I love garden makeover shows. There, I’ve said it! I marvel at the way difficulties are overcome – cranes lift garden rooms in over the neighbour’s lawn, truck-loads of plants miraculously re-assemble into the perfect garden, and even butterflies and hedgehogs appear to order! And most of all, of course, I love the reactions of the family or community, stunned by what has been achieved in a week, open-mouthed at the difference that’s been made to their space.

The makeover-takeover

We get a lot of enquiries from people who’d like us to help improve their garden space but are actually rather nervous that it’s going to be like these TV shows – what I call a ‘makeover-takeover’. When it’s real life rather than telly, many of us don’t want our scruffy but loved garden transformed so that we don’t even recognise it any more. And we most definitely don’t want the designer to be a prima donna, in sole control of what happens (and how much is spent!).

So how do garden designers really work with our clients? 

We start with finding out what our client really wants, and how their needs can be achieved within the space and the budget available. At the end of each stage of design we check back to make sure we’re still on course. And we carry on asking and getting feedback from clients all the way through the process, even after the garden or border is installed. Any garden designer worth his salt will do this. Why? Frankly, because it’s your garden not ours – you and your family will live in it and use it, you will be responsible for looking after it, you will (we hope!) be enjoying it for many years to come.

As part of the discussion, we at North Leeds Garden Design like to tease out what our clients like about their garden now – a tree, a spot for sunbathing, a view from the house. Sometimes people have a treasured plant, perhaps given to them at their wedding or associated with a loved one, which they want to keep. We can then look at designing these into the new space. We also encourage people to tell us about how they feel about their garden – and how they want things to be different. We often hear things like ‘it’s a chore and I want it to be a delight’ or ‘I want it to be somewhere that makes me feel happy and relaxed’. This is really useful for us because it helps us understand the emotional impact that the garden is having on them, and what their hopes are for the future. Without this insight we are in danger of designing a space which doesn’t meet the deeper needs of our clients.

It’s got soul

Some gardens definitely already have a ‘soul’ – an atmosphere or what designers sometimes call ‘spirit of place’. A garden I designed several years ago still stays with me as a wonderful example of this; its peaceful spirit was so life-affirming that we had to work carefully to ensure we enhanced this rather than imposing something else. Until we discussed it the client hadn’t really understood what a valuable asset this atmosphere was – but she was delighted with the garden borders we installed which worked with what was already there rather than ripping everything up and starting again.

With many gardens we need to start with more immediately practical areas of discussion. Perhaps our client has recently had an extension or conservatory built and so the whole layout of the garden needs to change. Maybe they need a space which is more child-friendly or more suited to entertaining, for example. Again, we encourage people to tell us as much as they can about their requirements. But we still often identify valuable assets which can be re-used to good effect – a mature tree which screen out neighbouring houses, stone paving which needs re-pointing but not replacing, shrubs which would look lovely again if carefully pruned back and fed. Rather than feel restrictive, ultimately these elements enhance the new garden, providing structure, helping integrate the new plants into the space and settling the garden back into its environment. Yes, I like garden makeover shows.

But our work at North Leeds Garden Design is successful partly because we identify what’s good about what’s already there, and put it to good use based on what our clients really need for the future. Careful transformation – not ripping it all up – is our style.