The inside secrets of clever garden design:Bunny Guinness reveals how she created a low-maintenance Hampstead plot from scratch

Starting with a roll of tracing paper, Bunny Guinness created a new garden in Hampstead that was exactly the low-maintenance entertaining space her clients wanted...

How do you set about creating a completely new garden? Designer Bunny Guinness starts with a roll of tracing paper. “I spend an intensive day with the clients in their garden, listening to what they want, drawing what I think, maybe even marking the space out with pegs and string so they get a feel of how the design will work,” says Guinness.

“Then they have something to criticise, which crystallises their thoughts, and I keep sketching ideas until everyone’s happy. Often people only discover what they really want by seeing what they don’t want.”

The people who took on this overgrown Hampstead garden only knew they wanted a space for entertaining that was low-maintenance and they didn’t want the upkeep of a lawn. Guinness obliged with a stylish green space that has a central focus of two weatherproof rattan sofas and a firebowl. 

She made a smooth transition from house to garden with a terrace of Indian stone setts and used Breedon gravel as an easy-care flooring, marking the outline of a central “rug” with timber, which also edges the surrounding raised beds. On one side, squared trellis elevates a brick wall for privacy, while on the other, a cedarwood slatted fence makes a sleek backdrop.


Four medlar trees, providing shade as well as structure, stand on either side of the sofas. Guinness planted them in handsome terracotta pots that had their bases removed, so the trees simply grow through them. 

“I do this a lot, because it raises the plants, giving them a frame and making them more important,” she explains. “They’re better for frost resistance as water doesn’t pool in the base and freeze, and if they are in the front garden, the plants can’t be nicked. These are from Italian Terrace, who cut them for me, but it can be done with an angle grinder.”

Box balls of varying sizes make tactile, green mounds in the raised beds. “They’re still small,” says Guinness, “but the idea is that when they grow — this is a new garden — they can make what I call a lumpy-bumpy hedge, similar to cloud topiary, but less precise. It’s easier to clip than rectilinear and is very effective.”  

The garden is divided by a mature yew hedge, with an opening to one side. The hedge concealed a garden shed, which dominated the space that also contained a swamp cypress tree and little else. Guinness moved the shed to the back of the garden and painted it a dark shade to make it less obtrusive, then concealed it with evergreen planting.

She also installed a pond reached by a curving pebble path. “In town gardens that get hot in summer, a garden pond makes a cool, tranquil feature, and needs little maintenance, aside from removing pondweed twice a year and topping up the water level.”

A circular seat around the tree makes an ideal spot to relax and enjoy the pond in this more naturalistic area. In summer, back in the main garden, pink and white Mexican daisies froth around the raised beds, while Purple Sensation alliums, followed by magenta-flowered Canna ehemanii, add spots of bright colour around the sofas. “The garden flows into the house, making a lovely connection,” says Guinness. “A garden should always flatter the house — after all, it’s the biggest thing you’re looking at when you are outside.”

She enthuses: “You can make a really gopping house look stunning by the way you treat the garden. Just a series of plants in pots, creating a line of green foliage at eye level, won’t block anything but is enough to deflect your eye from awful architecture. 

“We’ve been known to tone down a sea of red brick with a pale whitewash, and transform pebbledash walls with render and a false stone finish. If there are nasty-looking windows, painted white, we might make them recede using a soft blue-grey paint as well as fitting extra glazing bars.”

Image copyright: Marianne Majerus

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