Andy McIndoe on his work at Chelsea and beyond
Andy McIndoe is the man behind 25 of Hillier’s gold-medal winning displays at Chelsea. Here he is on his love of shrubs and the importance of using planting that works. Words Annie Gatti, portrait Charlie
The concrete path leading up to Sandhill Farm, Andy McIndoe’s home in a wooded part of Hampshire, has to double as a hard standing for deliveries of plants. Dozens of potted lavenders are ranked there, the day I visit. “These are for a garden I’m planting but they’re not good enough,” explains Andy, pointing out a few that are a little bit splayed, and then adds firmly. “They’re going back.”
Practical horticulture, for which Andy was awarded the Veitch Memorial Medal by the RHS in 2017, has dominated Andy’s professional life since leaving university but it’s also the mainstay of the home life he shares with his wife Ros, also a trained horticulturist, at this two-acre, plant-rich garden. “Someone asked me the other day what are your other interests, and I said I don’t have any really apart from our own garden.”
Andy grew up in Leamington Spa where at a young age he got the growing bug. By his early teens he had taken over his mother’s greenhouse to try out exotics, in particular orchids. A Saturday job at a local florist’s sparked a love of flower arranging and his horticulture degree at Bath University, gave him experience of local authority horticulture, a small independent garden centre, and commercial nursery production on a vast scale at Bruns Pflanzen in Germany. There he soaked up the mix of traditional skills, such as cultivating the rows between conifers by horse-drawn plough, and modern techniques including mobile raised platforms for pruning. After university he was tempted to return to Germany but a job came up as assistant manager of the Hillier Garden Centre in Winchester, and he took it. He thought he’d be there for a few months but finally left 37 years later, in 2015, having become the company’s first managing director outside the family, and having overseen its expansion from one to 12 garden centres.
Someone asked me the other day what are your other interests, and I said I don’t have any really apart from our own garden
When he arrived, garden centres were ripe for change and Andy was given free rein to experiment. He realised that customers were hungry for sound advice and planting recommendations so he set up basic horticultural courses for the staff who came from different walks of life. He particularly enjoyed the contact with customers and shared his enthusiasm for plants through flower demonstrations, talks and garden tours. The RHS Chelsea Flower Show brought him into the public eye but he’s quick to point out that the success of the Hillier exhibits in the Grand Pavilion, and of his 25 gold medals as their designer, was thanks to a team effort, particularly to plantsman Ricky Dorlay’s prepping of the plant material and the hands-on planting by members of staff, students and volunteer helpers. Andy’s role was akin to that of a conductor, drawing the best performance out of individual players. “Once you’ve got people into the mindset of not crowding the plant material but thinking about variety of form and how the colours work together, they can come up with inspired combinations,” he explains.
Andy is still involved in the show, orchestrating the plant displays at Jardin Blanc [Raymond Blanc’s garden restaurant oasis at the Chelsea Flower Show], but as he describes that work I sense that he misses the cut and thrust of competitive Chelsea.
It's astonishing to think that Sandhill Farm was created from scratch, less than 20 years ago
Andy’s departure from Hillier’s was timely for him in two ways. “Over the years I felt that garden centres were moving away from plants and people and I was getting frustrated with having to worry about toilet facilities, spreadsheets and menus.” Also, there was still time for him to embark on an independent career, using his skills to lecture, run online gardening courses, offer garden consultancy to private clients, and write books. His latest book, Shrubs: Discover the Perfect Plant for Every Place in Your Garden, is a follow-up to The Creative Shrub Garden, which shows how using combinations of just three carefully selected plants can be enough to create distinctive moods or styles. Why did he feel the need to write another practical book on shrubs, I wondered. “It started from my idea for a book on permanent planting for pots and containers, and then was expanded to include other situations. If you’re concerned about sustainability, low-maintenance and all-year-round interest you’ve got to be thinking of using your bedding and seasonal subjects as additions to the permanent planting.” The book devotes sections to the best shrubs for compacted soils, in Andy’s view one of the biggest challenges for owners of new-build gardens, and for narrow beds, a feature of many of our increasingly small gardens.
Sandhill Farm is a lesson in creating interest largely from the textures, shapes and forms of shrubs, trees and perennials. It’s astonishing to think the whole space was created from scratch, less than 20 years ago. Andy attributes its maturity to right plant, right place. “We all want to experiment, that’s the nature of gardening, but for your foundation planting, plant what works.”
Useful information Find out more about Andy’s work at andymcindoe.com Andy’s latest book Shrubs, Discover the Perfect Plant for Every Place in Your Garden (Timber Press, £24.99) was one of our books of the year. Here's our latest list for 2022.