The Oak Processionary Moth

By Helen Elks-Smith.

Oak processionary moth (OPM) was first found in south-west London in the summer of 2006 and was probably brought in on infected oak trees from Europe. The caterpillars feed on oak leaves and can strip the tree bare, leaving it vulnerable to other pests and diseases and less able to withstand extreme weather conditions such as drought and flood.

The caterpillar is also a problem to people pets and wildlife. The caterpillars have thousands of tiny hairs which can be blown on the wind. These hairs contain an irritating substance ‘thaumetopoein’ which causes irritation and rashes on contact, and in some cases sore throats, eye problems and breathing difficulty.


At the moment OPM remains confined to sites in the South and West of London and one in Berkshire, although scientists believe that it could survive and breed in much of England and Wales. It is imperative that we act now to protect our open spaces and prevent OPM from spreading to the wider landscape of England and Wales.

Biosecurity measures to help contain and possibly eradicate OPM include tree passports for imported oak trees and restrictions on tree movement in infected areas. Infected trees are treated with a combination of surveying, spraying and manual nest removal.

To be successful these biosecurity measures need to be fully enforced and you can help. If you visit an affected area, take care to ensure that you do not bring anything away with you that may spread the infection (such as plant matter , twigs and branches) If you already have oak trees on your property, survey them regularly for signs of the nests and caterpillars so any infection can be caught early before it spreads. If you are planting new oaks, make sure they are from reputable suppliers and, if from abroad or infected areas in the UK, that they have a plant passport

webtrailIf you think I have seen OPM caterpillars or nests:
Do not touch or approach caterpillars or nests.
Keep people away away from nests, caterpillars and affected trees.
See a doctor or vet if seriously affected by symptoms.
Report sighting (with photo if possible) to local council or Forestry Commission
For further information visit
Landscape and garden designer Helen Elks-Smith is a BALI Design Excellence award winner based in the New Forest. She feels passionate about conservation and the future of our landscape. Helen has teamed up with sponsor’s The City of London Corporation, to design a garden for RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2014, to raise public awareness of the threat of oak processionary moth and the importance of biosecurity measures to contain it.

Front Gardens – Let’s hear it for the Victorians!

By garden designer Helen Elks Smith. Our front gardens have a tricky time fulfilling everything that we ask of them and often the easiest solution to satisfying the parking, dustbin and access needs is to pave the whole thing over. But it doesn’t need to be this way and there are many good reasons to look at other ways of making our front gardens work both for us and the environment we live in.

When people ask ‘What did the Victorians do for us?’, one of the replies could be ‘they introduced front gardens to our cities and towns’. They valued the space as somewhere to plant flowers, relax and chat with neighbours, and to provide a buffer between home and the busy world beyond. In many parts of the country people are re-discovering the simple but enormous pleasure of a front garden and the benefits it can bring to our community and the environment. Getting to know your neighbours whilst gardening or watching the children play and reducing the amount of run-off water are just a couple of examples.

Front garden

My job as a garden designer is to create an attractive relaxing space that also fulfils a variety of practical needs. Some of the considerations I bear in mind are:

  • Pathways – how are visitors and family going to reach the front door? The path needs to be obvious but can be made attractive using hedges and planting.
  • Parking – How many cars need to park in the garden as opposed to the road? How much turning room do they need? How much area is left for grass, planting, pots and planters?
  • Drive materials – use of brick and cellular paving, gravel and plasticised mesh are attractive alternatives to tarmac and concrete and allow rain water to soak away instead of forming problematic run off.
  • Refuse – for ease of collection, bins often need to be in the front garden but screening with fencing or hedges means they do not need to be an eyesore.
  • Privacy – Using hedges and fencing to get the balance right between feeling exposed and feeling hemmed in.

Front garden path

When it is cold and wet we rarely spend much time in our back gardens but through necessity our front gardens are used every single day of the year. Planting trees with attractive bark such as Himalayan birch and paperbark maple, shrubs that flower through the winter together with snowdrops, narcissus and hellebores will lift your spirits at this time of the year when they need lifting the most.

So let’s hear it for the Victorians, and for the potential we have in all of our front gardens!

Helen Elks-Smith has a busy design practice in the New Forest and is currently working on a number of projects across London and the South. She won the prestigious BALI Design Excellence Award 2013 and is being sponsored by the City of London to exhibit a garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year.

Notes of pathways

By garden designer Helen Elks Smith. There is an increasing body of evidence demonstrating the impact of nature, greenery and the effect that simply being outside has on our everyday lives.

It has been shown that we react at a deeply subconscious level to our surroundings. There is evidence that it takes just 3 minutes for green landscapes to give significant relief from stress and anxiety.  Our gardens have a positive impact on our daily lives.

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Building blocks used by garden designers are, in the main, green and these are used to define spaces.  The connections between these spaces have an atmosphere that determines how we feel when moving around the garden.  These pathways can hinder or encourage movement.

