New Garden Design Course at RHS Garden Harlow Carr

I am delighted to have been invited by the Royal Horticultural Society to deliver a six day course for those interested in garden design at RHS Garden Harlow Carr. The aim is that the course will inspire you to have a go at designing your own garden and also will offer those who are considering a longer course in garden design a taste of the profession. The course is for absolute beginners and will run twice in 2016, once in February and March and again in September and October (dates for the first delivery of the course are at the end of this blog).

One of the most exciting things about teaching garden design is the human interaction around gardens. In many respects the way people perceive and use a space brings meaning to the space. Of course there is profound meaning to a garden if plants grow in it and birds flit around collecting seeds and making nests and so forth. But perhaps as humans, by perceiving and understanding that this is happening, and by also influencing what is happening by gardening and designing in a thoughtful, careful way, we bring another fine layer of meaning? And to exchange ideas about how a garden can be made is an invigorating thing. And to have the pleasure of doing this exchange of ideas in a garden, well, don’t get me started!

June 2015 04
Nectaroscordum siculum and Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata “Black Barlow” in a Leeds garden designed by the author, Cheri LaMay trading as Earthworks Garden Design. Image copyright Cheri LaMay 2015

During the course we will use the cosy and award winning Bramall Learning Centre as our base where we will be learning through doing, discussion and some demonstration. We will also be outside at RHS Harlow Carr investigating, scrutinizing and interpreting the gardens to gain an understanding of the use of plants, materials, shape, form and colour and also the unique and sometimes elusive “Spirit of Place”. We will build our confidence, and connect with our creativity, seeing the garden with fresh eyes. Working together we will nurture a safe environment where everyone is comfortable sharing their own understanding and experience, so it becomes a process of learning by helping each other. I hope that through this process our understanding will grow and we will have the skills to make a well resolved design for our own garden project.

Bramall Learning Centre
The course will be based at the Bramall Learning Centre at RHS Garden Harlow Carr. Here we see the centre framed by Betula utilis “Jacquemontii” and Cornus sanguinea “Midwinter Fire” in the Winter Walk, photographed December 2015.

The second very exciting thing about teaching any activity is the de-constructing of it and looking at the component parts. Generally speaking I spend forty hours a week designing gardens and I love it to pieces! At the same time, doing anything a lot can become routine. By looking at each part of my work and remembering the purpose if it, my own work becomes more authentic.

Garden Design
Here is an example of the author’s garden design work. These seating areas connected by paths of cobbles and stone chippings were designed as part of a series of spaces in a private garden near Harrogate. Image copyright Cheri LaMay 2015.

I will develop the course in the coming weeks and I intend to blog about the material and activities to be done on each day of the six day course, hopefully resulting in six blogs! If you would be so kind as to share my tweets and posts and blogs they will hopefully generate interest in the course and I will be very thankful!

My credentials, in case you are wondering: As well as having been a qualified freelance garden designer for over twelve years (see my portfolio at, I have three years experience of teaching on the Foundation Degree in Garden Design at Craven College, and also a Post Graduate Certificate in Education.

The six day course “An Introduction to Garden Design” will run twice in 2016. The first delivery will be over six full Fridays, 10am to 4pm on the following dates: 5th February, 12th February, 26th February, 4th March, 11th March and 18th March.

The course code for the February/March run is 12498, and the cost is £366 for RHS Members, £414 for Non-RHS Members.

To book call the RHS at 020 3176 5830 or if you have any questions about the content or suitability of the course for you email me at

The course is limited to sixteen people.

Relocating Wildlife Ponds

Garden pond
Water lilies float on a beautiful garden pond. Image copyright Cheri LaMay 2013

One surprisingly common request that I get as a garden designer is that a design includes for the relocation of a wildlife pond. Making a wildlife pond is to many people one of the most exciting and rewarding garden projects because once you introduce water into a garden a multitude of creatures appear in the garden overnight!

Building a pond is quite straightforward to most DIY enthusiasts, so it is something that is often slung into the garden over an aspirational and sweaty weekend. The anticipated pond skaters, frogs, toads and even newts turn up over days, weeks, months and years. Ecosystems evolve, algae, herbivores, hedgehogs and other predators, tadpoles and all that murky stuff that a lot of us associate with childhood happiness.

And then we realise we put the pond in the wrong place; it can’t be seen from the house, or it just can’t be seen! We made it a funny shape, we forgot to think about where the washing would go… it needs to move! And we have a world of frogs to consider!

