It feels like everyone is talking about self-care these days, and yet something that is often omitted from these conversations is gardening; the transformative power of plants. As landscape architect Marcus Barnett says: “Living and working in nature is a very rewarding, soul-feeding experience.” Gardens, he says, are an antidote to the noise and traffic of modern life, slowing us down and reconnecting us with the world we inhabit.
Last month, thousands of gardeners and garden-loves descended on Royal Hospital Chelsea for the annual RHS Chelsea Flower Show, where Barnett has exhibited five times. Originally in the army, Barnett applied to show at Chelsea while he was still at college (Inchbald School of Design in south-west London) and ended up exhibiting just after he’d left. His show garden went on to win a gold medal and Best in Category–an astounding feat, particularly for a first-timer.
“While in the army, the desire to get into landscape architecture–excuse the pun–took root and wouldn’t leave me,” he says of his decision to enter the world of horticulture. “I tried to ignore it but a voice kept sounding off in my head and it just got louder. Eventually it got so loud that I couldn’t ignore it anymore, so I gave in and went to study landscape design and the rest is history.”
Since that first, fateful showing at Chelsea, Barnett and his team of 12 have designed gardens around the world, for an illustrious list of clients—including The Standard. In the wake of this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, Barnett tells us about his experience of the event, his highlight from this year’s show, and more on the power of plants.
What does Chelsea mean to you?
I’ve exhibited there five times. It’s very exciting. There’s a lot of pressure and a lot of risks involved, but there’s also a lot of reward and it’s nice to have the chance to run with ideas that you have in your head but can’t always do in real projects.
What are some of the challenges?
Well it’s obviously very public, so there’s a lot of risks. There’s a very complicated build because you only get three weeks to do it. You can have plant failure in the run up to the show and, almost without exception, something goes wrong so you have to come up with contingencies all the time.
Your first show garden won a gold medal and Best in Category. Can you tell me about that garden?
It was about having photographs outside in the garden. The garden was called The Gallery Outside. We borrowed pictures from Patrick Lichfield, who was such a charming man. We had corrugated iron in it, painted white render and poured concrete.
How did it feel to win a Gold Medal?
Yeah, a big relief because it was a real gamble.
Have you been this year? Is there anything we should look out for?
Yes, I visited this year. I think Andy Sturgeon’s garden was good, I liked it. The planting was good. I loved his charcoaled oak structures. But I think it’s quite risk-averse now, the show.
"I suppose that’s a reflection of life; everyone wants delivery now and if you don’t deliver, people are sacked, aren’t they?"
I think there’s more pressure from the sponsors for the designers to deliver. So, I don’t think the designers are as risky in their designs or their schemes, ideas, materials or plants as they might have been about ten years ago. I suppose that’s a reflection of life; everyone wants delivery now and if you don’t deliver, people are sacked, aren’t they? To be rather dramatic.
What sparked your interest in horticulture?
I’ve always liked it. I’ve always felt at one with it. It just feels very natural environment for me to be. I like the opportunity to manipulate it, work it, create dreams and ambitions for our clients. It’s a real privilege and I wouldn’t do anything else. I absolutely love it.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
I would say that what we do is quite architectural, hard-landscaping that is underpinned and grounded with really luscious and soft planting. We’re very careful with the plants that we select, making sure that the palette is diverse and in harmony but also showing a lot of movement and tone and texture.
And for you, what’s the most important thing to consider when you’re designing?
I think most of the places that we design are homes and one has to remember that someone’s going to live there, first and foremost. One has to be very sympathetic to the ambitions and wishes of our clients. Fundamentally, I’m trying to provide a place for a family invariably to live, work, play and grow. That’s pretty much what drives what we do.
Do you believe that garden have a therapeutic power too?
Absolutely. Yes, I do. I think the garden invariably provides more fulfillment, joy and pleasure to our clients than the homes that they build because there’s a magic that comes from the garden; it lives and dies across the seasons and is forever changing.
Do you think it ties into our humanity, this idea of living and working in nature?
I do. We move so fast that we’re less of a community now. We’re more individual and there is a pace of life that’s very aggressive and swift, and the garden in its very nature can decelerate that. And I think that can only help one’s state of mind.
Can you tell me about your relationship with The Standard, London and what you’ve worked on with them?
We’ve designed and built all their outside spaces, indoor plants and roof terraces and the like. They have a very clear design aesthetic that was very exciting to partner with. I think we’ve come up with something that's really quite dynamic and exciting and that’s very much the DNA of The Standard, London.
Finally, what’s your favorite thing about your job?
It’s always different. And just when you think your knowledge is fairly comprehensive, something comes around the corner that means you’ve got to learn a whole wealth of facts all over again and so you’re always, always absorbing information.