Humaira Ikram

Humaira Ikram: the new wave of garden designers have to care about sustainability

The Big Flower Fight judge and garden design tutor on why the RHS and Chelsea is good for students of garden design

Humaira Ikram has been working as a professional Garden Designer for over 10 years and runs the Garden Design Diploma at the KLC School of Design. She is currently a judge on Netflix’s The Big Flower Fight and answers our questions on the next generation of garden designers and RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

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The Big Flower Fight

Do you make sure that your students know what RHS Chelsea Flower Show entails?
Most of my students have made the choice to do something different to what they were already doing. But sometimes people don’t realise that a lot of garden design is sitting behind a computer. So it’s good when there’s something cool, different and interesting like Chelsea. We’ve always managed to take the students on a tour of Chelsea each year. It used to be on the Sunday night when everyone was finished and crying and tired. Now we taken them in on the Thursday before and the garden designers are so kind to us.

So the designers make time to talk to the students?
Yes, they basically tell the students what their garden is all about, what the planting is, where the stone came from, what the context is behind the garden. It’s a bit like meeting a rock star. Tom Stuart-Smith was one of our favourites last year, he talked for over 45 minutes. One year it was raining and Sarah Raven was chatting to us, then went off to get a coat and came back and carried on talking to us.

It does help, then, for new designers to get to Chelsea?
Going there and working there gives you a chance for networking. And if you do a garden it’s an amazing opportunity to get your name out and have some press. There’s so much press at Chelsea as opposed to any of the other shows.

Do you advise new designers to get stuck in and try to get a Show Garden as early as possible?
We hope to give them a really good understanding of what Chelsea entails, so they come in during planting week and we try to get them working and volunteering at the shows too. So they all have a really good sense that the shows are not real and not sustainable. But it’s not for everyone. I love going to shows and working on them but I definitely don’t want to do a garden of my own. And it seems crazy that Chelsea is just for five days. But the gardens aren’t made to last; they are like little vignettes of a perfect world. A Show Garden is a bit of theatre. It’s what we do but elevating it to another level.

It’s also a huge amount of money to create one…
We talk a lot at college about this, because it’s one of the main things that stop people from applying. But when you go to places like Hampton Court, you do work on smaller budgets, which I think is quite useful. You get more creative with materials you’re using. But there are lots of added costs with Chelsea – putting people up, car parking spaces. It adds on a lot.

Does the RHS focus enough on the next generation of designers?
They definitely have time for them. Hampton Court has been great for young designers, and Tatton has the Young Designer of the Year where they have to be under 30. I think the RHS has realised that they must invest in new designers because it’s where they’re going to get the new and exciting gardens and ideas from. I speak to them a lot as a college and course leader and they’ve always been willing and open to chat to the students.

They also do a project with the college, where the students design a conceptual garden for Hampton Court. They create a presentation which the RHS watches and then gives feedback and judges. The RHS has been very supportive of what we’re doing and I think it’s been great that we’ve managed to put together students with the RHS.

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Do you think the new students place a bigger emphasis on sustainability and the environment in gardens and horticulture?
Absolutely. The new wave have to care about sustainability because we teach it. My degree was in environmental science, and when I re-trained twelve years ago I couldn’t find any courses that focused on which materials were better and how to plant up an area for pollinators. But the whole of the second term of our course is dedicated to that. We work a lot with the London Wildlife Trust too, and the students are encouraged to look at the balance between humans and nature. It needs to be thought about right at the beginning of the design process. So asking: why is this water going straight into a drain, why don’t we have it going into beds? Or: Is there a UK alternative for this material that isn’t going to be ridiculously expensive?

Head to our Chelsea Flower Show hub page for all our Chelsea coverage