Garden designers Adele and Susan share their top tips

PUBLISHED: 14:26 23 January 2017

Adele and Susan

Adele and Susan


Two Hadlow College graduates are making their way as garden designers in Kent, winning gold twice at RHS Hampton Court and now establishing their own practices

Waves of planting in the Coastal Drift garden, including grassesWaves of planting in the Coastal Drift garden, including grasses

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a garden designer? Meet two promising designers making their way in the field, Adele Ford and Susan Willmott, who studied for their BA Hons together at Hadlow College and the University of Greenwich and found a firm friendship.

While in their final year the duo collaborated on a show garden for RHS Hampton Court Flower Show 2012, which won gold. Feeling their styles complemented each other they created a coastal garden, Coastal Drift, with waves of planting to mimic water.

“It was designed to represent part of a larger garden, an area in which to relax and unwind, allowing stress to float away,” says Susan.

“The concept was taken directly from the waves of the sea, echoed by the shape of the wall and choice of planting, with a curved feature wall planted with grasses and below the deck, swathes of grasses and perennials adding movement and colour, which harmonised with the sea theme.”

Drought-tolerant coastal plantingDrought-tolerant coastal planting

Continuing the winning combination, they designed a contrasting show garden for Hampton Court 2013. Mid-Century Modern drew on a 1950’s style, with a vibrant orange wall and a complementary colour scheme, which not only gained them another RHS Gold Medal, but also Best in Category. Their journey led to setting up their own practices, and they still work occasionally on projects together. After graduation Susan did an MA in Landscape Architecture and worked with Marian Boswall Landscape Architects, while Adele took up a scholarship at Great Dixter.

Each now works on a range of gardens, from courtyards to large country gardens, offering a full design service, from initial consultation to a maintenance plan.

“Working with the client in developing the brief is very important to me, as I aim to ensure that the needs for the garden are interpreted into the finished scheme, while ensuring that the design suits the house and fits within the context of the site,” says Susan.

“I do like my designs to have proper geometry and I like to play around with the space and proportions, to achieve a lovely flow and harmony through a garden. Likewise, I like my planting schemes to have good structure, softened with a natural planting style.

Adele loves daphne so much she named her dog after itAdele loves daphne so much she named her dog after it

“I have a passion for art, design and sculpture combining naturally with a love of gardening and the outdoors. It was an easy decision to combine these passions into building a rewarding career in garden design.

“I believe that outdoor spaces and gardens are an essential element in our lives, whether a place for sanctuary and calm, a place to play with your children or a social space for entertaining,” adds Adele, a self-confessed ‘outdoors girl’ who felt she wanted to connect more closely with plants and works as a gardener as well at two Kent country gardens.

“I do love the relationship between the hard landscaping and the planting and have been known to get excited and photograph good hard/soft landscaping combinations when I’m out and about!” she laughs.

Hamamelis, witch hazelHamamelis, witch hazel

To consider

Your favourite part of the job?

“I really enjoy the initial design stage, the master planning, sitting down at the drawing board with my pens and pencils, translating the client’s brief into the survey plan,” says Susan.

“Sketching out the structure of the garden and imagining how they are going to use the space – creating a journey around the garden and bringing it to life in 3D. Also I love the planting palettes for a planting plan, it’s like painting a picture that changes with time.

Jobs to be doneJobs to be done

Adele adds: “On the drawing board is fun, you get to be creative in your own little world. Choosing plants is also great fun, even if I always spend far too much time on this part and get carried away, like a kid in a sweet shop.

“For me planting up the finished garden just feels so good, knowing you’re creating beautiful spaces for your clients to enjoy. It’s exciting when you revisit too, to see how the scheme has really taken off throughout the season. And when the client expresses how delighted they are with their garden it’s the best job satisfaction ever!”

And the least favourite?

Susan sums it up, probably the same thoughts for many self-employed people: ‘Apart from the obvious things that come with running a business, paperwork, filing, etc, I guess my least favourite thing sometimes is working on my own. That’s often a common issue with garden designers, especially those starting out, as it can be quite solitary.

“Which is why it’s so important to have a good people around you to call on, such as Adele, whom I’m happy to say is my friend first and foremost and am lucky enough to work with her from time to time.”

