Great Garden Design by Ian Hodgson, reviewed by Katherine Crouch.

March 24, 2015

in Book Reviews, Reviews

I wonder: are all great garden designs, as in this book, designed by professional garden designers? What do you think? Is there a kind of garden apartheid – garden designs on one side, gardens on the other?

Anne Wareham, editor

Great Garden Designs cover copyright Katherine Crouch for thinkingardens

Great Garden Design by Ian Hodgson,

A review by Katherine Crouch

This book is a sumptuously illustrated showcase of 21st Century garden designs by members, known and less known, of The Society of Garden Designers. The experience of Ian Hodgson, former editor of The Garden magazine, shines through, the balance between photograph and text, garden description and designer profile making the reading effortless.

The photographs are the stars of the book, blazing with colour, the designers discreetly credited and profiled in grey text. The photographic acknowledgements in the back of the book are slightly annoying to cross reference, but had the designers, photographers and perhaps the landscapers all been credited under the photographs, the layout would have been very messy.

Great Garden Design 3 Copyright Katherine Crouch DSCF3195 (Custom)

Shallow pool full of dinosaur eggs. Nightmare to clean.

The sections of the book begin with different garden styles, with descriptions to help a prospective client understand how environment and maintenance constraints may dictate a suitable style for them.

As nearly a third of SGD members are based in London and the South East (297 out of 1056) where contemporary formal styles are most popular, it is not surprising that contemporary and urban gardens occupy 18 pages of the Bold Visions section, where cottage and country style is dealt with in only 6 pages. However, naturalistic, tropical and water gardens, both urban and rural, are featured in abundance.

Posh infinity pool with clean, leafless paving ... It's not quite like that at Crouch Towers.

Posh infinity pool with clean, leafless paving … It’s not quite like that at Crouch Towers.

The gallery section has some show gardens and public spaces, but mostly private commissions. For those readers just starting out on a garden design career, try not to get too jealous of the large budget commissions in spacious landscapes or urban chic with very expensive materials. Suburbia, if it exists on these pages, has been carefully cropped and screened out of existence.

A lot of really useful information has been put into grey boxes, beside the narrative, with helpful quotes from designers, notes on garden history and aspects of design elements, making this a book both suitable for dipping into randomly, or reading cover to cover.

Curvy garden in Bold Visions chapter by Ian Kitson. My absolutely favourite garden in the book.

Curvy garden  by Ian Kitson. My absolutely favourite garden in the book.

If I have one gripe, it is that most gardens are exquisitely pristine, the hard landscaping photographed as the team completed the build were sweeping their way backwards off site. The swathes of plants have been photographed a season or three after installation, but there is a considerable acreage of clean cream paving and gravel without so much as a leaf marring its beauty. Only John Brookes’ gardens on pages 113 and 174 look naturally grubby and weathered.

Despite a chapter on sustainable solutions, I should like to see how quickly the shallow pool on page 47 fills up with leaves and slime and whether the concrete yard on pages 58-9 (below) remains pale and blonde without chemical intervention.

Concrete courtyard. If this is the future of garden design I want to slash my wrists.

Concrete courtyard. If this is the future of garden design I want to slash my wrists.

This  is my least favourite garden in the book. The planting will take a couple of seasons to overcome the prison yard vibe. It is the only garden I can’t find a designer credit for.

This book should sell at least 1056 copies immediately. It will remain to be seen whether prospective clients will buy it too.

