Designing a Site Responsive Garden in an Urban Area

View of our new garden from an upstairs window. Image copyright Cheri LaMay 2016.

If you have seen my website you will know that I have been designing gardens since 2003. I haven’t counted but it feels like I have designed hundreds of gardens in that time. Now here’s a secret… until recently I have always lived in rented accommodation and have never had my own garden! As a Generation Xer with no feet on the property ladder and wanting to stay near Leeds centre for easy motorway access so I can reach all the gardens of Halifax, Harrogate, Ilkley and so on as well as all the gardens of lovely Leeds itself, well, property prices are high and I couldn’t get started. And, in 2015 I finally moved from a rented flat into a house with a garden which I could (sort of) call my own. That is, I moved in with my boyfriend.

The beautiful rented flat I left behind…

I left behind my beautiful place in the heart of hip, up-and-coming Meanwood to Gary’s end terrace in a council estate in a less than hip area, because he owned and I rented. The agreement was this: we would live together in his house for a year to see whether we could live together well. If things worked out we would then move back to sunny Meanwood. That was eighteen months ago, and here we are, all married up and with his house on the market!

What happened in the interim? A lot of DIY and scrapping about DIY; scrapping about my pulling rubbish out of skips and taking it home to make cool things; we have both been hard at work, with Gary architecting at NW Architects and me designing gardens and also teaching garden design at the RHS Harlow Carr Gardens; having great times both together and with dear friends; and, yes I designed and made the garden at Gary’s house (some of it out of rubbish!). So, this is, in fact, a blog about garden design. The back story is important because I have made so many gardens for others and it was interesting and exciting to make one for us.

View to the gate from the door of the house. Image copyright Cheri LaMay 2016.

All successful garden designs start with noticing the various aspects that make up the unique character of the site. We call the unique character of the site the Spirit of Place, or Genius Loci. This is one part of garden design that really pushes my buttons! On the Introduction to Garden Design course at RHS Harlow Carr we spend a day exploring Genius Loci and look at a lot of great examples, one of which is Derek Jarman’s garden. Jarman’s garden is a true response to the place.

It is pretty much legend now: Film director Jarman had been diagnosed with AIDS; this was the eighties and there was no effective treatment. He bought an old fisherman’s cottage on a pebble beach at Dungeness, near to the headland in the south-east of Kent where the Dungeness nuclear power station stands. The area had long since been deserted. Jarman moved into the cottage, and creatively and beautifully lived out his life writing poems, making films; and making a garden. As he walked the beaches and sand dunes he found maritime plants and brought them home and planted them in the shingle around the cottage. He organised the shingle too, big pebbles and small. He brought back driftwood and flotsam and stacked these up with hagstones and fishing nets. In a way it looks as if the only human intervention has been to reorganise the things that were already present: the resulting garden is totally unique and site specific.

Derek Jarman’s garden at Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, taken in May 2007.

Jarman’s garden almost happened by accident, but if we put the same principles consciously into practice we can make gardens that sit seamlessly within the landscape or cityscape and are generous in that they feedback positively into the surrounding area and therefore lift the area, rather than snubbing it, or clashing with it. This is site responsiveness. There is little I find more depressing than a lack of site responsiveness: a grand, ostentatious garden in front of a simple home; or a humble, rambling cottage garden with a beautifully proportioned, sparsely lined Georgian house as a backdrop.

Lack of site responsiveness leads to loss of place: with global fashion trends many places within cities look the same. In some cases you might not know whether you are in London, Leeds or Tokyo if you were to judge only by your surroundings. Fast food and coffee chains are taking over high streets in towns and cities alike worldwide and where does that leave us with our sense of where we live and our own identities, never mind the permanent loss of the Spirit of Place?

Leeds Town Hall on the horizon, surrounded by generic looking buildings.

On top of the loss of place, with social media constantly in our pockets and in our hands we don’t inhabit our bodies like we should; we may travel around on foot and by other means of transport, but, these days we have to make a serious effort to be mindful of where we are, what we see and hear; and notice how our surroundings are affecting us. These factors contribute to a loss of connection with place, even where place still exists.

