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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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura May 12, 2017 at 3:50 pm

Upfront I’m not a garden designer except for designing my own garden.

I think it’s fine not to like parts or all of a well-known or not-so-well-known garden. My personal problem with this is trying to tactfully keep my opinions in a positive light because there is someone out there who DOES like it. Usually I can find something in each gardens to like, but I have unintentionally offended some in the past, and I feel badly about it.

Here in the states, there are some quasi-designers who operate on a one-size-fits-all mentality and although they mean well, their designs often incorporate the same motifs such as lots of rusted metal in containers and edging or lots of formed concrete. Their personal style shows through every time. However, if the client likes it, that’s what matters.

Style? Not that you asked, but my very young home garden has four styles I hope will eventually work together. Where it’s deeply shady, I’m working to create somewhat of a woodland garden. Where there’s a spot of sun, I have a cottage garden in the making. Where the sun stays the longest, is where I’ve situated my vegetable garden, which is fenced, and then off to the back is a brand new Piet Oudolf knock- off area with lots of ornamental grasses and tall perennials. All of these are less than 2 years old and some are just a month old. It’s a slow process.


annewareham May 12, 2017 at 4:16 pm

I’m sorry to hear that you feel confined to making positive comment. We really need some informed, intelligent discussion about what works and what fails in a garden, and I’ll put my garden first in the queue for such discussion. How else can we create truly great gardens? (as opposed to the ubiquitous ‘lovely’ ones…) Encouraging such discussion is part of the reason for this website. xx


Kate Cox May 12, 2017 at 4:40 pm

I agree with Anne, Laura. One of the reasons I took so long to write this article and revised it so many times was because I wanted so much to be positive about everything and everywhere. I was very worried about offending people with my views – particularly as I’m pretty new to this industry.

Eventually though, with Anne’s encouragement, I decided to be honest. One thing that emboldened me was remembering that one of the most fertile gardening friendships, between Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd came about through frank letters in which they shared, amongst other things, the things they really didn’t like about each others’ gardens. Neither held back on their opinions, and this led to a great deal of shared knowledge between them which has been passed on to other gardeners though their writing.

I believe gardening is an art, as well as a science and so on… Art has always been critiqued which leads to improvement and new ideas. If we say everything’s lovely when we don’t really think so then we are not respectfully and honestly engaging with the artist or respecting their work by giving it proper consideration. If we’re blasting it for the sake of it or just to provoke a reaction, that’s a different matter.

I agree with you about identikit garden design… If clients like it that’s great, so long as the requirements of the site have been considered. I can understand why some designers trot out the same ideas though – if an idea works, the temptation would be to repeat it, especially if you’re really busy and your style is in demand. Garden design is art, science and business too.

It sounds like your garden is going to be really interesting, really using the different site conditions for what will work best. Slow work, but hopefully rewarding.


Annette May 12, 2017 at 9:01 pm

You’ve created your garden so that it suits your tastes and preferences, Anne, so anything another person may come up with regarding your creation is entirely personal. And would you really change your design just because somebody else feels it might work better the other way? What is a great garden? For some it’s Biddulph, Great Dixter, for others Merriments or The Lasketts…Sissinghurst may be awesome for some, less for others. Has this urge to create a GREAT garden perhaps something to do with vanity? I make my garden to suit my needs not those of visitors. If they enjoy it, fine, I’m pleased even, if they don’t I couldn’t care less because you just cannot please everyone. As for clients, I agree it’s a totally different story: The garden has to suit them and the genius of the place and certainly not the vanity of the designer which is sadly so often the case…otherwise we wouldn’t see the same design all over again wherever we turn, would we 😉 One of the things I enjoy most is the fact that every client, every situation is different and gives me the chance to do something entirely different.


annewareham May 12, 2017 at 11:02 pm

I’m sure I’m far too vain, Annette, but you may say I am what I am. I have changed Veddw several times because other people pointed out to me how it could be improved, or what was not working. I know too that other gardens could also blossom this way and I wish more would. Of course taste is personal, or everyone would admire Shakespeare. Xx


Kate Cox May 12, 2017 at 1:59 pm

Thank you Anne for publishing my article. As you say, I really did struggle to work out what I was trying to say and why, and your editorial rigour was brilliant. The main sticking point for me was Great Dixter. I wanted so much to love it but there were bits I just didn’t like.

I revisited Dixter a couple of weeks ago and was lucky enough to be shown round by my friend Dean who is a student there. The meadows showed signs of real promise and the fruit tree blossom and cow parsley was beautiful. While talking with Dean I realised that I had come at Dixter all wrong. I was looking at it thus: Is it pretty? Does it make me feel relaxed? Indolent? Awash with perfume and delight? Am I transported to a higher place?

That’s not what Dixter is for. It’s not there to fit my or anyone else’s ideas of beauty. It’s a place of experimentation and learning – conifers with bananas? Why not? Listening to my friend’s enthusiasm and passion about the place and everything he was learning and doing there was inspiring. ‘Beauty’ isn’t everything. There are plenty of gardens where beauty is the focus. But how many gardens are so focussed on experimentation and new directions as Dixter?


Katherine Crouch May 12, 2017 at 12:09 pm

a good piece. Yup, what Kate said. I shall Facebook a picture just taken in my style free (rented) concrete yard. Lots of pots of new treasures to try out (just spent the housekeeping money at Pan-Global Plants), old treasures still filling out, plants for clients, plants being recycled from one garden to another.
I am guilty of imposing too many kinds of plants in a designed garden, but once the clients have neglected a few and the pests have nobbled a few more, simplicity may be achieved, generally by the repitition of surviving signature plants in each season.

I am working on a client with a 15 x 25 metre back garden in downtown Yeovil. He wishes to keep the massive apple tree in the centre and a few climbing roses apparently, with which I could happily work in with catmints, daylilies, penstemons and many other border delights. He now says he has been looking at gardening books and would also like 3 tree ferns, several large bamboos, a herb garden and at least 3 Harry Wheatcroft roses and some orange azaleas. And heathers. And grasses.

I am sure I can turn him into a very happy gardener and he will cheerfully enjoy a right old mixture of plants with no thought for context. It remains to be seen if it can also be a very happy garden and whether I dare publish the result. Bracing myself for a few arguments….

With the socially insecure and upwardly mobile clients, it is possible to prevent them demanding plants you think will be horrid by cocking your head on one side, sucking your teeth and murmuring ‘Don’t you think it will look a little………suburban?’


Kate Cox May 12, 2017 at 2:59 pm

Haha, I too am the proud owner of a style free concrete front yard (the pretty bit’s out the back) Not the best advert for my profession. Currently in discussion with my other half about smashing through some of the concrete (yes!) v building a raised bed with drainage holes on top. I have many seedlings on windowsills (alas, no greenhouse) waiting ready to fill the space.

Totally understand your trouble with creating a limited palette of plants. There’s so many brilliant options!


Kate Cox May 12, 2017 at 3:01 pm

Drainage holes on top! No. At the bottom. This is why editors are so important


annewareham May 12, 2017 at 3:04 pm

Aren’t we just! Xxxx


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