Green-Minded: Right plant, right place


When talking about plants with new clients, one of the things that I hear from people most often is ‘I’m terrible with gardening - I just kill plants’. People often think that they are are terrible at looking after plants, when actually what has happened is that they have accidentally put a plant in a spot where the conditions just aren’t great for its survival. Even knowing something about plants, I’ve done it myself - thinking “I know that my garden is predominantly in shade, but this bearded iris/echinacea/agapanthus is just so lovely that I’ll just try planting it in this spot and maybe it will work”. Ninety percent of the time it doesn’t. It either clings on for a season and then disappears, begins diminishing straight away, or in the case of my iris, produces loads and loads of leaves in an attempt to harvest more sunlight but none of the beautiful blooms that I was hoping for.

Getting plants to grow is often a case of being green-minded, rather than green-fingered, and thinking laterally to try to create the look that you want with plants that are more suited to your aspect and soil. You may not easily be able to grow a particular type of plant, but there may be something that gives the same effect but is more suited to the conditions in your garden.

As an example, Iris germanica, the bearded iris will generally need at least six hours of sunlight per day to bloom well. If you have a garden that’s partially shaded (with fairly moist soil), you could try a Siberian Flag iris, Iris Sibirica, which is perhaps not as showy, but lovely all the same. If your garden is totally shaded all day, Iris cristata, the Dwarf Crested Iris will still do well in full shade, and you’ll grow to love its diminutive beauty.

If you’re not sure where to start with a particular plant, have a think about the types of places that it grows in the wild, or the climate that it originally comes from. A plant like Agapanthus, which originates from South Africa, evolved in a sunnier, hotter climate than ours. Growing it in the UK, it makes sense then that it will need full sun, and will fare less well in colder areas of the UK.

Lastly, if you love a particular style of planting, but your garden isn’t suitable for growing that type of plants, it’s better to embrace what you have rather than trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. If you have a shady courtyard garden, you might not be able to grow a showy riot of colour, but you can create a wonderful, lush green environment, and flowering woodland plants often have a delicate, less obvious beauty.

The beauty of Umbellifers

Umbellifers are so named, because of their delicate parasols of tiny flowers held above lofty stalks.  The name comes from the latin 'parasol-bearing':


umbella = parasol/umbrella (literally 'little shade')

fer = to bear

The most common in the UK is Cow Parsley - Anthriscus sylvestris - and to me there's nothing more lovely than swathes of the stuff waving in the breeze along hedgerows and fallow fields.  A cultivar, Anthriscus sylvestris 'Ravenswing' has become very popular among garden designers across the world for it's moody dark red stems and foliage which provide a wonderful contrast with the delicate white circles of flowers.  Such is its beauty that it's perhaps over-used now, but there are many more gorgeous umbellifers to try in your own garden, and they don't all have the pretty delicate look that we've become used to.

Ammi majus (above) is an annual that is easily grown from seed.  Very similar in appearance to Cow Parsley, it flowers in the summer, and is popular with florists as a light and airy alternative to Gypsophila in bridal bouquets.  I grow it from seed in trays, and then plant it out in gaps in the herbaceous border when it gets to around 15cm tall.

Chaerophyllum hirsutum  'Roseum' or Hairy Chervil- below, top left - sugary sweet and soft pink.  This is a perennial umbellifer with aromatic foliage.  Combine with other pastel shades and diaphanous grasses for a fairyland scene, or tone down with some sombre dark shades such as the velvety russet-burgundy of Iris germanica 'Langport Wren' or the inky tones of Aquilegia var. Stellata 'Black Barlow'

Foeniculum vulgare, Common Fennel - below, top right.  Lush  and aromatic feathery foliage topped with tall, buttercup-yellow flower-heads in late Summer.  This is a bold, bright umbellifer that is great to add a zing to blue and purple colour schemes.  Common Fennel can become invasive if left to its own devices, so try the 'Azoricum' variety ('Bulb Fennel' or 'Florence Fennel') that is reputed to be less invasive.

Angelica archangelica, Garden Angelica - below, bottom left.  Angelicas are statuesque, chunky umbellifers with an architectural feel.  Angelica archangelica has pale lime-green flowers up to 25cm across above sturdy purple stems, and can reach heights of two metres.  Other angelicas to try include Angelica Gigas, which has amazing purple flowers as well as stems, or Angelica dahurica, a slightly shorter, white-flowered variety.

Daucus carota 'Dara', Ornamental Carrot - below, bottom right.  'Dara' is an annual, whose umbels range from dusky pink to deep burgundy, sometimes varying in colour across a single flower-head.  The seed heads of this plant are lovely too - as it finishes flowering they close up into fluffy nest shapes.


