A fence is so much more than a boundary

Put a mug of coffee in your hand and step out into the garden. Take a moment to channel your inner creativity, and then have a proper look at the fence that is bordering your garden.

Is it like every other fence you have ever seen? Wooden? Panelled? Brown? Just telling you where your garden stops and starts? It can be so much more…

Think of your fence less as a boundary, and more as the frame to your canvas.

Sculpted wood

Living sculpture

See it as a beautiful frame that perfectly complements your garden and turns it into a living masterpiece.

It is the thing you probably see first as it is likely to be at your eye height, yet it is often the garden feature that is paid least attention. However, if you think that you could increase the size of your garden by maybe a quarter just by including the distance of your fence, then maybe you might just give it a second thought.

Wall farms, as just one example, look stunning and a riot of colour, are easily maintained and can cover an unsightly wall simply and stylishly.

Mirrored fence

So your boundary can be a place where plants can grow; it can also be sculpted and shaped as a continuation of the beauty and design of your space. It can either be a living sculpture, formed out of hedging, planting or trimming, or it can become a sculpture in its own right. Using wood itself or metal, glass or stone – even mirrors, the possibilities are endless and the end result glorious.

A garden wall can also effectively be an extension of a flower bed or lawn; a trellis, an extension of your dining space. The humble trellis – done well with thought and inspiration – is the frame that the climber, as the picture, sits in. By extension, the boundary is the frame that the garden is in and so should never be an afterthought.

Use of colour

Bamboo stands out against white

Colour is also important. Think what is going to stand in front of the fence and imagine how it can be shown off to its best advantage – and rarely are plants best displayed against brown. Bamboo, for example, looks stunning against a black or a white background as those colours pick out the shape and movement of the leaves of the plant much more effectively than a traditional coloured fence. For the opposite reason, green should almost never be used as the colour for a fence. It detracts from the natural beauty of the plants – Mother Nature does green better than any human can.

Interesting lighting gives the trees form

A boundary can also add impact and atmosphere through lighting – effectively turning itself into a lantern that illustrates the shapes of the plants that sit before it – and ensuring that the garden is used well into the evening, no matter what the time of year.

Reflect your personality

Brightly painted, a fence can add personality

It can also be anything you want it to be, an extension of your own personality or a reflection of family life. You can design your own mural, something that means something or reminds you of somewhere, that could blend with the

Marbles shine light and colour

plants near it. You could create a blackboard for the children to chalk upon; brightly coloured pencils that add a quirky touch, piano keys for the musically inclined or light refracting marbles set simply into the wood. The possibilities are endless.

Crayon fence

Piano keys fence

An ill thought through or ignored boundary, however, can be a big detractor from the beauty of the rest of a garden – so take that moment now to just imagine how else it could look.


All pictures are courtesy of Pinterest


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Give the gift of a perfect summer – Christmas vouchers are available!

The shops are starting to groan under the weight of tinsel angift-voucherd baubles…try though we might, there is no denying that Christmas is now less than 100 days away…but worry not! We can help with all those tricky present problems.

You can now buy a design The gift of a gardenvoucher offering a loved one the fabulous idea of a new garden for next summer. You can buy any number of design hours, depending on the size of the garden being reimagined, and we can help advise on what is needed. This very personal and unique present offers a loved one the gift of a perfect summer. Call us now to talk through your requirements and we can offer a tailored voucher specially for you.

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You’re not sure you need a garden designer? Think again…

Five simple reasons to appoint a garden designer

Autumn is beginning to exhale its chilly breath and you might be shutting the curtains on your garden for another summer, but don’t turn a blind eye to the state of it.   If you are fed up with the way it looks and determined to finally do something about it, now really is the time to start planning.

Your garden is probably the biggest room that you own, yet it may be the one that you have paid least attention to so far…and you could be devaluing your home in the process. According to the Daily Telegraph and whatinvestment.co.uk, a properly designed and well maintained garden can add up to 20% to the value of your house.

