What style? by Kate Cox

May 11, 2017

in Articles, General Interest

If you’re a garden designer, do you design gardens based on what you love? On what originally inspired you to become a designer? On your own garden? On major public gardens? Or what the client wants?

I hope Kate won’t mind me saying that she struggled with this piece, developing her thinking as she went along and perhaps finding more questions than answers in the process. The issue may be the difficulty in clarifying the question?

Anne Wareham, editor

portrait Anne Wareham, copyright Charles Hawes







Kate Cox:

What Should Inform a Garden Designer’s Style?

Without preamble, here is my answer:

  • A garden designer’s style on any given job must be informed by the constraints of the site and the requirements of the paying customer
  • A garden maker’s style when working on their own land may be informed by the constraints of the site or they could experiment wildly at their own risk and expense. Aside from that, their style is whatever they wish it to be.

Now I’ve got my conclusion out of the way here are some thoughts on what, for me, makes a garden visit a powerful, perhaps life changing experience.


A couple of years ago, in the spring half term I took a walk around The Beth Chatto gardens. My brain went fuzzy in that soft, embracing space of water, foliage, flower and oak. Generous curving grassed pathways, stillness and calm. How do you make something like this? I want to make something like this! I was finding Gardeners World torture and a snakes-head fritillary in my garden was unravelling my mind. I had an overload of beauty and something snapped. I knew I couldn’t bear another year stuck in a stuffy classroom teaching phonics and filling in pink slips for social services referrals.

Fast-forward to the present day: a year at Writtle college studying horticulture, a show garden at Olympia, and weekly volunteering at The Beth Chatto gardens, learning the gardening secrets, so simple, so un-esoteric, that collectively culminate in that magical spring-summer explosion. And I have my own very new, very green planting design business.

To develop my design eye I’ve visited several gardens and have been thinking about those wow moments – those periods of aesthetic transport where you’re lost in beauty. I’ve also been thinking about the times where a garden visit has left me feeling disappointed, desolate. Expectations unfulfilled.

I would say that what I value in a garden is beauty. What’s beauty? I want a garden to tug at my heart through exquisite planting, the play of light and shade, the relationship between garden, architecture and the wider environment. I want surprise. I want a bit hidden round the corner that I can’t see till I get there. I want birds and frogs and butterflies. A bit of intellectual stimulation is also good, but for me a garden is a place of sensual delight comprised of living things.

I visited Biddulph Grange on a wet grey day that my camera never quite recovered from. The mad, bankrupting creation of the Victorian James Bateman who believed that hybridising plants was a crime against the Almighty. Beautifully restored in recent times I loved this garden because it had no one style. The unifying theme was world exploration, a tour around the planet with secret tunnels, passageways lined with ancient mossed tree-stumps like dinosaur bones. From clipped yew parterre to American forest path, dazzling dahlias and a willow pattern inspired garden in a restrained palette of green and vivid red, where I mortified my teenage Writtle classmates by declaring my love for the ancient red Acer spilling its leaves over the water softened rock path.

Biddulph Grange Garden Copyright Kate Cox

Biddulph Grange Garden

Biddulph Grange Garden copyright Kate Cox

Biddulph Grange Garden

Biddulph Grange Garden Copyright Kate Cox

Biddulph Grange Garden

I recall a small NGS garden in an Essex village. The owners had without compromise transformed the sunny centre of their small new-build plot into a buzzing haven for bees planted with purple and silver. The human zone was a narrow shaded path-way around the perimeter with benches at intervals. There were sea shells here and there, rope, sleepers and a small dining area up against the house under a grape vine. It was mad but glorious.

A day spent helping a friend gardening in Suffolk. The home of a garden designer, always looking for new gorgeous objets to site in her exquisite garden, then creating new seating areas from which to admire her finds. Fruit blossom falling around us as we worked, a blue Camassia grove, a swimming pool area filled with giant urns and romantic blowsy plantings.

