Garden Designer Interview: Duncan Heather

Thursday, October 24, 2013 at 10:18
In our series of interviews with garden designers that have a plethora of knowledge and talent, we at Notcutts were lucky enough to have caught up with one of Europe’s most successful garden designers, Duncan Heather.
Duncan Heather When reading Duncan Heather’s biography you can’t help but be impressed. He is one of Europe’s most successful garden designers, winning five gold, one silver and one bronze medal along with three best show awards for his work. Duncan trained under and worked for John Brookes – one of the most influential garden designers of the 20thCentury. In 1991 while working for Mr Brookes who is known for the world famous Denmans garden in West Sussex, Duncan was offered a directorship, something he declined in favour of concentrating on his own design practice in Henley-on-Thames.
Duncan splits his professional time working on a variety of garden design projects with lecturing at the Oxford College of Garden Design. He is the Founder and Principle of the college, since its inception in 1992, Duncan now offers a diploma course which can be obtained via online lectures, tutorials and video lectures.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Duncan to discover what it was like to train under and work with John Brookes, and what he believes is the key ingredient to a well thought-out and executed garden design.
What was it like to train under and work with John Brookes?
I rate John as one of the top designers of the 20th Century and he will go down in history as such. I was very privileged to be his design assistant and one of a handful of people to work with him. Working with him gave me a deeper insight into how his design philosophy (called Pattern Analysis) works, although he has written numerous books about design. It was this insight that helped me to set up Oxford College of Garden Design and reach the goals I wanted to achieve.
John developed ‘Pattern Analysis’, which is the polar opposite of the ‘SAD’ technique most garden designers are taught, allowing designers to create modern art within the garden.  The boundaries of the garden, act as a picture frame.  With the house always being the most important element of the design. An imaginary grid is setup, which is unique to the site and is created using the proportion of the house. As a result all the patterns created within the picture frame, relates back to the house in scale. The spaces within the design, can represent water, paving, lawn or planting and the lines dictate where a hedge set of steps or wall can be placed.

It sounds as though you have been extremely influenced by John Brookes, even mentioning his Pattern Analysis as a way of teaching. How does the Oxford College of Garden Design differentiate with ‘John Brookes: An introduction to garden design’?
John is no longer teaching a face to face course, but does teach a four-week online course with my sister school, MyGardenSchool . The classes I teach with Oxford College of Garden Design are intended to teach those who are wishing to become professional  garden designers, whereas MyGardenSchool aims to teach horticultural classes to the general public.
Both John and I co-wrote the classes taught at MyGardenSchool, and John is available to answer any questions, help with any design elements people may have and mark their work. He is very much involved in teaching and has embraced new technology throughout his career. We are both very excited about online learning, and I really believe this is the future; within a decade I believe all universities will be teaching their lectures this way.

You and Elspeth Briscoe founded MyGardenSchool  the world’s first virtual gardening school and you’ve also launched MyPhotoSchool. When you’re not lecturing how do you spend your time? I’ve noticed your garden is quite large, have you found time to do all the garden chores yourself?
My wife Carol, does most of the gardening, but yes I do a little work here and there. I tend to use my time to build and run my businesses, blog, do a little SEO and teach online. I am very lucky when it comes to how I spend my time. I love gardening and this is my full time job and photography is a great hobby of mine and I’ve been able to incorporate this into my work load too.  MyPhotoSchool was founded after our Flower Photography course proved to be the most popular class we had to offer and since then we have been able to ask top photographers to teach at our online school.

Following your article ‘Would you be a better Landscape Designer if you were Dyslexic?’ and being dyslexic yourself, do you believe it has made you a better designer?
Those with dyslexia tend to see things more holistically. We’re more arty than analytical. Do I think it has made me a better designer? I think it has helped. I struggle less with visualising what I want to do. When I walk into a garden, within half an hour I have a clear plan of what I intend to do with that space.
What do you believe to be the key ingredient to a well thought out and executed garden design?
The house and site are the main factors for every garden design. What a lot of people believe is the most important aspect of garden design is the client, but what I want to create is a garden  with longevity. Although the client is important, after all they are paying the bill, you also need to ensure the next owners like the garden too. It has to work with the house and location. The style and location of the house needs to be put at the forefront of any design, whether it is a countryside setting or in a more urban environment. The architecture is the main focal point; it is the beginning and end of all design. The design then has to revolve around it.
What influenced your garden? Are there places you like to source inspiration from?
I have a two acre garden, which is located in a heavily woodland environment. One part of my garden is filled with beach woodland which makes it difficult to grow anything, not even brambles could grow under the trees due to the lack of light. So in the second part of my garden, I removed 60 of the trees and create two woodland glades. One is grass and the other is a natural duck pond.
What inspires me is light. When you walk into a church with beautifully painted stain glass windows and they catch the light it can be breathtaking, and often makes the hairs on your neck stand up. This is what I have created in my garden with mounded flower beds (two to three feet high); it’s wonderful to see plants with a natural back light. This height, or having the border westerly faced, ensures that you can create shafts of lights. When I walk through my garden, I will get a different feel at all times of the day. Playing with light quality inspires me and if a designer gets it right, you can create shadows that dance on the grass and take the art of design to another level.

Do you think Chelsea Flower Show is a good place to start pulling ideas for your garden if you’re a novice?
To me the Chelsea Flower Show is a complete waste of time. The RHS are not going to like what I say, but I feel it’s the same old designers, techniques and gardens just rehashed year upon year. It is dated and irrelevant.
I always suggest to my students that they go to the International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire in France. Each year 30 gardens are built by architects, designers or anyone who is artist and not bogged down by planting. They create mind blowing art installations within hedged exteriors that are not large in scale, but gigantic in artistic flare. They use sound, light, water, reflectivity, shadow and mirroring to create something that pushes the boundaries in design.

Trees seem to take centre stage in your garden; what do you look for when buying a young tree?
I take a look at the roots to make sure it is healthy and prefer pot bound trees. I look out for a good, strong trunk that is damage free and has a good head of branches with two or three leaders, and often opt for trees with 8-12cm to 16-18cm girth. I prefer to plant young trees as they don’t need as much TLC as mature trees and tend to get away more quickly. 
What advice can you offer those wishing to build a magical garden from scratch?
Take your time; a garden isn’t like a house and you can complete the build over the course of many years; but do have a master plan to work with. If you don’t feel you have the qualifications to draw up a plan, bring someone in to help you and don’t be afraid to gain help in building your garden.
Although this is a cliché, the garden is an extension of the home, especially now as we can incorporate the outside sofas and art. I use photography in my garden to create an art installation; experiment with different ideas. Segregate parts of the garden with natural walls or use meshing with photographs for a modern twist; this is especially great for urban environments. Light control is also great to experiment with as you can create all sorts of atmospheres.

What does the magic of gardening mean to you?
In the spring time I love to go outside, sit on my deck with a glass of wine and listen to the birds singing. There is nowhere else I’d rather be and my wife and I never chose to travel in April because of this.
The garden is the most magical retreat and if you get it right you can create a real oasis. In urban environments you can use the sound of water to mask on-going traffic or add screens to create privacy. When you sit in your garden the pace of life changes, your quality of life improves in this space you’ve created