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  • Writer's pictureCheri LaMay

New Course: Forging Ahead with Garden Design at RHS Garden Harlow Carr

Updated: Jan 29, 2020

It has been quite a summer! I had been making our garden at our new home in Leeds (digging hell for leather in fact), but in January that all came to a standstill when little rescue dog Stanley came on the scene. He previously lived with an older gentleman who was unable to leave the house; so Stanley never got outside either. It has taken six months to teach him the basics, like not to attack buses and other things we all take for granted; but he makes us laugh constantly.

In the meantime as well as moving along with various garden design projects I have been writing a new follow on course to the Introduction to Garden Design at The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Garden Harlow Carr in Harrogate.


The courses take place in The Bramall Learning Centre which can be seen over the famous streamside planting at RHS Garden Harlow Carr

During the first course, which is for complete beginners, everyone learns how to survey their own garden and draw it to scale; and how to do a site analysis so that their design functions beautifully on the ground. We do exercises to get in touch with our creativity while at the same time learning important design principles. On the final day of that course everyone has a design for their garden that has surpassed their expectations of their own abilities. They know where they are headed and will confidently take the first steps to making the garden. If you are interested in doing the Introduction to Garden Design at RHS Garden Harlow Carr you can enrol soon and you will find details on the RHS Harlow Carr website events page when the new dates are released this autumn.

The author, Cheri LaMay, B.A. (Hons) Landscape Architecture, H.N.D. Horticulture, P.G.C.E and Registered Member of the Society of Garden Designers

On the the new course, called Forging Ahead with Garden Design, we will learn to design the details of a garden with a focus on planting design. Quite a few of the people who attend these courses are moving towards a career in garden design so this is a great opportunity to learn with a professional who has over twenty years of industry experience, and who is also a teacher (I have a Post Graduate Certificate in Education); using the diverse and beautiful RHS gardens as a resource. And, it is always a lot of fun!

On Day 1 we will look at  how the different plant shapes and textures can evoke different feelings… do you want your garden to be relaxing? Or exciting, imposing, happiness-inducing? Or a combination of these? Your decisions will form the basis of your planting design.


Relaxing mound forms waft about and dynamic fan shaped ferns bring a dash of excitement to the woodland at RHS Garden Harlow Carr. The trees themselves give us a feeling of stately timelessness, and the mounded shrub that is the focal point is relaxing and grounding.

We’ll move on to an illustrated lecture about New Perennials and The New Naturalism. We will study the exciting approaches to planting design which are at the zeitgeist, pioneered by Dutch designers including Piet Oudolf, Mien Ruys, Henk Gerritson and now being further developed by ecological engineers like Professor Nigel Dunnett and the Sheffield School.


Here we see planting designed by Piet Oudolf using a matrix of two different cultivars of Molinia (M. “Heidelbraut” and M. “Edith Dudszus”) planted in drifts, and embedded with perennials at Trentham Gardens. This naturalistic planting uses many new techniques, including planting very densely so that the plants support each other and make a natural mulch that excludes weeds.

By selecting plants which “grow well together” practitioners emulate natural plant ecologies. The resulting plant communities are sustainable, as in they are able to look after themselves, regenerating year after year with very little human intervention. The aim is to treat the whole to a yearly scythe or strim, and that’s it. If the weather is kind the plants will stand as grey and brown skeletons all winter (imagine the flower forms with an icing of frost or a capping of snow), and will be cut down in spring when new growth starts to emerge.


New Perennialist Dan Pearson designed the romantic Garden-in-the-Ruins at Lowther Castle near Penrith. Here we see layered planting being pushed to the limit! Birch trees (Betula pendula) have been planted within the ruins on mounded growing medium, and woodland edge species including Erythronium, Epimedium, Primula, Brunnera, Pulmonaria nestle inside the walls. Various shrubs add structure, and climbers such as the Scottish Flame Flower (Tropaeolum speciosum) dramatically climb the walls.

These new approaches bring so many possibilities to the domestic garden: lower maintenance  without compromising on having flowers and plants, and adding lots of wildlife value. We will learn how they do it, and explore example gardens. We will discuss planting densities, the use of light, layers, and the minimal use of hard landscaping.

When we have understood the various approaches of the New Perennialists we will work together in a spirit of mutual support and have a go at making a planting scheme ourselves, first on paper and then, on Day 2, with real plants in the gardens.


We will finish up the day with a grown-up treasure hunt around the gardens to find  plants growing in similar soil and light conditions to match our own garden. We will sketch them, research them in the library, and by the end of the day we will each know five to ten new plants that suit our gardens, so that we can include them in our own developing planting schemes.

If you are thinking of doing a garden design course email me with your questions at I would love to hear from you! You can also visit my website to find out more about garden design in Yorkshire.


The woodland area at RHS Garden Harlow Carr, Harrogate features some lovely gems, all signposted for your ease of identification!


And planting to grow in a sunny garden on free draining soil.

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