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Closely planted avenues of pollarded trees such as limes have been used for centuries to create lightly shaded walkways where one might take a ‘turn around the garden’.   The narrower the trees,  the faster you will walk beneath them.   Planting the trees with a wider gap underneath also allows vehicles to pass beneath, although on this busy B road (below) in Dorset the cars are generally going too fast to appreciate the subtle pull of the landscape.

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Under the strong heat and light of the Mediterranean sun, this high, narrow path in the Alhambra in southern Spain offers welcome shade.

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But in the UK, this tall evergreen hedge would feel uncomfortable, despite the gentle curve, and it would be less used or cause you to speed up as you passed through.

The overall design works best if the path’s planting also supports movement.  Different plant forms create different atmospheres; strong uprights and arching forms such as stipa gigantea tend to dominate and create a focal point, which through repetition can lead the eye and encourage movement.  Here (below) at Wisley, wide planting beds of stipa gigantea  are balanced by the anchoring affect of the Achillea ‘Coronation Gold’  edging the paths as they curve away from the glasshouse. The overall atmosphere is restful as you stroll along the path.

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More upright forms can be used to create quicker and more forceful movement.   Unless you want to create a stampede, soften and slow the movement by  anchoring the planting with dome-shaped plants to add more stability.    Here the vertical stems and form  of the chinese birch (betula albosinensis ‘Fascination’) and the white foxgloves are balanced by the flat leaves and mounding form of the hosta, the horizontal leaves of the cimifuga, the pincushion flowers of the cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ and astrantia

To maximize the impact of our gardens on how we feel we need to ensure that there is somewhere  we can simply sit and enjoy a cup of tea.   If we plan our pathways well we will be encouraged out into the garden and the countdown on those 3 minutes will start as soon as we set foot outside.

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Field of Dreams

By Helen Elks-Smith MSGD

One of my strongest child hood memories was of walking to the Post Office with my mother through the village playing field. The field buzzed with life. Grassy stalks and flowers gently swayed before me, stretching out in all directions on one of those glorious summer days that at times only our distant pasts seem to hold. As I grew older management of the playing field changed and the grass was never allowed to reach more than an inch high. Even as a child this struck me as sad, a missed opportunity. I was left with a lifelong delight in meadows that quickly re connect me with those feelings of warmth and wonder.

It was not that many years ago when the mention of meadows would place you firmly on the fringe. The work of many designers over the years and the success of the Olympic park in 2012 has boosted interest once more and this year we have seen a big increase in interest in meadows as part of the garden design.

Meadows work in many situations; from small urban gardens through to large country estates. A couple of years ago our winning entry for the Jacksons Fencing Show Garden competition was for a design for an environmentally sensitive  young couple who had little time for gardening yet enjoyed the outside. The planting was made up of rosa rugosa enclosing the deck and Acer globosum and box rounds to provide a contrasting shape and texture.  Rosa rugosa ‘Roseraie de L’Hay’ has a bold pink colour and wonderful fragrance but the more compact R. rugosa ‘Fru Dagmar Hastrup’ is good if space is a premium.  The rest of the garden was planted with meadow turf and enhanced for an early show with aquilegia.  By mid May the meadow turf is full flow and filling the ‘borders’.  The meadow is simply cut in summer making this a very low maintenance scheme and quietly atmospheric design solution.


Wilder spaces, plantings and meadows have often been used throughout garden history to settle properties into their surroundings and to connect to the borrowed landscape.  Close to a house familiar garden styles and forms often work well to create spaces within which we live yet can jar against a rural landscape.  Meadows and naturalistic plantings act as buffers to ease the transition between house and setting.



Meadows can be established in a number of ways and as in all planting, success depends greatly on the ground preparation.  For our clients we strip back the topsoil and use wild flower turf rather than seed or plug plants as we have found this to be the most successful approach.  We also use a wildflower turf which is sown with Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) which is semi-parasitic on grasses) as this helps establish the meadow.   The meadow may need cutting 4 times or so in the first year if the soil is too rich and the grasses dominant.  Once the meadow is in balance the yellow rattle is removed before it sets seed.  If you are in a very sensitive site an ecological survey can be carried out and wildflower turf developed from particular seed mixes as a special order.  Meadow turf is available for full sun and shade.

Maintenance once established is pretty straight forward.  An annual cut and a bit of weeding will probably be all that is needed.  Cut from July to the end of summer for a spring meadow or late August/September for a summer meadow. Spring meadows are often preferable for family gardens where extended lawn space for play is highly desirable over the summer holiday.  Summer and Spring meadow maintenance cuts encourage different plant species. If your lawnmower struggles then a strimmer should make short work of it but make sure you remove the cuttings to keep fertility low.  Before you cut take a look and see whether the seed has fallen.  Either delay the timing of the cut or leave the cuttings for a few days before clearing them away.

Of course meadows don’t simply have the capacity to distract small children from thoughts of blackjacks and the long walk top the Post Office, they also support insects and butterflies.  But that is a topic for another day.

Elks-Smith Garden Design is an award winning garden design practice based on the borders of East Dorset and Hampshire.