An abridged version of the podcast. Interviewer was Rebecca Slack, PlantNetwork Coordinator.
Kristina Clode is an award-winning garden designer who specialises in naturalistic planting and sustainable designs that consider, among many other things, the carbon footprint of materials and construction. Kristina has won The Society of Garden Designers ‘Design for Environment Award’ for the last two years. See more examples of Kristina’s work at her website: www.kristinaclodegardendesign.co.uk
Tell me about your role as a garden designer.
I work mainly with private clients but also do work with schools. I do a lot of varied garden designs depending on where the garden is and what the client wants so there isn’t one particular style that I create. Having said that, I’m becoming known for doing naturalistic planting and have had some success with environmental gardens, looking at the carbon footprint, sustainability, and biodiversity of new gardens. I feel quite strongly about trying to protect our wildlife and providing as much opportunity for wildlife in gardens as possible. I try to include design features for wildlife in gardens, such as ponds and meadows, and encourage clients to reduce pesticide use. It is the client’s gardens and it does have to suit their needs so that is the primary consideration in all my designs.
I came to garden design from the fashion world. My first degree was a BSc in Clothing Engineering and Management and then I worked for various fashion organisations. I realised I didn’t want to live in London for the rest of my life and work in a such a stressful environment. At the time, I had a really small garden and I decided that gardening helped me relax so this was something I wanted to do so changed to garden design in my mid twenties. I also did a Master’s degree in garden history as well as I thought it was so important to know what went before, provides inspiration and helps to design gardens around period properties. One of the things I love about garden design is that it’s got so many facets to it, whether it’s botany or garden history or even the construction side of it, exploring the different materials that can be used, there is a lifetime of learning to be had!
Is there anything in particular that you really enjoy about your garden design role?
Going back and seeing the garden develop is always one of the most exciting things. It is all very well doing a plan on paper and seeing it as it’s built, but when you leave it after the build, it is very much at the start of its journey. To go back and see how the plants have developed and grown, to see what has worked and what hasn’t, is really useful for future maintenance and for future designs – and to see if you managed to evaluate the site correctly! Every garden is different with different soils, microclimates, aspects etc. so there is no one size fits approach to planting plans and design. As a designer, it’s really useful to be revisiting your design and learning from each as nobody gets everything right first time.
Have you noticed that your clients are more open to the wildlife gardens and naturalistic planting?
I tend to get people coming to me now because they like the work that I do on naturalistic, wildlife and sustainable gardens. So a lot of are already on board. I recently won an award (The Society of Garden Designers ‘Design for Environment Award’ in 2022) for a garden for an eco-house and the client came to me specifically because they liked the look of my work and my ethos. It couldn’t have been a more environmentally friendly garden and it was done a relatively small budget which demonstrates that it is possible to do this without spending a lot.
Has anything ever surprised you when you’ve gone back to visit a garden you’ve designed?
I do experiment in gardens and I do use an unusual palette of plants sometimes. One of my biggest planting jobs recently was for a 600 square metre plot which involved reusing many of the plants already in the gardens. We had to dig up well established plant including shrubs like red Berberis which I don’t usual use and divide perennials. It made me consider how such plants which aren’t usually in my planting palette can be used. I was very pleased with the design and planting plan that resulted, and because we were using mature plants, it already looked well-established when the build was complete.
Your own garden is stunning (and opens each year for the NGS). Do you use your garden to experiment with plants and designs?
I have packed my garden with plants. I’m really interested in drought tolerant plants and gravel gardens but I do struggle to grow them in my own garden because the soil is heavy clay. I’m experimenting by adding gravel to two beds and seeing what I can get to go through the winter wet. I’m always trying to evolve the garden and along with a patio and a pergola, there is a small perennial wildflower meadow and a pond in the front garden so it has a very naturalistic feel to it. I also have some unusual tree specimens as well. We did start from scratch about 12 years ago when we had an extension built and that allowed some terracing to go in as the garden is on a slope. The design has slipped a little over time as you’re a bit like a kid in a sweet shop when you have your own garden and are always adding to it. I’ve run out of space for more plants but I can still find gaps or take a bit more lawn out…. Normally, I’d repeat plants more in a garden I’m designing but I can’t do this at home now!
Where does your interest in plants and gardens come from?
Dad was a really big fan of castles and gardens. When we were young children, we were always visiting gardens but I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I came to gardening under my own steam in the end. I think visiting gardens as a child led to me realising how important it was to learn about garden history.
Would you have any advice for anybody who’s thinking of starting out in garden design or wider horticulture? Or is there anything you would do differently?
When I career changed, I already had commitments so I couldn’t travel around and experience working in different gardens which is a great thing to do at the start of your career. For my younger self, I’d probably suggest going out and experience working with different design practices. Of course, that might have changed how I work now. So I’m quite happy where I am and how I got here. Still, going out and experiencing different working practices is useful. I used to volunteer at Great Dixter which was great for learning and also for getting out to work with others, and away from the computer.
What does the future hold for you?
The next step would be to expand but I’m not sure it is a good time to that now – and also whether I want to do this. I need to consider what I want as a person – I don’t want to be a slave to the business. I’m just concentrating on each design job which I do to the best of my ability. If I can enthuse my clients with a love for their garden, that can only be a good thing. I want to try and help the planet too so making wildlife friendly gardens is important as there isn’t much space for wildlife in the countryside anymore. If we as garden designers and gardeners can make those havens in our gardens, we would add massive amounts of space for wildlife to thrive across the country. It’s really important to try to help the wider environment and if I can help in a small way, I feel a little better.
There is no such thing as a weed – we need to be more tolerant of wild flowers and natives. We shouldn’t be too tidy either. Of course, there are limits and we do need to do some weeding to prevent certain plants taking over but it is also about allowing lawns to flower etc. It can be more relaxing too to have a little untidiness and enjoy what is growing and visiting your garden.
Can you share your favourite plant, the garden tool you can’t garden without and the book
I’ve so many favourite plants but the plant that appears in my logo and which I look forward to each year is the snake’s head fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris. I’ve got it planted all through my meadow and it really likes the clay soil as it’s bulking up and looks great to see when all in flower.
I’m a fan of a little hand fork as it allows you to weed between plants without disturbing the soil and other plants too much.
My book would be Gravel Garden by Beth Chatto. If you haven’t been to the Beth Chatto Garden, I recommend you go and see the gravel garden. Gravel gardens are just really exciting and they don’t require any watering whatsoever so ideal for the desert-like conditions of that part of Essex. The pictures in the book and details of how to build and care for gravel gardens are amazing.