Photo: Marie-Louise Agius
Co-director of Balston Agius and director and trustee of Exbury Gardens, Marie-Louise Agius has a passion for plants. Zia Allaway talks to her about nurturing a design career and a family legacy.
Combining two high-profile careers, Marie-Louise relishes the challenge of designing new gardens for Balston Agius, while maintaining and developing the famous gardens at Exbury, created by her great-grandfather. In 2013 she and Michael Balston won a coveted Gold medal at Chelsea for their ‘East Village Garden’, and the pair are currently working on a landscape for the latest Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre in Leeds.
‘East Village Garden’ at Chelsea 2013. This view from behind the rear wall picks up the sinuous line of the design. The water was symbolic of the River Lea running through Stratford, where the athletes’ village in the Olympic Park was situated. Photo: Marie-Louise Agius
Although Marie-Louise spent her formative years at Exbury, landscape and garden design were not on her radar when she left school. “As a child I loved running around the gardens at Exbury and climbing trees, but I didn’t think much about it – it was just part of my life,” she explains. “I studied sociology at Edinburgh University and spent some time working for a racehorse trainer. But my father wanted to see me pursuing a ‘proper’ career, so I signed up for a course in garden design at KLC. As soon as I started, I felt like a round peg in a round hole – I loved it and have never looked back.”
Excavated material from the house was used to create this ‘mount’. Planting includes Astrantia major ‘Claret’ and Iris germanica ‘Storm Track’, with Magnolia stellata and Hosta ‘Halcyon’ flanking the central pool. Photo: Marie-Louise Agius
Most of Balston Agius’s work comes from recommendations and Marie-Louise believes the company’s success lies in the good relationships they form. “I like to build a strong bond between myself and the client, contractor and the guys on the ground on site, to ensure the whole team is working to achieve the same goal,” she says. “But above all, I listen to the clients.”
She also takes time to explain to clients the importance of maintaining her gardens to guarantee their long-term performance. Like her great-grandfather, who collected rare plants from all over the world, Marie-Louise likes to include some less frequently used and unusual plants in her work. She often uses shrubs and trees that grow at Exbury, her knowledge and understanding of their growth habits and features allowing her to plant with confidence.
Buxus, Philadelphus, Hydrangea and Viburnum line the pathway, framing views through to a partially walled garden. Photo: Marie-Louise Agius
Although Marie-Louise’s own design work takes up most of her time, the gardens at Exbury are never far from her mind. “Given that the gardens were created by my great-grandfather, they are the horticultural lifeblood that courses through my veins,” she says. “I head home to Exbury most weekends with the anticipation of a kid about to walk into a candy shop, always so excited to see what wonders will be blooming that weren’t out just the week before.”
Marie-Louise Agius has a mission to ensure that both Exbury Gardens and Balston Agius continue to thrive and develop. “It is a significant responsibility, and both jobs require different skills, but at the end of the day, it’s a huge privilege to do what I do, and I love the whole process.”
To visit Exbury Gardens, head to www.exbury.co.uk; for more on Balston Agius, visit www.balstonagius.co.uk
Great-granddaughter of Lionel de Rothschild, the celebrated plantsman and creator of Exbury Gardens in Hampshire, Marie-Louise Agius was destined for a career in landscape design. She is now a trustee and director of the gardens, and also runs the internationally acclaimed design company Balston Agius alongside her design partner Michael Balston.