Town Hall on the horizon, surrounded by generic looking buildings.
On top of the loss of place, with social media constantly in our pockets and in our hands we don’t inhabit our bodies like we should; we may travel around on foot and by other means of transport, but, these days we have to make a serious effort to be mindful of where we are, what we see and hear; and notice how our surroundings are affecting us. These factors contribute to a loss of connection with place, even where place still exists.
So, how do we find the Spirit of Place to make a site responsive garden? We open our eyes and minds and see what is happening inside, and outside of the garden. We take off the blinkers, get into our bodies (and out of our minds, so to speak), open our eyes and see…
Our front gate in our not-yet-up-and-coming area.
What did I see at my new home? It is in a heavily built up urban area. At the front there are two wonderful big Lime trees, and in back, well, the gardens are quite small so the neighbours are very close; things are rundown: I see paint peeling off concrete; there is a school full of shouting kids next door; there is little privacy and the area gets very crowded and busy at school pick up and drop off times.
The garden is overlooked by a row of terraced houses which are up the hill, and behind them some low rise flats and then, to top it off, a tower block looms over us. The view from the kitchen window is onto the garden immediately, then your eyes go up over the gate and skip across the low rise flats to the unavoidable focal point: the tower block.
Our garden “Before”, as Gary had kept it, more or less (I had already brought a few plants in by this time, and was marking out the design with string).
The garden is five metres wide by eight metres long and the ground level at the gate at the top of the slope is sixty-five centimetres above the ground outside the kitchen door. Gary had just kept it as bare soil for the past fifteen years, although to his credit he had planted a row of five Thujas (White Cedars: conifers) along part of one side with the idea of making a hedge, and a couple of Euonymous. A row of big 1960s Leeds City Council issue concrete flags ran in a straight line from the gate to the door. The soil was mixed, near the house there was mainly subsoil which the house builders had excavated for the foundations and left, with a decent clayey loam at the top of the garden. The garden can get quite windy at times because it blows through the valley and is made worse by the turbulence caused by the tower blocks above.
Rather than fight against the paint-peeling-off-concrete and tower block aesthetic, my site responsive garden would have to roll with it. I decided to angle the garden at forty-five degrees to the house. This makes a garden more dynamic and exciting rather than calm and tranquil, and the garden needed to be a little exciting to keep the attention focussed inward (there is so much going on outside). Also, the tower block stands at about forty-five degrees to the house so it ties in. I decided to use timber raised beds because the strong architecture of the raised beds is able to hold its own amongst all the buildings. Imagine if the same plants were planted at ground level- it gets quite wishy-washy doesn’t it? And it’s wonderful to be able to perch on the edge of the beds just about anywhere in the garden: great for hanging out with friends. Also, they give a solution to the problem of the poor soil- I just had to build the boxes and then put the subsoil on the bottom and the loamy soil on the top.
The design has one big square raised bed right outside the kitchen, a step up, and then a flat square open area for seating that is two and a half metres by two and a half metres, bordered by an “L” shaped raised bed and another step up. The uppermost area can be used as a seating area too and faces directly into the afternoon sun. You can get in behind the neighbour’s shrubs and have complete privacy there- bliss for a little city garden. The concrete flags were lifted and reused; they are placed strategically on spots where you might want to put a chair or table. Around them I used cream coloured Cotswold Chippings to give the scheme a little lift.
Another important theme to the garden is reusing and reclaiming, using humble, modern materials like the materials all around the estate. The concrete slabs were reused; also I laid my hands to two pallets and screwed roofing battens into the gaps between the boards.
The central seating area with reclaimed/upcycled/recycled tables and chairs. Image copyright Cheri LaMay 2016.
The fence to south-eastern side is strong and intact but follows the slope of the ground, and the slope on top of the fence is distracting. This was remedied by mounting one of the pallets onto the fence to get a strong horizontal line, and also by planting tall plants like bamboos and Gary’s Thujas along it; I pruned them to make wonky Dr. Seuss style lollipops. They have been placed to give privacy from the neighbours where it is most needed (for example, between their window and the main seating area). Other reused items include a galvanised dustbin lid for a birdbath, an old plastic water tank forming the base of a table with a slice of an Oak tree screwed to the top, and tired but comfy camping chairs.
