Helen Saunders

With a background in Fine Art, and several years in the photographic industry, often working with architects to produce architectural visualisations, I became inspired to take my own plunge into the world of design.

I’ve always been fascinated by the natural landscape, and growing up in Derbyshire, was inspired by the dramatic, rocky vistas of the peak district, and the communities of plants and trees which colonised the landscape.

In 2019 I joined fellow London College graduate, Tabitha Rigden to form Rigden Saunders Garden and Landscape Design, a studio which combines a shared passion for naturalistic planting, with an understanding of spatial composition, texture and colour.

In designing a garden, we draw on the context of the site, whether it be the local landscape, materials, plant ecology and architecture, to create a garden which works in harmony with its surroundings. We create gardens, which function both to provide a useful, enjoyable space for the client, and ecologically, using plants, which happily co-exist and enjoy the site conditions, to create a beautiful and sustainable space.

During my spare time, I volunteer at Morden Park Hall, where we are in the on-going process of designing, building, and growing the community-run kitchen garden there. I’m interested in how gardens can bring people together, and the power they have, to enrich people’s health and sense of well-being.

I was recently pleased to be shortlisted for the Student Society of Garden Designers Awards for my Derbyshire garden, ‘Broadstone Holt’.

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Courtyard Raingarden

This garden is the central courtyard in an art gallery complex, and provides space for gallery visitors to relax and reflect, or socialise during a visit. I wanted to create a space which would reflect the clean lines of the gallery, yet provide somewhere to feel connected to nature – contrasting to the white interior.

The garden features a central pool, which will collect rainwater, fed by rills running from the building downpipes. Surrounding the pool is moisture-loving meadow planting, irrigated by the rainwater, made up of a mixture of native and non-native wetland plants, including grasses, reeds, and flowering perennials. Ground cover plants will creep into the joints between the concrete planks, creating a soft edge between hard materials and planting. Concrete benches next to the rills allow visitors to view the meadow at close-quarters, while patio space at either end of the garden is designed for informal seating to be set out on a sunny day, or for a temporary exhibition.

The aim was to create an immersive, tranquil space, which connects the visitor to the garden and the processes that sustain it.

Cambridge Cottage - A gallery and events venue

Cambridge Cottage is a multi-functional building, catering for weddings, parties, and conferences, as well as housing the Kew art collection. The re-design of the garden needed to fulfil various requirements, and spaces within it would need to be multi-purpose. The client wanted the design to improve circulation, and accessibility, as well as providing areas for socialising and for retreat.

The design takes the form of a relaxed rectilinear structure, with soft curves of meadow planting, reflecting the aesthetic and feel of the Georgian architecture. Rectangular pools give a broken reflection of the building and the planting, and add drama in the evening, when lighting highlights the building and planting. The crisp yew hedges give a sense of separation to different areas, and provide a foil for the soft planting. Gaps in the hedge intrigue the visitor to journey through the garden.

The terrace area provides ample space for visitors to spill out onto from the building, and a more secluded area separated by birch trees, allows for outdoor wedding ceremonies take place. The ramp has been re-designed to improve accessibility to the lower part of the building.

A Miscanthus hedge provides semi-transparent screening for privacy, yet appears to blend into the Duke’s garden, and views have been created throughout the garden for photography opportunities.

A 'Floating' Woodland Edge garden

This design blurs the boundaries with the local woodland landscape, using naturalistic planting, with a series of overlapping platforms, which appear to ‘float’ above the planting. The garden also takes inspiration from the local chalk rivers typical of the Chilterns, incorporating a dry river bed which helps to absorb rainwater and prevent runoff. A natural pool at the bottom of the slope, is fed by rainwater from the roof, and is a tranquil spot, as well as being beneficial for wildlife.

The brief called for screened spaces to dine and entertain, whilst enjoying the view. A cantilever deck allows dining close to the house, and within the greenery. A platform at the top of the garden provides a space to enjoy the afternoon sun.

A foraging element – The woodland edge planting incorporates fruit and vegetables through apple trees, and fruit bushes, as well as vegetables throughout the planting, which are both ornamental and edible.

A Woodland glade garden in the Chilterns

This design was inspired by the established oak and beech trees already in the garden, and takes the form of a series of woodland glades. It is a family garden, and creating spaces for the kids to play and explore was key. In the front garden, an area for natural play is created amongst the trees. Bug walls edge these areas, and are designed to provide a habitat for insects, as well as spark interest for the children in the wildlife. Closer to the house, a productive garden and orchard, making the most of the sunny aspect here. A pathway winding around the trees leads you into the back garden, where a deck terrace provides space to relax and entertain. Here, prairie planting provides movement and colour. Further down the garden, ornamental woodland planting takes over, and a natural swimming pool is positioned at the end, a destination to relax and take in the view.

Derbyshire Garden

This site is part of the National Forest, and was planted with a native mix of trees about ten years ago. The clients invite school groups in to learn about the woodland and local wildlife, and wanted to expand on this by building an educational base on site. They wanted a garden where they could enjoy entertaining and growing their own food, as well as have some screening from the educational zones.

The design links with the architecture, but also responds to the local landscape. The channelling and capture of existing water on site, is the basis of the design, forming a series of pools, which links with the view of the reservoir. Much of the woodland is retained, while areas of meadow and wetland, provide a mosaic of different habitats, and destinations around the garden.

The education base is a tree house, giving the kids a new perspective amongst the canopies. Woodland glades will provide spaces where they can collect natural materials to build dens and habitat piles, as well as cook the food they have grown in their own productive garden.

Rain Garden Border at Belvoir Castle

Rigden Saunders was named as one of the 6 finalists in the Countryside Border competition to be shown at the Belvoir Flower and Garden show, 2020. Inspired by the plant communities we found in countryside swales whilst exploring North Wales, the Rain Garden Border consists of plants selected for permanently moist ground found at the bottom of a swale, with more drought tolerant species further up the slope. Native wild species like Geum rivale, and Juncus inflexus are interspersed with exotic garden stalwarts like Crocosmia and Persicaria amplexicaulis for wow-factor, demonstrating how the two could be combined to absorb water run-off and increase biodiversity in a summer garden border.