Gardener without borders

Garden designer Mark Lane

Mark Lane was shocked to find there were no other garden designers using wheelchairs - Credit: MSL Creative UK

Mark Lane's confinement to a wheelchair is not a boundary to his love of plants and gardening. In fact, the Hitchin-born designer has his passion to thank for his thriving career after his life was turned upside down, writes Philippa Pearson.

‘My grandmother had a garden full of roses,' Mark Lane remembers. 'It was always a special place to visit.' 

The Hitchin-born garden designer and regular presenter on Gardeners' World has many fond memories of the county and returns often.

‘There’s a rich offering of gardens and outside spaces in Hertfordshire,’ says the 52-year-old, ‘with many being inspirational to my work.’ 

One of his favourite places to visit is Hitchin Lavender at Ickleford, near Hitchin. This family run flower farm is situated on the gentle rolling slopes of the Wilbury Hills, and in summer has rows of lavender, acres of sunflowers and a wildflower meadow to explore. With stunning countryside views and relaxing walks, the lavender fields are a much loved landmark of North Hertfordshire and you can’t help but feel inspired here.

When he was a child, Mark remembers visiting Hatfield House and being in awe of the gardens. ‘I love the large open vistas in the gardens and the magnificent pleached lime walk is a magical place, especially when you are a child. I admire the naturalistic planting of spring bulbs, and the maze is very special.’ 

Woodland flowers are among Mark’s favourites. The 165 acre Whippendell Wood next to Cassiobury Park in Watford is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its diverse habitats, and Mark often used to visit the wood in late spring when he was younger to see the amazing display of bluebells there.

Garden designer Mark Lane filming for the BBC

Mark filming for the BBC - Credit: BBC

‘For snowdrops, it has to be Bennington Lordship,’ he adds. 'The display there is simply outstanding.'
The spectacular Grade II* gardens designed by Humphry Repton in 1813 at Ashridge House are another of his favourite places to visit in the county. ‘I particularly love the Monk’s Garden there. It’s a lovely relaxing space.’ 

While always having a love of gardens, it was not his first career. His job as a garden designer came out of life-changing circumstances. After his family moved from Hertfordshire, Mark grew up in Hove and went to school in Brighton, before studying art history at UCL. He went on to have a successful career in publishing, as publishing director for the Royal Institute of British Architects and then managing director of Thames & Hudson, the arts publishers.

But a diagnosis of spina-bifida followed by surgery, and then almost immediately afterwards a car crash, meant that in his early 30s he could no longer walk and needed a wheelchair. 

It was a devastating blow that Mark admits left him in a 'very, very dark place'. 

With the Kent countryside home he shared with his civil partner Jasen no longer practical, the couple moved to a run-down 1960s bungalow which was redeveloped into an accessible, fully computerised, home. The project kept him sane, Mark says, and when that was finished, he turned his attention to the garden, studying books on gardening and garden design for ideas.

Mark Lane's Kent garden

Mark's garden in Kent, full of his favourite plants and accessed via pathways around beds - Credit: Mark Lane Designs

Having worked with leading landscape architects and gardening experts such as Monty Don and Christopher Lloyd during his time in publishing it had inspired a real love of gardening and its relation to architecture for Mark. He decided to train as a garden designer, and did an Open Learning course which was best suited to his accessibility needs and gave a good strong basis for his new career, which sees Mark as the UK’s first garden designer in a wheelchair, running his eponymous design business. 

Mark transformed the garden of just under an acre at his Kent home into a relaxing place. It showcases his favourite plants and put his love of nature and contemporary design into practice.

‘The garden, which has the house situated in the middle of it, is divided into different areas, with a herb garden, borders with blue and yellow planting, and also a white garden, a mini orchard and a wildflower area,’ Mark says.

Planters accessible from a wheelchair in Mark Lane's home garden 

Planters accessible from a wheelchair in Mark's home garden - Credit: Mark Lane Designs

There’s a green oak pergola with espalier pear and peach trees, and solar panels on the pergola generate electricity for the house. The house and garden is surrounded by fields, and Mark wanted to create a contemporary-wild feel to the garden so that it blended with its surroundings, and also sat well with the redesign of the house. To achieve this, straight paths and clipped hedging add definition, while colourful and diverse planting add lots of interest. Mark included lighting in the garden so the space becomes a delightful place to enjoy in the evenings as well. 

When he’s not attending to his own garden and designing them for clients, Mark has a busy career as a gardening writer and BBC gardening presenter, including presenting on BBC Morning Live, BBC Gardeners’ World and RHS Flower Show. He has a regular column in the Daily Express, Garden News and Grow Your Own and is the gardening expert for Stannah. He is also an ambassador for the charities Groundwork, Thrive, Greenfingers, Leonard Cheshire and Melanoma Fund and patron of Core Landscapes. Mark appears on many radio stations, is a regular speaker for the horticultural industry and is a disability advocate.  

From a time when he couldn't physically or mentally get himself out of bed, he has come a very long way, with gardening to thank. He is a firm believer that 'green spaces can change people's lives'.