How to create a sense of place in your garden

You don’t need rolling Capability Brown acres to express who you are

Like our homes, gardens are not simply sanctuaries, but an expression of who we are. In an increasingly homogenised world, how do we create a space that speaks of and to its surroundings, one that feels special and unique, rather than an identikit design constructed via the garden centre and DIY store? Creating a “sense of place” is how: linking your garden to your home and its surroundings or creating a new narrative within its confines.

It might sound like the sort of thing that is only relevant if you live in a rural idyll, or if your home could grace the pages of a glossy magazine, but there are tips and tricks that can be employed whatever type of garden you have — whether it’s an urban courtyard, a suburban patch or several acres in the countryside.

Tell a story
Designers have used the idea of creating a sense of place for centuries; in fact, Lancelot “Capability” Brown, whose 300th anniversary we are celebrating this year, called himself a “place-maker” rather than a landscape designer. The aim is to create your own little world within your garden’s boundaries, somewhere that feels timeless and sits happily in its location, wherever you are.

Think about what you want your garden to achieve. Are you after a romantic cottage style, something modern and sleek or somewhere that transports you to another country? Keeping this sense of place in mind will imbue your garden with a coherence that unites all the elements — plants, landscaping materials and structure — so they work together as a whole, rather than having a hotchpotch of styles. If, for example, your burning desire is for a jungle garden, then a rustic hazel wigwam with sweet peas growing up it would look rather odd amid tree ferns and spiky cordylines.

To bring more than one style into your garden, adopt the classic technique of dividing it into separate “rooms”, with each one telling its own story. Use the same materials as dividers — be they fences, hedges, walls or paths — to give it all cohesion.

It’s long been a trick to merge the garden and the landscape beyond in order to create the illusion of a larger space. Again, take a lesson from the past: the 18th-century landscape designer Humphry Repton created vistas through to church towers, “borrowing” them for the garden. Back in the 21st century, when borrowable church towers are not available to many of us, this could simply mean pruning a tree or cutting a hole in a hedge to open up a view.

Arne Maynard’s Welsh garden

There may be obvious starting points — does your land fall down to a beach? Are there fields or hills beyond? Or perhaps there’s a cluster of trees in a neighbouring urban property that will create a focal point and distract the eye from the houses around you.

Arne Maynard is a contemporary landscape designer whose garden around his orange-washed Renaissance house in Monmouthshire looks as if it has been there for ever. In fact, it has all been made in the past 10 years. He has kept things simple, as the house is so striking, set within a beautiful valley. You couldn’t imagine any other sort of garden, so cleverly has he consulted with what Alexander Pope referred to as “the genius of the place”.

For those creating their own garden, Maynard suggests introducing elements into your design that pick up and highlight details unique to you: the colour of a favourite painting in the house, the pattern of floor tiles or the finial detail of a bannister. “All these things help to build a picture of who you are and what kind of garden it is possible to create.”

The Japanese Garden, near Newquay

At Haddon Hall, in Derbyshire, where he has designed a new garden for the Elizabethan house, he wove existing details into the plans. “We layered it with references from the house — patterns from windows, colours from the tapestries — and we researched some of the details that had been lost from the garden over the years.”

That doesn’t mean you have to stick with the context of your surroundings: you may choose to take your inspiration from elsewhere. A great example is the Japanese Garden, near Newquay, Cornwall (japanesegarden.co.uk), which works beautifully because every detail has been considered. It creates a microcosm that transports you to a completely different culture and garden style. To achieve this type of planting, you need to screen out the world beyond using trees, fences and climbers, rather than borrowing from the landscape, so there are no distractions from the illusion you want to create.

Perhaps you live in a city and crave a tranquil oasis that is an escape from the hustle and bustle of your surroundings. Use water to add soothing sounds and to mask the noise of the city. Add sensuous plants such as bamboos and grasses that move in the breeze or are soft to touch. Choose those with a pale colour palette and muted tones, not vibrant colours that fight for your attention.

Derek Jarman’s cottage at DungenessWWW.MARIANNEMAJERUS.COM

Tradition
Although we still have many skilled craftspeople across Britain, we have lost much of the local distinctiveness that was visible in techniques such as hedge laying, which developed in different styles across the country. Using traditional crafts like this can be a way to imbue your plot with a sense of history.

