Friday 19 January 2018

10 expert tips from Super Garden and Bloom winner Alex Hollingsworth

Super Garden and Bloom winner Alex Hollingsworth - a self-confessed late blossomer in the garden - tells us how she cultivated her green fingers

Bloom winner Alex Hollingsworth
Bloom winner Alex Hollingsworth
A garden that Alex Hollingsworth has worked on for Mazullo + Russell
A garden that Alex Hollingsworth has worked on for Mazullo + Russell
Another project that Alex Hollingsworth has worked on for Mazullo + Russell
A garden that Alex Hollingsworth has worked on for Mazullo + Russell

Chrissie Russell

Her elegant and calm, family- friendly design earned her a silver medal at Bloom and the winner's title in RTÉ's Super Garden challenge, but fans might be reassured to learn that Alexandra Hollingsworth was a late bloomer when it came to getting the gardening bug.

Despite growing up in leafy Hampshire and adoring her family garden - designed and tended to by her horticulturally skilled mother - she had, by her own admission, very little interest in sowing seeds to grow sunflowers or even cress.

"That's not my story," she laughs. "My big, dark secret is that I only started gardening at the same time as I started learning about garden design." It was only when Alex (30) and her husband, a company director, moved from London to their home in Dublin's Stoneybatter, and inherited a large but derelict garden, that her attention moved towards first creating her own garden idyll, then a business that would enable her to indulge her creative flair.

"Being faced with a wasteland made me realise how precious an outdoor space is," explains Alex. "The process of reclaiming our own garden made me realise how much of an impact it has on your own life. Being outside is very therapeutic: it forces you to slow down and work at nature's pace. But even if you're not in it every day, you look out at it - it's your view, it's an aspect of your being."

In the past two years, she has left her office-based job as a strategy consultant with PWC and gone on to attain her RHS horticulture qualification, and she will soon complete a postgraduate diploma with the Garden Design Academy of Ireland. Today, her company (Alexandra Hollingsworth Landscape Design) is flourishing and she splits her time between London and Ireland, working on an exciting mix of domestic, family-led projects here, as well as with renowned London-based garden design company Mazzullo+Russell - where work is focused on expansive, high-end country estates, many of which are in Ireland.

Now that the recession has passed, she's seeing more people keen to invest in their gardens and create a space to enjoy with family and friends. And with a portfolio already brimming with satisfied customers, it looks like Alexandra Hollingsworth is a name set to become a perennial favourite on Ireland's horticultural scene.

The ninth series of Super Garden will air on RTÉ this spring.

1 Stop Seeing your garden as a weird shape

A wide garden benefits from vertical 'mass' to draw the eye upwards and put the width into proportion. Plant a small orchard at the far end of a wide garden or a beautiful specimen tree nearer the house to catch the eye. For a long garden, colour can be used very cleverly to bring a sense of balance. Hot colours jump towards us, shortening the perceived space while cool colours recede into the distance. Try a red flowering shrub like Rhododendron 'Nova Zembla' or a red rose like 'Dublin Bay' climbing against the far wall, but avoid small flowers and fussy planting at the far end because the effect will be lost.

2 Grass isn't always the easy option

A lot of people opt for lawn gardens because you don't need to know anything to mow a lawn. But a lawn is probably the most intensive type of outdoor space you can have, whereas a shrub bed gives you something beautiful to look at and basically looks after itself. The big thing is to know your soil type. Ireland has lots of peaty acidic soil, which ericaceous plants (like camellias and azaleas) love, but Dublin has an alkaline soil, so I see a lot of sickly yellow-leaved camellias in Dublin gardens. Get the soil right and buy plants that will thrive.

3 A garden isn't just for summer

There are so many glorious winter- flowering plants, but we usually only visit garden centres in the summer months so many people miss them. Effective winter gardens create screens using evergreen trees and shrubs, draw the eye using bright stem colours like red dogwood or white birches, and plant in big bold swathes. Too often, people only buy one of a plant, especially with herbaceous plants, but being brave and planting seven to 12 of a plant together creates bold 'drifts' of colour which look much more 'designed'. My fall-back for winter herbaceous plants are hellebores, with their ghostly and slightly alien-looking flowers.

