2020: Covid, Creativity and Compassion.

As we leave 2020 behind us, I choose to approach 2021 ‘without fear’ – a mindset inspired by the title of the stunning Dermot Kennedy album, which I currently have on repeat. 2020 was never going to get off to a good start after losing a close family member, immediately before Christmas 2019, so I already had a sense of foreboding even before we knew that a global pandemic was about to induce panic and anxiety.

However, after developing and recovering from mild symptoms, just before the country went into full lockdown in March, some of those fears were allayed and I was able to resume work after a period of self-isolation. Others have not been so fortunate: lives and livelihoods have been lost, and many people face an uncertain future, so we must sit tight and continue to follow the rules until this modern-day plague packs its bags and does one!

It’s been heart breaking witnessing close friends and family struggle under difficult circumstances, but I’m proud of the strength they’ve exhibited and inspired in me. In the words of Bob Marley: “You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice.” In fact, it’s the strength of those close to me, my community and our keyworkers who inspired me to launch the Plant a Thought project, to bring about positive change.

Last, but not least, I cannot thank Ann-Marie Powell, Tamsin Westhorpe and the whole My Real Garden gang enough for the love and support they’ve all shown me since I dared to share my garden live, on Instagram, and found the most compassionate and creative community waiting for me at the other end. We’ve literally grown together, ever since, and I now have a zillion tulips to look forward to, come spring, thanks to their enthusiasm and encouragement.

To everyone who’s had my back, in 2020, thank you for putting a smile on my face during one of the most challenging, but life-affirming years I’ve had both the misfortune and pleasure to experience. I love you all. Happy New Year! ✨

Darren. X

Studio garden draws on Native American settlements

First up in the Green Living Spaces at RHS Malvern Spring Festival, mentored by Jamie Butterworth from Butterworth Horticulture, is ‘An Artist’s Studio at Home’.

A collaboration between Jessica Makins and Stephanie Tudor, this garden defied its diminutive dimensions by confining seating to the sidelines, in a clay-coloured, cob bench combo, by Jeffrey Hart at Hartwyn, consisting of cleverly integrated cushions and natty nooks, which smacked of New Mexico and its ancient Pueblos. 

Heath Sawn Sandstone, with its uniform dove-grey colouring, by London Stone, teamed well with the organic cotton cushions and kept things light and airy. A natural, unpainted wooden pergola, connected to the studio, defined this area and echoed the treatment on the window frames and doorway.

Ethical AND exciting – yes, those two really can coexist – this dream space, inspired by the life and work of artist Georgia O’Keefe, stole the show with a contemporary palette of grey-green planting and monochromatic blooms, which would inspire any painter who took up residency in this garden’s artfully accessorised studio.

Well-deserving of its Gold and People’s Choice awards, don’t you think!

A Garden of Quiet Contemplation

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I’ve admired the gardens of Peter Dowle, from Howle Hill Nursery since my inaugural visit to RHS Malvern Spring Festival, in 2016, when his garden ‘Reflections of Japan’ won Gold and captured my imagination with its aspirational Acers and expanse of water. In subsequent years, his gardens have continued to inspire me and have even graced the pages of my garden design assignments, in which I’ve referenced his expert use of focal points, water and naturalistic planting. This year was no different.

Under the banner of his new venture, Leaf Creative, his 2019 Gold-award-winning garden, ‘A Garden of Quiet Contemplation’, was more formal than those of late, but his signature style was written all over, featuring the elements that I have come to know and love, and included the beautiful sculpture of ‘Zephyr, mistress of the wind’, by Simon Gudgeon Sculpture, atop a circular infinity pool.

The ‘Kast Dark Grey’ Porcelain, by Mandarin Stone, provided a stylish and non-slip foil to the soft landscaping, and looked beautiful wet or dry. Accessed from multiple angles, and perfectly integrated into the wider landscape, it was easy to see how this garden would form part of a larger space, but delivered the seclusion required to experience this garden in quiet contemplation, as intended, which won it ‘Best in Show’.

Perfectionism and the battle for enough

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So, tomorrow, I’m putting this assignment to bed. It’s long overdue, by anyone’s standards, but it’s been a tough 3 months, being all things to all people and working full-time. I’ve learnt a lot, not just about the history of garden design, the characteristics of plants, and the benefits of different materials, but also about myself.

I will always be a perfectionist, which can rob me of time during open deadlines, and while this has its drawbacks, it also has its benefits: I get to see and feel things deeply, not all of which is pleasant, but I also see beauty in glorious technicolour and pick up on details that may pass others by. It’s an inherent part of my makeup, which I’m constantly battling with.

And although my dear mother suffered the same ‘affliction’, she was a deep and beautiful soul, who left too soon, without ever realising her uniqueness, because she compared herself to others, and created that out-of-reach future self, which makes us feel that we’re never enough.

I’ve been and done more than enough, lately, and shown strength where I may have previously faltered. I’m trying to be the best version of me that I can be, even if I go down a few blind alleys and give myself a constant guilt trip about the house that I don’t have time to clean or the strong and inspirational father who I have to miss a weekend with to complete assignments or recover from a long week.

But, tomorrow, I’m having a ME day (after I’ve flicked the duster and brushed things under the sofa) and taking a Yoga for Anxiety workshop with Anna at Empower Yoga Birmingham, when I will be enough, more than enough, for one day at least.

Mindful moment at Malvern Spring Festival

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I’ve been pulled in all directions, lately, that it’s been difficult finding the time to be mindful, and truly present in the moment, but if ever a garden symbolises serenity and inspires self-care, this one does. The Spirit of the Woods, by Peter Dowle of Howle Hill Nursery, is more than a gold award-winning show garden; it’s an experience.

The moment you step onto that jetty, and look across the lake to the meditative mask, created by sculptor Simon Gudgeon, you disconnect from the baying crowds and reconnect with nature. Framed by the naturalistic planting, which blends seamlessly with the landscape beyond, it evokes empathy from the viewer as you become a reflection of the scene and intimately acquainted with it.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to get up close and personal with this vision in the valley, such was the demand on its Designer, but it was so wonderful to witness its whispering waters, which spoke to so many, who may have needed it more than I did, from a young boy in his wheelchair, to many more who hugged its shores as I looked on from a distance. A sight to behold.