The Gardens Illustrated Festival: 5 minutes with Nigel Dunnett

Nigel Dunnett is a garden designer who regularly designs show gardens for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and was part of the team who designed the planting for London Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Here he talks to Gardens Illustrated about his love of gardening ahead of his talk, 'Layers of colour: creating beautiful long-season planting' at the Gardens Illustrated Festival 2017. 


Garden designer Nigel Dunnett likes to tune his planting to nature by applying ecological concepts to the principles of planting design. He has regularly designed show gardens for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and was part of the design team for the planting at the London Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

In March, Nigel will be giving his talk, 'Layers of colour: creating beautiful long-season planting' at the Gardens Illustrated Festival 2017. Here Nigel discusses what we can expect from his talk and what it is about the natural world that he finds so inspiring.  




Q: What is it about gardens and plants that you love?
A: I’ve been an enthusiastic gardener ever since I was four or five years old when I took a cutting of a weeping willow tree and was amazed at how it made new roots and shoots. I grew up in the countryside and as a teenager became entranced by the beauty of a natural meadow, hedgerow, or woodland in the spring, full of wildflowers. My own interest in gardens comes from the ability to make my own world within a space, a very personal evocation of nature in which I can immerse myself. I love the very fact that there is always something to appreciate at every scale - from the smallest detail of plant against plant, right through to the large-scale drama of the complete entity.

Q: Who or what inspires your approach to gardening?
A: I’m inspired by nature, but have no desire to copy nature. Rather, I’m inspired by the way it works: the patterns and interactions, the layers, and the change over time. I always try and ensure that there are multiple functions or benefits to what I do - whether it is to do with rainwater management or biodiversity, or productivity - it’s about being more than just the decorative or ornamental or cosmetic.

Q: Name a garden you’re inspired by.
A: The place that I return to again and again as a place to remind me of the basic principles of what I do, is the Jac P. Thijsse Park (and the other nearby ‘Heemparks’) in Amstelveen on the edge of Amsterdam. These places are totally man-made works of art, created from open fields but they have the feel of mature, beautiful, natural places.

Q: What one plant could you not be without in your garden?
A: I tend to work with ‘communities’ or a mix of plants, I’m not really hung up on individual plants. For very personal reasons, my favourite wildflower since childhood has been the wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa), and I would always want to have it around me somehow.

Q: Why should more people be encouraged to take up gardening?
A: The key thing is the nurturing nature of gardening - the creation and support - from a simple seedling or cutting, to the growing of food, through to the making and managing of a complete space and everything in between. For me, it’s the potential for creativity that this unlocks, and for individual expression. I don’t really care what form this takes - even the most basic and simple acts of gardening give something back - that’s how I started out after all. 

Q: With our Festival taking place in March, right at the start of the growing season, what essential task will you be doing in your garden at this time?
A: Spring is the time when I become most creative in the garden, in terms of planning and planting. In March, I start digging things up and moving them around. I don’t like perennials to be fixed - there’s always room for minor tweaking and sometimes major re-adjustments. Every year is different and there are always new ideas, so in early spring I jump in and re-boot part of my garden.

Q: What are you most looking forward to at the Gardens Illustrated Festival?
A: I love the idea of gardening communities made up of like-minded people coming together for a shared experience. The sociability that builds up at the festival, from the combination of talks and plants and food, creates an atmosphere that is really special.

Q: Which talk would you most like to go to yourself?
A: I’m looking forward to listening to two contrasting designers. The first is Tom Stuart-Smith, partly for his mastery of spatial form and artfulness with planting but more for his approach to these within a philosophical framework. The second is Arne Maynard for an exposition on the craft of gardens.

Q: What can we expect from your own talk?
A: I’m really looking forward to giving this talk because I’m going to use it to outline my whole philosophy and approach to planting design. I’ve called it ‘Layers of colour’ because that is exactly how I work; building layer upon layer of colour to create very long seasons of visual interest within a planting scheme or a garden – it’s all about the dynamics and the dynamism. It’s a set of basic rules or guidelines that I’ve developed over time that can deliver amazing results.


Nigel will be speaking at the Gardens Illustrated Festival 2017, 25-26 March at Westonbirt School near the Cotswold town of Tetbury. You can book tickets to Nigel's talk, 'Layers of colour: creating beautiful long-season plantings', and find out more about our other speakers at

Photograph by Charlie Hopkinson


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