Katherine Crouch.    Website here

Katherine Crouch portrait


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Adam skinner March 28, 2015 at 6:31 pm

I am now following the debate with interest. Having merely hammered off a kneejerk response to my extremely superficial impression of yet another book on garden design to Anne Wareham’s address. I am increasingly suspicious of the power of the designers, and the disproportinate time and adulation wasted on designs for Chelsea etc…ordinary mortals lose confidence at the prospect of ‘designing’ a garden. The Newspapers that sponsor a Chelsea Garden bore for England about the latest trendy designer , who is going to use cloud pruned baobabs, with variegated Javanese swamp elder, surely the next ‘must have ‘ for any gardener in the know.
A mixture of one’s own attempts, advice and gifts from friends and family, some input from professionals, by all means, but let someone else design your entire garden and you not only end up looking after someone else’s creation for years, (or you get another designer in,) you miss the essence of what gardening is about, trying things out for yourself, making mistakes, changing everything around after a year or two, and seeing what works, what doesn’t and gradually achieving some sort of result…knowing, of course, that whoever comes after you will bulldoze it all down anyway!

Katherine Crouch March 28, 2015 at 9:12 pm

cor, I wish I was a powerful garden designer! I’d be making more money!

Chelsea show garden is to normal garden as Paris haute couture is to Marks and Spencers. Radical ideas get sensible after a while, then popular, then despised as old hat, especially once the peasants enjoy them, then ignored, then revived as retro and if standing the test of time still, becoming classic.

As a garden designer, I do not make gardens that I know I will like. I make gardens that my clients didn’t know they were going to love.

Amy Murphy March 27, 2015 at 8:36 pm

Anne asks, once again, a very good question: “Are all great garden designs designed by professional designers?” The long and short answer is no. Historically the profession of garden designer is a modern one, so almost all historical great garden designs were designed not by professionals, but by amateurs. It’s a fun debate, but any real gardener knows that great design isn’t the exclusive arena of garden designers, although through the efforts and creations of gardens by professionals, comes much inspiration. It’s a good collaboration.

Katherine Crouch March 28, 2015 at 8:43 am

The amateur v. professionally designed gardens continues. I was mucking about in gardens for 30 years before I did it for a living. The most satisfying and best designed garden I have done was my own 20 years ago. The professional ones? The best are where the client is so involved and opinionated that we end up arguing a lot.

The least satisfying are the ones where the client says,’ I have only a small budget, I want low maintenance, in fact I don’t really want to do any gardening, I just want something pretty like that (shows picture of Sissinghurst white garden).’ Although some of those clients have been bullied into enthusiasm and confidence and are now keen gardeners with pretty gardens – yay!

Pat Webster March 28, 2015 at 1:31 pm

I’m not happy with the either/or choice. An amateur gardener who loves her garden and dedicates time and thought to the design can create something wonderful. The help of a sympathetic professional can add a lot. When I first started gardening, I knew very little about what I wanted to achieve or how to do it. Thankfully, I found a landscape architect who helped me to move from ignorance to full involvement. We became friends, then collaborators. Now I go to him for specialized problems where I need professional input. Unfailingly, the back-and-forth conversations lead to more interesting solutions and my garden benefits.

Matt March 27, 2015 at 11:20 am

I think it’s kind of common sense that a true gardener is a designer, Now how well of a designer depends on the skills. Half of the out come of the garden is how well it is designed and pleases the eye.

Katherine Crouch March 26, 2015 at 7:09 pm

thanks all, keep ’em coming! Julie Wylie – I agree, however I have found actually clients respect me more because I get my hands dirty, giving them confidence that I actually know one end of a plant from another and importantly, how it will behave after the landscapers are long gone. But then I am in welly booted Somerset, not high heeled Knightsbridge. I think living in the cleanest poshest gardens would be like wearing very high heels all day. You should see Victoria Beckham’s bunions…

Julia March 27, 2015 at 7:49 am

Yes fortunately I don’t spend much time in Knightsbridge/gardens like the ones photographed. I imagine there must have been a lot of tiptoeing around in socks to get those photos!

Julia Wylie March 26, 2015 at 9:51 am

I make my living from gardening, but it is also one of my passions/obsessions.

I think the fashion for spotless creamy/white hard landscaping is because the gardens photograph and subsequently “sell” well. Also, I think there is still an unhealthy obsession with cleanliness and control. Clinical paving only brightens up dark/shady london gardens, for long enough to be photographed, before the algae starts to appear.

