Why I’ll always design gardens by Ann-Marie Powell

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In Progress Design - RHS Wisley Wildlife Garden opening in 2020.


In Progress Design – RHS Wisley Wildlife Garden opening in 2020.

After some twenty years as a professional garden designer, I feel slightly self-conscious in admitting that I’m still very much in love with my job. When the phone rings in the studio, I am genuinely excited about each and every client enquiry and feel privileged to be invited by individuals or companies to redesign their outdoor space.

At dinner parties, I’m often told that I am lucky and asked how I began in garden design. One thing is for sure, I am consciously careful that I do not take my role for granted, and realise just how fortunate I am to have found my niche relatively early in life. As the New Year unfurls, I thought I’d share my reflections on just what, why and how I became a garden designer.

Growing up as an army child we moved every two years from Windsor to Germany, and after my dad did the classic stand on the rake trick when I was eight, his (and our immediate family’s) foray into growing our own was cast asunder, just as the tool itself was thrown across the garden in a cloud of expletives.

Without our regular visits to my grandfather’s house in Leeds, the world of Horticulture and Garden Design may never have been opened up to me.

My miner grandfather’s allotment supplemented his income, and his large brood of six children (including my father), in providing food for the table. Jack’s allotment and postage stamp front garden at the front of his home were his escape I think from the never-ending black darkness of his life spent at the coal face.

I wished we could have visited more often, but the distance was a problem. Growing up in the seventies on an army housing estate, with a working mother mum and my dad busy with tanks and military service, we were, however, afforded the opportunity to become slightly feral, and enjoy a childhood spent outside. I dragged my little sister around the scrubby edges and fields of the Legoland monotony of the estate houses, and we found another world where clouds of butterflies erupted from hedgerows of bloom, farmer fields became dens where you could hide away and cloud gaze, and trees became houses to climb up and invent the wildest of adventures. It felt like the gentle nurturing of our grandfather was directing our exploration. A stint at an all-girls boarding school where the (much admired) young gardeners grew food for the table to serve in our ramshackle, freezing dining hall, further ignited my interest in the practical possibilities of a life spent outdoors far away from a desk. A gap year or so of travelling resulted in a life-changing epiphany. On the roof of a bus in a Himalayan downpour, I finally realised that Mother Nature, who had been gently casting her allure upon me since my youth, had finally entranced me.

My grandfather was not a man of many words, but those he chose always counted. I remembered him telling me that I should ‘Choose a job that you love, Rie, and you’ll never work a day in your life’. On my return to this country in 1995, I enrolled in a garden design course at Capel Manor College, rolled my sleeves up and then, sort of let go. These days, to me, horticulture is not simply what I do, it is what I am. Garden design is not simply a choice I make to support my lifestyle, it IS my lifestyle. It allows me the privilege to make an income to support my family, yes, but also affords me to enjoy my two favourite things in life – gardens and people.

In college, we are educated to the fact that Horticulture is all around us, it’s what we eat, it’s what we wear, it’s how we feel. Personally, I have no doubt that horticulture adds to our experience of life and makes all of our lives better. Horticulture actually shapes our world, and my profession allows me to share this knowledge.

In all this, I’m still mindful that it’s not me, alone. Mother Nature still plays a big part in my work, where we as designers finish, she begins, and I have a healthy respect for her. At home, she and my grandfather’s memory soothe me in my own garden. This is where I see the season change, the environment that my family have created together so that we can enjoy time together and enjoy nature. The rhythm of the work, the steadiness and regularity of gardening at home, calms my soul and keeps me healthy and happy. As gardeners, we plant, we tend, flowers bloom and the wildlife comes, we are soothed and happy. Ad infinitum. This year I plan to make more time for my own garden space, alongside encouraging others to enjoy spending time in theirs.

I’ve always loved the William Blake quote “To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour”. If we garden, we see the world, infinity and eternity.

Call our studio in 2019, if you’d like to talk about your garden project, I’d be delighted to chat.