4 You don't need to spend a fortune to update your garden

Pots are a cheap and effective way to add interest in a garden. Terracotta and lead are very expensive but you can paint big wooden containers in any colour and garden centres have lots of bright glazed pots at reasonable prices. Go big and plant them with one evergreen flowering shrub, then play around with bright bedding plants underneath. There's also nothing like a bird table to bring interest into the garden - every garden should have one. Introducing height makes a huge difference to a garden immediately. The judges at Bloom gave me very useful feedback, saying it was clear I designed my garden on a flat sheet of paper, as it was a predominantly "two-dimensional" space. That has really stuck and now I try to think of a garden as a cube, not a patch of earth. Including vertical space can be expensive - if you're planting a mature tree or building a structure - but one beautiful tree can transform the garden for as little as €50. As can a metal arch with a clematis climbing over it, or obelisks with sweet pea. Even simply maximising the existing height of walls by introducing climbers can make a huge difference to the space.

5 Symmetry isn't as important as a design that works

Plenty of houses are designed with a paved area just outside rear patio doors, but if that spot doesn't get the sun, you're never going to sit there. It's not that difficult to move a paved area into the section of the garden that gets the most sun and look at heat and light options that will make sure you get the most out of it.

6 Don't stress about fashion trends

Your garden should work for you. Decking appeals to a lot of clients; I think it can have a holiday feel, but I also warn them that the hollow underneath can attract rats and the surface can become a slippery, mossy mess. I've never used fake grass - I think it looks a bit odd next to real plants - but I can see the appeal, as real grass needs a lot of maintenance. I find garden trends move slower than fashion trends but are best regarded with the same healthy suspicion. Instead of following trends, sourcing interesting plants prevents a garden being predictable. There is a whole world out there beyond Phormium, Escallonia and Acer. To continue the fashion metaphor, I like to think the garden is a bit like your wardrobe: best reviewed at the beginning of every season and given a proper clean-out every few years.

7 Think about garden furniture for all seasons

Not everyone has the space, time or inclination to put garden furniture away in the winter months, so I tend to only choose garden furniture that is a year-round feature. It's not only plastic that survives the elements, there are weatherproof options for wood, rattan and metal. Choose furniture that is comfortable enough without a cushion. A lot of clients also want built-in benches with storage underneath - a great idea and perfect for children's toys - but they're not completely weatherproof, so not a spot for cushions. Whilst good garden lighting and perhaps a patio heater can make a garden more inviting in winter, I'm actually not in favour of investing a fortune in an 'all-seasons outdoor living room'. It's a more realistic ambition to have a garden that's a joy to look at from the warmth of a cosy home. Looking at a garden is still using it, as is walking through it to put food waste in a compost bin, filling the bird feeder or picking rosemary for winter roasts. These things all keep your year-round connection with the space, so don't feel too guilty if you're not out forcing rhubarb in February!

8 Your kids' football passion doesn't have to mean giving up on your gardening dreams

There are lots of interesting plants that will survive a few footballs, shrubs like Viburnum and Osmanthus, and hardy perennials like Geranium 'Rozanne' and Alchemilla. There is also likely to be a part of the garden that the children don't use, perhaps by the house, the front garden or a side passage. Even if it seems unpromising, take that area up as a challenge. You might find the restrictions turn out to be an inspiration.

9 No garden doesn't have to mean no gardening

With something like an apartment balcony, you should think of soil as the limiting factor rather than space. You can work wonders with a lot of soil in a very small area - but do be careful with weight restrictions. Buy a few large attractive troughs, make sure they have drainage holes and add lots of free- draining material at the bottom before adding soil. Once you've prepared excellent planting containers, it will seem much less of a challenge and the inspiration will flow naturally. Container gardening is great, as you can create your own planting conditions - fill one container with ericaceous compost, one with rich limey soil and one with a light sandy soil, then have fun with the different little ecosystems.

10 Don't worry

The vast universe of plants, wealth of information and level of knowledge in others can be very intimidating, but you don't need to know much, just what's in your own garden. A handy tip is to stick to plants with an AGM (Award of Garden Merit) as they're tried and tested, and research on the internet before you buy; garden centres can feel overwhelming if you don't know what you're looking for. Get stuck in and don't worry about killing things; everyone does it all the time, even the best gardeners (gardening legend Helen Dillon kindly gave me a cutting of a rare unnamed salvia, which I embarrassingly failed to keep alive) but I find in gardening, even more than most things, mistakes are the only way you learn! But if you feel completely overwhelmed by the task of transforming your garden, call a designer. Sometimes all I do with people is one consultation, which is a cost-effective way of kick-starting something that often lingers at the bottom of the to-do list.

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