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Design for Maintenance

10 October 2011

Ashford International Hotel

At the height of the day the 350 delegates in attendance at Palmstead Nurseries annual Soft Landscaping Workshop were treated to a temperature of 27 degrees in the shade but the hottest topic of the day wasn’t the Indian summer it was  ‘maintenance’ and
getting both the designers in the rooms and the clients at large to acknowledge how integral maintenance is to design and the larger effect on ‘society’.

Andy Sturgeon: ‘Value maintenance – or the gardens we design will not survive’.

Andy Sturgeon, chair for the day, opened proceedings at 9:30 am; “When Nick told me the topic for today was going to be maintenance, I said ; ‘You’re mad – no one will come’,  but here you all are!” 

“Maintenance is obviously very important.  We see a lot of glossy picture of fantastic gardens – plant porn I call them – photos of gardens at their peak, but quite often we don’t see them when they go into decline  due to a lack of maintenance or lack of understanding of how important maintenance is.”

Andy took a straw poll of the audience to find the room was made up of contractors, garden designers, landscape architects and green space managers. He spoke directly to all but said that garden designers needed to concentrate more on the topic of maintenance.

Learned design

“There’s a certain amount of education needed about maintenance. I look at gardens like Trentham and ask ‘how do you look after that?’ It’s a colossal amount of work, and this garden can only exist if
maintenance is done well to maintain how the original vision was designed.  It’s the same for some of my own gardens.” 

Andy took the audience on a slide‐journey through some of the residential gardens he’s designed and imparted the essential things he’d learned along the way about maintenance.   

“We put a lot of structure into the gardens we design; the reason for this is it provides a static element that will remain consistent thru the garden’s life.”  He showed some gardens that had moved some
way from his original vision, providing a learning curve for Andy as a designer.  He showed how he has since legislated for this change by including things in the design that will keep it looking how he
wanted it to originally.

“We frequently use plants that you can leave and they’ll get on with it – rosemaries, lavenders, yuccas; they remain fairly static and require minimal maintenance – in a large area it’s vital to get that
right – you also get fantastic textures from using those varieties.    
“A lesson we’ve learned is to get gardeners into the garden straight away – if they’re needed. We always try right from the outset to get our own gardeners in rather than rely on the owners gardener and his/her occasional visits.”


“Design to a large extent is about control – and I want to control it when I’ve left.  It’s tricky though – it’s someone else garden.“

“I got a call from a new gardener who’d taken over the maintenance of one I’d designed in Docklands and she said; ‘they want to put pansies in’ at first I was horrified; and then I thought ‘if they want pansies in  does it really matter?”  Partly it was an ducation, I knew I had to let go of that garden – as far as I know there are pansies in the garden but I hope I never see it”. Subsequently I now send a colour guide to clients on which colours for bedding etc will be in sympathy with the design and not clash.

“There are ways of wrestling that control back a bit so the garden can continue in the way it was designed.  We produce a maintenance guide which clearly sets the heights of hedges –to make sure the garden stays on track.  We produce a generic guide and we tailor it to each garden.  The guide explains when to cut hedges, the exact height of those hedges, when certain perennials should be pruned etc.  We give two copies to the client, one of which is laminated.  One copy is for the client, the other is for the gardener – we want them to take it into the garden and get it grubby and wet. 

A Guide

“When we first started providing the maintenance guide, we didn’t charge for it, we just passed it on. But because we were giving it at the end for free it was ignored, so we decided to charge a minimal fee for it, and as soon as we did that, the client began to value it and actually started to read it.  The maintenance guide has made a huge difference; it can be a struggle but it often comes down to lack of understanding about the necessity of maintenance.”

Andy then took the audience through some of the plants he uses frequently from Palmstead and the maintenance pro’s and cons associated with each.   

Andy shared techniques for making it easier for the gardener to keep the garden you design on track; “ Over the years, beds can become bigger and lawns smaller, so when we have a lawn edge we’ll use the
aluminium edges.  We use root rain systems so we’re putting the water right where it’s needed – at the root of the tree; this then hopefully negates the need to replace the tree or physically replant it.”

Pay for it

Andy spoke energetically about a need for educating clients about how important it is to pay for good maintenance of the garden and how the landscape industry should respect and look after those who
maintain our green spaces.

“People aren’t leaving school and saying ‘I want to do garden maintenance’.  Colleges have stopped teaching it and the wages we pay to those who maintain our green space are too small.  Green space managers need to encourage clients to value the maintenance and to pay higher wages – or the gardens we design will not survive’.

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