Improve your garden with 7 ideas inspired by Hillier Gardens

Improve your garden with 7 ideas inspired by Hillier Gardens Green Fingered Blog
Not sure how to improve your garden? Whether you have a huge plot, a few pots, or something in between, here are 7 simple but effective ideas I found on a visit to Hillier Gardens in Hampshire.

The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens are located just outside Romsey, close to the M3 motorway in central southern England. They were established by Sir Harold in 1953 as an off shoot of the family plant nursery business which had been running since 1864.

The gardens have now developed into what is claimed to be one of the largest collection of trees and shrubs anywhere in the world, and have become a tourist attraction in their own right.

The gardens are a beautiful place to visit with plenty of fun for the whole family, while the nursery continues on an adjacent site, selling plants commercially as the Hilliers have done for 150 years.

The gardens are set up to look good all year round, with different elements coming to the fore as the seasons change, and they certainly celebrate spring, with collections of camellias, magnolias, rhododendrons and others in their prime during April.

Regardless of the time of year, what ideas can you see there which you could use to improve your own garden? Well here are a few that occurred to me during my visit...  

Improve your garden with 7 ideas inspired by Hillier Gardens

Layers of planting

There's a heavy focus on trees at Hillier's but they haven't neglected the area below them.

Now,  directly beneath a tree can be dry and shady do you need to choose carefully anything you plant  there. 

If the trees are deciduous there are a multitude of spring flowering plants and bulbs ready to take advantage of the light available before the trees are fully in leaf. But the design principle demonstrated here is not simply planting a tree and finding something that will grow underneath. 

It's about having different layers, and you don't even need to include a tree.

In a smaller garden, a mix of taller shrubs, rounder smaller ones, and then shorter perennials and other flowers, with creeping ground cover around their bases, will give a full and satisfying overall effect.

When selecting plants for your garden, look at the heights they will reach and choose a variety that will create these different layers.  

Layered planting Improve your garden Hillier Gardens Green Fingered Blog
Trees, shrubs, perennials and ground cover - multi layered planting at Hilliers

Large groups of one plant

On the other hand if you want a simple and potentially low maintenance area of your garden, go minimalist and plant just one variety. 

Sometimes less is more. This is apparent in the picture below from Hilliers where an area is planted almost entirely with ferns, with just a few trees to add height. 

Ferns of course are a suitable choice for an area that will be shaded much of the year. They provide quite a quirky effect early on as they appear and unfurl. The rest of the year this area will look full, sumptuous and relaxed as the ferns arch over each other. 

Mass planting of ferns Improve your garden Hillier Gardens Green Fingered Blog
Plant just one variety for low maintenance impact 
You can achieve a similarly dramatic impact by filling any area, whatever the size, entirely with one plant variety. 

Whether it's ferns or flowers, sticking to a single variety can look striking and contemporary. 

Lined pathways

Do you have a path? If you do, what have you got alongside it? I saw a couple of examples at Hillier's of planting a single variety alongside a section of path. As with the mass planting mentioned above, this idea has more visual impact if a single variety is used. This can soften the hard landscaping, as with the black ophiophogon grass...

Ophiophogon Improve your garden Hillier Gardens Green Fingered Blog
Ophiophogon alongside this path

...or it can add colour in contrast to the stone or concrete on which you're walking, as with these bergenias: 
Bergenia Improve your garden Hillier Gardens Green Fingered Blog
Bergenias edging another path

A secluded place to sit

By crossing the Winchester road to a separate part of the Hillier gardens, I found myself in the Brentry Woodland, an area crammed full of rhododendrons offering a wide variety of colourful blooms at this time of year. 

It's a beautiful place through which to stroll, culminating in coming across this hexagonal summerhouse, offering a secluded place to sit and rest before returning to the main part of the gardens back across the road.
Secluded summerhouse Improve your garden Hillier Gardens Green Fingered Blog
The secluded summerhouse at Hillier Gardens
What struck me was how the summerhouse was literally embraced by it's surroundings. A large rhododendron enveloped it on one side, and arching tree branches offered a friendly and protective arm on the other.

They combine to create a small space of seclusion and tranquillity where you feel at one with the wood in which you are sitting. 

And of course you don't need a large summerhouse or mature trees to achieve this feeling. 