So, how do we find the Spirit of Place to make a site responsive garden? We open our eyes and minds and see what is happening inside, and outside of the garden. We take off the blinkers, get into our bodies (and out of our minds, so to speak), open our eyes and see…

Our front gate in our not-yet-up-and-coming area.

What did I see at my new home? It is in a heavily built up urban area. At the front there are two wonderful big Lime trees, and in back, well, the gardens are quite small so the neighbours are very close; things are rundown: I see paint peeling off concrete; there is a school full of shouting kids next door; there is little privacy and the area gets very crowded and busy at school pick up and drop off times.

The garden is overlooked by a row of terraced houses which are up the hill, and behind them some low rise flats and then, to top it off, a tower block looms over us. The view from the kitchen window is onto the garden immediately, then your eyes go up over the gate and skip across the low rise flats to the unavoidable focal point: the tower block.


Our garden “Before”, as Gary had kept it, more or less (I had already brought a few plants in by this time, and was marking out the design with string).

The garden is five metres wide by eight metres long and the ground level at the gate at the top of the slope is sixty-five centimetres above the ground outside the kitchen door. Gary had just kept it as bare soil for the past fifteen years, although to his credit he had planted a row of five Thujas (White Cedars: conifers) along part of one side with the idea of making a hedge, and a couple of Euonymous. A row of big 1960s Leeds City Council issue concrete flags ran in a straight line from the gate to the door. The soil was mixed, near the house there was mainly subsoil which the house builders had excavated for the foundations and left, with a decent clayey loam at the top of the garden. The garden can get quite windy at times because it blows through the valley and is made worse by the turbulence caused by the tower blocks above.


The design. Image copyright Cheri LaMay 2016.

Rather than fight against the paint-peeling-off-concrete and tower block aesthetic, my site responsive garden would have to roll with it. I decided to angle the garden at forty-five degrees to the house. This makes a garden more dynamic and exciting rather than calm and tranquil, and the garden needed to be a little exciting to keep the attention focussed inward (there is so much going on outside). Also, the tower block stands at about forty-five degrees to the house so it ties in. I decided to use timber raised beds because the strong architecture of the raised beds is able to hold its own amongst all the buildings. Imagine if the same plants were planted at ground level- it gets quite wishy-washy doesn’t it? And it’s wonderful to be able to perch on the edge of the beds just about anywhere in the garden: great for hanging out with friends. Also, they give a solution to the problem of the poor soil- I just had to build the boxes and then put the subsoil on the bottom and the loamy soil on the top.

The design has one big square raised bed right outside the kitchen, a step up, and then a flat square open area for seating that is two and a half metres by two and a half metres, bordered by an “L” shaped raised bed and another step up. The uppermost area can be used as a seating area too and faces directly into the afternoon sun. You can get in behind the neighbour’s shrubs and have complete privacy there- bliss for a little city garden. The concrete flags were lifted and reused; they are placed strategically on spots where you might want to put a chair or table. Around them I used cream coloured Cotswold Chippings to give the scheme give a little lift.

Another important theme to the garden is reusing and reclaiming, using humble, modern materials like the materials all around the estate. The concrete slabs were reused; also I laid my hands to two pallets and screwed roofing battens into the gaps between the boards.

The central seating area with reclaimed/upcycled/recycled tables and chairs. Image copyright Cheri LaMay 2016.

The fence to south-eastern side is strong and intact but follows the slope of the ground, and the slope on top of the fence is distracting. This was remedied by mounting one of the pallets onto the fence to get a strong horizontal line, and also by planting tall plants like bamboos and Gary’s Thujas along it; I pruned them to make wonky Dr. Seuss style lollipops. They have been placed to give privacy from the neighbours where it is most needed (for example, between their window and the main seating area). Other reused items include a galvanised dustbin lid for a birdbath, an old plastic water tank forming the base of a table with a slice of an Oak tree screwed to the top, and tired but comfy camping chairs.