Sissinghurst. Sunshine, butterflies, romance. A white garden with cheeky pink cosmos defying the dress code. The ability to stroll around with one’s beloved in a pretty dress and drink wine and admire the Oast House and the crumbling red brick and all those beautiful beautiful plants.

Sissinghurst copyright Kate Cox


Sissinghurst copyright Kate Cox


Sissinghurst copyright Kate Cox


The let downs. Pensthorpe in late Autumn. I’m a massive Piet Oudolph fan, but when I visited it a few years back before I knew anything horticultural, but knew what I liked, and I was disappointed. A load of dead stuff.  Of course I can now appreciate the beauty of dead things, especially if covered in sparkling frosted cobwebs (when does that happen in the UK?) but if I’m honest deep down I’m probably a mixed herbaceous border type at heart with strong New Perennialist leanings – perhaps a fair-weather summer friend – like the swifts.

Over tidy gardens. Mine is getting that way. I need to watch it. The first time I properly edged my lawn which was creeping over the surrounding brick paving, I felt slightly nauseous. Too neat, too primped. It’s OK so long as there’s enough exuberance in the borders.

Great Dixter. I say this with fear and trembling. What did I love? The compost heap with the ladder to the top and the other one covered in pumpkins. That was fun. The Dachshund Patio. Kitsch and controversial but something so personal to Christopher Lloyd. A labour of love, therefore precious. The stone seating and planting around the pond area – packed full of interest and a place of repose. The long border – so full, healthy, floral and fabulous. The house and outbuildings and those gorgeous rustic benches.

Great Dixter copyright Kate Cox

Great Dixter

Disappointments – The Orchard Garden and High Garden. At the time of visiting I hadn’t appreciated that these areas serve as stock beds so are not designed with the visitor in mind. My response at the time was – it’s cramped and uncomfortable, there are no passing places so I need to back off for the lady with the walking frame, I can see what’s at the end of this path and it doesn’t look all that exciting so I can’t be bothered to fight my way through all those alliums to get there but I feel I should.

Also the meadows. They’re really close to the house and in late summer didn’t look that great. I thought back to the design theories of past centuries where the wild bit was located out beyond the more formal gardens and that perhaps there was a good reason for that. I’m returning to Great Dixter next month and am more than prepared to change my mind about this when I see the meadows in their April glory.

I look out the window at my own garden. I am in the privileged position of being a garden maker. A very small garden. So what has informed my style? Hmmm. My home choices are very different to what I would select for a client. There are plants out there – shrubs, that predate me. Would I have selected them? Perhaps not. Do I like them? Actually yes. Currently we have a bright red chaenomeles, a bright yellow forsythia, a royal blue shed. Call the taste police! I’d argue that our garden is a cool Mondrian style but there is also pink, blue, purple.… Yes, pink and yellow.

The large slug population has informed my style. No hostas.

Years back before I knew anything we installed a pond and I built a low brick wall around it. Did I use a spirit level? No. Are all the bricks the right way up? No. Would I rip it out and get someone in to do it properly in Italian marble and corten steel or some other ponce material? Not on your life. Why? Personal attachment and a sense of history. I’m still proud of building that wall.

Being a plant magpie my home style has been informed by successive obsessions with particular plants and finding a home for them. My garden is my plant collection full of treasures – another affinity with Bateman, and also Christopher Lloyd. It makes sense to me, but I wouldn’t expect other people to love it as I do.

Would I operate this way in designing for a client? No. A client’s garden is for them, not me. It has to make them happy. I have to listen carefully to all the things they want and don’t want then give them something that they would make for themselves if they knew how. Yes, I get to choose plants that they may not be aware of, but it will be in keeping with their vision, part-formed as that may be.

If each garden I design has a different character or style to reflect the loves and personality of its owner, I’ll know I’ve done a good job.

Kate Cox  website

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