To celebrate February's heritage issue of Gardens Illustrated, which looks to the future of gardening and garden design, director of the Garden Museum Christopher Woodward picks 30 of the most influential people in gardening today. Don't miss February's issue for even more of a roll call of horticultural talent.
GODS AND GODDESSES
1. Alan Titchmarsh
The nation’s gardener. The only person, except for HRH The Prince of Wales, who can put gardens on the front page. No TV gardening show will ever come close to the success of Ground Force. But he is also the living proof that gardeners are nicer than other people. Oh, he’s also one of the cleverest people you will ever meet.
2. Monty Don
Monty makes you believe in gardens. The man with words in his fingers has flexed his success to help bees, soil, and organic growing. And has opened British eyes to gardens of Japan, America and the Islamic world. Also, in a world slickened by Piers Morgan and Love Island, we need a hero who doesn’t iron his sleeves.
3. Sue Biggs
‘There’s not enough money in the north for a Flower Show’, a very tall, very grand, former President of the RHS once said to me. Since becoming director general of the RHS in 2010, Biggs has begun the new show at Chatsworth and out of the derelict Worsley New Hall in Salford wrenched into existence a great new garden.
4. Charles Jencks
Charles Jencks, architect and writer, died last autumn but the Maggie’s Centres he co-founded to share his late wife’s vision of cancer care continue to open. Twenty-two Maggie’s have been built, each putting a garden designer side by side with a ‘starchitect’. Who else has commissioned Arabella Lennox-Boyd and Cleve West, Piet Oudolf and Dan Pearson? Maggie’s might just be the most innovative client of garden design ever.
5. Anna Pavord
As gardening correspondent for The Independent from 1986, Anna Pavord treated readers to a voice unique in garden writing: gorgeous but lucid, precise but fair. Her book The Tulip (1999) – which has been recently re-issued to mark 25 years since its original publication – showed that horticulture could be cultural history too. And as former chair of the Gardens Panel of the National Trust. If horticulture has pearly gates, Anna would be entrusted with the key.
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6. Alice Vincent
Sit on a cactus, and the two of you will soon be talking about Noughticulture, the newsletter and Insta-hit set up by Vincent while music critic at The Telegraph. More than any garden centre or RHS Committee, Vincent has put her finger on why and how plants matter to Millennials. Her new book Rootbound will be an On the Road for a generation of young London gardeners on bikes.
7. Charlie McCormick
Gifted gardener and Times writer the charismatic Charlie McCormick is single-handedly reviving the village flower show. This year he is exhibiting plants and vegetables from his Dorset garden at 17 shows. There are rumours he’s becoming a judge.
8. Cleve West
At last year’s Society of Garden Designers’ conference the buffet lunch was vegan. The only designer to win Best in Show at two Chelsea Flower Shows back to back, West has used his status to challenge how we eat. Out this May is The Garden of Vegan, which shows another way to value plants. His allotment in Bushy Park, the subject of Our Plot (2011) is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
9. Richard Mabey
Britain’s greatest nature writer. Almost fifty years ago Unofficial Countryside and Food for Free changed how we see the wet, weedy and wild; Nature Cure (2005) was a masterpiece which began the ‘wellbeing genre’. Every horticultural student should read The Serendipitous Garden first published in Gardens Illustrated and reprinted in Turning the Boat for Home (2019): a eulogy to nature’s spontaneity in the garden.
10. Alys Fowler
Britain continues to be the land of the private not public paradise, of Sissinghurst, not The High Line. One counter-balance is Fowler, former Gardeners’ World presenter and Guardian columnist. In Hidden Nature (2016) she paddled through Birmingham’s canal network in a canoe. Which other garden celebrity would have campaigned to save Gerry Dalton’s garden of concrete statues in Westbourne Park?
WHAT WE GROW
11. Kim Wilkie
Landscape architect Wilkie’s designs derive their unprecedented, dewy beauty from shapes drawn out by the land. Supported by a photogenic herd of Longhorn cattle on his farm in Hampshire, he’s become a persuasive advocate of a new tenderness towards what we tread underfoot. It’s no coincidence that the government’s new farming bill puts a value on investing in soil exhausted by commercial agriculture.
Founded by Peter Clay and Mark Fane, the online retailer has transformed the gardener’s palette, giving every gardener the pick of Britain’s specialist nurseries. If a Victorian head gardener travelled forward in time to 2020, you wouldn’t get him off the Crocus website. Plus, they’ve built nine out of the last twelve gardens to win Best in Show at Chelsea, from Tom Stuart-Smith’s cloud-clipped hornbeams to James Basson’s Mediterranean jewel-dust.
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13. Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith
Sue Stuart-Smith, psychiatrist and psychotherapist, will publish The Well Gardened Mind this spring and it’s sure to transform our understanding of how gardening heals. At The Barn Garden in Hertfordshire she and her husband Tom, the garden designer and landscape architect, have begun a new project in which young people with learning disabilities and mental health issues will grow perennials for use in Tom’s design projects. How wonderful is that?.
14. James Wong
Horticulture is on the up, but the study of botany is on the way down; the University of Oxford has not re-appointed a Professor. If anyone can make botany sexy to Millennials it is Wong, Kew-trained ethnobotanist and a gifted communicator.
15. Shane Connolly
The Royal Florist. When the Duchess of Cambridge walked down the aisle of Westminster Abbey with a posy of lilies of the valley freshly plucked from a country garden, it began a revival of interest in British-grown cut flowers. Connolly, who also put a living aisle of native species trees in The Abbey, has championed the revival of seasonal flowers in floristry. And each year since the balance between ‘flown and grown’ has tipped.
