Country House Heroes

Daniel Combes – Garden Designer

July. 2023
Listed in House & Garden‘s June 2023 Rising Stars – the design talents to watch for 2023 – Daniel Combes Garden Design is listed as one of the 25 people they expect to be making waves in the years to come.  Based in Wiltshire; Daniel should be top of the list for those wishing to commission a garden designer.

Guild Anderson clients commission us to design and make bespoke handmade kitchens, pantries, sculleries and boot rooms for country houses of all sizes.  Sometimes clients focus on the garden while waiting for planning to be approved, while for others commissioning a garden designer may not be the number one priority when renovating a home or relocating to the countryside.  Making the house habitable, decorating, installing a new kitchen can naturally be more front of mind.

However when one considers the garden as an extension of the home environment – another set of rooms and spaces for living and enjoying – then commissioning a landscape architect or garden designer makes perfect sense in conceiving your home and estate, however large or small, as one entity, one vision.

Wiltshire based landscape architect Dan Combes had an unconventional entry into this field.  He spent three years adventuring in the Amazon rainforest where he became profoundly inspired by tropical biology before moving to Arizona to study Environmental Science with a focus on botany, and a minor in Political Economy.  To meet the demands of college fees, he came back to England each summer to run a garden maintenance business, learning the craft of gardening.  While his friends relaxed during their summer holidays he got his hands dirty learning all he could about plants and their environment.

Dan's approach to design is very much rooted in his experiences as an ecologist and a gardener. He is as at home with a spade in his hand as a pencil on the drawing board.

Dan’s work ethic from his student days continues to be the force that drives him today.  He moved back to London 10 years ago and continued his work in garden maintenance, but this time working for Daniel Back for three years.  Located in Hammersmith Daniel Back had previously worked with leading garden designer Arne Maynard, and the garden maintenance contracts he managed saw Dan working in some of Arne’s impressive gardens.

Arne Maynard is one of the garden designers that Dan most admires.  By working and maintaining Arne’s London gardens through all seasons, he learnt to appreciate planting schemes and plants in all their forms.  Under Daniel Back’s guidance Dan developed an even greater appreciation of landscape design, learning how to draw plans and planting layouts.  Dan confesses to having always had a vivid and creative imagination, spending much of his free time as a child outdoors.  Being taught to draw plans for garden designs ignited a passion, and it is this process of designing that he now adores.

Inspired by the natural environment, Wiltshire’s chalk downland and a childhood love of hill forts, his favourite plant is surprisingly hawthorn.  A true native species; Dan describes it as “old, gnarled, unpredictable, yet tough and resilient”.  It is often seen blown in to shape on hillsides; it is the true essence of the English Countryside.

With a background in ecology and recognising the need to restore habitats, we have been working with clients to plant woodlands, create wildflower meadows, and adopt a light-touch management plan on parts of their property.

As well as Arne, Dan appreciates the work of Jinny Blom for her landscape architectural designs and Olivier Filippi a French landscape designer who specialises in dry drought tolerant gardening.  Businesses that he enjoys working with include Coade, who are currently creating bespoke planters for a client, and he has recently commissioned Bosco London to design and make a bespoke outdoor dining table.

Returning to Wiltshire 6 years ago he set out on his own.  His first garden commission was in East Knoyle, Wiltshire

He painstakingly drew the garden design by hand, something he still loves to do, and a true craft.  However this project proved to be a baptism of fire.  Hampered by terrible weather the ground was so waterlogged that the specialist contractors had to leave site as they could not proceed with their machinery.  Not wishing to delay the project Dan dug holes by hand for each of the crabapple trees.  He calls this project his “university education” – it taught him so much.  From initial concept to design, hard landscaping and physical groundwork; there isn’t any aspect of this project he didn’t touch.  Despite the set-backs and steep learning, this Wiltshire garden still remains one of his favourites.

The generation of wildflower meadows can require some significant upfront intervention to give ourselves the best chance of long-term success. Management of these meadows is as important as installation.

A year ago Dan was joined by Robert Thrussell a trained landscape architect, and this year there are plans for the team to expand further with the addition of another garden designer.   Dan and his team work collaboratively with clients, adhering to a strict budget, working closely with the client to ensure their vision is achieved.  The majority of his commissions are through word of mouth, and have taken him across the UK as well as through Spain.

Dan’s understanding of the natural world, coupled with his experience as an ecologist and gardener, affords him a comprehensive approach to garden design.  For those with larger estates he offers advice on habitat and landscape, what to plant and how to maintain these spaces.  Projects have included planting woodland, scrubland and wildflower meadows.  Advising owners on maintenance of these unique habitats that does not involve farming is key, allowing each zone to be managed for their biodiversity, enabling the ecosystem to naturally evolve offers a more natural alternative.

To have such a broad understanding of the natural environment is one of Dan’s strengths.  However he is quick to admit that each day is a new day to learn; whether it is devouring books on dry gardens, getting his hands dirty with planting, or discussing the role that scrubland plays within the fragile eco structure of the natural landscape, Dan is engaging and knowledgeable.

Our understanding of rewilding is grounded in ecology. Succession is the process by which the structure of a biological community evolves over time.

While Guild Anderson’s bespoke designs focus on the interior of a property, we are often asked about the spaces beyond, especially the space beyond the kitchen.  Dan considers this space an excellent opportunity for a low maintenance garden, an area to dwell and inhabit with friends and family.  He would include a terrace to accommodate an eating area and engulf that area with planting.  Here drought tolerant plants can take care of themselves; herbaceous borders can be interspersed with herbs, easily accessible from the kitchen itself.  Further on from this more formal space he would progressively soften the landscaping according to the property.

Dan is a profoundly focused and passionate creative designer with a drive to understand the holistic management of our landscape.  He loves the juxtaposition of the strong architectural lines of hard landscaping with natural form, and while he chooses to work with specialist contractors for some aspects of the build, Dan and his team continue to arrange and plant the garden themselves to ensure the project is realised to its full potential.

There has been a noticeable change in the last few years in the way clients are managing their properties, both internally as well as externally; very much in line with focusing on the way that we should tread lightly on the earth and renovate with a delicate hand.  Guild Anderson has noticed that more clients are now considering the renovation of the building as well as the landscape beyond their homes, and how best to manage it with a more holistic vision. It is an exciting time for the regeneration of some our country’s period properties and their gardens.

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