A garden transformation for a 30s house

by Jane on September 21, 2022

I had the pleasure of designing a garden for a close friend in Milton Keynes.  It’s an example of how the same space can have a completely different feel to it once redesigned, even before plants have been put in.

The previous owners had small children, and the garden was entirely designed as a child’s play paradise – slide, swings, Wendy house, soft surfaces to fall on, a willow arch to hide in and a shady nook at the far end as a den.  Unfortunately the play area split the garden down the middle – and it was a narrow longish garden anyway, so it felt cramped and crowded.

view of garden before work with play area


The new owner had one grown-up son and wanted a place to look at when working from home in her first-floor study, and to sit outside in at leisure, with some outside entertaining.  Her son needed a bike shelter, and the shed at the far end needed some renovation.  The house dining area was in the conservatory facing the garden, and views were important.  “I want to sit and look at greenery” she said.

I could see that the garden would feel much more spacious once the play area was taken up, and the space could be used in a different way, with more of a flow from one area to another, and planting to emphasise the flow and to provide privacy and lushness.  The plan we agreed on had a curved lawn and path, which helped the narrow garden feel wider as it drew the eye from side to side.  Curves also meant that eventually the planting would conceal some of the garden from immediate view, making it seem bigger and more interesting. The area near the house was shaded ,but this was preferred to sitting in the sun, so the patio was kept there.

We spent several months finding a landscaper, as they are in short supply because of the lockdown increasing the popularity of gardens.  I had produced a specification for the landscaping, to help brief landscapers and to compare their quotes.

Chameleon Landcapes were a real find. James and his team worked really hard even in the very warm weather we had this summer, they followed the brief to the letter and came up with creative solutions when unexpected things came along.  They turned up when they said they would and kept the client informed, and they kept the site very tidy considering the volume of mud and rubble they had to move!!  The client would really recommend them.

The garden only had very narrow access down the side of the house and Chameleon were able to use smaller equipment – a digger and dumper truck.  There was a lot to clear away, including things that were only discovered once the deck and play area were removed – remnants of many patios and paths gone before! They also had to create a soakaway under the patio and lawn to deal with the downpipe from the conservatory.

Lots of rubble and layers of slabs under the garden surface

As the house faced north-east, the patio would be in shade most of the time, which suited the clients.  A stone patio in this situation would need a lot of maintenance to stay clear of slippery green algae etc, as it would not dry out easily, so we chose a porcelain slab instead.  Porcelain doesn’t absorb moisture and is easy to maintain.  Here is the patio laid, with the metal edging providing a rough guide to the path laid out on the earth.  The edges will be hammered into the ground to provide a smooth edge to the lawn that can be mown over.

Porcelain patio laid in garden

Here are two pictures of the finished design, before new plants have been added.  The utility area at the back has been hidden by a trellis, with plans for a climbing rose in front of it.  There will be seats in the ‘shady nook’ at the back under the apple tree, and also at the end of the lawn, to make the most of the changing light and the new planting to sit among. A tree will be planted on the left side, to help screen the view of the house at the end. There’ll be more to show you when the plants come – the client is exploring a purple, blue, white and pink colour scheme.


The client said: ‘Even though we haven’t done the planting yet, I am already using the garden a lot more and I’m delighted with the design and the peaceful atmosphere of the space. There are a lot of choices to make in designing a garden and for a novice like me it was great to be able to talk through my ideas, get a second opinion and advice, and particularly to see the computer generated mock-ups that really brought the design to life. Jane quickly understood what I wanted and was able to produce a design that captured my vision. It also made briefing the landscapers far easier. The garden will give me many years of entertaining, relaxation and interest , so definitely money well spent.’


Oriental gardens, and an English version

by Jane on October 27, 2021

I have been asked to design gardens with an Oriental influence recently, particularly from the Chinese and Japanese traditions. I haven’t seen these gardens in their home countries, but there are examples in the West that have inspired many.

My most recent clients were inspired by one in Vancouver – and so were two people whose own garden appeared on Gardener’s World recently; a single visit inspiring in all of them a lifelong interest, and the wish to create a beautiful garden. It is the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese garden. A Chinese pavilion looks onto a lake surrounded by rocks, trees and a mosaic path. For Japanese inspiration (and boundless energy), see the gardens designed by Kazuyuki Ishihara, who has designed at least 14 Japanese gardens at Chelsea. He takes you round his own garden in Nagasaki here.

My clients liked the Japanese tradition of ‘stroll gardens’. These were designed for the aristocratic class to give owners and their visitors the entertainment of exploring a garden, rather like our English Romantic tradition does: to take a winding path to see different views and features round the garden.

I was commissioned to design a ‘modern take’ on a stroll garden with a ‘structured informality’, in a medium-sized garden. They basically had a large lawn surrounded by trees, with very little else. They wanted to make the garden more interesting, with new views to enjoy as you went through it, rather than being able to see everything from one place.

The Japanese garden next to a Buddhist temple in Milton Keynes inspired me to see what could be done. It isn’t a large garden, but still there is a path round a lake with different views at every turn, like a landscape in miniature.

The bridge acts as an entrance to your ‘stroll’.

When you come over the bridge, a different view, of clipped shrubs and rocks catches your eye.

Clipped shrubs in Japanese garden Milton Keynes

You look back during your walk for views of the temple reflected in the lake.

Temple near lake, Japanese garden Milton Keynes

At the end of the walk, you can look back to see the trees reflected in the lake. And during your exploration you can pause and sit on a rock, to take in the views. In this case, there is a view of the hill in Willen Lake park with the ‘Peace Pagoda’, also built by the Japanese monks here, in the distance. A lovely peaceful place to visit.

Lake in Japanese garden Milton Keynes

Many Japanese stroll gardens are centred around a body of water, but sometimes they use a ‘dry sea’ of stones and gravel instead. As water was not required, this ‘dry sea’ was my starting point, together with a circulating path.

Another source of inspiration were the Schnormeier gardens in Minnesota. These were designed and constructed by an American couple. I and my clients particularly liked this feature using multistem trees and stone paving of different sizes.

Multistem trees and rocks

For my client’s design, I used 3 multi-stem trees around an area with gravel and pebbles, with a stone path of larger, irregular stones. The trees were in two irregular shaped curvy beds with larger rocks, small shrubs and grasses.

Model of island beds with multistem trees

The back border will have a couple more layers of planting added: shrubs and groundcover. The outline plan of paths and beds looks like this:

Hand drawn plan of modern 'stroll garden'

I’m looking forward to designing the planting, for a modern, but Japanese-influenced look.


What is a Japanese Stroll Garden?

Dr Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden

A Garden Paradise with Kazuyuki Ishihara

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