Lady Arabella Lennox-Boyd has been designing gardens for over 40 years and has received numerous Gold Medals for Show Gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show. Currently a Trustee for the Chelsea Physic Garden, she also served as a Trustee of Kew Gardens for nine years. Passionate about plants, Arabella Lennox-Boyd is at the forefront of planting design in the UK. Her herbaceous borders are meticulously thought out to ensure they are best suited for the climate and surroundings. She has a profound knowledge of trees and shrubs, and designs her gardens to give these elements particular emphasis.
You recently created a garden inside Hyde Park in London, which adjoins one of the last works of the architect Zaha Hadid. This must have been very exciting, but was it also challenging for you?
Yes, it was a challenge, In fact all gardens are a challenge, because they all involve thought and the creative process, but they all also contain living elements which are unpredictable. At the Serpentine Gallery it was important to make a design suitable to surround Zaha Hadid’s strong architecture and her dominating style. It had to relate to the building. Furthermore, you see the garden from inside when seated in the restaurant, and I wanted the garden to feel comfortable with that feature. The garden design follows the shape of the building, so when you are inside the building you feel you are also in part of the garden.
If we are to consider the story of your life, why did you decide to leave Italy when you were very young and come to live in England? Was it because of your love for trees?
It was life that brought me to England. I wasn’t thinking of trees or gardens. A love for trees came later.
Where did you study to become a gardener and how did you make it your profession?
When I had settled in London it became necessary for me to find a living. I was lucky because I had a house with a large garden, and so I started gardening there. Then, through a friend who was studying landscape architecture I was introduced to the Thames Polytechnic (now Greenwich University) course in landscape architecture. I practiced and I studied, and it changed my life.
Do you think England is still the center of the gardening world, in the same way New York is the center of the art world?
Yes, it definitely is. I was very lucky to come to the right place.
What countries are seeing the greatest innovations in gardening? Japan, India, China, South Africa, or elsewhere?
Communication is so fast and so great that changes come from all over the world. Gardening styles are defined by a love of nature as much as by wealth. The more relaxed style that is fashionable now is partly because most people want small gardens, and labour is expensive even for the well off. Nowadays more people have access to good design through the internet and magazines. Contemporary taste is developing a more naturalistic style.
Why do you think the English are so keen on gardening?
It’s historical. It started with the romantic garden when some people had plenty of leisure and time, rich people who enjoyed the Grand Tour had great estates. At the same time great designers like Capability Brown and William Kent amongst others developed contemporary taste. From travel, contemporary paintings and essays, the English developed the landscape garden. Furthermore climate helped, for such a wide variety of plants can be grown in England and Britain became an outward looking country with an Empire which fostered the great plant expeditions.
What is the difference between English gardens and Italian gardens?
The English garden is natural, more relaxed, it’s informal, it’s asymmetrical and the Italian is controlled. The great Italian gardens are an expression of power, wealth, symmetry and order.
Can you tell me what are your favourite gardens worldwide?
Really my most favourite, the one I love and feel emotional about, is the Garden of Ninfa, South of Rome. It’s a very beautiful romantic garden with a great history, and unusually for that part of Italy there is an abundance of water from a spring that forms a river. It has a Roman bridge, this beautiful small river and several churches, with roses tumbling over them. Ninfa is an informal garden of immense charm, with a fascinating collection of trees and shrubs and roses in abundance. But I also like the symmetry and rigidity of some other Italian gardens.
Is there a particular plant or flower that you specially cherish or do you use different plants for each garden and country you work in?
It depends on the season and climate. I can be moved by a snowdrop in February and by a rose in June, I just love plants, but I do have favourite structural plants that I use in my landscapes. These are the architectural features which grow, for example Yew and Box, which are essential in any design.
Is there a common denominator that can be applied for every garden, or not?
No. Gardening is completely unpredictable, that’s what I like about it.
Is it more interesting for you to work for private clients, like the Duke of Westminster and Sting for instance, or to work for institutions?
It all depends on the people and how they relate to the garden. The gardens I like are the ones that change the life of my clients. If I do a garden and it’s just left there exactly as I designed it, it becomes boring. I like the garden to add something to the owners’ lives and for them to develop it and make it their own. With institutions sometimes you are lucky. My roof garden at No.1 Poultry in the City of London is loved and looked after by the owners. So it still gives me great pleasure.
Was it very important for your career to win six Gold Medals and one Best in Show Award at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show? Do you consider this the most prestigious gardening event in the world?
The Chelsea Flower Show is prestigious, but I never entered a design just because of that. For me it was a way of putting in place an idea which I had, and I was very lucky to be sponsored by people who respected that and didn’t give me a brief. The last one I did was eight or nine years ago and the atmosphere was more relaxed then. Now it is much more commercial, it is very different now, very expensive and focussed much more on getting publicity.
What is your criteria when you create a garden?
I try to let the design evolve. I try not to impose a design. First of all it has to fit and if in country be part of the landscape surrounding it. My gardens are to do with people’s lives and with telling a story. Emotions and feelings develop as you go round a garden. There are different views, areas, sensations and smells, and it’s also to do with comfort. A design must relate to the surrounding landscape which means using the views and using the light. In recent years Japanese gardens have greatly influenced me, I realised how subtle they are compared with our gardens. The Japanese make it an art to create a beautiful shape by carefully pruning a tree, by training a wisteria over beautifully shaped bamboo frames, or the fall of the evening light on a rock.
You have worked in both Europe and America. Do you find it different to work on opposite sides of the Atlantic?
