Elder & Fern

Landscape Garden Design with Elder & Fern

Growing and nurturing is a common theme in the lives of Tom and Fiona Feltham. Their family, gardens and business have blossomed in perfect unity. Luxe speaks to the husband and wife duo on all things Elder & Fern

Elysia Fryer

Editor at Luxe

The birth of a new business brings so much excitement and opportunity, not only to the brains behind the idea, but also to the people surrounding it. And that has certainly been the case for Tom and Fiona Feltham as they dive into their second year as Elder & Fern.

It has transformed the business landscape, in the literal sense – finding a gap in the market for garden designers here in the North East – but it has also transformed family life for the husband and wife duo who are juggling life in business with a busy life with two young children.

The couple, who have spent all of their adult life together, have an incredibly strong bond, and it’s easy to see as they relax into our Zoom call and we share stories of working by the unpredictable clock of babies and toddlers.

Our chat, timed during naptime, perfectly encapsulates working around family life. For Tom and Fiona, it works. And paired with their love of gardens and the great outdoors, it made sense to take the plunge.

“As many people find when going self employed, it was a culmination of things that led to us making the jump,” Fiona starts.

“There was the pandemic, of course, which coincided with me being pregnant and working from home. We both liked our jobs but really wanted to do something together. We love doing everything together – we’ve been together since we were 15 – it’s very boring for people I know, but working together is just something we’ve always wanted to do.

Elder & Fern

Journey Towards Elder & Fern

“We knew our lives were massively changing with having children, so wanted to make sure we had a work/life balance in place in preparation for that.

“We wanted to go into something we knew we were passionate about. And we both lost our mums within two years, which was incredibly tough. They were both really into gardening – Tom’s mum had actually looked into working in garden design – so we both grew up with a massive love of gardening.”

“We had been talking about doing something for a long time,” Tom adds.

“But never really settled on exactly what it would be. One day, I remember walking into the lounge and Fiona said, ‘I’ve been thinking, why don’t we go into garden design?’.

“And it just made sense. It was what we spent a lot of our spare time doing. It was what we loved as a shared hobby. We had both grown up in gardening families. Our previous roles had design elements to them, so it kind of all just fell into place, from that conversation.”

“This time it didn’t feel like a passing comment,” Fiona laughs. “We really meant it and were fully on board.

“Tom has done a lot of work on climate change – he’s really passionate about that – so we wanted to incorporate that into whatever we chose to do.”

Elder & Fern

The Transition

Tom’s previous role was with a software company, so finding a business where his passion for environmental issues could really take flight, was key.

“As you can imagine, in a software company, there’s not a huge amount you can do in terms of climate change, but I was always off doing extra things in my spare time.

“With gardening, you can really work to make a difference. And I love that you can just learn and learn and learn. There are endless possibilities, and that’s really exciting to me. It’s a way of life and we’re able to transfer that into our family life too, which is very unique in terms of finding a work/life balance.”

Elder & Fern was born out of Tom and Fiona’s passion for gardening, but it was also born out of a need to offer a unique service in the North East. A service accessible to many different people.

“The majority of our work at the moment is going to residential properties and helping them transform their outside spaces,” Tom starts.

“We wanted to make the business as flexible as possible. Garden design, traditionally, has been mainly for larger projects with larger spaces and budgets. We wanted to create a service that was a bit more accessible to people – giving people the help where they need it.

“We offer concept design for the garden itself, as well as planting design for people who just want help with what plants to put where. Then the next stage is project managing a full build with our excellent landscaping partners Northshore Landscaping. Basically, whatever you need help with when it comes to your garden, we can put something together.”

Elder & Fern’s Commitment to Increasing Biodiversity

“Our aim at Elder & Fern is to work on gardens where we can increase biodiversity in as much of the project as possible,” Fiona adds.

“It’s all about greening up the space rather than making it about hard landscaping.”

Elder & Fern is a business built on family values and a genuine passion for improving our natural environment. So for Tom and Fiona, being able to improve the lives of other families by helping them connect with their outside spaces is a real privilege.

“We’ve already met some incredible people through our work,” Fiona starts.

“And seeing how investing in outdoor spaces can positively impact people’s lives will never get old. One project that really stands out for me is our first.”

“We met a really nice couple through a lead website called Bark, where people post job opportunities for garden design,” Tom starts.

“We explained that it would be one of our first official projects, but they were super lovely about it and really liked the idea of helping us kick off the business.

“They were just on the coast at Seaton Sluice, so only five minutes from us. They were really supportive all the way through the perfect first client.”

“I think, they really wanted us to do well,” Fiona adds.

“And they were forgiving when our inexperience showed, but it was a great learning curve and a fantastic way to get the business underway.

“It was a coastal front and back garden with Japanese influences. They wanted the front to be very naturalistic – almost replicating sand dunes because they were literally facing the seafront. It was quite challenging because with coastal gardens, the conditions can be pretty extreme, but they were really nice and really patient.

Elder & Fern

The Impact

“They invited us back that summer with the kids, so we could experience the finished project with them.

“Sadly, the gentleman died just a few months after we visited. The lady told us what happened, but explained to us how much the garden had changed both of their lives. He hadn’t necessarily been into gardening before, but it had really sparked his creativity and he was out there enjoying it everyday. So, as upsetting as that news was, it was nice to hear that our work had had such a positive impact on their lives.”

