Makeover Challenge: Three local gardens transformed
Whether your garden needs a little TLC or a total makeover, be inspired by these before-and-after transformations by three of our area’s top garden designers. As Alice Ryan discovers, each combines elegant form with effortless function
Robert Barker Design
Having won medals at both Chelsea and Hampton Court, Cambridge designer Robert Barker is known for his innovative and plushly planted gardens. This local project saw Robert - also Velvet’s resident gardening columnist, see page 90 - turn a blank-canvas plot into a work of horticultural art
The designer: After a career in music as a singer-songwriter, a visit to Chelsea Flower Show led to formal training in horticulture studying with the Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Botanical Gardens Kew. After years of working for well-known garden designers, Robert Barker Design was founded in 2015. It is now a multi-award-winning design practice - having won RHS Gold and Silver-gilt medals - which prides itself in providing a personal, professional, bespoke, affordable garden and landscape design service.
How it started: This garden was an undefined area outside a walled garden with an existing greenhouse and no other purpose. The brief was to create a separate enclosed kitchen and office garden with sculptural/architectural interest and areas for growing vegetables and cut flowers.
The process: The clients wanted the design to be calming and reflective near the office but architectural and sculptural throughout. We started off by selecting materials that would be interesting alternatives to vegetable raised beds and then from there the corten steel panels and water features were created within the design. The planting was then selected to soften the panels and add interest, colour and movement.
How it's going: The garden, although it still needs time to establish, is already a reflective and contemplative space which is full of interest. Planting softens the hard corten steel panels and water features to create a sculptural, practical and cohesive space. The clients could not be happier with the finished result.
The reward: I love the challenge of having to create a bespoke design that meets each of our clients’ briefs and sits perfectly within its environment. Being able to work on so many wonderful projects with our amazing assistant designer, Danielle Ellam, over so many years can’t help but be a rewarding experience.
Tel: 01480 539119 or 07540 567707
VaRa Garden Design
An award-winning collaboration between designers Vanessa Hoch and Rachel Pocock, VaRa turned this Cambridgeshire cottage garden in need of TLC into an elegant haven for plants, people and wildlife too
The designers: We met as students on our garden design course and immediately realised we worked well as a team. A year after we graduated we achieved an RHS Silver-gilt medal at Hampton Court - our first complete venture together as VaRa! They say that two heads are better than one and that’s certainly the case with us. We bounce ideas off each other and bring different skills and ideas to each individual project, responding to each client’s brief with a fresh approach.
How it started: We were approached by a lovely couple who had recently retired. Our clients’ garden was located in a rural village setting in Cambridgeshire, but was in need of an overhaul. They wanted to retain a pond to encourage more wildlife, increase the entertaining patio and create easier access to different areas of their garden. They already had some established specimen plants, a striking Acer tree being one, but they specifically wanted more colour across the seasons.
The process: So we redesigned the space, using the beautiful and striking architecture of their home to inform the layout and materials, and added year-round seasonal interest, colour, texture and cohesion to all of the planting.
A larger entertaining patio provides plenty of room to relax and a contemporary formal pond creates a lovely outlook from inside and out. Both are now surrounded by informal planting and gravel beds, reflecting the colour of the house and the surrounding countryside. A small orchard area and a shady spot under large trees provides an additional relaxed spot to enjoy the view and watch the seasons by.
In all of our projects, we always try to retain a sense of place and re-use existing materials such as stone features or, in one garden, old cartwheels. In this particular project, one of the salvaged sleepers - with original nails and house number! - takes pride of place, making a lovely vertical sculptural piece in front of the lounge windows.
How it's going: The finished result is now a cohesive garden, where all the areas of the garden link together providing wonderful views from all the house windows. Now there is plenty of room to relax and entertain on the patio, as well as lounge elsewhere in the garden, and our clients are enjoying year-round colour and seasonal interest from the planting: "We are really pleased with the job that Rachel and Vanessa have done, it was a pleasure to work with them. Our garden is now a delight from all angles." And now that the planting has filled out, the purple hues of Sedum, floaty Stipa and second flush of Achillea 'Terracotta' are really helping to bring colour and movement to the reflective pond - we even spotted some very welcome frogs and newts too.
The reward: We meet lovely clients, who are invested in their outdoor spaces. We love delivering beautiful gardens and seeing them flourish. Every week is different and no garden is ever the same!
Tel: 07977 523125 or 07941 403861
Known for designs “that have a naturalistic, modern feel with sensitivity to the local landscape”, Newmarket-based Colm Joseph transformed this cramped and crowded Suffolk garden into a calm, comfortable and contemporary retreat
The designer: Garden design is my second career – I used to work as a development economist on poverty reduction projects in East Africa. In 2017 I trained at the London College of Garden Design, based in Kew Gardens. Going in, I didn’t quite know how I would cut it as a garden designer, but I managed to graduate as top student, achieving the highest overall course mark in the college’s history. In my first year out of college, I won a competition to co-design a garden at Chelsea Flower Show, which came to life in May 2019, winning a Silver-gilt medal.
I’ve been building my own design studio since 2017, creating a wide range of residential gardens for private clients across Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and further afield. We create beautiful places for people who love them. Our work stands out for the quality of design, with an imaginative and bespoke response to each client brief and site. We create gardens that have a naturalistic, modern feel with sensitivity to the local landscape and sense of place.
How it started: This Suffolk garden was overlooked by neighbours from all three sides with an uninspiring boundary of timber panel fencing. Planting-wise, it was a bit of a confused mix of trees, conifers and shrubs, mostly grouped along the perimeter with a small open lawn area in the middle. The pathways and seating areas were also too small. So overall, the garden wasn’t a particularly inviting or comfortable place to spend time. The clients wanted a relaxed outdoor living space that felt like a calm retreat where they could spend quality time together, with improved privacy. They wanted a more contemporary feel overall, with two distinct seating areas and a water feature.
The process: My design process is always a thoughtful response to the challenges and opportunities of the particular site and client brief. In this case, we needed to improve the boundary treatments and screening, so I introduced a layered boundary of clipped hornbeam hedges and pleached hornbeam trees on all three sides of the garden, which gave the privacy required together with a simple, elegant look. Solving the privacy problem then allowed me to position the main seating areas within the heart of the garden, which gives them a much more immersive feel.
The hard materials are a restrained palette of bespoke, large format limestone paving slabs and limestone gravel. This gives the garden a more modern look and contrasts well with the more relaxed, naturalistic planting that wraps around the seating areas. A number of multi-stem feature trees, also hornbeam, were introduced for their sculptural form. The scheme for the structural planting, of pines and hornbeam, was a reference to the local woodlands in this part of Suffolk. A simple, reflective water bowl is nestled amongst the planting, visible from both seating areas.
How it's going: This garden was built in 2020 and has established beautifully. It is an entirely bespoke garden that the clients just love. They’ve since messaged me to say: “We are so pleased that we decided to engage you to design our new garden. You have created a vista that is far more than we could have imagined.”
The reward: I love landscapes and gardens and it is a joy to be able to create beautiful spaces that people love to be in. Garden design is a mix of artistic vision and practical problem solving, requiring both creativity and care to bring designs to life. For me, the biggest reward is the process of imagining a garden and then experiencing that carefully considered composition of hard and soft materials become a living reality. That’s the heart of it for me.
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More by this authorAlice Ryan