The mood-board is the basis of your garden, a collage of images that reveal your style and what you want from your outdoor space. And whatever the size of your garden, it's likely you'll want just as much from it, a truth Lisa Cox has come to learn over the course of her award-winning career in garden design. Here, Lisa reveals her approach to design and shares her passion for creating gardens to be loved.
What does your business offer?
Garden design - I much prefer to work on domestic gardens because people are generally more emotionally connected to the space.
I try to work in a collaborative way because I want my clients to feel that they are very much part of the design process. It's their space and they know what their style is. I use mood-boards to enhance my design process because I find it’s a more powerful way of being able to illustrate what people like. Online tools, such as Pinterest, are great but I do think there’s something about physically creating a mood board that really makes people focus on what they like.
I'm really passionate about communication because I think it’s absolutely key in ensuring a smooth design process and I like to think that I bring some of the professionalism from my corporate days.
What are your values?
First and foremost I want my clients to love the garden that I’ve designed for them. I want them to enjoy the process and feel as if they have been part of its creation.
Delivering value for money is also something I feel strongly about, whatever the budget or scope of the design, I want my clients to feel that it was worth the investment.
One of the great things about working for myself is that I get to choose who I work with. A project can sometimes last for a couple of years so having a connection with my clients is absolutely crucial otherwise it can be a rather challenging time all round.
I also try to collaborate where possible with other professionals who are experts in their field. I find this much more satisfying personally and I also believe that it gives my clients a better experience.
One of the challenges of my industry is that people only really understand the value of working with a professional garden designer when the garden is finished. But essentially I want to work with people who understand the value of what I can bring and who buy into the process from the very beginning.
Why would you consider yourself to be sustainable?
I try to future proof my designs. For example, a current client of mine is retired and lives in a bungalow. He doesn't plan to move house again, but he wants to future proof his house so that it's appealing for future buyers. A good design will be there for generations even if it’s tweaked later.
I'm not entirely convinced about natural materials versus man-made. I once visited a quarry in the Forest of Dean and thought to myself - you're changing the whole landscape! Instead, I try to develop the design in a way that works with the landscape and doesn’t require construction for the sake of construction.
Living in South Wales, water shortages aren’t really an issue, but I do believe that we, as professionals, should be designing gardens that are able to look after themselves once the planting is established. I don't like irrigation because it creates a false environment. If the plants are chosen for the conditions found on site, unless there is extreme drought, they shouldn’t really need any watering after the first year.
Tell me about a project you're proud of.
Probably one that's being constructed now, in Cheshire. I didn’t have a specific budget to work with, which is very unusual and, because my client owns quite a lot of land surrounding the garden, we were able to move a lot of soil.
One of the features involved the installation of a ha-ha, a retaining wall that you can't see from the house, but that prevents the farm animals from getting in. It gives the impression of no boundary and allows a seamless view.
The client wanted to create an English manor-style garden, so we created the more formal areas near the house and, as the garden starts to connect to the landscape, we used less formal planting and wildflower meadow to help connect it to the surrounding countryside.
I enjoy designing smaller gardens too although often they’re more challenging because you just don’t have the luxury of space and people still want all the same things as they do in larger gardens. It’s also important in small gardens to ensure that the finer details are thought through properly as generally you can see everything from the house.
How has your business changed and learnt over time?
I've changed quite a lot, personally, as I believe working for myself has made me more confident and clear about my strengths. I will always go the extra mile which makes it even more important to work with the right people - it has to work both ways!
My ethos hasn’t really changed, but my knowledge has obviously grown (although there’s always more to learn) and I am now an established designer. I’m always looking at my processes to try and improve my offering but, at the same time, I’m getting better at saying no. It’s important to work with the right people on projects that are inspiring for me and the client.
I have more work now than I've ever had and I work with some great contractors which is absolutely crucial if the build phase of the project is to go smoothly and the garden designed on paper is able to come to life.
Do you go back to the gardens you design?
Yes I'll generally return to a garden a few months after it’s finished to check on the planting but it takes a couple of years before it’s looking established and I can take photos for my portfolio. This can be challenging as it generally relies on how well it’s been looked after in the interim.
What's your advice for designing a garden?
If you can get the structure and layout of the garden right, it will change the whole feel and flow of the space. The hard landscaping materials play a part, but what you choose will very much depend on how much you have to spend. It’s the most expensive part of the project so it can be costly if you make a mistake. The planting is of course a big part of a garden, but it’s much less disruptive and costly if you need to tweak that later.
Once the main structure is in place, think about how you want to move in your garden - this creates a map for your pathways and connection points. Have you seen people jump across flowerbeds in a supermarket car park? That's what you'll be doing in your garden if you don't get the paths right.
If you don’t want to start again from scratch, just redefining your lawn can make a big difference. Try to design the shape of your lawn, rather than the flowerbeds - if your beds are an odd shape, you won’t notice when they’re full of plants. Separating spaces with planting, between a terrace lawn for example, will give your garden depth and make it feel more balanced.
What's your favourite plant?
I’m not sure I have one really but I do use Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Tom Thumb' quite a lot because it has a loose, broadly domed, habit which gives good evergreen structure without the formality of topiary.