An RHS Gold Medal-winner, Kate is one of Britain’s hottest properties in garden design, having created two Chelsea gardens and worked on a host of high-profile projects. Here, she tells us about her creative influences and gives us the inside story on co-creating the Jo Whiley Scent Garden for BBC Radio 2.
Hi Kate, you’ve had some notable successes; what’s been your proudest moment so far?
I’m incredibly proud of all the show gardens I’ve designed or been involved in creating. My ‘Young Designers Award’ at Tatton Park is a stand-out memory for me as it was a Gold Medal winning for my first show garden for the RHS. Then going on to build at Chelsea two years in a row is unbelievable.
Something I’m pretty chuffed about is coming up in May for me. I’m going to be taking part in a schools’ gardening day at The Royal School in Surrey on their annual ‘Grow For It’ day. The event is a whole variety of different horticultural experiences and learning about wildlife for children of all ages and I’m going to be taking over the reins from Alan Titchmarsh as the expert – so no pressure! I have to say it was quite the compliment when I was asked to be involved.
The event follows on from my work as a mentor on the RHS Green Plan-it, where I was inspired by the enthusiasm of the school children to help encourage them into horticulture.
Can you tell us how you got into garden design and what it is you enjoy about it?
I would say it was a rather random series of events that got me into garden design! Art was always my passion. I was a whisker away from handing in my application to become an Art teacher, when I had a change of heart and jumped at the chance to join my friend travelling to the other side of the world instead. Whilst traveling, I volunteered with an environmental charity which really opened my eyes to the importance of issues such as deforestation and our influence on the planet. Also, just generally living outside felt like a comfortable environment for me and on my travels, I decided to take up garden design.
My parents are also keen gardeners and I think this helped to inform my decision. I realised that I could combine my passion for the countryside with my natural hands-on creativity, so I signed up for a qualification in Garden Design and have never looked back!
The part that I love the most about garden design is to discuss the aspirations of my clients and use these to guide my designs, so that the finished result is a space truly personal for them and changes the way they use their gardens. I really enjoy being creative and imagining what a space will look like and I equally enjoy the practical hands-on problem solving involved in bringing a design to fruition.
Tell us about your experiences at Chelsea…
I have created two show gardens now at RHS Chelsea Flower show and worked on other designer’s gardens previously, including with Adam Frost, whom I used to work for. So I’ve got to know the showground quite well and from the start I loved to be around the buzz of the whole build.
There’s something quite magical working with everyone frantically beavering away to create gardens, install floral exhibits and pull together trade stands. And, although there is the competitive element with the medals, everyone is so supportive of each other – sharing tools & plants, shifting rocks, soil and trees, and sharing a cuppa!
On the first garden in 2017, I worked with my friend and design partner Tamara Bridge for the first time to create the Jo Whiley Scent Garden. That year we were asked, quite last minute, by the RHS who had teamed up with the BBC to create one of their five show gardens to celebrate the 50th anniversary of BBC Radio 2. It was a real honour to be asked and somehow, we managed to pull it all together in seven weeks. Normally the average garden would take a year to plan and build!
It felt like a moment in time where everything just came together, notably creating a bespoke curvy concrete wall, all thanks to Carl from Chiltern GRC and Jody Lidgard of Bespoke Outdoor Spaces. I’m still a bit amazed it ever happened. We had such a great team working with us on this project and really appreciated how everyone made time for it out of their busy schedules and at such short notice. We also got to know Jo Whiley herself and it was great to hang out with her. She is a very keen gardener, so we spent a lot of time talking about plants!
Our second design was very different, it was to create an Artisan garden for Warner Edwards Gin (now Warner’s Gin). It was a wonderful challenge reimagining the Northamptonshire farm in a small Artisan garden. The planting was a rich mix of aromatic ingredients of the gin, including natural flavours like sloes, wild rose and elderflower found in the hedgerows. It was so rewarding to transfer the garden back to the farm so that it will live on well after its temporary home at the show.
We note that the first word on your website is ‘creative’. Can you explain a little more about what creativity means to you and how it informs your work?
Creativity means a lot to me, because it’s the only way I know to work. I’ve never given anything else thought – art and design was the route for me. I remember being in my room and frantically ‘designing’ clothes, or designing our dream house with my neighbour, or making clothes.
I love how you can get lost in imagination and getting inspired by pretty much anything. I don’t think it’s been an easy route to take, as being a ‘creative’ can sometimes feel quite daunting, as jobs can sometimes seem not very obvious when you are young, but for me discovering garden design has made sense of the array of skills I’ve learnt though my education. From learning about shape, form, texture and colour at college and university, this has really translated to what I do now.
Sometimes I can see what shapes and forms fit best into a garden which helps me come up with my designs fairly quickly. I also particularly enjoy experimenting with planting schemes and have often been complimented on my ability to “paint with plants” in creating my designs.
Are you known for a particular approach?
I don’t really like to push a particularly strong style as I like to treat each garden and client as an individual project. I like to work with my clients to try and pull out the right information to get the garden they really want. As a rule of thumb, I like to keep it clean and simple, not over-stuff a design, as I feel a well-considered concept is the core of good design.
This allows you to embellish the layout with furniture or planting, like a layering effect, but this doesn’t say I ignore my own advice sometimes. I strive to create gardens that have a sense of timelessness – as a garden’s shape shifts and matures over time. Something I really like to capture in my gardens is a sense of atmosphere, making the most of the natural elements like light and movement.
In all of my show gardens, I’ve worked with herbs and medicinal plants, which is just a coincidence really, but I do quite like the idea of having useful plants as well as beautiful ones and also working with natural products as much as possible.
What would be your dream project?
I’ve always thought it would be great to work on a public garden project – something that would be used and discovered by a whole range of people, creating something that would grow to live on for a lifetime and be sustainable for further generations to enjoy.
I am currently involved with a bit of a dream project, working with Globe Gardens who I work with as a consultant designer. It’s a large private garden in Wiltshire and the client is a keen art collector, so I do have to say this project couldn’t be more perfect for my love of art and garden design. It’s been an absolute pleasure to work on the layout for this garden creating great viewpoints to discover the sculptures.
And, of course, ultimately I would love to create a main avenue show garden at Chelsea.
Which creative people inspire you?
Frida Kahlo is pretty cool – I’m probably drawn to her for her strong use of colour and her creativity – she is also a strong female icon. My Nan has always been an inspiration to me, being an artist and photographer herself and she always encouraged us to create art. I have a lot to thank her for.
Garden designers Sarah Price and Nigel Dunett’s approach to planting is really inspiring to me – I really like their naturalist style and the painterly touch to their schemes, also Dunett’s work on sustainable planting.
Artist Barbara Hepworth and her husband Ben Nicolson’s use of shapes and form can really help me get unstuck when I’m designing. Also coming from Cornwall, I remember lots of school art trips to the Barbara Hepworth museum in St. Ives and love her workshop and garden, discovering all the sculptures!
Bonus question! What’s the next big project in your diary?
Along with the garden in Wiltshire, I’m also back at Chelsea working on the Montessori garden designed by Jody Lidgard as part of the planting team. One project I’m working on at the moment is a great coastal project down in my homeland of Cornwall for a renovation of an old cottage and a new extension that makes the most of the sea views. The garden is an extremely steep site, as the property is built into the cliff side, so it will be a challenge to soften the building into the existing landscape and it will be really exciting to see it come together.
And there is some TV work coming up with Tamara that I’m really excited about, but I can’t talk about it yet… watch this space!