Whether you have a summerhouse, an arbour, a simple bench or even something as basic as a rock or log on which to sit, I would encourage you to surround it with lush planting and turn it into a secluded retreat. 

It needn't be a 60 year old rhododendron, you might only need a clematis or climbing rose to go up a bit of trellis to feel the same closeness with your surroundings. You could use a bushier shrub like Choisya or Pieris to partially hide your seat. 

Or you might want to sit and enjoy scent form the garden by using aromatic plants nearby. Just get them in really close for that sensation of enclosure and retreat.

Add curves

You may enjoy a garden full of geometric lines, sharp angles, symmetry and formality, with straight lines leading to clear focal points. So do I. 

But the lawns at Hillier's show the advantages of doing the opposite. Smooth sinuous curves guide the eye around the corner and invite you to follow, seeking to see more clearly what's initially obscured from view by the tree in the centre of each bed.

Curving lawns Improve your garden Hillier Gardens Green Fingered Blog
Gently curving lawns invite you around the corner

A gravel garden

It takes plenty of work to keep a lawn looking as good as the one above. If you haven't got time for that, a gravel garden might be the answer. The gravel will smother most of the weeds, and act as a mulch to retain moisture below, meaning less watering is needed.

The gravel garden Improve your garden Hillier Gardens Green Fingered Blog
The gravel garden

The gravel garden at Hillier's is a fine example, with winding paths between evergreen conifers complimented by a variety of other plants like euphorbia and juniper amongst the rocks and spilling over into the spaces between. There is also a planting of alpines in crevices between vertical slabs. This is something that be done on a very small scale, even in a broken pot.

Alpine planting Improve your garden Hillier Gardens Green Fingered Blog
Alpines planted in crevices

Add some fun and adventure

One of the great things at Hillier's is the efforts made to make the gardening interesting to children. There are play areas and educational pieces, stepping stone paths, and other clever ideas such as tall thick upright bamboo canes that can be played like a xylophone!

There is a grove of tall bamboo that becomes a natural maze or the ideal place for a game of hide and seek.
Bamboo grove Improve your garden Hillier Gardens Green Fingered Blog
The bamboo grove - a great hiding place 

My favourite though, is the boardwalk, where you can head along wooden planks, right through the boggy bed of otherworldly Gunnera plants, and end up in a den made from bamboo canes. This is actually surprisingly easy to recreate in your own garden:

Boardwalk Improve your garden Hillier Gardens Green Fingered Blog
Boardwalk through the garden

Bamboo cane den Improve your garden Hillier Gardens Green Fingered Blog
The den of bamboo canes

For a bit of easy extra fun in your garden, why not take inspiration from this pot in the form of a head? Grasses have been planted to give it some hair. You can do this at home with a much smaller pot, just paint the face on and sow some seeds!

Man in a pot Improve your garden Hillier Gardens Green Fingered Blog
Give a pot a face, and some hair!
I hope you found these garden ideas from Hillier's as inspirational as I have. I'm always looking for gardens to visit and ideas to bring home so look out for more inspiration for your garden soon!



  1. Some great tips here. I especially like the idea of layering. We have a beautiful magnolia tree and it is hard to get things to grow under it. I also like adding curves, it is something I am working on at the moment #mygloriousgarden

  2. Thanks Louisa. You should be able to get a decent display of woodland bulbs under your magnolia tree, like snowdrops, cyclamen coum, bluebells or anemone blanda. Ferns like Dryopteris erythrosora tolerate dry shade well, while Foxgloves do well out towards the edge of a shady area. You'll soon have a fine display under your magnolia!

  3. I love these tips! Less is more definitely applies to my little balcony garden. I also like the idea of grouping plants of varying sizes in one container. I'll try this once my seedlings grow enough to be transferred. #mygloriousgarden

    1. Hi Ann, several plants of different sizes grouped together is always a good idea - I look forward to seeing the results!

  4. Hello Paul,
    Isn’t it lovely when we can take away such inspiration from a garden that we visit? I love that each garden I visit I can choose one thing that may have made that garden special and I always then want to try it out in the Old House garden! These are some super ideas and tips for any gardener. I love plants alongside a pathway to soften it. Thank you for linking to #MyGloriousGardens. I will post a round up soon. I hope you can join in again in May. Sophie x

    1. Thanks Sophie. I'll certainly be visiting more gardens, so look out for more posts full of inspiration!!