HOW WE PLANT
16. Fergus Garrett
The Lionel Messi of horticulture. As head gardener at Great Dixter, Garrett continues to do things that no one else can. And Great Dixter is not just a playground of horticultural genius but a crossroads: from teenagers choosing a path in life to designer Luciano Giubbilei reflecting on his own stylistic development, Great Dixter is a place that tells us how many possibilities the horticultural life has to offer.
17. Jimi Blake
Horticulture’s new alchemist, cheerful in the wet and dazzling in sunshine. Blake grew up in an abandoned Victorian estate at Hunting Brook, in County Wicklow, Ireland, and 18 years ago returned home to invent an innovative, explosive garden. At the launch of his book A Beautiful Obsession everyone (except me) was under thirty-five.
18. Charlotte Harris
With design partner Hugo Bugg, designer Charlotte Harris has introduced a new rhythm to contemporary design. At Chelsea 2017, her whispering conifer garden for the Royal Bank of Canada did that rare thing: a new sound in the air. This year Harris Bugg Studio are M&G. Unlike architects, garden designers don’t like public competitions but Harris Bugg have shown how to go out to win – and raise the profession’s game.
19. Dan Pearson
A batch of tickets for a private tour of the garden Pearson has made with partner Huw Morgan sold out in seven minutes. Pearson is as ageless and as mesmerising to follow as a musical prodigy. Continuing a journey into territory of his own, he composes at a scale from Juergen Teller’s studio to a thousand-acre forest in Japan.
20. Sarah Price
Price made her name as one of the design team of the 2012 Olympic Park, whose swathes of planting conceived by Sheffield Professors Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough were the horticultural event of the century. Running her own design practice from a secret Welsh location, Price is an enigma, like a solo musical star who keeps experimenting with new producers and backing singers. But every garden has a magic dust hanging gauzy in the air.
HOW WE LIVE
21. Dominic Grieve
When is a garden a garden? The current legal definition was set by Dominic Grieve as a QC at the high court in 2008 in a case that pivoted on how long a site can be left abandoned and still be classified as a garden. “I cited The Lost Gardens of Heligan and the fashion for wilder gardening” Grieve explained. “Surprisingly, we won”. It turned out the judge had read Gardens Illustrated.
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22. Joshua David and Robert Hammond
Co-founders of The High Line, New York. Twenty years ago a restaurant critic and an entrepreneur happened to sit next to each other at a community meeting in New York’s Meatpacking district to rubber-stamp the demolition of an elevated railway. The two strangers rescued The High Line and made it into a park which makes you fall in love with New York all over again. And changed the possibilities of urban horticulture. Every city wants one. Britain awaits.
23. George Plumptre
Chief Executive of the National Gardens Scheme, whose volunteer gardeners raise millions for medicine through opening their gardens, Plumptre had led the sector in taking health seriously. Yes, we know gardens make us smile – but can we prove it? Through medical think tank The King’s Fund, Plumptre has commissioned the scientific research that might make governments take gardens more seriously.
24. Joy Larkcom
Every time your supermarket salad goes crunch with Mediterranean leaves or pak choi, think of Joy Larkcom and her journeys across Europe in a VW camper van to collect heritage seeds forty years ago. In an age of soggy green salad, Larkcom transformed the British supermarket aisle – and veg patch. On the west coast of Ireland she continues to grow vegetables from her journeys deep into 1970s Communist China.
25. HRH The Duchess of Cambridge
Just a hunch. But with her wedding aisle of trees which were later re-planted in the Royal family’s properties, and her advocacy of natural play, there is every sign that Her Royal Highness may join her father-in-law HRH The Prince of Wales in making Britain breathe more easily.
WHO TELLS US WHAT HAPPENED
26. Tim Richardson
A one-man zeitgeist. Historian, critic and author of more than 15 books on garden history and design, Richardson is the one writer who puts fashions and trends into bigger cultural and stylistic patterns. In fifty years’ time, people will read his books to understand the shape of now. Make sure you’re in them.
27. Robin Lane Fox
“As gardeners get older, gardeners lose more prejudices than they gain”, wrote Lane Fox in a recent column. Luckily, after 50 years as the Financial Times’ gardens correspondent Lane Fox has enough prejudices – and enthusiasms – to give his Saturday column the swerves, gallops, and nostalgic digressions that make him the most irresistible writer alive. Parody Fifty Shades of Green is the funniest garden article, ever.
28. Howard Sooley
In 1991 Howard Sooley photographed Derek Jarman on the beach at Dungeness. Next, he helped him garden at Prospect Cottage. "Like a giraffe that has spent too long staring at a photograph of Virginia Woolf," as Jarman described him in the book the two published together as the artist lay dying, and which has inspired gardeners across the world. Sooley’s work is garden photography as poetry and biography.
29. Joanna Fortnam
As editor of The Telegraph’s weekend gardening sections, Joanna Fortnam has lifted garden writing above the weekly trudge of slugs and trugs. Non-Telegraph readers buy the paper for the gardening; non-gardeners open the supplements because with columnists such as Mary Keen and interviewers such as Elizabeth Grice, you explore not just the ‘how?’ but the ‘why?’ of gardening.
30. Gardens Illustrated
When the case of ‘what is a garden?’ came to court (see No.21), it turned out that the judge read Gardens Illustrated. When the first edition of GI landed on rush doormats 27 years ago, it transformed British gardens through its columnists and viewpoints, an air of experiment, and presenting photographic talent as headliners not bylines. Think of all the happy hours you’ve spent turning the pages of GI on a friend’s garden bench.
Christopher Woodward has been Director of the Garden Museum since 2006. He was previously Director of the Holburne Museum of Art in Bath and Assistant Curator at Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.
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