The Chelsea Gold medal winner tells Anne de Verteuil about his gardening life and new starts
My first recollection of being outside is possibly sitting on the steps of a holiday house in Thorpeness, Suffolk, pulling the caps off Eschscholzia flowers. Or it might have been climbing up a rocky slope with my father above a lay-by opposite the Ailsa Craig on the west coast of Scotland. We were camping in a dormobile in a place that had been blasted out of the rocks on the roadside. I remember finding harebells and wild strawberries, and I was horrified when my father drank the water out of a burn.
I have always been a gardener. I was out in the garden from an early age, growing things in my greenhouse to sell to the neighbours. I progressed onto growing orchids, which I sent away for from nurseries that advertised in Garden News. I gave up the school rugby team to work in a florist; so I learnt to be confident in my decisions and do what I love doing.
One great source of early inspiration was a wonderful girl called Cathy Hill who I worked with at Hillier Sunningdale when Hillier acquired it. Her passion for plants introduced me to so many plants I hadn’t encountered before; she is responsible for my love of roses. One of her greatest lines: “Can you imagine life without Rosa ‘Complicata’?” She had a point – I couldn’t.
If there’s one book I’d pass on to others it would be Colour in your Garden by Penelope Hobhouse. Both pictures and text are an inspiration. This book fuelled my addiction to orange tulips and Prunus ‘Shirotae’. I loved the idea that if you plant one each side of a pathway, they grow together to form an arch. I didn’t believe her, but it worked.
My mood board (I have to admit I have several) is full of colour – a coastal sunset, copper-orange roses, salt-glazed pots, terracotta tiles, red-brown scallop shells, sapphire-blue irises, any shrub with copper leaves, a tree in autumn colour, and a Turkish carpet.
If there’s a single object that sums up the way I look at the world, it’s an empty terracotta flowerpot. I’m much happier and look better when I’m overflowing with flowers.
My sharpest learning curve has been leaving my job with Hillier, a company I had been with for 37 years, and going freelance. I’m on that curve right now. But when it comes to high points in my life I am lucky – I’ve had lots of them. Finishing a Chelsea exhibit, and experiencing the pride and emotion of the team that built it – that takes some beating. The Gold medal is a good secondary bonus.
I hope I’ll be remembered for my passion for plants and gardens, and my interest in people. Most importantly, that I kept smiling. If I could wander for eternity in one place it would be the cliffs above the Bedruthan Steps, North Cornwall. I love the sea and this is the most incredible piece of coastal scenery and an ever-changing picture.