Acontemporary take on an English garden is a concept that has been widely attempted in show gardens in recent years and the latest to give it an outing is Sam Ovens. At just 28, he’s been making waves with his thoughtful, naturalistic gardens since winning a silver medal at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show in 2011, while still a student of garden design. Hot on the heels of a silver-gilt medal at Chelsea last year, Sam is creating a show garden at the inaugural RHS Chatsworth Flower Show for the headline sponsor, Wedgwood. The company was looking for a young, contemporary designer to reflect the direction it is now taking, so the RHS put Sam forward. He is impressively undaunted by the brief.
“An ‘English garden’ has different connotations for different people, but for me, it’s romantic and informal and about an overriding feeling. That’s what I’m trying to capture. The garden is going to be rambling, relaxed and fluid,” he says.
The “feeling” of a garden is always Sam’s primary concern, whether he’s creating a show garden or a space for a private client. He grew up on a farm in Cornwall and, while gardening wasn’t “on his radar” until later, he loved being surrounded by nature. He started his studies at Falmouth with a degree in product design before realising he didn’t want to do it for a living, and switched to garden design.
“What I love about being outside is losing myself in a landscape, forgetting everything else. The one thing that I always try to create in a garden is a sanctuary, or a place of escape.” In his Chatsworth garden, this sanctuary comes in the form of a central “pavilion” of two tall, chunky drystone walls, one of which features a large, steel-edged “window”.
“You can sit or even lie out on its base – it’s a safe place from which to enjoy the garden.” The window draws the eye and highlights key features, including a large, reflective pool: a nod to the canals that were pivotal to Wedgwood’s early success in the 19th century. The pavilion will also highlight and protect tender and exotic plants, including Polianthes tuberosa and astelia. The black and white planters have been custom-made by Wedgwood: “They’re very abstract, clean and simple, with a matt texture.”
As with all of Sam’s gardens, the plants are key – and in this case, that includes several that have fallen out of favour. “There are lots of plants that are ‘English’ in flavour, but have gone out of fashion. Like hollyhocks – you never see them in show gardens, or in any new garden for that matter – but there are lots of nice varieties and they have a lot to offer.”
Other “overlooked” plants in the garden include phlomis, alstroemeria, baptisia and verbena, as well as plants you’d expect, such as peonies, hardy geraniums and aquilegias. “By using the plants in a different way you can give them a contemporary feel,” Sam explains. “We’re using the plants en masse, in large, fluid swathes that move through the garden.”
It’s not the first time that he has made use of unpopular plants – his garden for Cloudy Bay at Chelsea last year used distinctly unfashionable heathers – and they weren’t even in flower. He is relishing using a completely different planting palette to that available for Chelsea. “The show is only two weeks later, but at this time of year, those two weeks make a massive difference. It’s opened up a lot of opportunities.”
In contrast to Sam’s previous show gardens, which have relied on texture and shades of green, this space is more about colour. There are soft pinks, blues and yellows, punctuated by deep burgundies and reds, highlighted by the dark, copper beech hedges. “I’ve drawn on Wedgwood’s Wonderlust collection – I picked the colours from it that jumped out at me.” The back of the garden will be more muted – an informal mix of grasses including briza and deschampsia, mingled with natives like meadow clary (Salvia pratensis), and wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris).
Sam sees the garden as a journey. “With show gardens, you can quite often see everything in one go – you assume you’ve ‘got it’ and move on. But in this garden, with its hedging, walls and the planting, you never get to see too much at once, you have to engage with it.” Not that the public can move through the garden, of course. At just under 240 sq yards, it is the same size as a Chelsea show garden and will be judged accordingly. “The difference is that Chatsworth provides an incredible backdrop. There’s a copse of oak trees just behind the garden and the copper beech hedges echo the trees in the parkland. At this show, you have lots of space around you – that’s very different to Chelsea, where you’re trying to block out your neighbours.”
Sam’s neighbour on Chelsea’s Triangle last year was the designer Diarmuid Gavin, with his own take on an English garden – an all-singing, all-dancing affair complete with twirling topiary and bobbing box balls. It couldn’t have been more different to Sam’s pared down, naturalistic offering. Despite rumours of a spat, Sam insists that the pair got on “very, very well. What I loved was that our gardens were so different. People either loved or hated them, and they accentuated the positives of the other. In Diarmuid’s, everything was jumping up and down or spinning and mine was a complete contrast. But I was glad we had a hedge separating us!”
The build time for Chatsworth is the same as for Chelsea – just under three weeks. “Getting the plants to perform at the right time has been the biggest challenge, especially as there is a lot of colour. This year has been particularly tricky – the aquilegias and the peonies have been flowering for the last six weeks and it’s been difficult to keep them back.” But Sam appears calm and confident. He has surrounded himself with an experienced team – an excellent nursery (Kelways), a contractor he trusts and some expert craftsmen. “I loved the stonework in Cleve West’s garden at Chelsea last year, so they were the obvious choice. As the Wedgwood garden is so simple, the detail is important.”
Interestingly, Sam cannot name one garden designer who inspires him. “My inspiration comes from nature, and I’m passionate about ‘honest’ architecture – architecture that really celebrates its materials and construction.” For one so young, he has a clear vision of his future – continuing to create “small landscapes” for clients, plus some more show gardens. “During my degree the lecturers pointed out that a big part of garden design is showing people what you can do. That’s why I did a garden at Hampton Court while I was still studying. With a show garden you can show what makes you unique, even though you have a sponsor and a brief. When I entered Young Designer of the Year [which he won in 2014, along with a gold at Tatton Park], there was no sponsor, so I was even more free to show my style.”
His tactic has paid off. “I’ve been fortunate – people contact me because they’ve seen my work. It’s important that your client understands what you do.” His current workload ranges from a tiny London courtyard to a large estate: “I enjoy that difference of scale,” he says. Whatever the size, simplicity is key. “I think gardens often try to be too clever, with too much put into them. I think it’s nice to take a step back and leave things out. Plants should be the main feature.”
Sam plans to go back to Chelsea in the not-too-distant future. When he won Young Designer of the Year, he said he wanted to do a Chelsea show garden by 2018. He pulled that off two years early. “But I only got a silver-gilt, so I’ve got to go back and get a gold at some point,” he says, matter-of-factly. And there’s no doubt he will.