APLD Winner Sophie Dixon On Entering Garden Design Competitions

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To be honest, I ignored the invite to enter the APLD competition the first time I heard about it. It had been a long year, and I felt I was no longer a student and had left those college projects behind me. However, Sally Court, our vice principal sent round a follow-up, and when it comes to Sally, I like to oblige......

So, come January, I found myself looking back at all those old files, and wondering if I really had time to take it on. I did some research, and found that an Oxford College of Garden Design student, Tracy Rich, had been runner-up the year before, so, rather cheekily, I emailed her and asked for any feedback she may have. She said to make sure it was all clear and particularly well labelled, to make it as easy for the judges as possible. Well, I do love a good competition, and I now had the bit between my teeth, so was up and running......

section and perspectives S Dixon 2 ALTERED AND ENHANCED FOR PORTFOLIOauto contrast

The first decision was which project to enter. Project three was obviously the big one, my final piece of college work. This should have been my best, and was certainly my most comprehensive in terms of quantity. However, there was no way you could submit the lot.... there were about 70 pages of technical sheets for a start! And I wondered if its large scale actually counted against it. However the most important factor was that the same project had been used the year before by Tracy, so the judges had already seen that site. Project two by comparison was felt (by Duncan and Sally) to be very well suited to the US market in terms of scale, and I was very happy with it. Decision made.

It was actually more work than I had anticipated, as some of my sketches needed re-doing because they had never been scanned, and were looking a bit world-weary after being through several exhibitions. They also requested a written description of up to 1,000 words, which was something we hadn’t had to include as part of the coursework for college. This description could include things such as; design intent and project program, relationship of design to site conditions and limitations, relationship of plants to other elements, outline of scope of project and designer’s specific mandate and availability of on-going maintenance. I decided it was worth spending some time on this, as it is the best way of giving the judges real understanding of the project, the difficulties of the site and the design decisions I had made. It had been a very tough brief, and I wanted them to realise it!

I left much of it to the last minute as always..... and was sending the work sheets through electronically in the early hours of the morning. They had set up a new system of uploading, and the whole thing was a bit untried and tested. There were the usual technical issues, and I certainly would advise trying to give yourself a bit more wriggle-room than I did! I think my final sheet uploaded about an hour before the deadline, which was a massive relief.

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It was all a bit of an anti-climax after that, with delay after delay from the APLD. Then suddenly Sally Skyped to congratulate me. I hadn’t heard anything, so it was a bit of a bolt from the blue. The email saying I had won had never turned up........

Anyway, the important thing was that they liked it. Here is some of the positive feedback I received;

“The designer of this project has a wonderful grasp of form generation and rhythm, and did an exceptional job of relating the landscape to both the architecture and the existing landscape...... The details are very thorough....... The planting compositions are excellent, well integrated, and balanced....... All in all, this project was well conceived and presented.”

“Very good site analysis and concept plan.....Well detailed planting plans with rich diversity and mixed grouping patterns...... All drawings are very professional.”

“A very well executed plan. Design Brief is clear, well written and presents the challenges and solutions in an excellent manner. The Site Analysis with photographs really helped me to understand the project and your design solutions much better. Line weight well presented. Very nice rendering. Congratulations.”

I was invited to the awards ceremony in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, but sadly couldn’t make it. The conference sounded like it would be a valuable experience though; I will definitely try and attend another year.

I would recommend entering competitions as a student, it’s a really good way to start making a name for yourself. I am the only person to ever win both the APLD and SGD student competition, and those sort of accolades help when you are just starting out. I now have a design practice based in North Devon and Bristol, and take on commercial and private projects throughout the South West, UK and abroad. And, yes, I may enter the odd competition now and then....

You can contact Sophie at


Global Warming: Is it too Late to Save the Planet?

Global Warming is here to stay and there nothing we can do about it

Is it too late to save the planet? Should we stop trying to cut CO2 emissions and start planning for the worst?

Many scientist are quietly saying that we have past the tipping point and what ever we do now, the temperature is going to increase by 5-8 degrees. Leaving much of the planet in the next 100+ years as either desert or flooded by a 3-10m rise in sea level.

The worst drought ever, is currently hitting the USA.  Europe, Russia, China and other parts of Asia have; or are currently experiencing, some of the worst flooding in living memory.

Famine, drought, flooding, and unprecedented crop failures, could lead to 3rd world starvation on a never before seen scale, mass migration, and even world war. (see BBC Mass Migration)

Over the top? Alarmist?  Scaremongering?………… May be!

