Where to start when you are creating a new garden by Sir Roy Strong

—8th August 2019

Sir Roy Strong, landscape designer, art historian, museum curator, prolific author, Renaissance Man and RedBook advisor, offers out a few precious pearls of wisdom on creating a new garden in our interview.

(Above and below) Vistas of Sir Roy’s own garden, the Laskett in Herefordshire. 

First you have to decide how much existing land to give to garden. Then consider the type of garden you want: low or high maintenance? What money do you want to invest? What is your commitment? How much labour do you want to put into the job of creating it?

Then look at what you have. Do you want to preserve and enhance what you have or create something new? Do you want all of it or to reduce it in in size?

Then decide what to keep. Do not be defeated by people who say this has been there forever.

Consider the inter-relation between house and garden.  I always think about how the garden will look from the windows of the house, especially the upstairs windows. Are you looking for views or a terrace?

The most important thing is to know what style you want. In considering the style, what is the function? Do you have children? Children are not good for gardens – they are plant death.  Do you need any buildings? Do you want a swimming pool, a tennis court, a colonnade? Do you want to grow vegetables? Beware, kitchen gardens are expensive – they eat up money. Do you like a particular historic style? Do you want an all year round or seasonal garden?

Then you need to think about what to lay as the foundation plants. This might take the form of trees and hedges.  Use the principles of architecture and choose your foundation plants as architectural. Do you want water? A fountain, a mini-lake?

Whatever style you choose, the present style for everyone is to move towards ecology. That is the price everyone should pay. As I get older I am more interested in future experiences than bought decoration. Encouraging wildlife and plant life – that has become a top given.

In summary:

• Decide what you want and stick to it

• Think about money

• Think about the function of the garden

• Think about the staff available to maintain it

How should one go about choosing a style and a designer?

You can look at garden books, visit gardens that are open to the public. Of course you can always go on the internet and look up garden design. You might have an idea of a designer you want to use.

RedBook will help ascertain where your mind is going in terms of design and come up with a dossier of possibilities and even contrasting styles. They will also save you time.

What can go wrong in creating a new garden?

A garden is like a picture that is never finished. It has to be maintained and thinned out over perhaps 25 or 30 years. Do not think it is over once the planting is done.

Things grow at different rates. You need to understand how plants grow.  You need to return to the plan every so often and give a brief about what needs to be controlled. People are often looking for perfection in garden design and plants don’t always obey. Garden design is not just about presentation.

What would you recommend for a London townhouse?

I would want to get rid of the filth and pollution in the air, and would go for ecological. However I would not have a lawn, but would go for interesting paving. There is such a variety of paving you can find and you can create quite a green effect with topiary box or beech hedge. Then I would add one large ornament, perhaps six foot high, a sculpture, to create boldness.

What are your key learnings?

• You can’t do a grand garden on the cheap

• Understand the way plants grow, including hedges

• Start with the foundations and add the middle later for example statues and fountains

• Encourage wildlife at each end – the birds and the bees

My advice is don’t do it unless you are interested, otherwise it will be a millstone round your neck. Then you are free – you can always create walks and woodland to enjoy. People often say they want a low maintenance garden. There is no such thing – it’s a figment of the imagination. But if you are interested, it is a lifelong project.

Sir Roy Strong’s 43rd book ‘The Elizabethan Image’ was published in June 2019 by Yale University Press

All images courtesy of Sir Roy Strong 

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