The life of a garden designer

Adele: “In January for three days a week, weather permitting, I am still gardening in my two gardens. On my other days January can be a great time to do all the admin and office work there is never enough time for. Before you know it spring is here already and that time for sorting has already gone.

“Last winter I was actually looking forward for it to go quiet so I could do decorating in the house, but it didn’t ever get quiet, I had lots of planting plans to do, so it just goes to show when you’re self-employed you can never really tell how busy you will be from month to month.

“I do love using January for time to look at seed catalogues, planting books and magazines. Winter is also my favourite time to visit gardens, as you get to see the structure of the gardens, hedging, hard landscaping, buildings, the essential backbones that all gardens need. Great Dixter and Sissinghurst are true examples of this, also Hever Castle looks great in the winter.”

Susan: “From spring through the summer into autumn, things are very busy for a garden designer. During very busy periods I’ll work on a weekend, but I do work most Saturday mornings, I find it’s a good time to come in and do the dreaded paperwork, clear the decks so that my head is clear to do the creative stuff during the week.

“I like to see clients, suppliers etc in the mornings so that the afternoons are free to design. I might have to visit a client on a Saturday, or the odd evening appointment.

“My favourite is an occasional Saturday morning trip to see our friends at Provender Nurseries (formerly Wyevale East). If I’m not shopping for plants, I’ll walk around, see what’s new and refresh the plant palette.

“During the winter months life for a garden designer seems to slow down a bit. Into the New Year it’s generally time to take stock, update my website and start planning for the year ahead. It’s also a time to attend the industry conferences that take place now and catch up with colleagues and old clients.

“Building up a business takes priority, but luckily I have a very supportive husband who also works for himself. If the weather is good, we’ll shut up shop, put on our walking boots and head off for the Kent hills above Aylesford; that’s the beauty of working for ourselves.”

Adele and Susan’s top tips

- Be confident with colour; even the simplest of garden fences can take on a new life with colour. Choose a strong shade you love then source your key plants and accessories to tie in with this theme.

- Use permeable surfaces for paths and paving to allow rainwater to gradually soak back into the water table, rather than run off straight into already strained drains

- Use different textures underfoot, such as the satisfying crunch of gravel, which is also useful for security.

Get in touch

Adele Ford Garden Design. 07967255190.

Susan Willmott Garden Design. 01622 718340.

Garden trends for 2017

- The garden as a safe oasis within a chaotic, often dangerous world, a space for relaxation and entertaining

- Planting for all the senses

- Growing organic food, even in the smallest garden with miniature varieties and dwarf fruit trees

- Modern country styling

- Vertical gardening

- Horticultural activities for well-being

Plant of the month

Hamamelis, witch hazel

- Hardy deciduous shrub

- Scented spidery flowers

- Smell of warm spice with a touch of citrus

- Colours in golds, orange to reds and pink

Growing notes

- Full sun or part shade

- Flowering will be more profuse in an open site

- All soils, except shallow chalk or limestone

- Well-drained, water logging during winter will lead to root death

- Water during dry spells

- Can be pruned to contain size after flowering once well established

Jobs to be done

- Catch up with jobs such as painting garden furniture, cleaning tools

- Divide congested snowdrop bulbs as soon as finished flowering

- Hardwood cuttings can be taken of currants, gooseberries, cornus, salix, forsythia, weigela

- To appreciate the flowers of Helleborus orientalis and niger, cut the leaves back. It also removes potential foliage diseases

- Decide on crops to grow, start chitting potato tubers, and buy seeds

- Dig over bare beds, adding organic matter. Warm the soil if planting early peas or broad beans with cold frame, cloches or fleece

Readers’ offer: NGS Gardens to Visit 2017

Here’s a special offer for Kent Life readers. To purchase a copy of the 2017 Gardens to Visit, published each February, that lists all the wonderful gardens open through The National Gardens Scheme, you can order at the offer price of just £9 (rrp £11.99), including postage and packing to UK addresses, via the website and use the code KLGTV17.

The book is the essential county-by-county guide to the thousands of welcoming gardens in England and Wales, many of which are not normally open to the public. Your visits also help an array of charities, with the NGS having donated in excess of £24 million in the past 10 years.

Offer valid until end July 2017. Please allow 14 days for delivery.

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