Nicky Haslam’s guide to what’s tacky in the garden: Stone frogs are naff and rewilding is boring

Nicky Haslam
The most recent 'What Nicky Haslam Finds Common' tea towel included strawberries and remote-controlled lawnmowers - Heathcliff O'Malley

When he was at Eton, Nicky Haslam was renowned for the interior of his study; he wanted his life at school to be as sophisticated as his life in London. He decorated it with faux ocelot curtains, made ostrich plumes from card for pelmets, put artificial grass on the floor (from a local greengrocer) and hung a huge photograph of James Dean on the wall. It was lit by carriage lamps. His house master was so impressed, he took guests there after dinner. Nicky’s infatuation with style developed, as did his extraordinary capacity to meet and make friends with a huge range of people.

His London-based interior design firm, Nicky Haslam Studio, has designed interiors all over the world, which have often influenced the gardens; his designs have a touch of flamboyance and are never dull or predictable. He is also known for his outspoken opinions on taste, which in recent years he has expounded upon via his annual What Nicky Haslam Finds Common tea towel (his most recent list included “strawberries”, “remote-controlled lawnmowers” and “music”).

Here are some things that he finds refined and repugnant in the garden.

Furniture

Furniture
Wooden benches and striped fabrics get Nicky's seal of approval, whilst modern sets are 'like airport furniture'

Nicky loves to bring the inside out and the outside in, but he prefers an eclectic mix of outdoor furniture and really dislikes the look of modern garden sets, which he says are “too much like airport furniture”. “Nothing looks more horrible in winter than furniture with covers over it,” he declares. He reckons Lloyd Loom woven furniture is “definitely too common”, and much prefers wooden or iron-work traditional sofas and benches, to which he adds lots of cushions, mattresses and rugs to make them more comfortable. He loves using striped fabrics, especially in green and white. He remembers visiting Belvoir Castle with the late Diana Cooper, where there were beautiful old cane benches outside on the terrace, furnished with cushions in black chintz with huge red roses, which, he says, looked “so chic”.

He loves to bring elements of the garden inside with, for example, an outdoor bench brought into a hall, or a trellis added to a boring interior wall; however, bringing dining chairs outside is definitely not his thing.

Flowers

Plants
Nicky is wary of yellow, as in this sprig of Berberis x Stenophylla (right)

White flowers are a firm favourite of Nicky’s, and are perfect for standing out in the gloaming, when you are entertaining on your terrace, with your guests wrapped in old Barbours and rugs for warmth (and certainly not standing beneath modern spaceship-type gas garden heaters).

Nicky points out that “In Elizabethan times, white flowering natives such as Queen Anne’s Lace, white campion, moon daisies and the like were encouraged and sown so that carriages could see the definition of the road from the light of the carriage lamp.”

His favourites are white foxgloves, white pelargoniums, white peonies, white lilac, lily of the valley, white delphiniums and white jasmine: pretty much anything really, as long as it’s white. When formulating plant combinations, if you stick to this colour combination it is near impossible for it not to gel. Is it not a bit of a cliché, I wonder? He agrees, but he still loves it – and there are endless permutations, so you could not get bored.

White flowers like pelargoniums and roses get  the thumbs up from Nicky
White flowers like pelargoniums and roses get the thumbs up from Nicky - Heathcliff O'Malley

His favourite white rambler is Rosa ‘Paul’s Lemon Pillar’, a climbing rose with large, highly fragrant creamy flowers that grows strongly to around 25ft. It has highly flexible branches that hang down gracefully with small, dainty, double rosette-like flowers in large open sprays. As with many ramblers it has one long, glorious flush of flowers. A very different rose but a favourite of Nicky’s is the wild ‘Dog Rose’. This, he says, “is the unofficial Rose of England”. This pretty, delicate-looking flower has a cast-iron constitution and scrambles through hedgerows using other plants to climb up to reach the light. It flowers once, but the hips that follow are vibrant in colour.

Breaking away from whites, lavenders are also key Nicky plants, as well as mauve tobacco plants, lime zinnias, white and bronze chrysanthemums, and pale pink dahlias.

Similarly, when it comes to painting outside woodwork such as doors, windows and furniture, one of his favourite colours is a sort of pale rain cloud colour with a touch of mauve in it: a colour you often see on the shutters and windows in the south of France.

Nicky is wary of yellow outside, both on hard elements and for flowers.