But already global food prices are set to rocket for the 3rd year in a row and if the USA, (the bread basket of the world) has two more similar years of failed harvests, then the developed countries could struggle to feed themselves, let alone the poorer nations.

When global scientist are said to have reach a consensus on climate change (when do scientist ever reach a consensus??? they either agree or disagree!!) we know we are in trouble!  The whole climate change/science debate, has allot more to do with politics than it does real science.

For example in 2009 it was revealed in the press that Sea levels were predicted to rise twice as fast as first predicted in 2007 (see Guardian and Independent report)

The IPCC's 2007 report ‘missed out’ the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets which would be the key drivers in dramatic sea level rises. And these figures today are still not included in the report.

Yet Greenland alone is loosing enough water per year, to cover a country the size of Germany 3 feet/1m deep in water.

This might not sound much in global terms, but ice and snow are incredibly reflective.  The less ice, the less reflective surface there is to reflect the suns heat.

This in turn, allows the oceans to heat up, and in the process expand in volume due to thermal expansion.

If that isn’t bad enough, as the artic tundra regions begins to thaw, they will release millions of tonnes of stored methane, which is significantly more dangerous than CO2

Scientist believe that the tipping point to a 5 degree temperature increase could be the discharging of this methane gas, as once released into the atmosphere, there will be an unstoppable bounce in global temperature.

Professor James Lovelock believes we should now be planning for the worst.  Small islands such as Britain, New Zealand, Ice land the parts of the artic circle and Canada could still support farming and therefore a viable human population. But mankind will be reduced from 8 billion to just 1 billion in a mater of a few 100 years.

Depressing indeed! Unfortunately most governments only have a 4-5 year political life before they need to get re-elected. Climate change is an in-precise science, so no one has the political will to deal with it.

Coal, gas and oil fired power stations all emit unacceptable levels of CO2.

Wind power is not cost effective and unreliable. Hydro and wave can't supply enough energy. Europe needs to build Nuclear power stations if we are not to be held ransom by less stable countries; at least until countries like Spain and Africa can build enough Solar farms and start selling electricity to there neighbours

Just as some of the greatest strides in science and human ingenuity happen during war time, governments have to come together and treat this issue as the worst global catastrophe in human existence.


APN12 Avoid Damage to Trees by Paving and Excavation

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This blog describes the techniques for the construction of access drives, which may avoid or lessen the damage caused to trees. Compaction of the soil, pollution, changes in soil levels in the root zone and cutting roots can all kill existing trees.

Most tree roots are contained within the top 900mm/3ft of soil. and many of the trees feed roots within the top 100mm/4”.   It may not be wise to make even shallow excavations within the root zone of existing mature trees which are to be retained. Where Planning Permission is needed Local Authorities may make special construction techniques mandatory for any paving and drainage, etc. in what are known as Tree Protection Zones (TPZs).

The objective is to avoid damaging roots, preventing compaction of the soil and to allow water and oxygen to permeate through any construction. Details are shown in the current edition of BS 5837 or APN12 e.g. using a geogrid fabric, Type 1 sub-base and a porous block pavers or a no-fines gravel topping. The area affected should be restricted to >20% of the root zone.

APN12 is a very useful document for all landscape designers and architects and I would recommend all design practices own a copy of APN12 in the design library. APN12 embraces the principles first published as 'Driveways Close to Trees' (APN1) and reviews where the principles may be applied in practice.


Does Garden Design Have a Future in these Times of Austerity

Housing Development Bay Area Remains Unfinished

Yesterday the UK officially entered a double dip recession. The first in nearly 50 years. Led by the building industry, it’s predicted that this sector will remain in negative grown for at least the rest of this year.

With house building at an all time low, and Europe and America in the worst recession since the 1930’s, what will happen to the middle classes, that up till now have been the life blood or our industry?

Irish Houseing Estate Abandoned

Garden design as an industry, has had 20 years of unparalleled growth. Prices in the housing market have risen across Europe (and more recently America) at a staggering and in hind-sight, unsustainable rate.

It goes without saying that the housing market and the landscape industry go hand in hand. There have been housing market slumps before and the garden design industry has always recovered.  But this time it could be different. 

Countries like Spain and Ireland have huge housing estates abandoned like ghost towns, and parts of the US have deserted subdivisions, reminiscent of 1930’s dust bowl America, where thousands of acres of farmland where abandoned.