View from the uppermost level looking south towards the sloping fence. Roofing battens have been screwed into the gaps in the pallet, and the pallet has been mounted on the fence. The strong horizontal lines distract the eye from the slope on the fence. Image copyright Cheri LaMay 2016.

I constructed the garden during weekends from February to May 2016 and planted as I went. I don’t usually construct gardens these days- I leave that to the expert landscape contractors- but this was different, it was for us. The build was hard work and left me shattered at the end of every weekend, but it was worth it!

View from the uppermost level looking toward the house. It has been lovely swinging in the hammock! Image copyright Cheri LaMay 2016.

After making the raised beds, steps, laying the slabs and stone chippings, raising the gate, and fencing off the grateful neighbours, and planting, the tower block was still dominant.

I needed an extreme focal point to keep the attention within the garden, and the wall of the brick shed was crying out for something. It is opposite the kitchen window and I wanted something bright and uplifting to paint onto the second pallet, so the pallet could hang on the wall. Having responded to the Genius Loci with the angles, the geometry, the architecture, the reclaimed flotsam of Leeds, I turned my eyes eastwards… now I could justify the mandala by saying that it is, in fact, a reflection of the local area, Leeds is a city of many cultures and so on, but, basically, I just wanted a big, bright hypnotic and meditative target of love on which to focus while washing the dishes. Pablo Picasso said: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” So I kicked over my rule of responding to the Genius Loci and painted a mandala on the pallet…

The central seating area with mandala. Image copyright Cheri LaMay 2016.

Wikipedia says that “A mandala (Sanskrit: मण्डल, lit, circle) is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Indian religions, representing the universe. In common use, “mandala” has become a generic term for any diagram, chart or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos metaphysically or symbolically; a microcosm of the universe.”

And that is how the garden was made. And, it has been a real joy to have a garden, my own private Eden all summer where I have watched the birds and butterflies abound where there were none before. The plants have grown hell for leather with all the rain and sunshine we have had.

Other plants that have been used for screening include: Phyllostachys aurea and P. nigra ( both clump forming bamboos); Buddleia davidii; and an apple tree which still needs to fill out! Plants which are in the garden and which I have loved and which give it character: Hydrangea paniculata “Phantom” with billows of sweet white flowers, so dainty yet many; Mahonia “Soft Caress”, a relatively new cultivar of Oregon Grape that has soft and elegant leaves instead of the usual spikey ones. I also love the upright Gaura “Whirling Butterflies” with white flowers, and Perovskia “Little Spire” with the long elegant purple flowers.

Hydrangea “Phantom” with Verbena bonariensis behind in the square raised bed. Image copyright Cheri LaMay 2016.

Sangina subulata (Irish moss) is an adorable moss like plant that makes a lush green carpet and gets into the cracks of things, and surprises you with tiny white star shaped flowers in summer. I planted it around the birdbath and it has spread, along with a little wild creeping Veronica that was already in the garden (somehow evaded Gary’s napalm for years!). A Linaria purpurea (Purple toadflax) which I lifted from the demolition rubble at the end of our street has thrived and self-seeded and the flowers are buzzing with bees.
My heart went into making this garden and I hope I did the house and local area justice. While making the garden a number of conversations about plants, gardens, and other unrelated subjects have opened up with the people on our street. Others have started to tend their gardens too, and fix the fences and even sweep the street. Now Gary and I are looking at houses with slightly larger gardens in my hip old hood; and someone will (hopefully) see the beauty of this area, perhaps see it clearly through the lens of the garden, and snap it up at a generous price!

The view from the kitchen with the tower block above and the mandala below. Which one dominates? Image copyright Cheri LaMay 2016.

We are truly looking forward: to making a new, unique home and garden in a new and unique place.

The Introduction to Garden Design course which I will be teaching at the Royal Horticultural Society Harlow Carr Gardens in Harrogate still has places for the January 2017 course which will run on Fridays, and the September 2017 course which will run on Saturdays. This is a fun and inspiring adult leisure course that runs over six full days, one day per week for six weeks. If you are thinking of attending contact me and I will put you in touch with the right person so you can enrol! My email address is

If you are interested in my garden design services please contact me via my website at:; or email me at




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: