Chris Beardshaw interview

Chris Beardshaw c Liz Potter

In his 20th year designing show gardens, gold-medal-winning designer Chris Beardshaw shares the secrets behind this dazzling planting schemes

Interview by Liz Potter

With no fewer than 11 RHS gold medals for his show gardens, Chris Beardshaw has a rare design talent largely unmatched by his peers. Thanks to his voluptuous, romantic plant combinations he’s a regular recipient of the coveted People’s Choice award too. This year he’s teamed up with Morgan Stanley again to create a garden for child protection charity, the NSPCC. Despite his many accomplishments, Chris remains one of the most charming, modest and popular TV gardeners you could ever hope to meet.

You’ve been designing show gardens for 20 years. What drives you? Undoubtedly it’s addiction. You get the chance to create the perfect picture, immediately. As gardeners we’re all fabulously impatient, and with a show garden, once you’re on site, you have the ability to produce the vision really quickly. It’s fabulously stimulating because you’re instantly able to recognise what does and doesn’t work and then refine it. So it’s a really good learning exercise. You might go in with a preferred list of plants, but once you get to the show the whole thing changes and everything becomes amplified. You can move them and change them and they surprise you. They do things and have conversations with other plants you wouldn’t expect them to have. That’s the fun side of it.

How would you describe your planting style? I did an article for a German magazine recently and they described it as ‘painterly’. I use stabs of colour for an effect that’s almost pixelated. It’s not a conscious thing. I’m not trying to create or adhere to a particular style. I genuinely like putting plants together in the way that I like putting them together, if that makes sense?

Is it difficult to focus on the detail at Chelsea? Yes. There’s a great glee when the lorry-load of plants arrives and there’s this constant sense of urgency with which everyone seems to operate. What I try and do with my team is to deliberately go into our own space and ignore everything that’s going on around us. So there are moments when I’ve created gardens on Main Avenue when I’ve been so involved in thinking through every possible permutation of combinations and associations, that after 20 minutes or so I’ve looked up and suddenly surprised myself that I’m in the middle of Chelsea flower show.

How has Chelsea changed in the last 20 years? No doubt expectations are much higher now in terms of the quality of the design and planting schemes, and the ambition of the designers is much greater. Also I think it’s only in last few years there’s been a return to a mix of different garden styles. Eight to ten years ago everyone was taking plants from the same suppliers and getting all their ideas from the same design book. When I started, every garden was significantly different. In last couple of years we’ve seen a return to that diversity again.

Can you remember your earliest successes? The first garden we did that made a bit of a splash was probably our Boveridge House garden (2006). We took a snapshot of the garden we’d been restoring to Chelsea on an absolute shoestring and I don’t think the RHS believed we would pull it off. It was a celebration of arts and crafts herbaceous borders at a time when Main Avenue was full of architecture, sculpture and concrete. I remember standing in the rain and having a phone call from the RHS saying: “Please can you do something about the crowds in front of your garden?” Everyone was looking at it, enthralled to see a garden that had plants in it and a bit of atmosphere.

Is there a trend at moment? I think there’s still an awful lot of concrete and rather dotty planting. That’s not a criticism. I can admire it, but that’s not the way I like to do it.

Do you enjoy looking at other show gardens? To be honest there’s very little opportunity to walk around the showground. So I might know where the entrance is and the toilets, and the coffee bar, but that’s pretty much my experience of Chelsea – certainly during the build up. And then once the garden goes live you’re pretty much on the garden the whole time. Last year, of six days at the show, I spent four days watering.

Who’s on your Chelsea planting team? I plant with two guys, Nick and Dave. I’ve known them for many years and we absolutely trust one another. So, I might be putting a combination together and get so absorbed in it... Then I’ll stand up, turn round and look at either Nick or Dave and they’ll be frowning at me. And suddenly I realise it doesn’t work; they’ve seen something I haven’t. It’s a real delight to work like that.

How did your relationship with Morgan Stanley come about? They’d been involved with Chelsea for a few years on the corporate hospitality side and then the decision was made to upscale and produce a garden. Frances and I went to talk to them and what appealed to me was that they had a very real reason for being there – every project was genuine, with a good cause behind it. The first garden we did was the Healthy Cities garden (2015), which was transferred into an East End community project in Poplar. The primary school benefitted from the plants and some of the structural pieces from our National Youth Orchestra garden (2016). With the Great Ormond Street Hospital garden they wanted to create a permanent legacy and made a commitment to pay for a gardening team to go in and maintain it. It also triggered staff interest in a gardening club. I love the fact these gardens can act as a catalyst to create something more.

What’s your design process? Scattergun, I suppose. The whole project starts off as a series of scribbles and sketches – an opportunity to explore and take key words from discussions with the partner or client. Then I try to graphically represent them. I keep a small sketchbook where I’ll draw a quick rectangle and then a squiggle that becomes a path and then a shape over here that becomes planting. These little thumbnail sketches are so quick; 90% of them might be absolute garbage but somewhere, buried, will be perhaps something you can extract.  

Are you visually minded? I was thrown out of art at school! I desperately wanted to do art but in those days it wasn’t considered sufficiently academic and I was showing promise in other areas. So I was made to do geology instead. Which, with hindsight, wasn’t a bad thing. But I’ve always scribbled and sketched cartoons and looked at things as well. I think that’s the most important skill for any gardener – the ability to look and understand what you’re looking at and why it has a certain emotional effect on you.

How has your design style evolved? Inevitably it’s naïve when you start, especially with a show garden. There can very few people who would ever look at their first piece of work and think God that’s a genius at work! Most of us look at our early gardens with a slight air of embarrassment. And so it becomes a learning process, learning new plants, new combinations, new ways of doing things. I think I’ve become more structural in the way my gardens go together, relying on one or two structural pieces, and then making a tapestry of other plants to supporting that structure. And also the design is crisper I think.

What’s your garden like at home? A disaster, largely! If you miss two or three weeks in early spring, you never catch up. And so for the last four years of doing Chelsea, my own garden really has become somewhat neglected. I mean it’s serviceable, but I’d never open it to the public.

Do you harbour any dreams of having a public garden? No I can’t think of anything worse! It’s bad enough listening to what people have to say about my Chelsea showgardens. However, I do love standing in the background with a hosepipe watering the garden, just listening. The vast majority of comments are really quite flattering. I think it’s a very genuine warmth.

What (or who) are your main inspirations? I tend not to get too fixed with a particular garden designer or gardener. You sometimes come across people who see the world in a different way. Keith Wiley who used to be at the Garden House (Devon) is one of those gardeners. Sort of raw, with a mischievous glint in his eye and you just know he’s hatching a plan to stick two plants together that should never be stuck together, but that somehow it will work. Lesley and John Jenkins up at Wollerton Old Hall (Shropshire) are fabulous too.

Have you got mischievous streak? Gosh. You try hard to cultivate it. But some people just have it and other people have to try. I think I’d put myself down as a trier.

What sparked your interest in garden design? I stumbled into it by accident. I was working as a Saturday boy in a nursery where I would bring the plants up in trays and put them on the sales bench. And then one day the nursery owner asked me to look after the shop while he went off for lunch. I started to take the plants out of their trays and create something a bit more ‘gardeneseque’. The manager decided to leave them as they were for the afternoon and – to my delight – we sold everything on that bench.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve ever faced at Chelsea? A few years ago we were planting the Healthy Cities (2014) garden and my front tree was a Cornus kousa I’d selected from a really good specialist nursery in Germany. It arrived in perfect condition and was lying down in the lorry when my phone rang. By the time I turned round somebody who hadn’t moved a tree of that size before had put some strops around it and was lifting it with the telehandler. It was about two and half tons of tree and as the strops started to tighten around its trunk I saw it had become completely ring barked. Luckily we were able to shuffle trees around and in the end nobody noticed the first tree was missing.

Another time, with our garden for Arthritis UK (2013) we had a bespoke glass structure being made in Ireland. We’d ordered and paid for it three months earlier but on the day it was supposed to arrive, Frances rang the factory to find the line was dead. It turned out the company had gone bust. That’s when my old friend Nick Knowles from DIY SOS came to the rescue. I’ve known Nick for a long time and I have the greatest respect for him. I think he was on holiday at the time and probably had to put down his pina colada to go through his phone book! But with about five days notice, one of his contacts managed to put the whole thing together for us and ship it up to Chelsea.

You’ve won so many gold medals – have you got another in your sights? Certainly in the early days winning a gold medal was our sole focus. But with maturity comes the realisation that what’s more important is the quality of the message you’ve been able to convey and whether you feel comfortable with it.

Besides, judging is an imperfect art. I don’t think the show needs it. If you’re judging something embroiled in the emotions, who are you to say it either works or doesn’t?

There is an element of vanity I suppose. You’re doing it because you want to feel comfortable with it yourself, but then if someone else likes it, whose opinion you respect, it’s really something. Last year, Peter Seabrook came onto the garden with a tear in his eye: you have to create something pretty good to get Peter Seabrook emotional! *

• 1999 Dig for Victory Garden for Pershore College; Chelsea Gold
• 2001 Gardener’s World Live show garden; Silver-Gilt & People’s choice
• 2004 The Winalot Garden, Hampton Court; Silver-Gilt
• 2006 The Boveridge House Garden, Chelsea; Gold & Best in Show
• 2007 Celebrating 100 years of Hidcote Manor, Chelsea; Silver-Gilt & People’s Choice
• 2007 The Growing Schools Garden, Hampton Court; Gold & Best in Show
• 2008 Cheshire’s Year of Gardens, Tatton Park; Gold & Best in Show
• 2009 Ness Botanische Tatton Park; Gold
• 2010 An Englishman’s Retreat, Ellerslie International Flower Show, New Zealand; Gold & People’s Choice
• 2011 Stockman’s Retreat, Hampton Court; Silver Gilt & Peoples’ Choice
• 2012 Furzey Gardens, Chelsea; Gold
• 2013 Arthritis Research UK Garden, Chelsea; Gold & People’s Choice
• 2014 Morgan Stanley Healthy Cities garden, Singapore Garden Festival; Gold
• 2015 Morgan Stanley garden for Great Ormond Street Hospital, Chelsea; Gold
• 2016 Morgan Stanley Garden, Chelsea; Silver-Gilt & People’s Choice
• 2017 National Youth Orchestra for Morgan Stanley, Chelsea; Silver-Gilt