If you are daunted by the whole prospect, then it’s time to call in the professionals. In the same way that you wouldn’t build an extension without appointing an architect, you shouldn’t rebuild your garden with appointing a garden designer. But why?

  1. You will get a garden that you will love
    Put quite simply, a garden designer will help you get the very best out of your garden. They will talk to you about what you like, how you live your life and how you want to use the garden, and will advise on how to get the maximum use out of the space that you have. After they have a good idea of what you want, what your proposed budget is and have been able to assess the conditions that exist in the garden (water table, slopes, soil type, movement of the sun etc), then they will create a concept plan for the garden. This is an initial plan for the garden, a discussion document if you like, for you to say what you like and maybe what you are not so sure about. A full garden design follows this – and this is where your garden really comes to life. You can see in 3D exactly how it will look before you begin the expensive process of building it.
  2. A good garden designer will come up with solutions and ideas you would never have thought of yourself
    In thinking about your garden, you have probably done your research and collated pictures of things you like, maybe even created a Pinterest board, but how do you know if they will work in your garden? And what about the things that just don’t even occur to you, but would to a professional with a designer’s eye? A garden designer, with all their experience and expertise, should blow your socks off with their ideas for the space that you have – and will find a creative solution to all the problems your garden presents.
  3. Your garden and house will complement each other
    One of the most important aspects of garden design is that it should have coherence throughout…coherence throughout the garden and with your house. Depending on size, the garden may comprise several different areas and styles, but linked, flowing and unified. A designer would also pick up on details in your house or your décor and reflect them in the garden, so ensure that house and garden make complete sense.
  4. You will save money and lower your stress levels
    From the requirements of local planning regulations to advising on the impact of any proposed changes on neighbours, a garden designer can lighten your stress levels and even lessen the impact on your wallet. A garden designer will be able, for example, to tell you what size furniture you need for the space that you have, and so help you avoid costly mistakes.
  5. Right plants, right place
    We all succumb to the seductive prospect of impulse buying and live to regret it…that plant that looked lovely in the garden centre on a sunny day but failed to thrive in your shady borders or died in the patio container. A garden designer will present you with a plan for your garden, plants that will look good in the space that you have and provide all year round interest. Garden centres are fun, but are comparatively expensive and won’t necessarily give you the look that you want.So, before you shut the sight of your garden out for the winter, give us a call and we can help you have the stunning outdoor room to use and enjoy by next summer.



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Pagoda playhouse – the definite article!

compressEarlier this year, we blogged about an agonising commission to design a very unusual playhouse for a particularly exacting client: our own Darling Daughter (DD). This was to be no ordinary playhouse or den. It had to be truly “awesome” and different to any other playhouse in the world; somewhere she could both play mad games and completely chill out. Oh, and it had to be in the shape of Chinese pagoda.

No pressure there then.

The design in some ways was easy. The width and depth of Chinese culture is probably unrivalled across the globe. China is the home of just about the most spectacular buildings and gardens in the world – just take a look at Imperial Garden at the Imperial Palace (we call it the Forbidden City) or the Lingering Garden at Suzhou as two tiny examples. There is also a strong tradition of miniaturisation of buildings in Chinese culture – almost a distillation of the beautiful.

Chinese bridal sedan chair

Chinese bridal sedan chair

As well as looking at Chinese buildings through the ages, we turned to Chinese transport for our inspiration. The two boxes on either side of the design were based on Chinese bridal sedan chairs, traditionally red and gold in colour, with a further influence of the amazing Hanging Monastery of Hengshan Mountain which juts out precariously over Jinlong Canyon.

Hanging monastery

Hanging monastery

Once the design passed DD’s demanding requirements, construction needed to begin. This summer has therefore been taken up with trying to fit in actually building DD’s dream, alongside a very busy day job and normal family life.

