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Renowned landscape designers share their top four tips for transforming even the smallest of outside spaces into an urban oasis.

As the weather gets warmer and the days longer, it’s only natural that we’ll spend more time in the garden. Whether you have a secluded roof terrace or a more substantial plot, now’s the perfect moment to prepare your garden for a summertime of carefree entertaining.

But what should you consider when planning your al fresco sanctum? We spoke to landscape designers Adolfo HarrisonAlexandra NobleBarbara Samitier and Pollyanna Wilkinson about what to plant in the run-up to summer: how to increase ecological biodiversity and the key to landscaping with socialising in mind.

Adolfo Harrison rooftop
- Adolfo Harrison rooftop © Mischa Heller

1. What to plant now

“April is a great time to plant new perennial flowers and grasses,” says Pollyanna Wilkinson, founder of the eponymous garden design studio. “If your goal is to have a summer garden with real wow factor, you want to pick long-flowering perennials which are going to work hard for several months, rather than blink-and-you-miss-it blooms, such as peonies.”

Imagine your summer garden filled with hardy plants such as geraniums, nepeta and astrantias – all as tough as they are aesthetically engaging. To add drama – and versatility – opt for ornamental grasses, which hold their seed heads throughout the winter. Pollyanna’s favourites include Calamagrosis Karl Forster and Miscanthus Kleine Silberspinne.

For garden designer Adolfo Harrison, who notes that there’s often a lull in gardens towards the end of July and into early August, spring weekends are the time to fill your garden with vivacious sedum, crocosmia and asters to ensure the summer months ahead will be rich with blooming vegetation.

Forward planning is key for fellow garden designer Barbara Samitier too, who lists Acidanthera murialae as a favourite. If planted in April and May, it will last throughout the summer: “They’re very graceful, effortlessly elegant and scented flowers,” she says – “there’s something slightly exotic about them while still looking perfectly at home in an English garden.”

With its bright petals and association with the month of August one flower stands out from the crowd for Alexandra Noble: the poppy. She lists Californian, field and opium poppies among her top picks, though if it’s a deeper violet palette you’re after, Hungarian Blue, or Black Beauty which offers striking near-black petals.

Don’t forget the vegetable patch, she adds. “April and May are ideal months to plant chard, kale, beetroot, lettuce and radish. If you’re unsure where to start Grow Easy by Anna Greenland offers accessible tips on growing edibles – particularly in urban environments where space often needs to be economised.”

2. How to encourage wildlife

“What’s a garden with no life in it?” asks Barbara.

It’s a sentiment shared by Adolfo who encourages clients to see their garden as its own ecosystem – to view the space as a multitextured habitat, rather than placing focus on singular plants. The more layers incorporated, the wider range of wildlife you’ll be supporting and the more visually dynamic your garden will appear. “Wildlife doesn’t recognise fences and borders, so think how your garden interacts with your neighbours and surrounding locale,” he says.

Don’t be too tidy, either notes Barbara, with nettles and bare soil making perfect environments for caterpillars and mason bees. Featuring water in a garden, whether it’s a pond, natural swimming pool or water bowl is always beneficial for wildlife, too. Adolfo notes that “rear and front gardens can act as a wildlife corridor,” whilst Pollyanna adds: “Hedgehog boxes and bug hotels are lovely ways to help out our smaller garden friends and promote curiosity for children too.”

It’s a known fact that nectar and pollen-rich flowers are a must for attracting pollinators; Alexandra’s preferred plants include verbascum, wild carrot, cardoon, cranesbill geraniums and wild strawberry. “Leaving areas of lawn unmown – even in small city spaces – will encourage wildflowers and support pollinators,” she says.

3. Landscape design trends to replicate

There’s a unanimous feeling among all the designers that gardens are headed towards a softer aesthetic.

The choice to fill gaps between perennials with seeds is gaining popularity, notes Adolfo: “It resembles the classic cottage garden practice. A naturalistic approach with an air of nostalgia.” Achieving this undone kind of aesthetic takes a lot of thoughtful consideration: “Trust your gardeners in the process and the results will be amazing,” he advises.

“There’s a move away from soulless gardens with wall-to-wall paving where plants are an afterthought,” says Pollyanna. “I’m seeing more requests for pollinator-friendly planting, natural lawns and characterful material choices – it’s a positive step in the right direction for the planet.”

Leaving areas of lawn unmown – even in small city spaces – will encourage wildflowers and support pollinators.

- Alexandra Noble

4. What to consider when designing with summer entertaining in mind

When designing outdoor spaces, think about the day as a whole, says Barbara. “You might have friends staying over; what about a coffee in the morning sun? Get to know your garden and make a note of where the sun hits throughout the day.”

Once you’ve singled out where the suntraps are, it’s important to ask yourself how you want to experience that light, adds Adolfo, who believes a garden pergola is an ideal structure for socialising throughout the day, thanks to its adaptable relationship with lighting. “In the daytime, the sun filters through a pergola to create delightful, dappled sunlight; there’s an inviting conversation between light and shadow. At night, however, the reverse happens – you are lighting the pergola from within its edifice, providing illumination throughout the evening.”

For Barbara, evening lighting should be about creating magic; always use low voltage LEDs, warm white or yellow for a soft glow. Compliment with lanterns and battery-operated lights on the table and on the floor.

Pollyanna reveals that summertime entertaining is almost always the first priority in her clients’ briefs. “Ask yourself, how many people do you expect to entertain regularly. Size is everything. Too small and you feel squashed; too large and the space can feel sterile. Entertaining spaces should have a sense of enclosure without feeling crowded.”

There should also be easy movement around garden furniture, so take the dimensions of your garden into consideration when picking out tables and chairs, agrees Alexandra. A top tip from all our gardeners: try to have more than one useable space, for flexibility with entertaining and a dynamic feel to your garden.

And if you’re in need of a dose of al fresco inspiration, Adolfo recommends turning to social media. “We’re constantly exposed to images of exquisite landscapes – the kinds that remind you of your best holidays – all of which can be achieved at home with carefully-considered landscape architecture and design.”