Fresh from winning a Silver-Gilt for his first Main Avenue Chelsea show garden, for New Zealand winery Cloudy Bay, we spoke to the young Cornishman, Sam Ovens, currently taking the gardening world by storm.
“I grew up on a working farm and was always fascinated by the plants and wildlife around me, but it was during a six-month spell in hospital when I was seventeen that I really began to appreciate the value of landscapes and gardens. I remember looking out of the window and realising how it helped to lift my spirits. Our garden on the farm was a bit of a wilderness, but I was given free rein to do whatever I wanted. I always had a project on the go – digging ponds, building dry stone walls, or trying to grow exotics like the ones I had seen elsewhere in Cornwall.”
“Why train as a garden designer, and not a plant specialist or a landscape architect?”
“By the time I was twenty, I knew I really wanted to be either a landscape designer or a landscape architect, as my passion was for design, closely followed by a love of nature. I studied product design for two years, but while it was brilliant on the design side of things, it lacked the nature element and I wanted both, which is how I finally ended up doing Garden Design at Falmouth University.”
“How would you describe your style?”
“Simple, minimalist and functional. I believe that, above all else, a garden should be a small landscape; a place to escape to for reflection and for creativity. I try to make spaces that are deeply personal to the individual. I love loose, naturalistic planting juxtaposed with clean, contemporary built elements, and I prefer to use raw materials to create interesting yet unfussy details. That said, I feel that my style is constantly evolving; I’m influenced by almost everything I come into contact with.”
“Do you think gardens are affected by trends and, if so, do you follow them?”
“Yes, gardens are very much affected by trends but as a designer, I think it’s important not to be led by them too much, as they only ever work in the short term. I want to create timeless places that respond to their environment and to the individual needs of their owners and users; gardens that will still be appreciated in years to come.”
“How and when did you get your big break?”
“Being named the RHS Young Designer of the Year at the RHS Tatton Park Flower Show in 2014 was a big one for me as it gave me the confidence I needed to start up on my own, and helped me secure my first real commissions. It also led to me being invited by the New Zealand winery Cloudy Bay to design its garden at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Building a scheme on Main Avenue has been a dream of mine ever since I started studying, so to be given the opportunity at the age of twenty-seven was incredible.”
“Is there a difference between designing show gardens and ones for real spaces?”
“Definitely. A show garden is a snapshot in time that has to be absolutely perfect for just a few days, whereas real gardens have to look good and function every day of the year.
“The Cloudy Bay Garden has certainly been one of my greatest challenges to date. The Show is very early in the gardening season and coming up with a dynamic planting palette, one that has not been seen before, is a big test. Also, I wanted to move away from the traditional idea of a Chelsea show garden and create something that is more of a landscape, a garden without borders, with elements that visitors can take away and apply to their own gardens.
“The garden was almost entirely planted with green plants and very few flowers, which is unusual for a flower show, and I put further pressure on myself by deciding to use heather as one of my key plants. It has been out of fashion for a long time but I really love the plant and feel it has a lot to offer. To make people see it a new light, however, I knew I had to really use it well; I’ve been on a mission to relaunch heather to the world.”
“Wild landscapes – that sense of being at one with nature – and seeing how plants colonise an area fascinate me. I strongly believe that designers should get out and explore, as ideas come from all sorts of places. You absorb things subconsciously and it is only when you start working on a project, later along the line, that the memory or idea pops into your mind clearly.”
“What’s it been like, working on your very first Chelsea show garden?”
“Incredible. There’s so much to do and the hours are long but working with such a professional and creative team makes it so much easier. I am incredibly pleased with the garden and want to make sure it stays at its best so even though the judging is all done now, I’ll still be here early every morning, just to make sure everything is as good as it can be.”
When you travel, do you always make a point of visiting gardens? What do you do to switch off when you’re not working on a design?
“When I get the chance, I love to visit gardens but generally, I find my inspiration comes from exploring wild landscapes rather than gardens. That said, as a Cornishman, I grew up with so many great landscape-style gardens on my doorstep, and one of my favourites has to be Tresco, on the Isles of Scilly.
“You have to switch off from work sometimes, however, and what I love to do is rowing at sea. It’s a great head-clearer. You can just forget about everything else and concentrate on the sea and oars.”
“Is it going to be a bit of an anticlimax, to go back to work after all the excitement of the show?”
“Not really. I’ve quite a range of projects on the go at the moment, including a small city garden in Manchester, a nature-based play space for a school, and the redesign of a large country estate, so I’m pretty busy. I do the majority of work myself but I don’t believe you can design in solitude. I think it’s really important to surround yourself with a good team of people and I am very fortunate to have some very talented individuals who I call on, on a project-by-project basis, depending on what is required.”
“Finally, 2016 is the tercentenary of the birth of another landscape designer, Capability Brown. What does his work mean for you?”
“It’s been a great source of inspiration for me. My design style, although very different from his, comes from a similar place. Like the great man, I try to create spaces which mimic the experience of being in a pristine yet curated patch of nature. I prefer to design spaces that reject a formal and rigid design style and instead, draw on nature as a source of inspiration, trying to capture what makes a particular landscape special and recreate that within a designed space.
“I think it’s every designer’s wish that their designs will be appreciated for years to come but if just one of my designs was still being appreciated in 300 years’ time, that would be wonderful.”Tweet