What Kate’s triple medal-winning Sanctuary Garden, ‘Out of the Shadows’ can inspire us to do in our own garden
Architecturally varied foliage, a meditation space and even a bubbling Jacuzzi® Swim Spa, Kate Gould’s Gold Medal ‘Out of the Shadows’ RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden packed a powerful punch when it came to demonstrating what small gardens can deliver.
In these post-pandemic times, we are demanding even more from our outdoor spaces and Kate’s multi-layered garden - which also won Best in Category and Best Construction awards - was a feast for the eyes, crammed with clever details, every corner providing ideas and beautiful planting to consider with great panache.
Here we pull out some of the best ideas to steal from Kate’s ‘Out of the Shadows’ garden that we can use to make our own gardens even more a place of sanctuary, however tiny.
1. The dream starts with careful planning
It is astonishing how much Kate’s finished garden looked like its original CAD design; it was as if she had painted her carefully thought-out layout using plants. The end result is testimony to Kate’s meticulous planning and sticking to it when planted up.
In a small garden, says Kate, this planning is especially important; “everything must work extra hard as there is often nowhere to hide. Think about what the “mood” is you are trying to achieve - contemporary, contemplative, traditional, whatever. Perhaps you are happy with a mixture of all, but stick to the discipline of your ideas, rather than throwing all and sundry at it.”
Kate also suggests that making a mood board of plants and materials will help you to decide what sort of thing you are looking for and create an overall coherence. If you are going for a contemporary feel, when it comes to plant varieties, “less can very much be more: less maintenance; more impact and drama.”
Before you even get round to the planting, think about how you can make the most of the space; if you enjoy entertaining and eating outside, incorporate seating into the hard landscaping: a low wall can double as a bench, for example; or large containers can create raised beds if you are in a courtyard or basement with no access to the soil. This also allows you to raise the planting, so that when you are walking past, you are within the garden, rather than just looking out over it.
Think about what it is you want to screen out and what you want to highlight: while an essential part of her sanctuary garden, Kate placed her Swim Spa in an area surrounded by abundant planting. Not only does it make a calming space to be, it ensures that the structure does not dominate the garden.
You don’t have to block out an ugly view with a solid screen; often layers of soft foliage and branches, as in the narrow leaves of the Schinus molle and bamboo in Kate’s garden, will filter it out - but you may want to put your garden shed somewhere it doesn’t catch the eye every time you walk past the window. Conversely, if you are spending money on big dramatic feature plants, such as the sculptural palms that Kate used, make sure they are placed somewhere to which the eye is drawn, so they can perform with aplomb. Don’t be daunted by what might seem a tight spot but think big: "You will be amazed by how much you can fit into a small space with careful planning,” says Kate.
2. Go for green
Kate’s ‘Out of the Shadows’ garden was primarily evergreen, referencing how we now want to use and enjoy our gardens 365 days a year. Among the evergreens she chose were palms, trochodendron, cycads and raphiolepis and pittosporum, which created a wonderfully lush environment, an immersive place in which to sit and listen to the birds, or stretch out on the yoga mat in privacy, as well as giving the space a smart contemporary vibe: “these plants not only look majestic,” says Kate, “but also look wonderful when lit at night, giving the garden a whole new feel as the light levels drop to dusk.”
The planting scheme in Kate’s garden was far from limited, showcasing how evergreen schemes can provide form, structure and vitality - whatever the size of your garden, they provide an essential backbone. And, as they don’t drop their leaves in autumn, they have a great advantage, points out Kate: “Generally evergreen plants are less messy than deciduous ones - with the exception of bamboo.”
As the garden so deftly demonstrated, green is a colour too and can be used in different shades, shapes and textures, providing both soft and hard aesthetics. Kate chose plants with strong architectural outlines, such as silvery cardoons, angelica and the dissected leaves of Acer palmatum (which will also provide fiery autumn colour).