Plants

Flowers
Stinking irises good, red roses bad

I was surprised to hear that Nicky loves the understated stinking iris, Iris foetidissima. This is one of two native irises in Britain and it grows anywhere, its evergreen architectural foliage colonising the driest, most difficult spots. Nicky lifts it from odd places where it has self-seeded and pots it up into large containers. It is a fascinating plant as the flower colour is varied depending on the clone. In my garden sometimes the flowers are bright blue, sometimes a muddy grey and dirty yellow. Iris foetidissima var. citrina has pale yellow and brown flowers. All have striking orange red round fruits that persist in the winter.

Nicky’s hate list is extensive: berberis, rhododendrons (except the lovely fragrant white Rhododendron ‘Daviesii’), red hot pokers, copper beeches (“Nannies like them,” he sniffs), aubretia, conifers, sunflowers and red roses. Red roses, though, are fine when picked and put in a vase inside the house. Strelitzias, likewise, he would have as an indoor plant only: there, however, they are a hit.

Nicky Haslam's Cotswolds home
Nicky Haslam's Cotswolds home - Heathcliff O'Malley

Bedding plants and ephemeral plants are definitely not ruled out. White foxgloves, white pansies and the Stokes’ aster, Stokesia laevis, ‘White Star’, a shortish-lived hardy perennial, are all planted in Nicky’s Garden.

When I took him around the Chelsea Flower Show this year, a new rose was his firm favourite, Rosa ‘Emma Bridgewater’. Surprisingly, this was not white but a wonderful pink which softens to rose and lilac, slightly similar to Rosa mutabilis. The scent is the strongest I’ve ever encountered in a rose: I have a couple in my borders, and I think they will be in Nicky’s shortly.

Ornaments

Ornaments
Stone frogs are on Nicky's naff list

Eyecatchers are an important part of any Nicky outdoor space; the more unusual, the better. He frequently scours reclamation yards, eBay, antique shops and websites such as Alex Puddy’s Architectural Heritage (architectural-heritage.co.uk) to find something individual. In his garden he has a large stag on a plinth in front of a view out to beautiful English wood pasture. He found this on a German website, Pompidou Living (pompidou-living.com); it is made from reconstituted stone, which he prefers to real stone as he finds it generally more durable. Real stone pieces from reclamation yards can start to disintegrate after a hard winter. Once reconstituted stone ages, it can be difficult even for a stone mason to tell what it is.

Nicky has embellished the stag with silver, on its antlers and the hooves: however, he is not a fan of gilded items outside, and points out that silvered items used to be more coveted than gold (at Knole House everything was “silvered” in the 16th century, which was more valuable than gold in those days). Nicky uses The Silveriest Silver metallic paint by Stuart Semple to achieve the look.

Silvered in, gilded out: one of the embellished stags in Nicky's garden
Silvered in, gilded out: one of the embellished stags in Nicky's garden - Heathcliff O'Malley

Large stone urns are brilliant eyecatchers, but Nicky reckons “they should never be planted”. Other structures can be planted, however: in one garden he made a fake ruined abbey as an eyecatcher which was heavily planted and disguised to make it look convincing. His friend, the late decorator David Hicks, also enjoyed using fakes. For his garden he made a timber church spire which he could position in various places by moving it around in a wheelbarrow: it was always arranged so that the barrow was invisible but the amazing spire could not help but catch the eye. Like Hicks, Nicky has often made obelisks and columns from painted plywood.

On Nicky’s naff list are Chinese lions, stone frogs and the generally more knick-knack types of artefacts. At Chelsea this year, he was affronted by copper statues of trees, huge rearing stallions in timber, vulgar murals and endless sets of modern outdoor furniture. However, he loved Robert Myers’s garden for St James’s Piccadilly, which featured a massive (unplanted) stone urn and artfully distressed brick walls. Another hit was the Ecotherapy Garden designed by Tom Bannister, a watery amphitheatre with a “stone” made from an amazing concrete which he makes using coconut fibre (it’s so light, good-looking and eco-friendly).

Arrangements

Arrangements
Nicky likes informal arrangements, but finds wild gardens 'quite boring'

Rock gardens in flat areas, studded with alpine plants, are not a favourite of Nicky’s, although large rocks with no plants – in an appropriate landscape – can be fine.

Plants help create the mood of a garden, and getting the right look depends not just on the type of plants but how they are arranged. Nicky does not admire serried rows of neat topiary, but prefers billowing plants informally arranged in generous groups. He will not be following the rewilding trend, however, as he finds wild gardens “quite boring”.