With climate change and our environment dominating the news and our headspaces, we caught up with award-winning landscape designer and star of BBC’s ‘Your Garden Made Perfect’, Steve Williams to learn how we can bring nature back to our gardens.
Having studied Art at Newport University, Steve recalls his initial attraction to the natural world through his work.
“Whilst my art degree wasn’t directly linked to landscape design, the themes I was exploring were about humanity’s relationship with the natural world in the urban landscape. I was creating a lot of art pieces around nature being present in a more urban environment. There’s certainly a perception that we are separate from nature, but actually, we are inherently a part of it and so are our urban spaces. After my degree, I needed a side hustle to pay the bills, so I ended up doing some garden maintenance work around the local area. I found that people were asking me questions about different types of plants, which I didn’t know the answer to but was completely intrigued to learn more. I went back to college initially intending to study one day a week but ended up doing the full diploma for three years.”
And it was eventually his time at the Cotswold Gardening School training in garden design that really solidified Steve's vision for his future.
“My creative background led me to eventually focus on garden design specifically, this is where I had a bit of an epiphany about marrying up the themes in my previous artwork and my design practice. My work centres around challenging perceptions and reconnecting people with nature and understanding our place in it, people’s gardens are the perfect environment to host this. Years ago, a garden would have been somewhere to keep the wild out of, but there’s so little “wild” around us now we are all clamouring for that nature connection so I knew it was something I wanted to reintroduce through my designs. Bringing nature back into the city to reestablish that balance is my main ethos. Small urban gardens are a real passion of mine, they present a challenge unlike most other spaces and I find this really exciting.”
The gorgeous Horfield garden we find ourselves in with Steve was a favourite project of his, and the client’s vision married up perfectly with his mission statement.
“The challenge of modern life is getting nature back into our gardens whilst ensuring that they stay functional and useable. Nature will come back into your garden whether you like it or not, but you still need to be able to enjoy the space, it’s no good if you can’t step out of the door! My clients at this particular property were completely onboard with championing what I stand for, and now they have their own personal oasis, watching the birds poke around their garden from the kitchen window. Fundamentally with any small space, the key is keeping it simple, cramming too much into your garden can actually make the space feel even smaller. Go big on a generous paved terrace or a deck area and keeping the planting area as big as possible is a great way of maximizing your space. Plant choices also play a huge part in the tone you set for your garden, Amelanchier is classically brilliant for birds. They produce these gorgeous berries, which are rarely ever seen as the birds go crazy for them!
This client loved the “weeds” that filled the space they had, weeds are actually just wildflowers, great for wildlife and beautiful, so the concept was already there! We developed this and using old concrete from the previous layout, I reimaged this and created some Gabion features. It’s essentially a wire structure filled with bits of rubble, concrete, stone etc, that create a beautiful feature, and once we filled them with wildflower seeds which flourish in this arid environment, you end up with this amazing habitat for invertebrates, different types on insects, which then, in turn, attract birds who climb in and out, foraging for food. Your very own little ecosystem, full of biodiversity and great for pollinators. We also challenged the perception of the traditional use of topsoil by only using the same crushed waste concrete & brick at ground level to plant into. This creates a really harsh and low fertile substrate which supports a truly sustainable meadow environment that requires no watering and hosts a huge variety of wildflowers that flow throughout the seasons”
But a well-designed garden is not just aesthetically and environmentally pleasing, Steve notes the mental impact your garden can have on you.
“You spend a lot of money on interiors, and the garden can get neglected when in actual fact, a garden can be an extension of your home and complement it in so many ways. Watching the environment you’ve created or designed change through the seasons is so satisfying, and I find it really engaging, boosting my mental health, it’s so much more than just a room in your house.”
We couldn’t not talk about Steve’s time on ‘Your Garden Made Perfect’ and how that has developed his style.
“It was a whirlwind and a bit of a mad one from start to finish! Working with other designers and seeing their different styles come to fruition was a brilliant learning experience. One of the other designers who I was pitching against, Tom Massey champions a lot of the same things that I do, and so it felt less like a head-to-head and more like a collaboration at times. But ultimately, having one of my designs chosen and embraced was so fulfilling as I was able to broadcast my ethos on such a large platform, they really believed in what I was trying to achieve and they really resonated with that, but I loved the challenge! I took a lot from my time on the show, and with Bristol being such a green, creative city, and so forward-thinking, it’s certainly moulded the journey I am on and how my core values have changed with regard to my designs. The amount of support that has grown and been shared for my ethos and style of design has been amazing, I think more and more people, no matter their budget or garden size are wanting to get back to nature in some sort of way. It’s like I’ve found my tribe!”