Becoming a garden designer

[Update: this page is from 2013 and my life has moved on quite a lot! Please see my About page]

I live in Clapham, London and worked in digital publishing and marketing for over fifteen years until I switched to design. The path to my career change began back in November 2013 when my partner Chris and I, with our cat Rumbles in tow, bought our flat near Clapham Old Town complete with minuscule urban garden.

Jack Wallington
Buying flowers at Columbia Road Flower Market

Since that day my childhood obsession with plants, art and design was let out of a fifteen year long bottle – I exploded out and dived back into a compost heap hands first and I’m never looking back again.

Why I am obsessed with plants

In the 1980’s, the Wallington family grew up in the Buckinghamshire countryside in a tiny idyllic thatch cottage. A short walk from the Prime Minister’s Chequers estate and the residence of actor Sir David Jason.

Jack Wallington, childhood home
Visiting my childhood home in Buckinghamshire in 2014 (the cream cottage on the left)

Surrounded by the rolling Chiltern Hills, smothered in wild flowers, woodland, farm crops and wild animals, it was a beautiful place to grow up. On a recent visit after more than a decade gap, it’s only in adulthood I realise just how magical a spot it is.

The view I grew up loving
The view I grew up with.

My parents loved the house and stuffed the small cottage garden full of beautiful plants, mainly with flowers. Growing up we also had more pets than I can remember, it was more like a tiny farm: cats, dogs, budgerigars, love birds, rabbits, fish, chickens, ducks, even a horse (not ours) in the neighbouring field and some terrapins.

I wasn’t particularly successful as a young lad at keeping the animals alive… but the plants thrived! At the age of nine, my granddad received a small bonus and gave it straight to me and my siblings. My bouffant toting younger self was, to everyone’s amazement, adamant I wanted a greenhouse.

This resulted in a sea of cacti, nasturtiums, fruit and vegetables. Simply, there’s something I find fascinating seeing plants grow and I love the look of fresh new growth. It’s constantly changing which makes me happy.

My parents recently found this photo of me as a boy in my greenhouse with some of my cacti collection
My parents recently found this photo of me as a boy in my greenhouse with some of my cacti collection and vegetables.

University, work and London life distracted me for a time. Now though, with our own little plot, gardens are back in my life big time. And I’m never letting them back out. Only Rumbles seems to like our garden more than me, especially at 5am when we’re trying to sleep!

Littlebury and a new beginning

We’ve lived in our house in Clapham since 2008, it is our first home together. Rented off of Julie and David Evans for five years before we nervously put in an offer to buy for ourselves what had become to feel like our home. Julie and David, to our delight, agreed and in November 2013 it became our home officially.

Rumbles modelling the garden back in November 2012
Rumbles modelling the garden back in November 2012

Since the day we moved in as renters, we  fell in love with our tiny little plot, and in the summer, the garden was always a little haven in the city. I feel incredibly lazy now and a bit embarrassed given how much effort our neighbours put into it, but as renters we did nothing to the garden. To touch it felt too permanent when we might at any time have to leave.

Now we’re officially here to stay though, we’re laying down roots in every sense. In December 2013, we hopped on a train to Wandsworth and bought our first two shrubs (two Viburnum tinus standards for winter flowering). This was the beginning.

Experiments: the first year was about trying things out and absorbing as much information as possible
Experiments: the first summer (2014) was about trying things out and absorbing as much information as possible. Very little of it worked but it was lots of fun experimenting!

Big Dreams, Small Spaces

By 2015 my love of garden design was bordering on obsession and we were lucky enough to be selected by Monty Don to take part in his BBC programme, Big Dreams, Small Spaces. It documented us transforming our garden into a Victorian Botanist’s tropical wonderland. It really was a dream come true and you can read all about it here.

Jack Wallington Clapham, Big Dreams Small Spaces

Career change to garden design

During the year Big Dreams, Small Spaces was filmed I studied RHS Level 2 and on the final day of filming I learnt I had passed with all eight commendations. These two moments confirmed to me that my love of gardening was worthwhile and I pursued the next courses to push my knowledge. It was during Level 3, an in depth course teaching me the garden design process – from surveying, level changes, scale and planting plans etc – I realised I might be able to help other people with their gardens.

I put a shout out on Facebook asking if I could design a friend’s garden for free if they pay for paving and plants, Nic and Angela Howell stepped forward – a key moment and Angela, an interior designer has become something of an unofficial mentor to me. This design went really well and my desire to design gardens was stronger than ever so I tentatively opened my blog to a few paid commissions. From this point, the rest is history as I began receiving enough requests and recommendations to allow me to give up the day job and make the switch.

Thanks for reading this far and I hope you come back to see how our Clapham urban garden evolves over the coming years. The blog on this site is a record for myself of what I’ve been doing and I’ll be sharing what I learn as well, so hopefully it will be useful for any random visitors who land here.

If you’re interested in plants and garden design too, please follow me on Twitter or Instagram and get in touch! I’m always looking for gardens to design and other people to talk to about plants.