Which brings me to my favourite topic the “M” word; planting up a new garden is only the beginning and the success of the scheme depends largely on who is looking after it. Maintenance says that the garden is being kept the same, which is why I prefer to say “Development” and I also try to leave the maintenance of the paving to stone specialists and their chemicals.

I still get a lot of work from Designers, which is great because all the project management is done and I can just have fun with the process of managing the planting.

I do think there can be an overlap between gardeners and designers. I remember being told in the beginning of my career to decide whether I wanted to be a gardener or a designer, because “clients won’t respect you as a designer if they see you getting your hands dirty”.

I like Anne’s term “garden makers”. Sometimes I design gardens from scratch – no clinical paving involved – but mostly I develop them over time, which is still a very creative process, but doesn’t involve as much project management and visual communication as is required with complete “makeovers”.

skr March 26, 2015 at 3:02 pm

Algae? Oh it would be lovely to live, at least for a little while, somewhere moist enough where algae grows on the concrete. Living in drought stricken Los Angeles, I sometimes find it hard to imagine anything growing without my copious applications of water.

James Golden March 25, 2015 at 5:52 pm

Many great gardens are not made by “certified designers,” and I agree with Anne that one can’t make a garden without being a “designer” in some sense, or an artist, though perhaps not a “production/professional” designer. This review leaves me interested enough in the book to want to read it, but I’ve been often disappointed in the SDG garden competition winners. Some seem lacking in soul. Admittedly, I’m only reacting to a limited selection of photos. I’m wandering …

Pat Webster March 25, 2015 at 3:46 pm

This review is very helpful. It describes the book and its contents clearly and gives any potential purchaser enough information to decide whether to buy or not.

The debate on designer clothes/gardens vs home-made highlights why photos in books like this are so crucial. Drooling over impractical pools sometimes generates an idea or two that designer/gardeners like me, who focus on their own land, can adapt. I wrote recently how copying other people’s ideas leads to something new ( — which is why I have such a big stack of garden pornography books. They are great company on winter days.

Caleb Melchior March 24, 2015 at 11:56 pm

Reckoning back to the earlier discussions on gardens as art, garden design trends, and the like: perhaps it’s useful to think of a parallel between gardens and clothes. These are fashionable gardens (outfits from the big Paris-London-New York fashion shows) as opposed to the gardens that most of us inhabit every day (our favorite jumpers and baggy trousers for gardening). The “high fashion” gardens give the opportunity to explore ideas and fancies that wouldn’t work in most plantspeople’s gardens. They’re showpieces for wealth and innovation – with a more single-minded focus than amateur gardeners’ plots. Surely there’s room for both these shiny designer pieces and the rest of our well-loved but less manicured plots…

annewareham March 25, 2015 at 10:21 am

That’s a useful analogy, Caleb. Of course there is room for both. Though the ‘high fashion’ garden have to bear everyday use just as the amateur gardens do. And ‘amateur’ gardens can aspire to the highest and innovatory standards despite being, in your analogy, I guess, home made clothes.

Paul Steer March 24, 2015 at 5:18 pm

Perhaps designer gardens get hoovered and never grow old, slimy or weathered ?
Would have been nice to see a bit of suburbia given the designer look- perhaps they will return in a few years when they become real gardens. Gardeners are not designers though are they ?

annewareham March 25, 2015 at 10:17 am

Some of us do think of ourselves as a kind of designer, Paul – see If you’re starting a garden, you have to work out some kind of plan = design. What did you do?

Paul Steer March 26, 2015 at 9:34 am

I set out a plan in my head, looked at what I had, took away what I didn’t like and developed an idea- ? designed it !

annewareham March 26, 2015 at 9:39 am

Think you did. Xx

genny twigge April 1, 2015 at 8:01 pm

Wasn’t Villa Noailles garden designed in the Mondrian Style and didn’t designer lemon trees die because it was too dry surely there were other design planting faults and aren’t the pictures of the decay and faults lovely? It is a very small, awkward plot.

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