Character building: making spaces and places Part 1.

As garden designers, our canvas is the space outside a house.  Our designs alter the way that a client uses or views their garden and our manipulation of this space creates a new place for them.

When I first meet a new customer and take a brief, I am often asked to create different moods, character or ‘room’s’ within an outdoor area and to divide the garden so that a range of activities can be enjoyed.  Since John Brookes first coined the phrase ‘the outdoor room’ to describe the space outside the back door of the house, Clients have often sought to divide their gardens into areas that offer a different range of sensations.

I thought I’d create a couple of Journal entries about spaces and places in gardens and show how designers can bring character and atmosphere into play through their design.



Rarely are gardens simply a blank canvas.  Unless they are part of a new development, all outdoor spaces already have a history and a sense of place with an intrinsic atmosphere.  One of the first jobs that designers do is to try to reveal this sense of place, the nature of the site, its history and its innate character.  We then need to work out whether this can be enhanced or whether it needs to be manipulated in some manner.

I believe that the site often tells us how, or if, it should be developed.  A garden in the Scottish Highlands will always be ‘of’ this place; its geology and its climate can never be changed.  Similarly, a garden in the Mediterranean has a intrinsic character that – as much as we might try – can never really be re-created in our climate.

The character of a garden might relate to the location of the garden, the architecture of the house or the site conditions themselves.  I feel that my most successful designs have emerged from ‘listening’ and looking at that existing character and making this stronger.  For example, a woodland garden that sits in the shadow of trees, with low light levels, fairly dry soil and a deep amount of leaf mould collected after years of trees doing what they do each year, will always be a woodland space (in the absence of removing all the trees!).

I often encourage the owners to celebrate this fact and to work with this in their layout, in their choices of plants and in their ultimate expectations.  It would be difficult to contrive a garden that took on tropical-type qualities – full of sun-loving plants, a swimming pool and sun-bathing terraces on a rugged Scottish hillside.  Managing expectations is an important skill of the garden designer and one that proves beneficial time and time again!Denham-Garden-Straight-Boardwalk-and-meandering-paths-Caroline-Davy-Studio

This country garden shown is a good example of a project I worked on where the character of the site existed but had just been lost and hidden over time.

The garden was large (approximately 6 acres in total) and consisted of formal areas, lawns, ponds and woodland.  All existed as part of the whole site but all had lost connection with the adjoining spaces and were overgrown and rather sad!

The large lawns behind the house led to an abrupt full stop at a line of dense trees and shrubs.  When we explored and surveyed the site, we discovered ponds and a potentially beautiful water garden within these trees that were just aching to be set free!

We restored the waterways and thinned the trees as self-seeded Alder had taken over and were destroying the intrinsic beauty of the area.  By planting appropriately in a natural, sweeping manner; introducing more – but different – trees and by mowing a meandering path beside the water’s edge, we maximised the natural space and enhanced its inherent nature.

We then sought to enhance the space and to relate this wild spot back to the expanse of lawns and the other more formal areas of garden.  By installing the long, straight timber boardwalk we provided a means to cross the ponds but, at the same time, also added punctuation within the area through the introduction of a contrasting element.  The juxtaposition of man-made, with nature – of a straight, distinct line within a rural, natural scene introduces human scale into a large and otherwise undefined space.

The boardwalk actually points directly towards the house in the distance – although the view is masked by the tree foliage in summer.  The effect of this is to link the garden to the home and to suggest the relationship between architecture and landscape.  A subtle intervention with something apparently ‘alien’ to the space actually resulted in the natural essence of the area being enhanced.  Knowing how much to impose and how much to leave is vital to the eventual result and the success of a project.

A sense of place, the genius loci of a space, is a concept that has been referenced for hundreds of years and it is something I talk about a lot.

Dan Pearson extols this concept beautifully in his book, Spirit a book in which he reveals much of his inspiration.  It is worth a read or, at the very least, a leisurely afternoon taking in the wonderful photography that he has compiled.





Through the sumptuous photographs of his favourite places, it showcases certain areas of the world that have very distinct character and natural soul.  They are special because of their unique feel and one wouldn’t want to change this in any way.

Less is more and learning how to use subtle intervention to enhance without losing the character of a place is often so important when working in old established gardens.  Heligan is a good example of this.  Man had originally planned the site, divided and arranged the land around the house but nature had been allowed to take over for 80 years.  The plants that wanted to exist here had stayed and multiplied and those that hadn’t worked or had struggled to survive in the conditions, had died off.  In my opinion, the best parts of this garden now are those that still look natural; that have been adapted but not reinvented; they are controlled (in the loosest sense) but look as if they could have been in place for decades.  Nature has declared what it feels should belong and we can enhance this through subtle change.  Mature trees and weathered landscape materials help this feeling but (as with the ponds above), new materials and intervention can still preserve and even enhance this inherent character.

Kim Wilkie is a Landscape Architect who re-designs historic gardens and landscapes.  He sometimes makes dramatic changes to sites, yet still skilfully manages to retain the character and spirit of place that he finds when he first discovers them.

Great Fosters in Surrey is a luxury hotel and has a mix of historic gardens and outdoor spaces.  Kim has consulted with English Heritage on this site for many years.  One of his distinctive design trademarks is to shape the land to achieve subtle, yet confident changes.


This amphitheatre in the grounds of Great Fosters is placed at the end of an avenue of trees along a vista that relates back to the house.  It appears quiet, tranquil and rural – a place of contemplation and rest away from the busy environment around the building.  It appears timeless and looks as if it could easily have sat here when the original house and gardens were laid out.

However, he has created a completely contrived space with man-made contours, slopes and shapes but somehow it still looks ‘right’.

The space between this area and the house with the woodland either side creates a sense of natural progression from habited to uninhabited; from the ‘built’ to the ‘un-built’ and a sense that this place has been here forever.

The success of this project is shown when one realises that the earthworks were in fact designed to negate the noise and sight of the M25 motorway which falls directly along the boundary of the gardens.  Kim has retained the rural, tranquil nature of the space, has enclosed the view from the house and has provided an area of contrasting character to the formal gardens around the house.  He has turned this space – the edge of a busy motorway – into a place that belongs to Great Fosters, that belongs to the gardens and has its own unique character.

Good design can enhance an existing garden but sometimes – rather than looking to start again – I feel it is important to work with what is already in place.

In the second part of this journal piece, I’ll look more at gardens that really are lacking – for whatever reason – an intrinsic character.  It might be that a new house has changed the style of garden required or that the original layout and style of a garden just doesn’t work with a new owner’s lifestyle.  I’ll look at creating gardens to sit alongside new-build houses that lack historic provenance and describe how to create spaces that offer mood and atmosphere afresh.


Great Fosters Hotel and Gardens:

Spirit by Dan Pearson published by Murray & Sorrell Fuel in 2009