Looking at versus being in

"I dream of a green garden, where the sun feathers my face like your once eager kiss."

Sue Hubbard, 'Eurydice'

When we dream about gardens, it's rarely about just looking at a garden, it's the sensations of actually being in that space: the sensation of dappled sunlight on skin; the feel of soft grass underfoot; the scent of roses mingling with the damp earth.

My own garden design methodology prioritises being-in - designing around all five senses to create a garden that feels wonderful to be outside in, as well as looking great from inside the house. 

In contrast, the revival of garden design in 13th century Europe (following a hiatus after the decline of the Roman Empire), prioritised looking-at.  The garden was designed primarily to be viewed from the house - arranged symmetrically along a longitudinal axis, with planting near the house kept low to allow uninhibited views.  Further away, paths were edged with trees, predominantly clipped/pruned in some way. Aside from occasional walks around the estate, these gardens were to be appreciated from a distance.

In show gardens the need to protect a garden from heavy foot traffic tends to result in these being roped-off to the public leaving viewers to imagine what it would like to be inside among the plants and trees.  For my garden at the Hampton Court Flower Show this year is was really important to me to design something that viewers need to enter inside to appreciate.  As such, my garden is designed inside-out.  From outside, viewers will be treated to the sight of rusted metal walls, which screen the interior from view.  One-by-one, or in small groups, visitors will go inside to experience the garden first-hand.  The repetition of the space through mirrored interior walls stretches the meadow inside to infinity.  Without the viewer being inside the garden to experience this, there is no garden.

Tickets for the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show are available at

Glade looking up.jpg

New garden design for large country garden

Concept design signed off for a new garden design project in Hampshire.  The owners are re-building a lovely new cottage-style house on a plot in the Hampshire countryside with spectacular views.  Alex Rainford-Roberts Garden & Landscape Design has been commissioned to create a beautiful new garden for all the family.  The site sits on a chalk ridge overlooking open countryside.  The garden combines modern features including an outdoor cinema, hot tub in its own glade and entertaining spaces as well as beautiful herbaceous borders, rose garden and terraces.  The garden is anchored in its rolling countryside context through use of contoured grass steps and sweeps of native meadow.

Landscape Design in Blackheath

Blackheath Landscape

This new landscape design project in Blackheath is a small garden in a conservation area.  The garden narrows towards the rear, and the existing layout emphasises the diminutive size and irregular shape.  The new design includes a sizable terrace at the same level as a small orangery attached to the property, creating new eating and entertaining space for the owners and their family and friends.

Blackheath Plant Palette

The new layout utilises a non-rectilinear geometry that cleverly disguises the irregular shape of the garden.  By creating a false perspective - siting what appears to be a vainishing point towards one corner of the garden, the new design creates an illusion of both width and depth.

The design is sympathetic to the heritage of the site - using reclaimed stone and wood and traditional cottage garden plants - albeit in a contemporary colour palette.  Deep moody blues, rusts and inky purples complement the colours used in the modern interior and update the traditional English garden style to suit the geometry of the new garden.

Ode to the Bumblebee

bumblebees on echinops ritro

Of all the summertime insects, none are more joyful to see visiting your garden than the fat and fuzzy bumblebee.  Honeybees are obviously great visitors too, but there's something about the bumblebee's rotund furry shape that really makes me happy.

The bumblebee's size and less-than-aerodynamic shape also means that it can't visit all of the flowers thay the smaller and lighter honeybee and frequent, so make sure that you include a few plants in your garden that provides a stable landing-platform for the bumblebee.  Different species of bumblebee (there are more than six in the UK) prefer different plants, according to their size, weight and feeding technique.

The globe-thistle, echinops ritro - pictured here - might look spiky and univiting, but are actually a great flower for bombus lucorum and bombus terrestris bees.  As large and heavy bees who use a technique of biting holes to 'rob' nectar, these guys cannot easily land on more delicate flowers, and lack a long tongue to sip nectar from tube-shaped blooms.  I counted sixteen bumblebees all feeding from one echinops plant together.

Bombus hortorum and bombus pascorum have long tongues, so can visit tube-shaped flowers including honeysuckle, delphiniums and catmint. 

Bombus lapidaries are very large bees, and look for stable platforms for helicopter-style landings in large daisy-type flowers such as heleniums and echinacea.

Bombus pratorum are smaller and agile with medium-length tongues so can visit a wider range of flowers.

Bumblebees like to nest in the shade, so shady plant options can be useful for pollinators too - try white deadnettles, foxgloves and aconites.

Summer offer

To celebrate the launch of the new website, I would like to offer three readers 50% off garden design fees for Summer 2017.  Please email quoting the code WELCOME50 to access this offer.  The first three respondents will receive a 50% discount on a all garden design services.