If you’re lucky enough to live in an area where stone walls are a defining feature of the landscape, then incorporating these into your garden will root it in its location. And you don’t need to use these old skills in a conventional way. Follow in the footsteps of the land artist Andy Goldsworthy, who is known for his contemporary use of dry-stone walling: you can adapt his ideas to a garden setting.

Materials
Building materials can define a place, whether it’s the honeyed stone of the Cotswolds, East Anglian flint, the granite of southwest England or the sandstone used in Yorkshire. Slate, too, has geographical distinctions, from the green-grey of the Lake District to the almost black variety of Snowdonia. If your home has a strong identity — perhaps a well-defined architectural style or distinctive building materials — you can use the idea of a sense of place to bring the house and garden together, creating a harmonious whole.

Using a material that’s appropriate for your location will help your garden sit happily in the landscape: if you’re in the Cotswolds, for example, limestone would blend in, whereas slate would be incongruous. Incorporating local stone can also help native lichens and mosses to colonise, which is great for biodiversity and will help to give your garden a timeless quality.

For a more contemporary look, use long-established crafts and combine them with modern materials, or employ them in a quirky way. The Suffolk hurdle maker David Downie weaves coppiced hazel into exquisite fences, which can follow the natural curves and slopes of your site (hurdlemaker.co.uk). Or you could try hazel wattle panels crisply edged with black metal frames.

The aim is to create your own little world within your garden’s boundaries, one that sits happily in its location

For more ideas about incorporating native woods such as chestnut, oak and ash into a garden design, take a look at coppice-products.co.uk. It showcases those who use the wood generated from coppicing — the ancient method of woodland management — to craft all manner of products for use in the garden, from trellis panels and living willow sculptures to cleft-oak fencing and gates.

Bespoke pieces can be expensive, but sometimes simple touches are enough to make an impact. For instance, replacing bamboo canes and green metal plant supports with native hazel poles and woven twiggy pea sticks will give your garden a rustic feel.

Planting
Take note of how plants grow together when you’re out and about near your home, whether it’s by the coast, on a hilly ramble or even in a patch of abandoned land colonised by wild flowers. You might not want to grow exactly these plants, but they can be pointers to cultivated cousins that will thrive in your garden, and they might inspire fresh combinations. By echoing the native planting, you will provide a link to the surroundings — something the film-maker Derek Jarman did so well at his garden on the shingle beach of Dungeness, in Kent.

If there is countryside on the other side of your boundary, the planting should be more formal close to the house, becoming wilder where it merges with the landscape beyond. If there are hills in the distance, prune hedging and trees into topiary to mimic the rounded shapes in the view.

Local crafts and materials, such as hurdle fencing, can root your garden in the surrounding landscape

Urban gardens
Where greenery is lacking, look to towering buildings and hints of an industrial past for inspiration. Corrugated metal sheeting could be used to create raised beds, as could Cor-Ten steel, popular with designers for its warm rust tones. Then there’s concrete, which can be moulded, dyed and treated in various ways to create different shapes, colours and textures. For climbing structures, seek out rusty metal poles or sleek stainless steel.

The Bristol Wood Recycling Project (bwrp.org.uk) is a social enterprise that turns waste wood, including scaffolding boards, into an attractive range of planters and outdoor furniture. For a wood recycling project near you, visit www.communitywoodrecycling.org.uk.

If your home is built from brick, carry this building material on into the paths and boundaries of the garden. Old bricks, although mass-produced, still had regional variations due to the differences in the clay that was used, and it’s possible to find them in reclamation yards or on sites such as eBay. Or try newly crafted versions that replicate the local differences and imperfections of vintage bricks; try imperialhandmadebricks.co.uk.

THE PERFECT FIT

  • Use all the components in your garden to tell a cohesive story.
  • Hard landscaping, structures, pots, sculptures and plants should complement each other and your chosen style.
  • Celebrate the area — seek out local craftspeople and materials to anchor your garden in its environment.
  • Borrow from your surroundings, whether trees, views or buildings.
  • Alternatively, screen out what’s around you to create your own little oasis, and let your imagination take you to far-off shores and cultures.

Arne Maynard is running a study day on Evoking a Sense of Space for the charity Perennial at Allt-y-bela, Monmouthshire, on April 18, 2017 (£230, including lunch; arnemayard.com)

Further reading
New Small Garden by Noel Kingsbury (Frances Lincoln £20); Garden Design: A Book of Ideas by Heidi Howcroft (Mitchell Beazley £30); Gardenista by Michelle Slatalla (Artisan £29).

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