Redesigning a garden on a sloping plot

Nicky and David Brickwood transformed their sloping garden plot by creating loosely divided areas with lots of colour and texture

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‘We bought this house 10 years ago as I have always been a country girl at heart and wanted to move away from London,’ says Nicky. ‘Our old garden was very shady, so I was determined to find a property with a sunnier outdoor space.’

What the couple found was a character pre-Victorian terrace with a gently sloping back garden in the picturesque Surrey Hills village of Thursley. Close enough to commute to London easily, yet in a tranquil rural spot, the location was perfect. ‘The A3 to London is only a mile from the village, which was ideal as both David and I were working there at the time,’ Nicky explains. ‘I’d always dreamt of living in a cottage, and we were attracted to the fact that the area has a lot of green space, with Thursley Common just across the road.’

Fact file

The owners: Nicky Brickwood, a manager at a spa company that also makes natural skincare products, and her husband David Brickwood, a retired industrial designer

Although the house had been totally renovated, the garden featured little more than a few trees and shrubs that had been roughly pruned to tidy them up, so the couple had a blank canvas to work with. South-facing, with free-draining sandy soil typical of the area, the garden had its share of challenges. The sloping site was irregular in shape, exposed to the wind, lacked privacy and featured a rather dominant rockery on the right-hand side. Also to be considered was a large Acer ‘Drummondii’ near the back door, which was drawing up a lot of moisture from the soil, making plant choices difficult around its base. The tree couldn’t be removed as the cottage is in a Conservation Area, so it needed to be included in any new design.

After living with the garden for a couple of years, Nicky and David decided that it was time to create a more interesting and useable space. To help them come up with a suitable design, Nicky called in garden designer and long-time friend Annie Guilfoyle (creative-landscapes.com), who she credits for introducing her to the world of plants and specialist nurseries.

‘Annie knew I was struggling with how to make the best use of the space, so she kindly agreed to put together a design for free, which David then drew up,’ Nicky explains. Design fees for this size of garden would normally cost from £2,000-£2,500. ‘Annie came up with the idea of optimising the slightly odd shape of the garden by basing the structure on the diagonal that dissects the space. It sloped down, and fell away to the right, so she advised levelling this part and then taking advantage of the level change from the top to the lower half of the garden with a stepped water feature.’

Annie Guilfoyle takes up the story. ‘I simply gave Nicky and David confidence to make the changes by guiding them in how to break up the space and deal with the slope,’ she says. ‘We also discussed how to ensure the proportions were right between the soft and hard landscaping elements. I gave Nicky and David a plan and advised on plants, although Nicky is very knowledgeable about them, and I also suggested calling in a landscape contractor, Graham Burman, who I use in my design business.’

Their first task was to clear the garden by removing 85 large rocks from the rockery, and then Graham set to work building the various elements of the new space, which took three weeks.

Central to the new design is the layered water feature with two rectangular bricked ponds lending a contemporary air to the garden. The water falls from one pond over smooth black granite stone to the other below – the couple have made the top pond a wildlife area for dragonflies, newts and frogs, while the one below is home to fish.

Near the house, a mix of paving and gravel has been laid around the large acer, extending an existing patio and creating a handy alfresco dining space with room for an array of potted plants. Gravel also surrounds the large stepping stones that lead down to the small lawn, which features a shady bench encircling a weeping birch. ‘The lawn is lovely in the summer when you can walk around barefoot on the grass,’ says Nicky. ‘It also creates a good balance with the full planting at the top of the garden, and helps to calm the feel of the space slightly.’

Nicky and David were keen to include a summerhouse in the new space, so Annie suggested they build a patio in front of it as an additional seating area. ‘As the cottage is quite small, it’s great to have this extra outdoor room for storing all our books,’ says Nicky. ‘The seating area is a wonderful spot by the pond, and it’s more private than the one near the house, which is quite close to our neighbours.’ David designed the summerhouse and adjoining potting shed in a traditional style so that they would be in keeping with the cottage’s Conservation Area status, and he built them with the help of a friend.

Once the hard landscaping and structural elements were in position, Nicky began tackling the planting. This has evolved over time, starting with around £1,000 worth of plug plants along with plants they brought from their previous home. ‘I did the planting in stages at weekends,’ Nicky explains. ‘As I trained in Fine Art, my interest in colour, form and texture has influenced my choices – it was almost like painting in 3D.’

Vines such as Trachelospermum jasminoides have been used to cover the fence, while shrubs such as Nandina domestica and Choisya ‘Aztec Pearl’ are great foils to the mass of colourful plants. In late summer, feathery Miscanthus nepalensis, deep purple Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ spires and parchment-coloured Stipa tenuissima come to the fore with a textural display that softens the hard landscaping. Colours are well-conceived with combinations of iridescent blue Agapanthus ‘Lilliput’, dusty blue Eryngium bourgatii and towering Verbena bonariensis contrasting with the russet orange of Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’.

‘One of my favourite sights here is the wonderfully bright pink accents of Dianthus carthusianorum peeping through the gravel,’ says Nicky.

Not surprisingly, the couple are thrilled with the new layout, which has transformed their outdoor space. The design includes creative abundant planting as well as an interesting range of textures underfoot, such as pebbles, gravel and stone paving, including hardwearing porphyry cobbles, black riven slate and basalt.

‘The cost of the hard landscaping was as we expected, and Graham kept us well informed throughout the three-week build,’ she adds. ‘We were lucky to have him on the project as he is very skilled; both he and his son, who helped out, were charming.

‘Our future plans include adding a little more structure to some of the planting,’ says Nicky. ‘I would also like to simplify some of the areas, but I will need to curb my plant-buying habit first.’

The costs

Hard landscaping£10,000
Plants£5,000
TOTAL£15,000