There are different climates of course, but perhaps more important is the way Americans think of gardening. In England it is a real obsession, and there is so much available material to learn from. In America, apart from some very famous gardens, people are not so aware of how a good garden should be. To some extent this applies to people in the rest of the Europe.
The world has always been troublesome due to wars, revolutions, famines and epidemics. Nevertheless gardens have always existed. Do they have a special meaning?
People find solace and peace in a garden. It brings people back to the real things in life. You cannot dictate a garden for nature cannot be controlled. Architects often approach garden design as just another structure, but this does not work. At the end of the day if you have a bad winter plants will die. Plants grow the way they want to grow. Even in a formal garden you suddenly find that a plant has died and your symmetry has gone. A gardener is always dealing with problems like that. Gardening teaches you patience, faith and hope.
Historically exceptional gardens were made for kings, queens and emperors. Today they are made for billionaires. Where do you place less grand gardens for private people?
There is no difference between small and large gardens except one of scale. All gardens should provide peace and beauty in all seasons. They provide a breath of fresh air, a way of growing a few flowers you might want to cut, an area to sit in, to listen to the birds. London is a small part of paradise with its many small gardens.
Would you compare a garden to a work of art?
I don’t consider myself an artist. There is the artistry in the design of a garden, but I haven’t created the sky, the trees and the lake and the autumn colours. A garden displays a moving picture which changes with the seasons.
With the current trend towards organic eating, vegetable gardens have become fashionable. Do you believe a vegetable garden can be as aesthetically important as a conventional garden?
I like the idea of having my own organic vegetables, and the public visitors love my vegetable garden. I think it adds to the interest of the garden and you can do so many different things to add to the interest, training fruits in different shapes, making patterns with vegetables of different shapes and colour, adding annual and perennials for more colour or for picking. I have designed many for public gardens as well as for private clients. There are some famous and beautiful vegetable gardens, for example the Jardin Potager at Villandry in France.
Is there a development in garden fashions?
All taste constantly changes. There is a fashion today to be nearer to what people think nature might look like, for example prairie planting with grasses and perennials. The Highway in New York is an example of this and is a wonderful contrast to its surroundings. It is completely artificial of course expressing a wish to get away from the cities and the noise. So gardens are becoming more natural and people have less time for weeding and clipping box hedges. They are happier with some grasses and herbaceous plants, a low maintenance aesthetic which connects you back to nature.
You were a trustee of the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens for nine years. Would you explain your experience there?
It was the best nine years, a really wonderful time. Not only did I meet extraordinarily knowledgeable people in gardening, botany and science, but also very nice people. It enhanced my love of trees and shrubs and from this I started an important collection of trees and shrubs in my arboretum. I also travelled and learned where trees come from, to the wild places in China and Japan where I observed where trees and shrubs grew, sometimes on a rock with water pouring over them or in arid areas with no water at all.
There have been many modern developments in science, biology and architecture for example. Is that progress also valid and true for gardens?
As there are about 100,000 species of plants faced with the threat of extinction in the world. The Kew Millennium Seed Bank Partnership at Wakehurst aims to save plants worldwide with a focus on plants most at risk and most useful for the future. This is a major development. Science has also developed new methods of propagation and hybridisation. And of course in medicine plants have been used for the treatment of many of our diseases. However I don’t know how far science has gone or can go when it comes to designing gardens.
Does water play an essential role in your work?
Not necessarily, it depends on the location. I like formal ornamental and contained features but water can have problems. If it’s ornamental and contained I like it. When you choose to have a natural look with a water feature it means a lot of maintenance. However I like water as a reflection, I like it because it is a different element, because it attracts light which is ever changing and I like the noise of falling water. I don’t really like irrigation and try to avoid it if at all possible. I am rather interested at the moment in dry gardens, how to make gardens without water.
What projects do you consider to be your most important achievements?
I believe that gardens need to evolve and should not be kept in aspic. The gardens that give me most pleasure are the ones where the owners have subsequently developed the garden and taken it somewhere, where it has actually had an effect on their lives, where I can go back and see they are still interested and it is part of their life. I have made a few friends through gardening and through gardening this friendship has carried on in my life and their lives, even though our lives may be totally different.
What projects are you working on now?
I am completing an enormous private commission around a large new build house outside Kiev. I have another interesting garden in Greece – which needs water, but I will try not to use too much of it. It is a difficult site in a harsh climate, on rocky ground and with little soil. I am also working in Germany for wonderful people. I am designing a few gardens in England, and in America I am working near Philadelphia. My work involves the collaboration of about ten people.
Do you find your tastes and ideas about gardening has changed since the beginning of your career?
Yes. I have developed a great deal. My designs were very basic when I started. I now have much more experience and by constant observation of the natural world, the different landscapes and the enormous variety of plants, I have developed a more mature design philosophy and ideas abound. Each garden is different because of its situation and the planting is different as well. I don’t ever repeat the same planting theme, I wouldn’t enjoy that. There is so much to choose from.
Who are the gardeners you admire the most? Do you see new talent around you?
There is a great deal of talent around and there are many very good designers. It would be unfair to pick just one or two.
Do you have a favourite gardening book?
I don’t have a favourite book, I have of course read all the important ones of which there are too many to mention here but now I am mostly inspired by factual books that teach me about plants, in particular books about famous explorers and plant collectors.
Is there advice that you would give to a young person who wants to start a career in gardens?
First, study landscape architecture. Nowadays creating a garden is very expensive and full of legal problems, so training is essential.
London, September 2016
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