10 QUESTIONS WITH JO THOMPSON, LEADING LADY OF THE CHELSEA FLOWER SHOW
1.) Good morning Jo, welcome to The London Musings! I must start by asking you: what inspired you to pursue a career in landscape and garden design?
I spent a lot of time in Italy as a child and was intrigued by the architecture and arrangement of space. I would be the one dragging the family to fabulous city gardens and squares, which provide exceptional examples of landscape design.
Fast forward a few years, I was living in Little Venice in a flat with a rooftop space. I felt with a little creativity this could become a garden. I popped over to the nearbyClifton Nurseries seeking advice. Working with Clifton Nurseries, we created a beautiful oasis among the chimney pots of Maida Vale. This was a light bulb moment for me and provided me with my first experience of seeing a space transformed to suit its location and owner’s tastes. I was smitten and from there, as they say, the rest is history.
2.) What was the biggest turning point in your career?
Designing my very first garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show – the Demelza Children’s Hospice garden in 2009. Chelsea represents the pinnacle of the landscape design world and being a part of it has enriched both my career and life. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some truly inspiringpeople, created some fantastic spaces and made unforgettable memories. This year, I will be designing my 10th Chelsea garden and over the past decade, I have seen the event evolve; witnessing the cyclical nature of fashion and trends and seeing more and more women step up to take their place on the garden design stage.
3.) Tell us more about your 10th RHS Chelsea show garden and why this year is such a special year for you.
I am incredibly fortunate to have been invited to create another show garden for Wedgwood. The design was initially inspired by the innovative spirit shown by Josiah Wedgwood when creating Etruria, the former Staffordshire village that was created for his workers. The challenge of creating a garden inspired by an industrial past is irresistible because it comes with a certain compelling nostalgia.
4.) What are your three top tips for amateur gardeners looking to achieve the Chelsea look at home?
• Keep it simple – the less is more philosophy will always come up trumps. Mismatched planting can leave borders bitty and confused. Limit both your colour palette and plant species and the effect will be worthy of the best Chelsea design.
• Look at where your garden is – Don’t fight with what surrounds it! Embrace the location of the site and the external elements which will naturally sit alongside your garden. Often these elements provide a wonderful source of inspiration and offer character to compliment your design.
• Stand tall – Without vertical height in a garden, we tend to feel exposed. Chelsea gardens will often feature a specimen tree or trees that add that sense of proportion and balance. The right tree provides not just height, but also year-round interest with spring blossom, beautiful summer foliage, autumn colour and bright winter berries.
5.) What piece of advice would you share for budding designers looking to follow in your footsteps?
Find one resource you favour and go from there. The RHS is an incredible source of knowledge and have some fantastic practical courses too but if design is a direction you want to pursue then there look into colleges such as the London College of Garden Design where I am a lecturer. Find what feels right for you, personally, I refer to Christopher Lloyd’s archive all the time.
6.) What inspires you creatively?
The place itself. You won’t find me create a ‘design-driven’ garden with a ‘designed stamp’ on it, a finished garden should looks beautiful as well as having the sense that it could have been there forever, it should ‘fit’ into its surroundings. Ego is not a consideration when I am designing, the space directs the design, I feel what is right and with that in mind we have created some truly magical places.
7.) What gives you most pride; designing the garden, or seeing it once it’s finished?
I enjoy getting to know the space and also getting to know the client. I’ll spend a lot of time wandering around the garden building my understanding of the space, absorbing everything and mulling it over. A lot of time is spent in essential mental preparation.
It’s fabulous when the design feels right and also showing it to the client for the first time, especially when we have really hit the nail on the head.
The design process of pen to paper is vital for me, I have to have that connection – my team will say that I am unable to think clearly without a pen in my hand and it’s true. I need to experience the design and feel how it flows through the movement.
Of course, it’s magical seeing gardens evolve, a garden isn’t ever truly finished. I’m lucky enough to return to a lot of gardens that I’ve had a hand in and one of the most wonderful things is to see how nature adds its special touch.
8.) What’s the best aspect of the job?
There are so many, although if I had to choose it would certainly be the variety – every project, client, garden is unique and each and every day is truly different.
9.) What gardening trend are you most interested in for 2019?
A return to the beauty of classicism and moving back to shrubs – we’ve been advocating use of these for as long as I can remember! Also working with wildlife and demonstrating that a wildlife that support nature can be elegant and sophisticated.
10.) What’s next for Jo Thompson?
Alongside working on some exciting new projects, both commercial and residential, what is also wonderful is seeing previous projects mature. Gardens really come into their own once two to three years have passed and I am excited to see some recent designs evolve.
I am also thrilled to be designing for the Festival of Roses tea garden at RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival later this summer. It’s going to be quite something! I’m also excited to say that I have a book coming out that I’ve written with a friend, Mary Jane Paterson called Rhubarb Rhubarb. It’s a series of conversations between myself, a hopeless cook and Mary, a hopeful gardener.
Jo Thompson is designing the Wedgwood Garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2019, marking the iconic lifestyle brand’s 260th anniversary. Visitors to the event will be able to see the garden in full bloom from Tuesday 21st May until Saturday 25th May. Full details can be found at: www.wedgwood.co.uk/rhs