I can’t put my finger on what is it about Stewart. There’s something completely unassuming, yet equally authoritative about him that immediately evinces you with the feeling that you’re in safe hands.
Having studied Horticulture at Pershore College, then moving to Ohio to work in garden construction before returning home to Britain to design and build gardens, perhaps it’s his experience as both plantsman and hard landscaper that gives this garden designer his completely down-to-earth but thoroughly learned feeling.
Stewart and his partner have won three RHS Gold Medals at the Chelsea Flower Show, a Gold Medal at the New England Spring Flower Show and five Chelsea Silver Gilts, so I guess I’d expected quite a designery-designer, if you know what I mean? Just a touch egotistical or precious perhaps. But not a trace of it here.
As we sit down to chat over a coffee it’s clear that Stewart is a designer who creates gardens with the owner as their paramount feature. It’s this that makes me want to probe him on just what that means and how he goes about the process of designing a garden. Here’s what he had to say…
Designing a garden seems so complex, there are so many factors to consider. What style of garden should you have? Which plants should that include? Where do you start?
The starting point is always the client. I sit with the client and just listen to them, asking them to reflect on how they live. Sometimes I play devil’s advocate in order to help a client focus on what they really need from a garden rather than their vision of a ‘show’ garden. Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe that, regardless of budget or the space available, everybody can have a beautiful garden, but a beautiful garden also has to be practical and it has to suit the owner’s lifestyle.
So how do you stay true to a client’s vision of their dream garden, whilst also making sure they have a garden that’s usable and sustainable?
It’s not unusual to be asked to create low-maintenance gardens by busy families, who don’t have much time to spare. Often they’ll request ‘no lawn’ because they think they’ll need to spend hours mowing it and caring for it, but lawns are actually pretty low maintenance. Yes, there are times of year when they need more attention, but it’s only in summer that it requires regular mowing. A lawn also provides a soft expanse for children to play on and if you remove the lawn entirely, you’ll more than likely find that your children won’t spend nearly so much time outside. It’s these sorts of fundamentals that I try to tease out by asking questions and thinking about what those ideas will mean in practice.
But what if client is dead-set on a particular garden style that’s not necessarily a great fit with their lifestyle?
A garden always has to come from the client, I design it with them, not for them. It’s possible to make any style of garden work for anyone if you follow 3 principles. First, start with the practical. What needs to be in the garden? Usually, this starts with etablishing a seating area such as a terrace, as every garden needs somewhere to entertain friends and family, eat al fresco or just to sit and be in the garden. There’s no point in going to the effort of making a beautiful garden if you only ever look at it from inside. Secondly, explore the features. Would the client like water in the garden? Or raised beds for growing produce? Perhaps they want to incorporate a glasshouse or outdoor studio? Maybe they have their heart set on one or two mature specimen plants? They’ll need to be sited to display them at their best, whilst also enhancing the garden as a whole. Finally, we arrive at the style. It’s only once you’ve addressed the practical and established the features that you begin to wash the desired look and feel of the garden over the design. By working this way you can adjust any garden style to fit an individual’s life, whilst still retaining the clear influence of the spirit of that style.
Can all gardens be designed to stimulate the senses, no matter the time of year?
In short, yes. I design planting schemes in two stages. First, I give the garden structure using trees and large shrubs. Planted individually, these offer the garden shapes and forms which give year-round interest. Once I’ve got the structural plants sited, I’ll begin to infill around them with bulbs, perennials, compact shrubs, grasses and herbs, creating a canvas of colour. Adding good splashes of evergreens, grasses and ferns ensures that you don’t end up with a spare, barren garden over the winter. I use what I call ‘luxury plants’ sparingly. These aren’t particularly costly plants, they are plants that have a short flowering season, like delphiniums or peonies. I wouldn’t start a design with ‘luxury plants, but let the client add them in as we create the canvas.
Are some gardens harder to design than others?
Sure. Established gardens usually have some elements that the client wants to keep, whether that’s certain plants or garden structures. That’s not a problem at all, but new build gardens are pretty much a blank canvas and that can make it easier as there is nothing dictating the design. Smaller gardens are more challenging too, especially rooftops as you have to be mindful of weight loads when choosing which composts and plants to use. It’s the same rule-of-thumb for smaller spaces as larger landscapes though. Think about where the seating will go and planting to fill the areas, all the time maximising the space by turning the garden on a 45o angle. This tricks the eye into seeing the area as more spacious. With large acreages, you don’t tend to design all of the land, you focus on the main areas around the house that are going to be most used. I like seeing large lawns planted with drifts of bulbs and seemingly artlessly placed trees. They’re not actually artlessly placed, of course, but I like them to look as they simply grew there. The further away you move from the house, the more naturalistic I like a garden to become, so that it almost blends away seamlessly into the rural landscape.
Finally, can you share some insider knowledge with us?
Firstly, don’t get hung up on style-names, just describe the kind of garden you’d like to a designer. People often confuse cottage garden style with English country garden style or use the two interchangeably, but they’re quite different. English country gardens are softly planted but they’re planned and designed; beds and borders are usually framed with box or a plant that retains the beds structural form in the winter. Cottage gardens have little or no structure, they’re more plant-based.
On a similar note, people can be put-off when they hear the term ‘contemporary’. They think of starkly minimalistic gardens with avant-garde features, but that’s not the same thing. Contemporary means clean lines, sure, but it can still be set with soft and traditional planting.
Lastly, remember that you are not a collector of plants, you have a plant collection. Curate your collection for the best display, think about the overall look of the garden and choose plants that will pull their weight, flowering over long periods or providing winter-interest. You’ll achieve a much more beautiful garden.
Stewart Knight has more than 25 years experience in designing and curating client’s gardens from their dreams into living embodiment, with both beauty and practicality. As such, he is our trusted designer for exceptionally well-crafted gardens.
Find out more about garden design here.