Reams of research has shown that the more greenery you are surrounded by, the better: not only does it act as a natural screen, but will be a home to wildlife, help soak up noise and pollution, and, most importantly, help bring your attention right into your immediate environment, a mindful moment. As with Kate’s Chelsea garden, which has a yoga spot, as well as a fire pit to gather around in the evening, make sure you have reasons to use the space to its full potential: time spent in a garden is good for us!
3. Think multilevel
Don’t forget that the space above the ground is there to be filled, whether with tall trees such as birch, which cast a dappled shade without too much bulk, or structures such as a pergola which can be as attractive as they are useful, in contemporary materials such as powder-coated metal that can be sprayed to whatever colour you fancy; in Kate’s Chelsea garden a silvery grey. And walls and fences can be a feature in themselves, as part of the overall scheme, as well as providing a dramatic backdrop to the planting.
If you are after privacy, beware not to increase the height of the walls too much, says Kate, especially if you are creating a garden in a basement; “standing in the garden will make you feel like you are in the bottom of a bunker.” Filter things out with foliage instead, or by using tricks like her ‘Out of the Shadows’ latticed wall: light will still get through but it would be hard for nosy neighbours to peep through from a distance.
A small garden can be made to appear much lusher and larger by not only using plants of different shapes and sizes, but by building in different zones at many levels. Kate used terracing and large corten containers to create several plains of planting, so that once you were in the centre of the garden, you were hidden from the world by the surrounding foliage. On a less ambitious scale, an arrangement of pots in the same material but in different sizes, with an array of foliage and flowers, can create a dramatic screen against the neighbours.
4. Think outside the box when it comes to lights and furniture
Although it is important to make sure that paths and steps are well-lit, Kate demonstrated that garden lights can be as attractive as they are utilitarian. Delicate spiked globe lights, which are widely available, acted like glow-worms among the foliage, even in daylight, while larger spheres, hand-shaped by Catellani and Smith, served as sculpture highlights in the day, coming into their own at night when they lit up the garden with their soft, romantic light and highlighted the dramatic foliage of the trees above them.
If you are planning to be outside in the evening, white plants too, have an important role to play as the day begins to fade, neatly demonstrated by Kate’s pristine arum lilies and towering spires of Eremurus himalaicus, glowing like wands in the dusky light. Make sure you include scent too, to linger on the night air, such as the Lilium ‘Snowy Morning’ she included.
Choose furniture with care; if it can stay outside all year, then that saves problems with storage. It can also be things of beauty itself, whether in weathered hardwood or, as in Kate’s garden, seats and a fire pit in a coppery finish, made by Torc Pots to entice the user out in the evenings, however chilly. Although simple and contemporary, their soft organic curves reflected the informally shaped and placed pavers along the gravel paths that wound around the garden. Kate advises: “Taking your time to select pots, furniture and art will allow you to really evaluate what you want, need and like. It may also allow you to make your purchases at the most economical time of year.”
5. Seamlessly integrate water features
One of the most dramatic and talked about features in Kate’s Chelsea garden was a Swim Spa but she demonstrated that such large inclusions need not dominate the space - it was discreetly hidden beneath decking and clad in coloured metallic discs. This all married in with the Corten steel planters, the brick walls and the coppery tones of the seating and fire pit. Meanwhile, grey gravel and Schellevis concrete paving picked up on the elegant steel of the pergola above, while a restrained planting palette of white, silver, pale blue and rusty orange reflected these materials. All have sustainability in mind, so, for example, the decking by the pool and the gravel surfaces are permeable, so rainwater soaks through to the soil. “There should always be a harmonious balance between hard and soft landscaping in a garden,” says Kate. So think about how each element of your garden will sit in its surroundings: the colours and materials around them, whether it be paths, plants, walls and fences, or structures.
Any water feature will generally be dictated by the style of your garden, as well as your use of the space. If your style is sleek and minimal, then a bubbling puddle isn’t going to work, something more along the lines of a reflection pool or vertical water wall would suit better.
And, at the very least, if you are planning a new garden or renovating an old one, make sure you have an outdoor tap, as this will save you lugging cans in and out of the house.
Image credits: Photography by Helen Fickling