In a new series of profiles, Residential introduces you to the property names you need to know — from dazzling designers to the greenest-fingered gardeners.
Jo Thompson, 49, is a landscape garden designer based in East Sussex, a county in south-east England. She grew up in Rome, where she acquired more of a love for architecture than flowers. After a stint as a drama teacher, she set up Jo Thompson Landscape and Garden Design in 2006.
She has since won three gold and five silver gilt medals at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, she chairs the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show Summer Gardens selection panel and is listed by House & Garden magazine as one of the country’s top ten garden designers.
Her portfolio ranges from a sculpture garden in Sussex and work at RHS Rosemoor to a number of central London rooftops.
Why did you choose this profession?
I had always been interested in space and spatial design. I wasn’t particularly interested in flowers or horticulture itself. It wasn’t until I had my own tiny flat with a roof terrace in London’s Little Venice that I became aware that landscape design existed. I went to the nursery opposite and asked what I could do with what I had. The guy started drawing and it was a sudden lightbulb moment. I realised that it wasn’t about the plants. They come later. The starting point is the spatial arrangements.
How did you come to be a gardener?
I read languages at university and then worked in fashion for a bit before turning to teaching for a couple of years. Getting the flat in Little Venice was the turning point. I discovered a whole world up on that roof. That’s when I went and retrained in landscape design.
How would you characterise your style?
The gardens I design are quite relaxed in feel. The beauty of exterior space is that it is constantly changing. The space is rigid but because nature is nature, the plants change. I like strong, simple, geometric frameworks but with planting that is informal.
Which plants and flowers do you gravitate towards?
I think roses are lovely. People worry that they’re high maintenance, but there are some really good disease-resistant roses around. I love climbing plants such as clematis, too. I’m drawn to traditional, cottage-type plants — foxgloves, geraniums, roses — but used in a more abundant, contemporary way. I also like plants that show their wild origins, like Cirsium, which is an ornamental thistle.
If you could not do it, who would you get to design your own garden?
Arne Maynard. His gardens have a wonderful sense of place. They always respect the location and the house. And his planting is exquisite.
Name your most important influences.
I love the garden at Great Dixter, a historic house near to where I live. It’s just beautiful and has an abundant softness to it. Fergus Garrett, its head gardener, is great and his style simply shines through that garden.
The other place I’m inspired by is one of Arne Maynard’s, Haddon Hall, a historic house in Derbyshire. It is the perfect garden.
What has been your favourite project?
It’s so hard to choose, because they are all so different. I love collaborating with clients. We did a large country garden recently where we restored 70 metre-long twin borders, which had beautiful backdrops. It was owned by a younger couple than had previously lived there, so we made it modern and added a new spa area with minimal green and white planting, and clipped box and hornbeam trees.
Another of my favourite projects is a long London garden five metres wide that we divided into lots of different areas but that doesn’t look as it has been divided. It has a seating area for the adults and an area for children at the end that you are not aware of.
Another great project was down by the beach in Sussex, a complete new build. Its background was the whole of Camber Sands.
What is the one object you would never allow in a garden?
Do you know what? I’ve never planted bamboo. I’m not a bamboo fan.
What is the strangest request you have had?
We’ve had a garden where they wanted the barbecue as the focal point. We ended up doing a big cantilevered structure that just sat outside the kitchen as if it were floating. It was extraordinary, but it worked in the space.
There was also a client who wanted a tree that was evergreen but that didn’t have flowers, seeds, acorns or berries. That was hard. In the end we used a standard Portuguese laurel of all things.
What do you look for in a client?
People who want to be involved but are quite happy to welcome new, exciting and different ideas. Also, clients who are interested in design. What’s great is when you come up with ideas and the client goes for it. That’s the thing about what we do: having the trust that it will work.
What do you see as the requirements of a good garden?
The first thing is that it needs to sit well in its location. To me, Moroccan blue walls in the middle of London look odd. If [the garden] has a fantastic view, you can borrow that. A garden needs to work for everybody because you want to get people outside and its elements need to be beautiful. Whether it’s a play structure or an arbour at the other end of the garden, it needs to be a pleasant experience to get to and look good once you’re there.
How do you go about designing a garden?
Normally I visit the garden and get a feel straight away for the space. Then it’s a question of spending time with the client and getting to know them. After that I try not to think about it for a week, and then I put pen to paper. The basic elements come straight away, and things get adjusted around that. It’s not very scientific. I just go with my feeling.
Do you enjoy designing for flower shows?
I enjoy creating something from scratch and, in a way, being one’s own client. And to be able to construct a whole, imaginary world. I don’t enjoy being judged.
Which nurseries do you go to?
I use How Green Nursery in Kent a lot and I go to Peter Beales and David Austin for roses. For trees, Majestic Trees. And we use Hortus Loci a lot because they are great at getting everything together in our show gardens.
What would you say is the main trend in gardening?
Appliances and outside cooking: pizza ovens, barbecues and so on. Also I think there is a move away from prairie-style planting. People are beginning to use more shrubs.
Photographs: Rachel Warne
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