Working with the seasons is an important part of planning in projects, Tom and Fiona tell me, and as we head into the most colourful season of them all, the couple are busy and eager to get things moving.

“Most gardeners would agree that spring is the best time of year,” says Tom.

“Because it’s when everything starts coming back to life. There’s lots of planning and waiting in the winter months – especially in the north of England where winter feels a little longer. When you start seeing things like snowdrops and buds emerging, everything is waking back up again and it’s an exciting time to get out in the garden.

“For us, practically, it means a lot of planting. The ground is workable and we can start putting plants in the gardens that we’ve built over the winter.

“Everything feels new again. There are moments in the winter months where you wonder if everything is going to come back at all, but it always does and there’s always stuff to work with come springtime. The plants tend to know what they’re doing if you put them in the right places.”

Elder & Fern: Meticulous Planning

Planting is a huge part of the job, and it takes precise planning, often months and years in advance.

“Gardens can take years to mature, so it’s difficult for us to give instant results when it comes to the planting side of things,” Tom starts.

“So our clients really put their trust in us, which is incredibly flattering.”

Another key part of the business is research, learning every day and keeping up to date with current trends and garden initiatives.

“The big trend that I think we’ve been happy to see at the moment is that people are really keen to make their gardens more wildlife friendly – and I guess more environmentally friendly full stop,” says Tom.

“Particularly since the pandemic – people are really keen to bring a bit more nature into their outside spaces. We are really passionate about the fact that wildlife friendly gardens can exist in whatever form or aesthetic people are trying to achieve. So, even if you like contemporary style with clean lines and geometrics, we can find ways to bring in wildlife habitats or food sources.”

“We have a lot of family clients, who want to make their gardens as family friendly as possible, incorporating interactive aspects,” Fiona adds.

“Tying nature in is a fantastic way to do this. Our own garden is currently under construction, but the plan is to use it as a template for a family garden that is immersive, incorporating nature as much as possible.”

“We are passionate about gardens being a really enjoyable aspect of everyone’s lives,” says Tom.

Elder & Fern

Elder & Fern: Beyond Mere Aesthetics

“Traditionally, gardening has a stigma of being something our parents or grandparents might enjoy and nurture, but if you’re a busy family with young kids, your garden could be a huge part of your life. It can really connect to all aspects of your life whether that’s food, playtime, or your physical and mental health. Gardens can help improve many aspects of our lives.

“It takes it beyond aesthetics. What we really want to do is positively impact people’s day to day lives.”

This is shaping up to be a busy year for Tom and Fiona, juggling family life with a number of gardens on the go, lots of community work and bigger projects in the pipeline.

“We’ve got a big stately home project which we might be working on,” says Fiona.

“As a small husband and wife team, we were incredibly flattered to be approached. That will be something completely new to us, but we can’t wait for the challenge.”

Living where they do, on the edge of North Tyneside, Tom and Fiona are lucky to have a bit of everything at their fingertips in terms of the natural environment.

“We have the rolling countryside in one direction, and the coast in the other – so it means we’ve got access to a whole host of different environments when it comes to gardening. We’re also close to the city, so we’ve done quite a lot of work with urban gardens, which is always a fun one. It’s fantastic in terms of building our portfolio,” says Tom.

Life Outside Work

When they’re not working on gardens, Tom and Fiona like to spend as much time as possible outdoors with their young family.

“We’re quite good at switching off when we need to,” Tom starts.

“We chose the career because we love gardening, so there’s never that feeling of totally switching off, but we are able to remove ourselves from our emails and to-do lists to enjoy family time.

“We’re lucky that our kids love to be outside with us, enjoying gardens.”

“We spend a lot of our time visiting National Trust gardens,” Fiona adds.

“The kids get to run around, and we get to take photographs of plants. We all get our fix.”

“The kids are genuinely really curious about nature and plants,” says Tom.

“Quite often, kids are more engaged than anyone when it comes to appreciating nature, so we can actually learn a lot from them.

“Of course, sometimes they can get cold and miserable and would rather spend time indoors, but most of the time they’re interested in what we are doing in terms of gardens and outside space.”

“We also love our home and our hobbies,” says Fiona.

“We love baking, reading and creating in any way we can. Any opportunity to spend quality time together as a family in our own environment, as well as those beautiful environments around us.”

“It’s hard to not get sucked into the daily routine of family life – getting the kids ready and doing the nursery run and what have you – so we make a conscious effort of trying to do something different every day,” says Tom.

Elder & Fern

Elder & Fern: The Joy of Gardens

“Gardens are a great example of something that can help make the day feel a little different. It might be that you notice something new in bloom, or you can pick something in the garden that can be used for tea that evening. In the summer, we pretty much just open the doors and the kids run around in the garden all evening. It really is the best form of entertainment for children – and adults too!

“Something I try to change people’s perception on is that getting into gardening and growing and plants doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have your own private space, it could be going out for a walk, or enjoying parks.

“One thing we love to do at the end of summer is pick blackberries from hedgerows. There are loads of opportunities out there, you just have to find them and get a little bit creative with it.

“Use the rest of the world as your garden and enjoy it!”