Ambra Edwards finds out what makes award-winning garden designer Jo Thompson tick
In October last year, garden designer Jo Thompson MSGD was one of 400 inspirational women invited to the 60th anniversary Women of the Year lunch. She seems a little bemused to have been invited. All she’s done, she insists, is a job she loves doing to the best of her ability, and just got on with it, despite the logistical difficulties of being a single parent to two children, now in their teens.
It’s typical of her cheerfully commonsensical, no-nonsense approach to her art: a garden must be a workable, practical spafulfilsce – not a conceptual fancy, or some precious kind of stage set, but a space that fulfils specific needs, ideally more than one at a time. She has no set style; she has no agenda. Every client, every house, every location dictates its own vocabulary.
“A garden can’t be comfortable,” she says, “unless it sits easily in its surroundings. Even in a city, there’s really no such thing as an inward-looking garden – you have to negotiate with what’s around you, use it or screen it, but you can’t just ignore it.” Often, of course, the surroundings are a source of inspiration, as in a magnificent coastal garden on Camber Sands, Sea Gem, which won her the Future Designer accolade at the 2013 SGD Awards.
Jo’s roof terrace project in Kent. Photo: Jo Thompson
The starting point for her design will often be a colour, or even a single plant, that seems to sum up the mood she is looking for. In her much-loved caravanning garden for RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2012, for instance, she started with the kind of blowsy old roses associated with vintage fabrics.
Her planting is voluptuous and fluid, no rigid patterning or big drifts. Gentle colours will be enlivened by a few vivid ‘clashings’, often in the form of bulbs or corms. “Then if the client really finds them too challenging, they’re easily removed the following year.”
To work out her ideas, she still likes to do pencil sketches, which her team later transfer to CAD. “I’m a bit of a dinosaur,” she laughs. “For commercial clients, who are used to interpreting CAD, that’s how we present our ideas, but for most domestic clients, I find drawing is more expressive.”
The Stop the Spread Chelsea garden in 2013. Photo: Jo Thompson
Journey of a gardener
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Jo’s first career was teaching drama. And perhaps this helped to form her particular talent for place-making, for creating spaces with a distinctive identity and narrative. Jo’s first attempt at practical gardening was to transform her own ugly London roof into usable space. She consulted nearby Clifton Nurseries about the project, which rapidly became all-absorbing.
When she moved out to Kent to raise a young family, she was faced with an awkward shallow garden, and sought help from local designers. Mulling over their ideas, it occurred to her that garden design was a proper career, and that she might be good at it.
The idle thought soon became a fixed determination, and she enrolled at The English Gardening School. Rosemary Alexander, who taught her, remembers her as “an imaginative and diligent student who really knew her plants. I’m not at all surprised she’s done so well”. One of Jo’s earliest projects, a roof terrace, was featured in the 2005 Annual Review in the
Garden Design Journal giving her fledgling career a kick start.
Her writer’s garden for M&G at Chelsea 2015. Photo: John Campbell
This encouraged her to seek a sponsor for her first RHS Chelsea show garden in 2009, the Demelza Garden, which received a Silver Gilt. The next year, she was back with a garden for Thrive, which won a Gold and ‘Best Urban Garden’ award. Andy Sturgeon remembers seeing this garden take shape with real admiration. “We all felt at once that here was a welcome addition to the Chelsea scene, very fresh and striking. And as her reputation has grown, her gardens have gone from strength to strength.”
“Her show gardens are always full of good ideas that people can copy,” says Rosemary Alexander, “combining practicality with adventurous, up-to-the-minute planting.” Jo tries to make her show gardens, as far as possible, ‘real’, and the proof of the pudding is that every one of them, even her 2013 conceptual garden highlighting the spread of tree diseases, has been rebuilt elsewhere. For her M&G garden at Chelsea 2015 she imagined a contemplative writer client, and built a dreamy, watery retreat for him.
She returns to Chelsea this year for the eighth time, with a novel take on a rose garden for sponsor Qatari Diar. “I love roses,” she says. “My own garden is full of them, and I use them in all my planting schemes. But I’m not too keen on traditional rose gardens, all awkward sticks poking out of the earth. It’s the kind of challenge I like, to take something so familiar and try to rethink it.”
Alongside Chelsea, she will be keeping on top of two major projects. Her East Sussex practice now employs one landscape architect and one garden designer, with work ranging from urban office developments and tiny rooftop spaces to large rural gardens, even parks.
In addition, Jo is chair of the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show Summer Gardens selection panel, a member of the RHS Gardens Committee and is overseeing some major changes at RHS Rosemoor. And somehow she still finds time to teach planting design at the London College of Garden Design.
To find out more about Jo and her work, go to www.jothompsongarden-design.co.uk