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A Chat With: Pip Smith

Based in Droitwich Spa, Pip Smith is a Landscape Architect with over 13 years experience working as a professional horticulturist. Trained to degree level in horticulture, Pip has also achieved an MA in Landscape Architecture (Distinction). On top of this he has held the post of Head Gardener in several private and public gardens... most recently at the *highly* acclaimed Wollerton Old Hall in Shropshire.

Now a Pre-Registered Member of the Society of Garden Designers, since 2021 Pip has been using his extensive previous experience to create imaginative, sympathetic and long-lasting designs.

Hi Pip. Tell us about your weekly life as a Garden Designer?

It is very varied, and no two weeks are the same, at the minute my diary is jam-packed! A lot of the time I am sat at my computer working on designs, but I try to fit in one or two days per week for design consultations and site visits. One of my favourite jobs is visiting the nurseries to pick out plants. Last year I went to Hilliers Tree Nursery in Hampshire to ‘tag’ some lovely 20-year-old Prunus specimens for a client. There was so much choice, I was like a kid in a sweet shop! I’m self-employed so I must keep on top of my accounts, marketing and social media, therefore even if I’m not physically designing, there is always something to do.

A visual sketch of a formal garden scheme.

I’d love an insight into the process behind creating a garden. From your initial contact with a client right through to the completion, what are the steps involved?

At least half of my initial enquiries come through my website, the other half from several local landscapers that I have partnered up with. At the outset it is important to establish a good working relationship with the client and understand their brief - basically what does the client want their garden to look like! I usually meet them in person and have a relaxed discussion to talk through their ideas. For nearly all my projects, I require a topographical survey and I’ve two local surveyors that do a fantastic job of mapping the gardens to show where existing features are and any change in levels. Using the client brief, I then put together an initial concept.

After presenting this to the client, any feedback is used to revise the idea and take it forward into the masterplan stage. This is the exciting bit where we work together to choose materials and the character of the garden really starts to appear. The nitty gritty details are worked out and I provide construction drawings and the detailing that will help the landscaper build the garden – how paving is arranged is very important! Once the masterplan is complete, I produce a planting plan and schedule of all the plants that will go into the finished garden. It is then ready for the landscapers to quote for the build. I keep a close eye on all the projects whilst the landscaping is taking place and then come back in at the end to complete the planting.

A masterplan Pip created for a Clients garden.

I think it’s fair to say that we’ve found a new love for dahlias! From your perspective, what else is the ‘in thing’ right now?

Yes, Dahlia’s are one of the latest crazes! I’ve got loads. Grasses are incredibly popular at the minute. They require minimal work and are generally resistant to drought. Hakonechloa macra is loved by garden designers at the minute, as are paniculata Hydrangeas. I mean who doesn’t love big blousy flower heads that provide interest for months on end?

The other ‘in thing’ would be a combination of ‘wilding’ and growing native UK species. There’s a big emphasis on allowing nature to creep back into our gardens and not have them so manicured all the time.

A bright carpet of Hakonechloa macra (on the left)

You know me - I’m pot mad! What ideas would you have for someone looking to utilise a large planter to create a feature?

I think my advice would be keep it simple. Don’t overload the pot with lots of different plants. Stick to one feature plant or a few of the same kind to create a real impact without detracting from the pot or planter. I’m a big fan of evergreens in pots, I’ve got some clipped Osmanthus burkwoodii outside my front door and I adore a pair of standard lollipop Laurus nobilis to frame a window, doorway or view.

Hydrangeas are perfect, especially H. ‘Annabelle’ as a pot will elevate the plant to stop the flower heads drooping on the floor. Your terracotta urns are perfect for trailing Pelargoniums on a sunny patio. ‘Attar of Roses’ is one of my favourites with its gorgeous, scented foliage.

It's not hard to visualise how impactful Hydrangea 'Annabelle' would look in large pots.

For someone with a smaller garden plot, what trees and plants would you recommend to add height and interest?

If you’ve got a small garden, choose carefully. Think about how many seasons of interest the tree or plants can provide. I adore Cornus kousa with its flowering bracts in summer, followed by pendulous fruits and super autumnal foliage shades. ‘Norman Haddon’ is a great cultivar. Liquidamber, Amelanchier and Sorbus are other options, all providing at least two seasons of interest.

Currently I’m a big fan of Malus ‘Evereste’. This crab apple is covered in fruits in late autumn and if not discovered by the birds, will hold them throughout the winter. Shrubs such as Cotinus ‘Royal Purple’ or Euonymus alatus can add good height, and not forgetting climbers such as Trachelospermum jasminoides for that sunny wall or fence – use every vertical space you have for plants!