As the build progressed, it was very tempting to keep adding to the design as Chinese architecture lends itself to what would normally be a real faux pas. From Fu Dog (or Imperial Guardian Lion) door handles to the ancient Chinese moongate style window, from the studded doors to the stars ornamentation…the more, the merrier.  And the Chinese, who adorn everything, also seem to be in love with the lustre of gold so the decoration got more and more extravagant…and the more that was added, the better it got. In fact, the hardest thing about building the whole thing has been knowing when to walk away and declare it finished!

Red and gold in Chinese culture are particularly auspicious colours. Red, which corresponds with fire, symbolises good fortune, prosperity and joy.  Gold or yellow is considered the most beautiful colour, is an imperial colour and symbolises completeness and wealth.

Lingering Garden, Suzhou

Lingering Garden, Suzhou

The decision to site the pagoda playhouse on a deck came from the notion of it floating on a pontoon, like many Chinese buildings…and it also allowed the children a fantastic board for jumping off, or just a seat outside upon which to read or while away the time.

So it is now very nearly finished (though not sure it will ever be in our heads!), and we can honestly say that it has truly been a labour of love…

…and now a source of pride too.  DD, and her various cohorts of friends, have not only given it a collective and unanimous thumbs up but have run round it, through it and spent countless hours hidden away in it letting their imaginations fly. As they say, job done.


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From one small seed…grows a Poppy playhouse


It’s hard to make anything out through the current constant deluge of rain (surely that’s enough now, Ed…), but a little something this week made us think of those things that you look at every day but never really see.

 A very little something: in fact, a seed. We plant plants in the garden all the time and are constantly looking at the beauty that is nature, but have you ever stopped to really see it in minute detail? Have you ever studied the seeds produced by a plant and the intricate structures that make it work?


Poppy seed playhouse

Poppy playhouse

We were looking for inspiration for a new playhouse design this week and turned afresh to nature…to the humble but simply stunning Papaver or poppy seed. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, said Da Vinci and frankly who’s going to argue with him?

Poppy seed

Poppy seed head

If you really look at the poppy seed, in fact it already looks just like a building, with tall windows at the top and an unusual roof which directs water away from the building. 

Many flower heads are fabulously functional in bringing water to the plant to ensure its survival. They have the form and function for a very specific purpose and as a result they are also quite beautiful in their own way, for example the Hyoscyamus or henbane which looks like it wears a crown of lace or the Nigella seed heads which look like they have a protective cage.

Nigella seed head

Nigella with protective cage

If you were to scale up a seed head in size, as I did, it immediately looks like you could just step inside it, and enter a new and imaginary world – a world that children would adore exploring, like the premise for the 2013 film Epic from Blue Sky Studios. So was born the idea for the poppy seed playhouse…and we’d love to know what you think about it. Contact us here to let us know and we’ll feed back an aggregation of the comments. More on this to follow… 

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Playhouses from around the world

Designing and building a playhouse for your nine year old daughter – always the most exacting of clients – may be a tough assignment but it comes with some serious perks (otherwise known as exuberant cuddles!).

Her face on seeing her own playhouse, shaped and painted like the Chinese pagodas of her heritage, was quite simply worth all the time and effort it had taken. And then one of her best friends came to tea, This friend happened to have been born in Guatemala – another rich and ancient culture…so you can maybe guess where we are going with this…

By the next time she came to tea, we’d designed a Guatemalan playhouse…just in the interests of avoiding amicable squabbling you understand…


Guatemalan playhouse

Guatemalan playhouse

It is based on the amazing limestone structures that make up Tikal, one of the largest archaeological sites of the Mayan civilisation located in what is now northern Guatemala. Tikal, which dates as far back as the 4th century BC but was at its most dominant in 600-900 AD, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

The Mayan city of Tikal holds many of the tombs, monuments, temples and palaces of its ancient rulers. The name “Tikal” is a recent Mayan term meaning “at the waterhole” and was given it long after the city’s demise.

Twin pyramids

The ancient rulers would construct a twin pyramid complex at the end of every K’atun (a 20 year period in the Mayan calendar). Each would be flat topped, built adjacent to each other and contain a staircase on each side. The flat tops were designed as a space for the performance of sacrificial rituals with only the most important people, such as priests and the ruling elite, allowed to be there.  Attendants would have stood on the other levels.