A not-so-planned wildlife pond
The result of an aspirational weekend! A garden pond which is full of wildlife, but not part of a cohesive, complete garden design. Image copyright Cheri LaMay 2014

This is a time to stop and really consider, and look into your pond. If you have great crested newts in your pond you are massively privileged because you are hosting a beastie that is  a protected species under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is also a European Protected Species and as such it has additional protection in the UK under Regulation 39 of the Conservation (Natural Habitats etc.)

It is an offence to intentionally or recklessly damage, destroy or obstruct access to any structure or place used for shelter or protection by a great crested newt in practice this means both its breeding sites, and its terrestrial habitat.

Great crested newt
Male great crested newt. Females can be identified by orange markings on their underside.

So, you have looked into your pond, done some research and are ready to move forward because you don’t have great crested newts?

Plan ahead! I cannot say it enough: Plan, plan, plan.

Think long term and do a full site analysis of your garden, looking at the best and worst views from the house, and from within the garden. Will putting a pond in the foreground distract your from looking at the cooling towers in the distance? Would a pond harmonise beautifully with a copse of existing Birch trees? Do a SWOT analysis of the garden. Think about how you use the garden, where the sun shines and where you can sit and relax without being overlooked.

One useful tip is that water rarely naturally settles at the top of a hill. Some might say that it is in our brains’ hard wiring to expect water to be at the bottom of a slope, and when a pond looks naturally located within the landscape it feels right… peaceful. Imagine a shaft of sunlight breaking the surface, beaming into the pond to show wriggling shadows of tadpoles in another world…

Healthy pond
A well planned and planted pond, full of wildlife and part of a complete garden design. This pond was designed by Earthworks Garden Design in 2009 and it is improving every year I am told. This photo was taken in September 2013. Image copyright Barney Thompson 2013

If you already have a wildlife pond and you now realise that it is in the wrong place, you need to consider when you will move the pond, and how. But before you do that, first do a full site analysis of your garden so that you are sure to get it right this time! If you want help with this then contact a garden designer. I will walk you through the process for an hourly rate, and imagine that most designers worth their salt would too.

When it comes to relocating, if at all possible build the new pond before draining the old one. This allows wildlife to migrate from the old pond into the new one. Leave the new pond to settle for as long as you can, fill naturally with rain if possible, and dump a few buckets of water from the old pond into the new one to kickstart the ecosystem.

Read up on how to design and build your new pond and be sure to include shallow margins all the way around so wildlife can easily climb and crawl in and out. Do not include any steep sides. I like to include deep margins all around and fill them with sand so that they become shallow beaches. I plant Irises, marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), bog bean (Menyanthes trifoliata), water forget-me-not (Myosotis palustris) and in a jurassic garden a big fat ornamental rhubarb like Rodgersia pinnata “Superba”, or Gunnera manicata. These large-leaved plants are really exciting, and if you have enough space I urge you to put at least one in. The marginals can be planted straight into the sand and will stabilise the margins when the roots knit together.

A rock on the bottom of the pond, in the deeper water but breaking the surface will bring  birds to bathe, as will your shallow margins. And, be sure to include lots of native, floating oxygenating plants, which will do a lot to keep the water clear.

When you are confident that the new pond is ready and settled (I am talking months if possible)  you can put a garden fork into the bottom of the old pond to puncture the liner. Let the water drain away naturally, this may take some time. It is really important that you do this at the right time of year. Never do it in winter because hibernating frogs will be either exposed and scavenged, or might waken. This will speed up their metabolism and they will have nothing to eat, so would not survive the winter.

Of course, in spring where there is water there are generally tadpoles, so I wait until late summer. Newts tend to be on the move as well and there are generally fewer eggs and hatchlings about. This has been my practice based on what I have seen and read, and I am not an ecologist so I welcome the feedback or advice of anyone who knows better!

As the water drains out of your old pond you will probably find that creatures move out, some hopefully into your new pond. Keep an eye out for stranded wildlife and help them along to the new pond. Probably best to lift out your old pond liner and lay it on the edge of the new pond so any stragglers can get oriented and make their way into their fabulous new home!

All you need to do now is put a nice bench nearby in some dappled sunlight so you can sit and watch the underwater world go by…

If you want help and advice around designing your garden contact me via my website: