How to create a beautiful and unusual garden with a sense of place

July 17th, 2021
Posted In: Garden trends & design

I’ve just visited a garden with a superb sense of place.

But what is ‘sense of place’ in a garden? And how can it direct the design of your garden?

The garden belongs to Mark Walker. It was designed by Simon Phillips of Mambo Garden Design – although he would consider it as a garden that is evolving rather than one which is formally designed. ‘It’s not a garden where you go in for a week and change everything and then leave,’ he says.


Mark Walker, sitting on an old church bench he found in an antiques warehouse nearby. There is a fading mural on the wall behind him, which he decided not to paint over. The previous owner painted it in the 1960s, when it would have been quite bright, but it is now just a ghost of what it was.

Mural on garden wall

The mural was a countryside scene – you can just see traces of ‘fields’.

Mark and Simon have taken great care to keep as many of the historic elements of the garden as they can.

And it’s in Margate, a once-fashionable seaside town that fell on hard times and is now being regenerated.

A sense of place starts with the environment

Obviously, the starting point for any garden is the climate and the weather. As a seaside town, Margate has mild winters and it’s also quite sunny. But, near the seafront it can also be windy, so if you’re near the sea, you would need to consider windy garden tips.

Mark’s house is one street back from the sea, however. It’s in one of Margate’s formerly grand Victorian streets, with high buildings and ornate period detail. The garden is therefore sheltered but shady. It’s surrounded by tall buildings, which gives it a ‘secret garden’ feel.

Mark had heard about the regeneration of Margate and how artists were discovering the town. There are some wonderful houses, because it was so fashionable in Georgian and Victorian times. But many of the houses have now been turned into boarding houses, hostels and flats. Some were even left derelict.

Margate shelter

Margate’s rich Victorian and Edwardian heritage fell into disrepair when the holidaymakers started to go abroad. This is a beach-front shelter facing Margate Sands.

Mark bought the house from a family who had run it as a bed-and-breakfast hotel. ‘The garden was very small but the lady who lived here was a passionate gardener, so it had several mature trees and shrubs,’ says Mark. He and Simon have kept as many of these as they can, which contributes to the ‘texture’ of the garden and the sense of place.

Secret garden with a sense of place

The deck is on the site of some old outhouses, probably added several decades after the house was originally built. Removing these has also improved the balance between house and garden.

A sense of a secret garden – of stepping into another world

The small, but lush space has the feel of a secret garden. A mature cordyline reaches up to the sky, creating a tropical feel. And a Portuguese laurel almost obscures the view of two old sheds. ‘When the house was a b&b, the children used to sleep in the sheds in the gardening during the summer months,’ says Mark. ‘So their rooms could be rented out.’

A secret garden with a sense of place

Top: The old walls with their layers of paint show where an Edwardian conservatory once stood. Very little of its original material remained so it was taken down to improve the size of the garden in relation to the house. The photo above shows the remains of two old garden sheds, where the children of the house used to sleep when their bedrooms were rented out to b&b holidaymakers.

The sheds were dilapidated but Mark and Simon decided to keep them. They’re part of the history of the house. For the time being, they’re not even painting them or putting new glass in the windows, although they have added a new roof. ‘It’s a corrugated iron roof,’ says Simon, ‘because that gives a tropical feel and it sounds good when it rains.’

But even corrugated iron roofs reflect the town around them. I saw several corrugated iron canopies held up by Georgian or Victorian uprights.

What to keep and what to remove?

This issue of what to keep and what to take out is central to giving your garden a sense of place. The history of the house as a once-fashionable seaside home, then a b&b and now being regenerated, is similar to that of many buildings around it. And regeneration doesn’t have to mean cleaning everything up and whitewashing over the peeling paint.

There was a large, rotting conservatory in the garden. ‘Very little of the original fabric remained,’ says Mark. ‘So we took the decision to take it out. It also restores the balance between the house and garden, because the garden is so small compared to the house.’

When they took the conservatory down, they discovered that it wasn’t the original conservatory after all. They found traces of a much smaller, original conservatory underneath it. By coincidence, this was almost exactly the area that Mark had planned to cover with a modern glass extension. So by taking the conservatory down, they’ve restored the house to its original footprint.

Garden plans for secret garden

By removing the old conservatory and the other outbuildings, they had accidentally (or perhaps instinctively) returned the house and garden to its original footprint.

Adding texture to the garden by keeping the past…

‘When we took the conservatory down, we then had a great debate about what to do with the walls. Should we paint them or strip them?’ he says. In the end, they decided to leave the paint of previous generations on the walls. ‘It adds a sense of texture to the garden,’ says Mark.

Walls left painted

The footprint of the old conservatory is now a terrace. And Mark left traces of paint from several eras on the walls. The weather is fading the paint, he says. ‘Although I think it would still be a bit too garish for some tastes,’ he adds..

A sense of place in the planting…

Although the garden was very small when Mark bought the house, it had been cherished by the previous owner. ‘She was passionate about her garden and there were a number of mature trees and shrubs which we wanted to keep,’ says Mark.

Simon Phillips of Mambo Garden Design recognised both the atmosphere of the garden and Mark’s own background. He was living in Singapore when he bought the house. ‘Singapore is very lush and it rains a lot,’ he says. Simon suggested keeping the lush, green feel to the planting.

Garden sheds with a tropical feel

The planting crowds up to the almost-derelict sheds in the corner of the garden. Simon says that in tropical gardens, the garden almost comes into the house. You can sit in these sheds, looking through a ruined window as the greenery grows in to meet you.

And although seaside towns aren’t strictly tropical, they seemed exotic to the city dwellers who visited them. They often have palm trees, cordylines and other plants imported in Victorian and Edwardian times. These were the times when plants were first imported on a large scale, so the exotic look was fashionable in gardens. For a Victorian or Edwardian house, a tropical-themed garden echoes both a sense of both place and history.

A ‘secret garden’ feel with a hint of a tropical rainforest.

Seaside towns are often milder in winter than inland towns, so once you’re away from the brisk breezes of the coast, tender plants can thrive.  This garden is surrounded by tall Victorian and Edwardian terraced houses, so it is very sheltered. It’s also, of course, shady. Some mature cordylines tower into the sky and fruit trees (an apple, a pear and a cherry) jostle for space. Simon added a mimosa, for leaf contrast.

Mark is often away, so Simon had to choose plants that are happy to survive dry spells without watering. (See more about dry garden planting here, if you have a similar situation.) These have included euphorbia and arum lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica).  Arum lilies also like to grow near streams, so they tolerate damp well too.

To add to the tropical feel, he included a tetrapanax, which has grow well, plus some fatsia and a fan palm.

Euphorbia and tetrapanax

Simon planted Euphorbia ‘Wulfenii” and tetrapanax for their distinctive leaf shapes.

A garden with a sense of place evolves over time…

‘This isn’t a garden where you go in for a week and change everything’, says Simon. It’s a work in progress, which continues to evolve over time, as they discover which plants flourish in the environment. ‘You see where the garden takes you,’ he adds.

It’s an interesting interpretation of a sense of place, because many people would have opted for a coastal-style garden or chosen another clearly seaside based theme. I love seaside gardens, but I think going the exotic Victorian/Edwardian/secret garden route was right for this house.


Rather than clearing away trees, Mark and Simon have added to them. This mimosa is newly planted and adds a fresh green contrast to the older planting.

Whenever anyone moves to a new garden, I think there’s always a basic human instinct to create our own clearing. So many people chop down mature trees and take out plants. And sometimes they’re right to do so. Plants may have got too old or been planted in the wrong place. And you have to make your garden ‘yours’. But if you rip everything out and replace it all, you can be left without a sense of place. What do you think?

Old walls and tetrapanax.

I think this encapsulates the sense of place in this garden. The church and the neighbour’s tree are part of the garden, along with the newly planted tetrapanax and the old walls, revealed when the conservatory was taken down.

Shop my favourite gardening books, tool and products…

I’m often asked for recommendations so I’ve put together lists of the gardening books, tools and products I use myself on the Middlesized Garden Amazon store. Note that Amazon links are affiliate so I may get a small fee if you buy but it won’t affect the price you pay.

For instance, if you have a shady garden like this, here is my shady gardens book list.

More shady garden tips

And, as we all have at least one shady corner of our garden, you may be interested in these 7 options for a difficult shady corner. Or see  How to choose shade loving plants for year round success.

Pin to remember a sense of place

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