Cutting Edge Gardening
Horticulture was once hell-bent on manicured lawns and neat borders. Now, as next generation garden writer Alice Vincent discovers, the true cutting edge of green fingeredness is connecting to outside spaces in a far more freeing way.
Think of the hobbies traditionally associated with youth, and gardening might not come to mind: foam kneelers, floral gloves and fussing over tomato plants hardly scream cutting edge. And yet, over the last decade working with the soil has been undergoing a vibe shift that trend forecasters never saw coming, with 18-to-30-year-olds abandoning traditional career paths, leaving city life to grow vegetables and share their obsession with plants on dedicated Instagram and TikTok channels. From new-gen homesteaders in Oregon to urban horticulturists in Australia, gardening has never been cooler. And as those leading the charge – from plant-fluencers and regenerative growers to the young designers shaping how our landscape looks – will attest, there’s never been a more urgent need to dig in.
Fall into the millennial gardening hole and one can trace the roots of the trend back to when houseplants such as Monstera deliciosa and Ficus lyrata – the now-ubiquitous Fiddle Leaf Fig – started to creep into high-end interiors. Brands such as London’s House of Hackney, inspired by the Victorian fascination with tropical indoor greenery, launched their iconic Palmeral Print, which started a new vogue for foliage-print wallpapers and upholstery. By the late 2010s, companies such as Patch in the UK or The Sill in the US had disrupted the traditional seed and mail-order catalogue industry, allowing millennials a new, frictionless way to fill their homes with flora, while design-led plant stores re-imagined the modern garden centre. On the British high street, Liberty and Selfridges hosted pop-up flower shops, proving fashion and gardening went hand-in-hand.
What finally brought the houseplant phenomenon outside, though, was the pandemic. In a moment of international anxiety, with millions of us staying at home, the green spaces we had access to became more vital than ever – as did tending them. After an initial flurry of fascination with growing-our-own (compost sold out, while seed manufacturers resorted to online queuing systems), people turned their attention to creating outdoor sanctuaries that reflected the way they wanted to lead their lives. The moment was galvanising, casting gardening and landscape design as something vital and aspirational for the first time in centuries.
Ula Maria is among those garden designers who have been overwhelmed with clients in recent years, although she has been a sought-after talent throughout her short career so far, winning RHS Young Designer of the Year in 2017 and since exhibiting at RHS Hampton Court and the Shenzhen Flower Show in China. ‘‘Over the past two years there’s been such a huge increase of interest in gardening and gardens,’’ she says. ‘‘I think most of it comes from people working from home and trying to find a space that makes them feel better, both physically and emotionally. As human beings, we have that innate relationship with gardens.’’
‘‘It’s actually become very difficult for me to keep up with all the Instagram enquiries I receive from young people wanting a career in the field,’’ says Carrie Latimer, a garden designer based in Cape Town. She says there are a couple of triggers behind this rise in interest: garden design, as a career, was relatively unknown until social media enabled those in the industry to share their work. ‘‘I only learnt that there was such a thing at the age of 22,’’ says Latimer, now 39. But it’s also undeniable, she adds, that ‘‘it’s cooler than it ever has been to be connected to nature. More people are wanting to live greener, more conscious lives and have creative and purposeful careers. It makes landscape gardening a hugely attractive option.’’
At 29, the Lithuanian-raised, London-based Maria is creating wild, natural and deeply evocative outdoor designs. ‘‘When people arrive in a garden and think it’s always been like that; when it feels like it belongs to the place,’’ Maria explains. ‘‘For me, that’s a big thing: to create something that looks effortless but is actually very beautiful.’’
Latimer, too, ascribes to the notion that her best work is the least obvious. ‘‘I would hate for there to be a distinctive stamp on my spaces,’’ she says. ‘‘I strive to have my hand in a landscape be as invisible as possible: my gardens tell me what they want to be, not the other way around.’’ What’s fascinating is that Latimer hasn’t always designed this way. ‘‘It’s a mindset I’ve evolved into,’’ she says. ‘‘My style used to be quite highly composed but as the years go on, I feel my work becoming progressively softer, subtler and more sensitive. There’s a definite untamed edge creeping into all my projects.’’ This can be seen in the garden Latimer created for a villa in Krozenicht, South Africa, where indigenous species help to seamlessly connect it to the striking mountains beyond.
Maria’s approach – from the dreamy pink arches she raised at Shenzhen to the rustic sleepers and structural fig trees of a compact domestic oasis in London – balances naturalistic and environmentally sensitive planting alongside bold and dynamic structural elements. Sustainability is at the core of her work: ‘‘We can’t ignore climate change and creating pretty gardens isn’t enough: they have to give more than just aesthetic value.’’ Designing with the planet in mind, Maria says, affects everything, from the plants chosen to where they are sourced. ‘‘There’s been a huge shift in understanding the importance of nature and reconnecting with it in gardens and wildlife.’’ This embrace of the natural world – of listening to the landscape – as Latimer puts it, has also influenced Spanish garden designer Fernando Martos. After studying landscape design in Milan, he worked at Newby Hall in Yorkshire. ‘‘I fell in love with English gardens, and the use of different perennial plants in them,’’ he says. ‘‘When I came back to Spain, I started to create a perennial garden at my home, close to Seville, which has very dry, hot summers and cold winters.’’
Martos’s designs combine both approaches, borrowing from legendary British plantswoman Beth Chatto – who redefined the mantra of ‘right plant, right place’– to create thoughtful gardens that respond to their situation. You won’t find any pristine, sprinkler-laden lawns in Martos’s Mediterranean work: ‘‘For me, it’s ugly to have deep, green grass in a very dry landscape in the middle of Spain,’’ he laughs, preferring a ‘dry lawn’ or gravel, interspersed with plants suited to the environment. “I think we need to change our mindset about what is attractive.’’ Plus, as he explains, the scent of local flowers in the Spanish summer air is wonderful.
Similarly, at Sanctuary Lodge, A Belmond Hotel , the only hotel next to Machu Picchu’s Inca citadel, inspiration comes from the surroundings. ‘‘We are part of the Machu Picchu mountain and it’s important to reflect that,’ says head gardener Leonidas Torres Chahuayo. ‘‘Everything here is local, including 142 native species of seasonal wild orchids which keep the hummingbird population healthy. We don’t want to divert from the plants that you find on the mountain; when guests walk through the garden, we want them to know exactly where they are – that’s the basic objective.’’
After a couple of years of claustrophobic uncertainty, we’ve never wanted to engage with the outdoors more. But with freer designs, a more cohesive approach and creating spaces that bring us closer to nature, garden designers are offering ways of bringing the wild expanses of far-flung landscapes right to our backyard.
I ask several where they see the future of their work. With even the constraints of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show embracing wildflowers, ecological practices and a distinct shift towards the wilderness, will there come a time when we crave the formality of tradition? It’s a unanimous no: it’s simply impossible to imagine a moment where we don’t garden with the planet in mind. ‘‘Residential garden design is moving away from the egocentric and superficial engagement it has had with the earth’’ says Latimer. ‘‘Garden owners now want to use their land responsibly and connect, with rather than control, the environment. This means less uptight gardens that are full of life, from the microbes in the soil to the pollinators in the air.’’
Gardens built with an entire ecosystem in mind – from the worms to the birds? It’s a beautiful kind of vision.