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Many moons ago when I was busy ripping up the world of Retail IT consulting I investigated having my postage stamp of a London garden designed by a pro. In the end I designed it myself and with a friends ‘handy’ husband built it, planted it and sat back and enjoyed it. So why employ a designer? Well in hindsight I wish I had because I hit every bump in the road there was to hit, a tiny space but no less complicated. These are some of the issues I encountered doing it myself that I now know my designer self would have known already and been able to preempt saving time and consequently money for me the client.

1. Conservations areas and TPO’s – I was lucky enough to live in a conservation area. Which meant installing unbelievably expensive box sash windows and clay tile replacement rooves. But for the garden does this matter? Well yes it does. EVERY tree and shrub  in a conservation area is protected, not just those with a trunk over 75mm at 1m high, those on private and public land. EVERY ONE. There are trees with TPO’s (Tree Protection Orders) on them too but all your shrubs and trees are also in the sights of the local Tree Officer.

There’s a local tree officer? oh yes he or she is responsible for deciding if / what work can be done on your conserved trees and TPO’d trees, they are also responsible for assessing specimens for  TPO status.


SUmmer house nestling in the trees at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saison, Oxfordshire

This means before every snip and prune you need to complete a form and have it approved.

2. Planning regulations – We built a deck over about 1/3rd of the garden, I later found out it was ‘too high’ at just over 300mm and I should have had planning permission. I was lucky enough not to have to rebuild but it would have been a very expensive mistake. Garden designers know the relevant planning regulations and usually have a trick or two up their sleeves to work within them.

A secondary element was choosing unsuitable boards and laying them the wrong way. Who knew that when it rained they would become an ice rink and in the winter covered in slimy green algae. Not the man at the timber merchant where I bought them apparently. My garden designer self would have known and suggested suitable solutions and basic good practice e.g. spacing boards so they could drain directly and ‘move’ in the changing season without buckling.

3. Front drives and SUDS – We hear all the time that front drives are being paved over and that there is a loss of greenery to the nation. What we don’t hear is that for more than a decade all this paving MUST have been permeable and must follow the SUDS (Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems) regulations so as not to add to the already overburdened waste water systems in our towns. My designer self knows of several lovely materials and layouts that do this job, she also knows how to green a perfect, useable driveway making it dual purpose. Functional and beautiful, and with clever planting wildlife friendly too boot.


4. How small is too big – We all impulse buy now and then but impulse buy garden furnishings at your peril as I did, I bought a 6 seater when in fact I only had space for a 4 seater with room to actually move around it. Do you know how big the average Terrace is? and how much space you need to comfortably seat 6 or 8 or 12 people without them being trapped in their seats for an entire meal? How wide should a path be? can you get a digger through your side gates? How high is a conformable sitting wall? How high can boundary fencing be? and so on, all rattling around in the mind of the designer as they prowl through your outside spaces.


5. Right Plant Right Place – This is a fairly obvious expertise for your appointed design guru, or it should be. Not only can they produce half a dozen perfect plants for your dry shady spot but they can usually give you seasonal interest year round while they do it. We all love to impulse buy plants and garden centers sell plants in flower pretty much, very little else sells. That’s the truth. Buying something to fill a spot for a given seasons vibrant flowers can be a good idea  but  does is also do good things in non flowering times? which will be much of it’s year. Garden designer plants have to work hard for their place in a planting plan. I expect mine to do a minimum of two seasons of interest usually more.

Designers are no less impulse driven than you are but in our minds we are impusling for a specific spot, in a specific client garden. We NEED to see plants in flower and foliage too, we fall in and out of love with plants just like you do, though I suspect you don’t have a list of never again plants! I do. Garden centers are fun but they are comparatively expensive and buying a plant that won’t thrive in your garden conditions is either a shame when it turns up it’s toes and dies or a slog when you have to molly coddle it continually so it grows.

This is the one area I didn’t get caught by costly mistakes. Well, no too much!


Walled garden borders at NT Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire

Of course there are many other reasons why getting a designer on your team early on is a great decision, sign up to our new newsletter for more in depth hints and tips – top right of the page……

  • Lenie

    Hi Rosalind – how nice to see you here at BHB. I love your tips, especially the one about planning permission. Failing to get that can cost you BIG money. I know several people around our area who have built on decks or back porches without the permit and they actually had to tear it down. What a heartbreaker that would be.
    We have ten acres surrounded by Conservation Land and also get a tax break on two acres of wetlands. The wetlands has more restrictions than the Conservation Authority. One thing about the Conservation Lands – there is a lot of poison ivy growing there which we can’t do anything about because the deer like the berries. But that is a minor problem since we are aware of it.

  • Donna Janke

    It sounds as if you learned a lot – the hard way. I did not realize how conservation area regulations affected garden areas. Interesting post.

    • It really is quite a common problem especially with tree care.

  • Jacqueline Gum

    Who knew that there were so many rules when it comes to planting a garden! Yikes! I can see where a designer could be a huge help.But what a beautiful result

  • We hired a garden designer to redesign the garden here in our house, and it was well worth it. I’m quite busy so he gave a lot of suggestions on really beautiful plants that required very little maintenance, many of which I didn’t know of. Thanks to him, I now have a beautiful stress-free garden where I can just unwind and relax.

  • What lovely gardens! Well I rent and live at the tippy top of a hill and my house sits on stilts so while I have a nice big wrap around deck and an incredible view there’s no land accept down at the bottom of the hill and I’m happy to leave that patch to the owners to manage. I have often thought a container garden would be lovely, but that’s for another article. Enjoyed your article. 🙂

    • Thank you Marquita, container gardening is certainly a wonderful way to have a portable garden if your renting.

  • I think I’d struggle with all of those regulations. You not only need a garden designer but you need to keep a lawyer in house to figure out all the rules.

    • SO TRUE, wait ’til I start talking about ‘party wall’ obligations and watch clients head for the hills 😀

  • Pamela Chollet

    I can’t imagine that if you’re in the position of planning something like this NOT hiring a professional. Unless you really knew what you were doing, attempting something this has DIY disaster written all over it. I found when I stuck my neck into, “DIY land” and it didn’t belong there, I paid 3 times the amount, just to repair my mess and hire the professional.

  • Your garden is lovely, and I really like the gazebo! I hired a designer for my backyard and it was so worth the price! She knew way more than I did about the types of plants that would grow best in each area, and helped jumpstart the whole process when I was overwhelmed with ideas and lack of practical knowledge. We still did all the work ourselves, but I’m convinced we’d still be looking out on a bare patch of rocks without her help!

  • Beth –

    I’m so lucky because my husband is a genius at envisioning, planning and completing gardens. If you don’t have him available, a designer would make things go just right and smoothly.

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