With house price crashes in some countries in excess of 50%, it’s going to take more than a generation to put right these wrongs and as a result, the middle classes are going to be squeezed very hard, for a very long time.

So what effect for the garden design industry?  I believe it’s inevitable that the industry will contract.  More people will be fighting for the smaller bread and butter jobs while the upper end will remain strong. 

Those designers who are properly qualified, stand the best change of making a living.  Charging professional frees and offering a professional service. 

Fewer people will enter the professions; and those that do, will need to do their homework very carefully.  Too many courses cater for the “ladies who lunch brigade”. They focus on the froth, rather than teaching their students the professional practice side of the industry. 

The Oxford College of Garden Design took the decision last year to only offer our on-line course for the foreseeable future. Thus allowing our students to continue to work and earn a living, while they study.

“What most course don’t tell you is that it will take another 2-3 years after you graduate, before you will earn a living”

By pre-recording all our lectures and offering them as downloadable video tutorials student can continue to train while still bringing in a salary.

Too may student graduate, only to then drop out after 12 –18 months because they can’t afford to live.

If you want to thrive in the 21st century you need to think smart, plan ahead and have the best training you can afford.


How to Survey a Garden Pt.3

Gathering Additional Site Information

Bubble diag

The designer should photograph the site extensively as a reference for what already exists. Don’t just take landscape shots, but also reference photos of features such as: steps, drains, oil/gas tanks septic tanks, boggy areas, banks, overhead cables, shots from upstairs windows, showing an aerial view of the garden and its neighbours. In short, you can’t take too many photos. These may also one day be useful as ‘before and after’ pictures, if the garden is published in a magazine, so don’t throw them away afterwards!

Other sources of information are also important and should be considered. In some countries the client is legally responsible for supplying services information such as the route of electricity, water and drainage. If this is the case you need to inform them in writing so they are aware of their responsibilities.

You may still need to obtain this information on their behalf and you would do this by contacting the service providers directly, who should have a record of where pipes and wires enter and leave a property.

Other information can be obtained from:-

1. Old architectural house plans: These can contain a survey of house to include position of doors and windows. Scale plan of site. Position of outbuildings etc.

NB. Never take existing survey information as gospel, as it will need verifying with your own survey.

2. Local Deeds: May contain information on boundary ownership,(which neighbour owns which fence) Public rights of way etc.

3. County Engineer: (Same as above)

4. Local District Council: Different countries have different planning laws please research your local planning restrictions. TPOS (Tree preservation orders, contact the tree forestry officer) Planning enquiries Local planning officer, planning permission for outbuildings/conservatories etc. Queries on land use Enquiries on any special local planning legislation Further information on planning will be covered in GD1207


In addition to the previous 4 categories; the other site information you need can be divided into 3 categories

Physical Aspects (natural)

1) Geology underlying rock

2) Soil pH(acid/alkaline)

Texture (sand/loam/clay)

other (chalky/stony/peat)

3) Topography physical location of site

4) Drainage surface water

(flowing/standing)dry/damp areas

5) Climate wind movements prevailing wind turbulence

air movements (frost pockets)


sun/shade (daytime/seasonal variations)

atmospheric pollution

6) Vegetation trees/shrubs (size, density, age condition indicator species)

7) Fauna evidence of any wildlife

Cultural Aspects (man-made)

1) House style, age, materials, unique features

2) Structures type, size, material, condition

3) Access vehicular/pedestrian (general circulation)

4) Services electricity/gas/water(position, line, size)

5) Legal land ownership, rights of way, fire access tree preservation orders

Sensory Aspects (perceptual)

1) Character uniqueness of site (house/surroundings)

2) Views without (type, extend, position significance)

within (sequence of views and spaces)

visual barriers (limits to view)

visual effect of site from surroundings

3) Privacy overlooked/enclosed (boundary


4) Other noise, smell, tactile qualities

IMPORTANT: I have already mentioned at the start of this lecture that a site survey could be considered a legal document and if incorrect, could cause great upset and may even land you court. One of the ways to minimise the risk of incorrect measurements is to make sure the following wording appears on all your drawings:

All dimensions must be checked on site and not scaled from this drawing

The designer must always be careful not to misinterpret what may appear to be an obvious boundary line. The actual location of the property/boundary line is essential. If there is any doubt, always get the client to sign off the survey to say they believe it to be true and accurate or get a qualified land surveyor to carry out the survey for you.