Now, while we are happily not anticipating a similar ghoulish usage for the playhouse, it is a fun and creative play space for children.

From Russia with love…

And it set us thinking: why not design other playhouses based on ancient buildings from around the world? Maybe a Russian dacha, an African hut or even an igloo? It feels like a tiny piece of a cherished homeland created in a back garden – fun for the kids and maybe even a sundowner space for the grown-ups. Any more ideas, anyone?  

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Chinese pagoda playhouse

Like your children, you love them all… but a sneakily favourite commission is when we get to design a playhouse for the much-loved child or grandchild of clients: whoever and whenever, it’s always a job of pure pleasure.  It’s a pleasure not only because we can really let our creative juices flow, but mostly because of the sheer joy of watching as the child’s imagination unfurls and flies…as far afield as Max’s does in Where the Wild Things Are.

So when we relocated to West Sussex a few months ago, we decided that it was time our own daughter was granted a much-voiced wish of having her own playhouse. Suddenly, the prospect of designing one for our Dearest Daughter (DD from here on in) was enthralling and terrifying in equal measure. At nine, she is one tough audience to crack.

And then there is her army of friends who all have an opinion of their own… eek!

The pagoda does the trick…

DD is a child of passions.  We’ve been through the early Postman Pat phase, then came an obsession with the Mr Men but by far the longest and most passionate craze was the age of the Dinosaurs.  And wouldn’t you know it, just when we were in the process of designing a dinosaur playhouse, they too finally bit the dust… and since JK Rowling has already done Hogwarts, where to go for inspiration for something that will endure? Something that will pass muster as a den in years to come…

The answer came in a blinding flash: China. DD was born in China and is rightly proud of her Chinese heritage…so, what else but a pagoda playhouse? DD loved the idea in principal but wanted to know a bit more about them…

Design of pagoda playhouse

DD’s pagoda playhouse



The history of the pagoda

According to historyforkids.org, Buddhists in China began to build special Buddhist buildings called pagodas in 200 AD based on the Indian Buddhist stupas. “These buildings were not really for going inside; they were to keep sacred things in, like gold treasures and books of Buddhist prayers and pictures of the Buddha. These early Han Dynasty pagodas were all made of wood.

People went on building these pagodas from then on in all the dynasties, but they made changes in the style of the pagodas. In theTang Dynasty, around 500 AD, architects built fancier pagodas with eight sides, like the White Pagoda at Chengde or the West and East pagodas at Kunming.

During the Song dynasty, about 1000 AD, people liked to see very tall, thin pagodas, with tall spires on top to make them look even taller. These pagodas were also fancier than pagodas from the Tang Dynasty – they had complicated wooden lattices all around them so they looked like they were made of lace and air, holding themselves up by magic.”

DD was particularly sold on the idea of a creating the vision of a curved roof (“awesome”) when she investigated why they were created like that. Our first, clearly pedestrian,  guesses of the roofs being shaped a bit like a coolie hat or to help the rain pour off, were replaced by a much more unusual truth. Apparently the curvy roofs were built that way because of ghosts.  According to cracked.com, religionfacts.com and Chinese tradition, evil spirits can only travel in straight lines, which helps to explain the number of curvy roads in China and indeed the shape of the roofs.

So, the design is done and rubber stamped by our testing, homegrown client and her friends, with construction about to begin.  Keep your fingers crossed that it meets with her approval…we’ll keep you posted… 


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Autumn is here…get ready for spring!

In a month that sees the anniversary of more battles than we can shake a spade at, the annual fight against the winter weather begins in earnest.

From the Battle of Hastings to the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, via Agincourt and Trafalgar, October it seems is a month for girding the loins – whether it is against opposing foe or the onset of invading rains, dropping leaves or early frosts.

