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Makeover: Garden inspiration in Godmanchester

The garden of this period property in Godmanchester was dark, dank and in need of a revamp. As he unveils the plot’s light-filled and lovely new look, Cambridge designer and Velvet columnist Robert Barker reflects on both the project and his career path

Blank Canvas

Almost every design starts off with a blank piece of paper, and to be part of the process of turning that blank piece of paper into a living and breathing garden space is amazing. This garden, which belongs to a Tudor property in Godmanchester, is a case in point. When the homeowners called me in, the back garden consisted of a large lawn with very little planting and a large magnolia tree that wasn’t very healthy, yet completely dominated the space, and the front garden was a dark and dank area that desperately needed a new lease of life.

Changing Spaces

The clients wanted a garden they could relax in and enjoy with their friends and family. The design was to be full of interest throughout the year and yet remain in keeping with the beautiful property, which dates from 1542.

For the back garden, the first thing we did was remove the large and unhealthy magnolia tree. We applied for this to be removed, and it drastically opened up the garden. We then brought the garden to life with three small ornamental Crataegus trees and large borders full of texture, colour, movement and rhythm and repetition. We introduced clean lines by reshaping the lawn, adding structural low yew hedging and using crisp, clean porcelain paving.

For the front garden we lifted the crown of a very large yew tree that was casting a lot of shadow. We then created the garden design on a 45-degree angle. This opened up the space and let more light into the garden. All the boundaries were then softened with planting.

We also created three bespoke water features that add additional interest to the back garden. The gentle sound of the running water along with the reflective quality of the large water bowls really adds to the sense of calm.

Planting Scheme

The planting schemes for the front and back gardens needed to work together as a whole, but for each area different light conditions had to be taken into account. The overall theme was to create a contemporary cottage feel with a cool colour palette.

For the front garden combinations of Geranium ‘Rozanne’, Veronicastrum ‘Album’, Ceratostigma willmottianum and Anemanthele lessoniana work beautifully together. In the back garden Stipa tenuissima, Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’, Salvia ‘Caradonna’ and Pittosporum ‘Golf Ball’ are key to the calm colour scheme.

Through the Year

As the back garden is so large, we had the luxury of working with a number of different light conditions which meant we could use a large variety of plants, all of which play a starring role in different seasons.

In autumn, a real star is Anemone x hybrid ‘Honorine Jobert’, while in winter the beautifully structural yew hedging adds interest, along with the amazingly scented Sarcococca confusa. We also encourage our clients to avoid cutting plants back too early so, for example, the faded copper brown flower heads on plants such as Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ also look fantastic in winter.

In spring, Helleborus pupurascens and Tulipa ‘Queen of Night’ and Tulipa ‘Shirley’ come into their own. Then, come summer, Dryopteris filix-mas and Astrantia ‘Roma’ growing together is a particular favourite, along with Geraniums, Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ and grasses such as Anemanthele lessoniana and Stipa tenuissima, which are wonderful to see moving in the summer breeze.

Changing Direction

After a career in music as a singer-songwriter, I visited the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2010 and completely fell in love with design. Almost straight away I enlisted to study with the RHS at Capel Manor College and by 2011 I was working at Chelsea Flower Show for Diarmuid Gavin. This then led to studying at Kew and then finally studying garden and planting design at Capel Manor in 2013. In 2016, just one year after graduating, I was awarded a gold medal at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show for the conceptual garden The Red Thread.

Sense of Reward

Our Godmanchester clients are thrilled with their new garden. It was so important for them to have a space to relax in after busy days at work and balancing a family. The garden is now such a welcoming space that they feel a sense of relief and joy when they return home.

It really is a pleasure working with clients and my team to create a space that is full of life, colour and interest. With the help of a good gardener this garden is only going to get better and better.

See robertbarkerdesign.com for more.

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