As managing director of Inchbald School of Design, Andrew Duff has influenced many designers who have gone on to produce show gardens at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. This year, it was his turn. He designed a show garden that was co-sponsored by Savills and sculptor David Harber, who created a centrepiece to harmonise with its surroundings.
“The concept was a beautiful, sustainable woodland clearing in an urban garden,” says Duff. “Steps lead to a central pool that reflects the sunlight, trees and David’s sculpture.” It’s a restorative space, a private retreat that provides tranquillity. But it also has ‘green lung’ sustainability as the garden showcased a range of sustainable features and celebrated the benefit of trees, plants and grass in urban spaces. Because of this, it’s endorsed by the Environmental Change Institute.
As well as the Chelsea show garden, Duff has worked on projects as diverse as The Langham hotel in London and a tea plantation in India. “In India, I was influenced by the organic nature of the tea plantations. That informed the irregular shapes of the lawns and pathways in my design,” he says.
“A subtropical climate also demands areas where you can escape the sun and monsoon rains. Something I hadn’t previously thought about is the noise the rain makes on large-leaved plants. So the planting close to the house had to have small leaves.”
Given the range of visual references that line the walls and shelves of his office, Duff clearly enjoys the challenge of every new project. “Designing for Chelsea is very different because you have to create a garden that is for now,” he says. “Usually, you imagine what a garden will look like in the future and plant accordingly. At Chelsea, it all has to be perfect for one moment in time. Normally my gardens are pretty secret, but thousands of people go to Chelsea, so you have to put everything out there for them to see.”
“I use sculpture to stop the eye – particularly in large gardens or those that have an amazing view. The idea is that you look out from the house, look at the sculpture, and then look on to the view. It’s a more relaxing visual transition. Also, if you have a beautiful garden, you want to keep the eye lingering on it. David Harber’s sculpture at Chelsea achieves this perfectly.”
“Two things are important here. First, there’s the visual approach. If you use native plants (although not many are actually 100% native), they link the garden to its wider surroundings – particularly in the case of country gardens. Second, native plants are not going to need as much maintenance or water. This is important as we tackle sustainability. I always try to use plants from a local nursery. It’s important that they have been grown in the local climate – they’re happier.”
A relaxed approach to maintenance
“People regard maintenance as a chore, but it should be enjoyable. Let plants find their shape and texture. A plant is supposed to grow and change and, indeed, die. You don’t have to clip everything to within an inch of its life once it’s stopped flowering. For our Chelsea garden, we left leaves floating on the water. It raised a few eyebrows, but that’s what happens naturally.”
A calm aesthetic
“Green is a soothing, calming colour. But it often gets ignored when people choose colours for their gardens. There is an incredible spectrum of greens. For the Chelsea garden, we went from the richest, darkest taxus (yew) to an almost acid yellow. Once you start to look and translate the textures, it’s really rather beautiful.”
The easy meadow
“You don’t have to plant a meadow, just leave a normal lawn to grow knee high. Meadow is low maintenance and works really well either side of a driveway up to a country house, for example. At country estates, the architecture is really strong and contrasts with great structure in the gardens. As you move away from the formal gardens, the more relaxed approach of a meadow with buttercups and cow parsley works beautifully.”
“Mindfulness is a fashionable word, but being involved in nature and planting has many physical and mental benefits. If you take the time, a garden will talk to you and reveal the tiniest details, such as the new buds of a buttercup. The more you look, the more it shows you – like a good painting.”