I constructed the garden during weekends from February to May 2016 and planted as I went. I don’t usually construct gardens these days- I leave that to the expert landscape contractors- but this was different, it was for us. The build was hard work and left me shattered at the end of every weekend, but it was worth it!
After making the raised beds, steps, laying the slabs and stone chippings, raising the gate, and fencing off the grateful neighbours, and planting, the tower block was still dominant.
I needed an extreme focal point to keep the attention within the garden, and the wall of the brick shed was crying out for something. It is opposite the kitchen window and I wanted something bright and uplifting to paint onto the second pallet, so the pallet could hang on the wall. Having responded to the Genius Loci with the angles, the geometry, the architecture, the reclaimed flotsam of Leeds, I turned my eyes eastwards… now I could justify the mandala by saying that it is, in fact, a reflection of the local area, Leeds is a city of many cultures and so on, but, basically, I just wanted a big, bright hypnotic and meditative target of love on which to focus while washing the dishes. Pablo Picasso said: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” So I kicked over my rule of responding to the Genius Loci and painted a mandala on the pallet…
Wikipedia says that “A mandala (Sanskrit: मण्डल, lit, circle) is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Indian religions, representing the universe. In common use, “mandala” has become a generic term for any diagram, chart or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos metaphysically or symbolically; a microcosm of the universe.”
And that is how the garden was made. And, it has been a real joy to have a garden, my own private Eden all summer where I have watched the birds and butterflies abound where there were none before. The plants have grown hell for leather with all the rain and sunshine we have had.
Other plants that have been used for screening include: Phyllostachys aurea and P. nigra ( both clump forming bamboos); Buddleia davidii; and an apple tree which still needs to fill out! Plants which are in the garden and which I have loved and which give it character: Hydrangea paniculata “Phantom” with billows of sweet white flowers, so dainty yet many; Mahonia “Soft Caress”, a relatively new cultivar of Oregon Grape that has soft and elegant leaves instead of the usual spikey ones. I also love the upright Gaura “Whirling Butterflies” with white flowers, and Perovskia “Little Spire” with the long elegant purple flowers.
Hydrangea “Phantom” with Verbena bonariensis behind in the square raised bed. Image copyright Cheri LaMay 2016.
Sangina subulata (Irish moss) is an adorable moss like plant that makes a lush green carpet and gets into the cracks of things, and surprises you with tiny white star shaped flowers in summer. I planted it around the birdbath and it has spread, along with a little wild creeping Veronica that was already in the garden (somehow evaded Gary’s napalm for years!). A Linaria purpurea (Purple toadflax) which I lifted from the demolition rubble at the end of our street has thrived and self-seeded and the flowers are buzzing with bees. My heart went into making this garden and I hope I did the house and local area justice. While making the garden a number of conversations about plants, gardens, and other unrelated subjects have opened up with the people on our street. Others have started to tend their gardens too, and fix the fences and even sweep the street. Now Gary and I are looking at houses with slightly larger gardens in my hip old hood; and someone will (hopefully) see the beauty of this area, perhaps see it clearly through the lens of the garden, and snap it up at a generous price!
The view from the kitchen with the tower block above and the mandala below. Which one dominates? Image copyright Cheri LaMay 2016.
We are truly looking forward: to making a new, unique home and garden in a new and unique place.
The Introduction to Garden Design course which I will be teaching at the Royal Horticultural Society Harlow Carr Gardens in Harrogate still has places for the January 2017 course which will run on Fridays, and the September 2017 course which will run on Saturdays. This is a fun and inspiring adult leisure course that runs over six full days, one day per week for six weeks. If you are thinking of attending contact me and I will put you in touch with the right person so you can enrol! My email address is Cheri@earthworksnorth.co.uk.