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Monday, 26 April 2010

A material girl…

Just as the plants form the flesh of a design, the hard landscaping materials play an equal part. An unsuitable material can play havoc with a space and throw the whole garden in a completely different direction.

There are so many things to consider with materials.

Of course, the appearance is the first thing to decide – rustic or urban? Reclaimed? Smooth or textured? Large format or tiny setts? Colour? Material? Natural or manmade…..

Then there is location and provenance – where do they come from? Are they recycled / reclaimed? How far do they have to travel? Can they be easily removed for relocation after the show?

Gradually, the list was formed and samples were ordered from Bradstone – one of the show garden sponsors.

Selections were made and orders were placed.

Things were coming together…

Winter wonderland?

Unless you are living outside of the UK, you could not have failed to notice the blanket of white which periodically covered the whole of our little island.

I am a little biased, as I am a bit of a snowboarding enthusiast, but as a designer with a showgarden in the first steps of the year? Well, I was a little worried.

Even with plants reserved with wonderful nurseries, not much could be done if good old Mother Nature was to be palls with Frosty the Snowman for long spells.

No warmth, no growth, and deep in the depths of winter, the collective design team gazed out of our windows and hoped for a glimmer of the sun…

Personal Planting…

Just as everyone has a favourite colour, everyone has a favourite plant, or at least a very good idea of what they don’t like.

Designers are no different. We all have plants we like to work with, we know well and we know how to combine with another. We all have a palette that feels comfortable and speaks of who we are as designers. There are always wild cards that creep into planting lists year to year, some of which stay to become firm favourites and others that pass with the seasons, but generally, each designer’s style is different.

And this is part of the reason why the planting list cull was actually quite difficult. Three designers, three palettes and three styles.

But no designer is an island, and the garden had to be clothed in plants that would suit the space.

Red pen ruthlessly struck through plants until a single sheet of A4 remained. A second striking followed a week later and finally the list felt complete, cohesive and correct.

Nurseries were rung, enquiries made and plants reserved.

Flesh and bones…

And so we continued – further comments were made on further sketches, and gradually, the bones began to form into the final skeleton of a design. Alex, Jim and I were happy that the space would tell the story we had constructed and that the elements were clear.

But then the bones needed fleshing out. This was a whole new conversation, and was destined to become another lengthy affair.

Yet again, Alex and I congregated at his studio, complete with cakes and tea. Each of us had already made a list of the sort of planting we thought would work, and we set about combining the lists and striking off the no-goers.

A couple of hours later the list was combined and (a little) shorter than when we had started. A conference call to Jim and a few more plants were added. Not many were struck off.

But, a clean and modern design (which is what the space had grown into) needed a clean and cohesive planting list. Long ramblings were not going to cut it, so a ruthless cull was required.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010


The designs were sent and elsewhere in the country, drawings were printed, scribbled on once more and perused. Comments were made. Ideas were examined and concepts criticised.

Thankfully, the concepts were well received. Alex and I had combined designs to create a space which told the story of the Spring Gardening Show, and with a few tweaks and extra input from the third member of the design trio, James Steed, we were confident we were at least on the right track.

Trying not to be too precious with the polished on screen design, Alex and I set about the re-design, adding and subtracting elements to create a fully fleshed space.

Done. Re-sent.

The design process was now in full flow – the team linked by the telephone and the internet.

Ah – the wonders of the modern design process…

The trouble with a CAD (a Computer Aided Designer…)

A few days later, the papery scribbles had been converted to clean and tidy computer drawings. But there is a distinct danger to on screen designing.

With tracing paper, pens and coloured pencil, drawings are not ‘solid’ and ‘final’. They are still ideas and not yet anything that could ever be built. You can wander past your drawing board eating a biscuit and suddenly see something that could improve the concept. Another scrap of tracing paper later and you have another incarnation. The method is not precious; it is very free and organic.

Get a computer involved, and the design suddenly becomes real.

This is, of course, complete rubbish and purely psychological, and if anything, combining our two designs into one using technology saved a massive amount of time, but all of a sudden, the design had flesh on the bones and could be built. It was a wonderful moment that was full of the realisation of what we were doing.

But what would the rest of the team think? Had we ticked enough of the wish list?

Cupcakes and concepts…

The three way design team is split geographically between the glorious counties of Gloucestershire, East and West Sussex. Fortunately, two of us (as you can see) live very close to one another, so it was decided that Alex and I begin the design work together, getting a concept sorted before running it past the other eyes of the team.

So scribbles in hand, I drove over the Alex’s on yet another grey day in winter to have our first design meeting.

As I was brought up good and proper I will not lie. I was very worried that we would have completely different ideas and the whole exercise would be a nightmare. What if we were coming from different angles? Could we combine our ideas into one design?

Nervously, we both scattered our inky ramblings, sketches and concept images onto the kitchen table, amongst the tea and chocolate cupcakes.

We had very similar ideas. Patterns were from the same pot if not exactly the same, so we overscribbled our scribbles and decided to each solidify our designs and bring them together using the wonders of Computer Aided Design.

The design had begun…

To the drawing board…

All designers work differently, but I think I am pretty safe in saying that most of us start our creative visions with a scrap of paper and whatever pen we can find. After some frantic pen ramblings, we sit back and cast our eyes over the scribbles and usually, ideas, themes and concepts can be found amongst the wandering ink.

But this design was to be different. The design team was to create the garden, not just the usual singular designer. And with three very different designers – all with very particular ways of working, styles and interpretations of the brief, each of our pen ramblings and resulting concepts had the potential to be completely different.

Yet on the flipside we all have very particular strengths and expertise. We all believe in our design principles and what we stand for. Two heads are better than one, and three is, well, more productive.

But could we combine all of our individual ramblings and concepts into one cohesive design worthy of the 25th anniversary celebrations?

Sandwiches and celebrations…

I seem to remember that the day was cold and grey, and the wind was rattling across the showground at the rate of knots. Not a particularly inspiring sort of day to get the creative juices flowing – the thought of warmth, colour and spring so far out of sight it almost seemed as though it would never exist. But, in a cosy corner of the showground, we all bundled into a meeting room to talk about the possibilities.

The full line up was a true motley crew – Alex Bell from Alex Bell Garden Design, Jim Steed from Outdoor Living Space, Martin Clark from Clark’s Trees, Chris Greenwood of Poultry Park and myself from Claire Potter Design, along with the Three Counties Agricultural Society client panel, represented by Nina Acton and Doreen Smillie.

And so, over a few delicious plates of sandwiches and cakes, we talked about the dreams and aspirations for the garden, the past 25 years of the Spring Gardening Show, the ‘wish list’ of what could be included, and what we could all bring to the collective of the design team.

A couple of hours later and full of ideas, we wound our way home, anxious to get back to our respective studios to start scribbling…

A few words on show gardens…

Even thought they spring up like a mushroom in autumn, only to flourish and disappear in a few days, show gardens are very long winded creatures. Months (and sometimes years) of work are poured lovingly into a show garden project, which to the viewer is completely invisible – but this is exactly what makes a successful show garden truly magical.

And this is why designers (and indeed the clients) subject themselves to the stress and deadlines - the chance to create a miniature wonderland to enthral visitors, break boundaries and stretch what you think is possible.

So with this in mind, we all sat around sometime in autumn 2009 to discuss the beginnings of what would become the biggest show garden ever seen in the UK to date…