October, so named as it was the eight month of the old Roman calendar (octo meaning eight), is the time to prepare your garden for winter. It’s time for the last cut of the lawn for the year, to collect the leaves and do a final tidy of the borders.  Secateurs to the ready, cut the perennials and the hedges right back to prepare for new and stronger growth in the spring.  It is also time to blanket the more fragile plants, like banana trees. Alternatively, if it all feels too much like hard graft, get someone else to do it for you…and funnily enough we know a man who can!

And despite it feeling like a time to curl up with Hilary Mantel (or E.L. James if you’re feeling a bit friskier…) and a mug of hot chocolate, now is the time to take some positive decisions and plan changes for the future.

Now is the time to begin the process of redesigning your garden so that it is ready to use from the moment the warm light of spring touches. If you start having the conversation now, listening to and building on ideas, searching out images and designs you like – even building Pinterest boards – then things can being to crystallise by Christmas.  You need to let ideas land and play with them for a while – don’t rush a big investment in the way you live your life.  You can then begin to actually have the work done in January or February.

Often, clients come to us in April or May when the weather really starts to warm up.  There’s nothing wrong in that, but it can mean that they have pretty much missed being able to get the most out of their new and wonderful garden that summer. 

So start thinking now about how you want to use your garden and what elements you would like to see in it.  Start savouring the first glass of wine in your new garden…after all we think the Saxons had got October about right… those wise ancient souls called October Wyn Monath because it was the season of wine making. Cheers!

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Making a spectacle… glass in the garden

Glass may not be the first medium that pops into your head when you think of garden design, but we at the Open Living Company love it… certainly more than Nick Clegg likes to say sorry…and a lot more than Andrew Mitchell’s chances of being invited to the Downing Street police officers’ Christmas party.

It is such a versatile material and, apart from its own inherent beauty, it reflects, refracts and even magnifies light and so gives constantly varying definition and interest with the changing time of day and seasons. It also provides fantastic winter interest when the rest of the garden is looking duller and sparser.

Blue bubble glass art as a garden design feature

Blue bubble glass art as a garden design feature

We have often laid glass chippings for an unusual effect, as it works well with succulents, architectural planting, palms, bamboos and grasses and we have used pieces of glass art in several gardens – often by local Teddington glass designer Kath Pearce.

We also love some of the glass sculpture at the wonderful Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden, and were particularly struck by Planes of Motion by Richard Jackson & Sally Fawkes, but the potential offered by the spectacular Corning film A Day Made of Glass (and its follow up A Day Made of Glass Unpacked) really set us thinking.

We love the idea that your tablet or phone could truly make your garden into a living room. Imagine being able to sit out on a summer’s evening with family and friends, by your fire pit for warmth if it’s a bit chilly, and watch a film or the i-Player on your garden wall. Or using your garden office desk as an interactive desktop?  

The technology is there now, but it will still take some time to become attainable beyond the very rich – but in the meantime just think how much fun even your children could have with a glass version of a whiteboard fixed to a garden wall…wipeable and washable, they could paint you a new mural every day and then have as much fun washing it off with soap and water.

No need to entertain them, and you could have perhaps the best type of glass in a garden…one filled with a chilled white wine…

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A magical gateway…to a new world in your own back garden!

From Alice in Wonderland to the Chronicles of Narnia, the concept of the magical gateway has long been a staple of children’s literature and fantasy films.  Whether the opening takes the reader down a rabbit hole, through a wardrobe or even into that force of nature a tornado that whisked Dorothy to the Land of Oz, they are loved the world over.

Magical gateway in garden design

But a mysterious gateway as a feature of garden design? We’re not so sure how much that has been done before…

Imagine creating a feature portal to a fantasy world in your own rear garden…a stunning feature in itself but one that could also take your children (or you!) on an exciting journey from the realm of the familiar to an unknown world of adventure and secrecy…

Step through an old, ornate wardrobe, with curved finials and of an ageless wood that both blends with its natural surroundings and stands incongruously, prominent and proud.

Make the space beyond a magical world for children, filled with fairy villages and trolls under bridges.

Or just let the wardrobe stand as the old man of the garden.

That’ll get your friends talking…



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