Jack Wallington

17 thoughts on “Becoming a garden designer

  1. Hey Jack! Just getting into the wonders of gardening myself and I stumbled across your insightful blog online! Hope all good with you guys and your gardens keeping you busy! Have fun! Alison x

    1. Hey Alison! Ooh, I’m glad I’m not the only one 🙂 Please let me know how you’re getting on, I’d love to share tips and ideas because I’m learning as I go at the moment. All good here, the garden has helped give me a focus at the moment. Hope you are well too xx

  2. Although I now live in a tiny village in Northumberland with beautiful country views I grew up in a terraced house in Wandsworth with a small back garden – I think that’s one of the reasons I am so impressed with your efforts 🙂

    1. That’s interesting to know you used to live nearby, thanks Patricia. It’s a great area around here, I just hope more people enjoy doing things to their gardens and help liven up the place 🙂

  3. Hi Jack,
    I was really impressed by the garden you and Chris created,that was featured on the Monty Don programme and I am very much enjoying your blog.
    I was really impressed by how much you managed to pack into a relatively small space. I particularly like your fern wall, so much so that I got my husband to make me one (based on the one your Dad made for your garden) for a shady area of our garden but I’m having difficulty tracking down some of the ferns you have listed.
    Did you source them from a particular garden centre, wholesaler or website or did you find them individually in lots of different places?
    Kind regards, Jane

    1. Hi Jane,
      Thanks for the lovely comments and that’s great that you built a fern wall too! The more fern walls the better IMO 🙂
      I sourced the ferns from all over the place. If you download this file and scroll down, you can find all of the nurseries I bought them from – I think all have online delivery:
      I would recommend avoiding ferns like Athyriums and real moisture lovers though, they become a real pain to keep watered.
      Good luck and please do stay in touch as we would love to know how you get on.

  4. Hi Jack
    I an studying my family history and came across your site, its a good read. However, as many of my ancestors came from the Bucks/Herts area I am interested in your parents etc.

    Can you help?


  5. Hello Jack, I went on a course at Scampson on Thursday, and was talking with Annie who told me about your blog. So I thought I woukd like to read it !

    1. Hi Sally, thanks for getting in touch! I hope Annie was well and lovely to hear from you – I always like speaking to fellow gardeners! 🙂 How was the course?

  6. Hello from the States! Leonotis leonuris brought me to you. Great blog! I’m in CT and my husband and I have an urban garden that we’re (I’m!!) developing slowly since spring 2014. Last year I was lucky enough to stumble upon Leonotis at our local organic garden shop Natureworks (Nancy Debrule-Clemente). It was an unassuming sprig in a 4 inch pot, but the photo of the flower hooked me immediately. I bought only one, but it displayed magnificently in the late summer/autumn with those amazing blooms. I collected seeds last autumn and are sowing them now inside. I’ll let you know how they turn out!

    Happy gardening!

    David Zakur
    New Haven, CT USA

    1. Hi David! Thanks for the message. That’s exciting, it’s such a great plant – look forward to hearing how your own propagation of it works out. Speak again soon!

  7. Hello Jack, I moved to Spain a year ago, and am battling with all things British. I have all manner of spring bulbs as well as roses in pots. The soil here is not good and I drool over natural compost seen on gardening programmes. I just wonder if it would be easier to give up on the dream of an English garden in Spain, and concentrate on what grows well here.

    1. Hi June, I would say yes, it’s better to work with what will naturally grow well. Lots of plants we grow are actually Mediterranean and will thrive where you are, herbs like fennel and rosemary, verbena etc. It’s worth buying a book on Mediterranean flowers if you haven’t. Some of my favourite plants are the dry / poor soil plants – so please don’t give up hope for a beautiful colourful garden 🙂

  8. Hi Jack,
    In rural Colorado, miles from civilization, I saw you and Chris tonight on Netflix Big Dreams Small Spaces! Great episode, great job in that very cool space. All the best!

    1. Hi Chuck! Great to hear from you. Thank you very much 🙂 I can’t believe it’s in the US too now, how amazing!

  9. Hello Jack,
    I’ve just read your Telegraph article on growing garlic, and you mention the oft quoted assumption that birds pull out sets (also onions etc ) I don’t think anybody has ever seen this happen, and I wonder why the correct explanation is never mentioned. It is that earthworms who as you now come out of their holes at night to find organic matter, get hold of the tip of the set in their mouth and try to pull it down their wormhole- of course unsuccessfully. Stay up one night and watch them, or set up a video trap.

    1. Hi Henry! Thanks for the message, that’s an interesting theory and would make sense that it does happen but I can also say that I have seen birds pulling them out with my own eyes down on my allotment and elsewhere! 😀 everything I write is based on my own first hand experiences, not other peoples and I often try to myth bust myself. I’ll set up a camera to monitor for worms too.

Leave a Reply to Jack WallingtonCancel reply