Trachelospermum jasminoides - pretty Star Jasmine for vertical surfaces

Just before sending Pip a final list of questions, I posted to my followers on Instagram to see what they would like to ask a Garden Designer. Below are Pip's favourites...

Plant ideas for a thick clay garden?

Roses! They absolutely thrive on thick, heavy clay soil. A lot of people despair when they don’t have nice friable soil but there are plenty of plants that cope quite well in clay. Try Viburnum opulus or Hydrangeas if you’re looking for shrubs. Alternatively, perennials such as Astrantia, hardy Geraniums and Knipofia can be used to fill your borders.

Astrantia - a Pip-approved Perennial for your boarders.

What are your favourite shade-loving plants?

Hydrangeas – I think I’ve mentioned them a lot in this interview already. They flower better in part shade where they don’t have to endure the hot midday sun. In dense shade, they might not flower as well. Another favourite is Epimedium - a tough little plant that is perfect for shady ground cover and provides some super early spring colour.

I also like Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’ (the Mock Orange) with its golden foliage, the perfect plant for brightening a shady spot. Tiarella is great for underplanting and I’m a sucker for ferns. Asplenium nidus, Blechnum spicant and Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’ feature heavily in my own garden.

Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance', an evergreen Fern with attractive bronzed new growth in Spring.

What would be best to use for front door pots similar to box, olive, bay… for a North-facing porch?

I like Sarcococca confusa (Christmas Box). Slow growing and requiring occasional light clipping, it has a profusion of tiny white, highly fragrant sweet, scented flowers throughout December and January. It is by far the perfect cheery plant to greet your visitors in the darkest months of the year. Portuguese Laurel (Prunus lusitanica) can easily be trained into topiary shapes or how about neat domes of Euonymus japonicus ‘Green Spire’.

The white sprays coming from Prunus lusitanica 'Portugese Laurel'

How to design a long thin garden without it looking like a tunnel (and not losing too much space in the process)?

The trick is to distract the eye from looking down the length of the garden. Use diagonals to split the area up and shift the focus toward the perimeter. This could be in the form of paths, walls, or lawn. Utilise the height of trees, shrubs, and hedges to break up the space and obscure what lies beyond - create an air of mystery! Add in features such as seating, water, or sculpture to create interest and help give different spaces distinct character.

What is the difference between a Garden Designer and a Landscape Architect?

A Landscape Architect normally will hold an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in Landscape Architecture which is recognised by the Landscape Institute. I have an MA in Landscape Architect from Birmingham City University. Landscape Architects can design anything from a modest back garden all the way up to an urban masterplan over hundreds of acres. They tend to focus on larger, commercial projects in the public realm but can design small spaces.

Garden designers might be able to do larger projects in a commercial setting but might not be properly accredited to do so. To be a Garden Designer, you don’t need any official qualifications, although most do and also have previous experience in horticulture.

Are there drought-tolerant plants with pretty flowers?

With a shift towards lower rainfall and drier seasons, I think this is something that we will all need to be considering more. Plants with thin, hairy leaves or glaucous foliage tend to be more resilient to less available water. Obvious choices include Nepeta, Lavender and Stachys. My favourite Lavender cultivars are ‘Grosso’ and ‘Provence’. I really like Dierama pulcherrimum too, with its graceful arching stems of pink bell flowers in mid-summer.

Agapanthus are another great choice and perfect for one of your pots Tom! For the herbaceous border you might like to consider Perovskia (leave the stems overwinter as they turn a ghostly white) or any of the bearded Iris. Varieties with dark sumptuous flowers have a very decadent feel. Iris ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Red Zinger’ are two I would recommend. If you are after a shrub, Buddleja globosa with its orangish yellow ball shaped flowers, makes a great backdrop in a sunny border.

Iris 'Black Swan' - coincidentally the same name as my local village pub... Leigh previously wrote a fantastic article on how to look after your Iris plants

And with those answered Pip... to finish off - if you could create your dream garden, what would it look like?

It wouldn’t be massive! Having worked in large gardens, I’m quite content with no more than 0.5 acre and out of choice it would be southwest facing. I like the idea of choice in a garden so there would be numerous seating areas with a large sociable patio for entertaining. I have a growing collection of terracotta pots, filled with Olives, Agapanthus and scented Dianthus, so they would frame the patio. A small, secluded nook surrounded by foliage plants must feature somewhere – a quiet space where I could escape to! As for the planting, I think I lean more towards contemporary. I love late summer perennials and grasses, so I expect the borders would be filled with those.

Thank you Pip (enjoy the pot!)