Surveys are not hard to do and in 99% of time are very straight forward so don’t be scared about taking this on, but just be away that on the odd occasion where perhaps a fence is missing or has fallen down you may be better off getting someone else to do it for you.

© Oxford College of Garden Design


How to Survey a Garden Pt.2

Even if you think a garden is completely square you should always check the corners using triangulation and never take for granted what your eyes are telling you.

Triangulation involves taking two measurements from fixed corners of the house - to the point that you wish to plot. In this case, we will use points A and B as shown in figure 1 for our fixed points.

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Now, we need to find points E and F and, to do this, we need to triangulate. Take a measurement from point A to point E and another from point B to point E. (Figure 3)

In order to plot all four corners we need to know the following measurements





Top Tip: The bigger the triangle the more accurate the measurement. Therefore triangulation AF-GF will be more accurate than AE-BE because the triangle is bigger. (It doesn’t matter that A & G are not a straight line)

Remember: That you need 2 measurements from the house for every corner you plot. It’s very easy to forget to take one measurement and this could result in you having to drive make to the site just to take one vital dimension. I always draw out the triangulation line on my rough sketch of the site to make sure I have all the measurements I need before I leave.

You can also use triangulation to plot the position of trees and other elements in the garden. See diag. below. When measuring a tree you run each tape to the ‘centre middle’ rather than to the front of the trunk (see diag. below) as this gives a more accurate reading.

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Triangulation can also be used to plot the corners of other outbuildings garages and even the centre of drain covers so it’s probably the measurement designers use most, when surveying a garden.

There is one more measurement that is useful for the garden designer and that is called offsets. Imagine for a moment our garden, instead of just one tree had a small wood.

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You need two tape measures for this. Lay one along the ground between two known points i.e. E - E1 If you don’t have two easily identifiable points, you can make them up, then triangulate their positions e.g. point E1

Then with a second tape run a measurement back from each tree to the tape on the ground making sure you meet the tape at 90° then record the measurement from the tree as well as the point at which the two tapes meet (see red lines). In this way you can quickly measure many trees using a whole range of offsets.

This method is also useful for measuring curved flow beds. Set up your tape close to your flower bed along the ground and plot the position of each end using triangulation. Then take a measurement at 90°along the tape every 2-5m back to the flower bed and record the distance. When you get back to the office, you can mark off the points on your plan then join up the dots like dot-to-dot picture to get the shape of your curve.

The same approach can be used for measuring curved walls/boundaries.

© Oxford College of Garden Design


How to Survey a Garden Pt.1

How to Measure and Plot a Garden or Landscape Plan

Before you can make a start designing a garden, you will need to plot your site accurately on paper and in order to do this, you will need to carry out a site survey.

Your measurements should be as accurate as possible, as mistakes here could land you in court being sued by your client. For this reason I suggest the garden designer only carries out his/her own surveys on relatively small, simple plots up to ¼ acre in size (1000m²). Anything larger than this, or involving complicated levels should be carried out by a qualified land surveyor at the clients expense.

Invest in a good measuring tape - one that goes out to 50-60m (100ft) is usually good enough for most gardens and you can buy one for under £30 in most DIY stores or builder's merchants.

If possible, get yourself a willing assistant. If you can't get anyone to help you, then a metal spike, skewer or tent peg that you can hook the end of your tape over, will do just as well.

When you arrive on site the first thing to do is walk round the garden to familiarise yourself with the plot.


Next take your paper and draw two separate plans; one large one of the house to include all the windows, doors and drain pipes plus any inspection chambers (manhole/drain covers) close to the building. Only include the part of the house which is relevant to the garden plan - front or rear. You don't have to include it, unless there are side gardens too.

Then on a separate sheet of paper draw out a plan of the whole site (getting the shape as accurate as possible) and include the house, garage, outbuildings existing trees, (You will need to record each trees approximate height, the girth of the trunk and canopy spread include trees that overhang form neighbouring gardens) patios’ drives, ponds, pools etc. but not necessarily flower borders unless you intend to keep them.

Regardless of the shape of your garden, you always start with the house and your house should sit square onto the plan. Accurate measurement of the house is essential because you will use it as a fixed point to measure everything else.

Surveying is not complicated. In General we only use 3 types of measurement when surveying a garden

1. A Direct Line Measurement: The simplest of all the measurements used, it measure a point from A to B

2. A Running Dimension: Similar to the direct line measurement except to measure a number of points along the same line. This is particularly useful when measuring the house, as you can start at one corner and run the tap along the wall and record the positions of doors and windows along the same line.

