Geometric Islamic courtyards, Italianate terraces and the grand landscapes of ‘Capability’ Brown – throughout history, people have manipulated their outside space, and the tradition continues to the present day, from abundant allotments and back gardens to ambitious civic designs such as New York’s High Line or London’s Olympic Park.
Anyone with even a passing awareness of the Chelsea Flower Show will realise that landscape design is no cottage (garden) industry – and like any other area of design, it’s prey to the vagaries of fashion. So, with Chelsea’s Main Avenue as our catwalk, who are the new gardening supermodels?
Hugo Bugg is the name on everyone’s lips. Now 29, he’s been winning accolades since his final year at Falmouth University: in 2008, the Society of Garden Designers (SGD) gave him the student award; in 2010, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) named him Young Designer of the Year. This was followed by a gold medal at the 2011 Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, while 2014 saw him become the youngest winner of a gold medal for a Main Avenue show garden at Chelsea (he earned a silver-gilt medal at this year’s show). He’s based in Exeter, but his work has taken him around the globe, notably to Jordan, where he’s designing the Royal Botanic Garden. ‘I’ve always pushed for using local materials, and I feel people are becoming increasingly interested in the qualities and benefits of these materials,’ he says.
Not to be outdone, brothers Harry and David Rich, both in their twenties, took gold at Chelsea in 2015, breaking Bugg’s record as youngest-ever winner. Originally from Wales, they run their practice, Rich Landscapes, from Shoreditch in London, where they’re building a reputation for pushing boundaries. Away from the show-garden circuit, the siblings created a garden at London’s Saatchi Gallery to accompany Chanel’s Mademoiselle Privée exhibition. Naturalistic planting (soft grasses, wild meadow flowers and more than 200 trees), plus steel, charred oak and gravel created a haven that included motifs from the fashion icon’s life, such as the interlocking Cs and a chevron pattern from one of her handbags. Since then, the brothers have been working on the outside space at London’s 31-storey Canaletto Tower. ‘We’ve been fortunate to be offered some very creative and inspiring projects over the past few years,’ says younger brother David. ‘And we’ve already had the opportunity to travel abroad to work on them.’ The pair recently made their BBC TV debut on Garden Rescue.
Another ex-Falmouth student is Sam Ovens, 28, who graduated in 2012. He won silver for a conceptual garden at Hampton Court in 2011 and gold at Tatton Park in 2014 – when he was also named RHS Young Designer of the Year. His latest public outing was at Chelsea, which earned him a silver-gilt. ‘I create landscapes rather than gardens,’ he explains. ‘I want to create places that are encapsulating, that look beautiful all year round and change with the seasons, that need to be experienced rather than just seen.’ His garden at Chelsea echoed this principle. A heathland landscape, it employed grasses and heathers, plus wind-blown pine trees, and included a cabin made of western red cedar. ‘Building a garden at Chelsea was one of my biggest ambitions, so to have achieved that this year was a really big thing for me. At the moment, I’m working on a range of projects: a small city garden in Manchester, a nature-based play area for a school in Hampshire and a large coastal garden in Cornwall. I love having a variety of projects on the go and meeting the different challenges they bring.’
Tom Massey won a gold medal and Best Conceptual Garden (with John Ward) at the 2016 Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. ‘I loved the challenge of creating a show garden, then witnessing the public’s response to it,’ he says. ‘I used a British wildflower meadow, but enhanced it with unusual and colourful perennials, and people seemed to love the aesthetic.’ In 2015, Pro Landscaper magazine named him among its ‘30 Under 30’ – a group of young people with outstanding potential to succeed in the landscape industry. As well as setting up his own practice, Massey has spent time working with established designers Matthew Wilson and Jo Thompson. ‘In an increasingly hectic world, I’m really interested in how green space can make people feel better, both mentally and physically.’
Common themes for designers at all stages of their career include the desire to connect inside and outside space, using the garden as an integral element of the home. Naturalistic planting is to the fore, alongside a growing environmental awareness. Juliet Roberts, editor of Gardens Illustrated magazine, says, ‘There’s a trend towards more naturalistic planting inspired by, although not replicating, plant communities found in the wild. Leading designers are also making sure they choose materials carefully – they are seeking to make a closer connection with those found locally, as this ensures a garden sits well in its setting.’
Jo Midwinter, another name to watch – she won the Paper Landscapes category at the 2015 SGD awards – agrees: ‘People are becoming much more aware of their footprint on the planet, meaning sustainable materials, robust compatible planting and clever water management are important. They're seeking designs that will allow them to spend more time outside, so want a fire pit, waterproof soft furnishings and subtle lighting. As a designer, I want to create atmospheric spaces.’ And that’s a sentiment echoed by Sam Ovens: ‘More than ever, clients are looking for an outdoor space in which to relax and lose themselves, in which to reconnect with nature and forget about the business of everyday life.’
Fellow SGD award winner Emily Erlam – this time in the Future Designer (joint) and Small Budget Garden categories – says, ‘We’re all looking to make the most of our outside space, so there’s a trend towards greening up roof terraces and balconies.
They can be tricky and expensive, but add a whole extra dimension to apartment living.’ Tamara Bridge, RHS Young Designer of the Year 2015, agrees. For her, it’s all about greenery: ‘There’s been a sway towards the traditional, with more emphasis on planting than on concrete. What’s a garden, after all, if you’re not surrounded by plants?’
Debra Stottor is a journalist and garden designer