My first lessons in Garden Design

Evening classes are not an exclusively English phenomenon, but in London, at least when I lived there, they were hugely popular. The idea is that all those educational establishments can be used in the evenings during winter months to offer courses on just about any subject imaginable; costs are minimal and standards are high. Over the years I attended a few of these courses including french, dutch, pottery, brick laying (a disaster) and of course garden design. This was in the days long before the high profile garden design colleges appeared.

I, like the other students, was a typical gardening fanatic; all of us were obsessed with plants. Our lecturer had other ideas, she was not only foreign – Canadian or maybe American – she was a landscape architect with a workmanlike attitude to planting design. Twelve weeks long we worked together during which we were denied the opportunity to dabble with plants, but  I think I learned more then, than most three year bachelor courses would have offered.

Each week we started a design, not that I can remember the details now, but we were required to use a different design technique each time. One week it would be freehand drawing using charcoal sticks; another week it would be clay that we used to build a three dimensional landscape. Some weeks we were presented with stiff card to cut, bend and manipulate into shapes to populate imaginary spaces.

The frustration of not being allowed to design pretty gardens for typical garden settings was compensated for by our lecturer’s persuasive insistence on developing our awareness of space through the use of unfamiliar media. It was rather like being back in junior school, learning through play and enjoying the exploration of unfamiliar territory.

Considering that this was an informal course we learned more than at the time was apparent. During the last three weeks we worked on a real-life project designing a community landscape around a group of apartment buildings. We had meetings with residents, made preliminary drawings and finally presented our ideas at a public meeting.

My love affair with plants has not gone away, but ever since My first lessons in Garden Design I have known that an appropriate design for an outdoor space must always come before working out the details of the plant material even when the planting is going to form the final focus of the garden’s appearance. Plants may or may not form part of the structure, but first the spaces need to be manipulated in order to relate the garden to its location and allow the ideas underpinning it to be fully expressed.

Who was the lady who took the time to teach me so much? I have long since forgotten her name. No doubt she was in London at the time to gain work experience and possibly learn more about our national obsession – plants. Perhaps she is now famous – she deserves to be. Many thanks anonymous teacher.

2 thoughts on “My first lessons in Garden Design”

  1. I enjoyed this post. I teach garden design as well, so I’m sure your teacher would appreciate the acknowledgement. I like her approach. Great plant selection supports the overall spatial concept and the site. Being a plant fanatic myself, it’s tempting to let plant selection pull you away from the broader site, and become myopically focused on combinations. This almost always creates trite gardens.

    1. Thanks Thomas,
      For others I find it easy to be logical in my design approach using planting to enhance not simple for planting’s sake, but in my own garden, well, the rule book is too easily forgotten – my excuse is that I must grow the plants before I know them well enough to recommend to others!

Comments are closed.