3. Triangulation: When you know the length of three side of a triangle there is only one shape that triangle can be. Triangulation is used to fix the corners of the garden and the position of trees etc. Using one wall of the house as one of your triangle sides, you take another 2 measurements from each end of the wall to the same corner which then gives you your three side of a triangle. These measurements are then used to accurately plot the position of the corner relative to the house. (Further explanation of this will be given in lecture GD506 Plotting and Scale but for now just take my word for it that this works!)

Start at one corner of the house and work your way round all or its sides until you arrive back at where you started. Use running dimensions and direct line measurements and assume all walls are 90ยบ unless obviously not. Record all the measurement clearly on your sketch of the house and make sure all numbers are clearly legible so there is no confusion when you get back to the office.

A scale of 1:50 or ¼”=1’-0” is okay for small courtyard or town gardens 1:100 or ”=1’-0” is okay for most medium sized gardens and 1:200 or 1”=10’ is best the larger sites. At a scale of 1:100 this means that for every 1 metre you have measured, you would represent that on your drawing as 1 centimetre. For example 200cm on your plot would equal 2cm on your drawing. Likewise 450cm on your plot would equal 4.5cm on your drawing. Simply divide your initial measurement by 100. If you have a small plot, you can use a scale of 1:50.

© Oxford College of Garden Design


Video Tutorial: Understanding Section Elevations


Sections are a vital tool in landscape design.

This video lecture explains what they are, how to use them and also shows examples of plan drawings and elevations, showing how they deliver additional information to the viewer, which is otherwise unavailable in a 2D plan.

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5 Tips for Planning the Perfect Outside Dining Space


The dining terrace is without question the most important part of any garden.  It is the link between the artificial environment of the house and the biological environment of the garden. You start and finish your journey round the garden and its the area on which most outside activity takes place.

If the terrace doesn’t work the rest of the garden won’t either!

1) Position

Keep the dining area close to where the food is prepared. You don’t want to have to walk miles with plates and cutlery let alone freshly prepared food.  So for this reason, it is most likely going to be next to the house.  However in is some warmer climates I have built “summer kitchens” which are away from the main home, usually next to the swimming pool or tennis court.  These are fully fitted outside kitchens complete with fridge stove and can be undercover with an adjoining dining area.

Electrolux-outdoor-kitchen2  Electrolux-outdoor-kitchen3

2) Scale

Scale is vital in all design but even more so when it come to the dinning area.  the first thing you have to remember is that outside furniture is usually significantly larger, therefore you will need a much larger outdoor space than you would if you were planning the same space indoors.   The other major area of importance is circulation space.  i.e. the area around the perimeter of the table for people to move, serve food or pull their chairs out when leaving the table. Unlike interior spaces where people are prepared to squeeze behind chairs to enter or exit, outside you need at least 1m (3ft) behind the chairs to comfortable accommodate pedestrian flow.


3) Material & Detail

For obvious reasons any surfacing material needs to be hard wearing if the  dining space is to be a permanent fixture. Stone, and concrete, make perfect paving materials while decking works well provided it is sufficiently supported by large enough joints to avoid any bounce.  Because you and your guests will spend so much time in this one position, if budgets and site permit, you can also spend more time and money here on paving detailing,  as it will be more likely to be appreciated.

The exception to the rule is the temporary dining area, which may only be used once then moved.  These are placed on lawns or under trees for their view or their romantic atmosphere


4) Aspect

There is something quite special about eating next to water, be it a swimming pool, pond or even the Ocean, water adds a magical quality to the dining space.  The only proviso would be to double the circulation space to 2m (6ft) as sitting to close to water can give guests an uncomfortable feel.

If you can’t provide water then planting is the next best thing.  Surround the dining area with soft planting that provides a cocooning feel without blocking the views.  Grasses and translucent perennial planting is perfect for this as it created just enough screening without feeling claustrophobic.


5) Privacy & Screening

In urban areas, privacy when eating can be difficult to achieve.  In these circumstances an overhead arbour or pergola comes into its own.  Not only do they provide screening, but also create a human scale to the outside space, so important in making people feel comfortable. 

The Arbour doesn’t have to be very heavy to give the subliminal feeling of a roof, but at the same time can control light quality (depending on the choice of climber) and provide shade, as fewer of us now enjoy eating, unprotected from the damaging effects of the sun.


Duncan Heather is Director and principal of the Oxford college of Garden Design which runs an Online diploma course and 4 week online short courses in all aspects of gardening