Darren Hawkes talks RHS Chelsea


Reckless Gardener interviews garden designer Darren Hawkes, as he prepares for RHS Chelsea with his design for the Samaritans’ Listening Garden.

Darren Hawkes is no stranger to RHS Chelsea and the 2023 RHS Chelsea Flower Show will see him back once again, this time with a design for the Samaritans, depicting the challenging journey many people take when reaching out to the Charity and the sanctuary they find when speaking to a listening volunteer.

In designing ‘The Samaritans’ Listening Garden‘, Darren will again face quite a technical challenge, as he represents fear, anxiety and helplessness juxtaposed with relief, support and hope, by creating a design that provides space to encourage visitors to talk, be heard and gain perspective.

Darren (pictured left) has over 20 years-experience working in landscaping and has won a number of Chelsea Gold Medals. The Cornwall based designer admits that he was drawn into garden design by an overwhelming urge to arrange space and to put things in place: “Form is everything to me, whether that is the position of plants or the scale of hard landscape materials. I don’t see a distinction between the two, I just have a desire to order things and create the right atmosphere,” he says.

For the Samaritans’ garden, Darren wants to convey the journey people struggling with their emotions will go on. Importantly, he points out that he wants the garden to convey the Samaritans’ key message that suicide is preventable: “So I have explored how the garden can provoke feelings and illustrate a journey from crisis to hope. At the entrance to the garden, huge curtains of reinforced concrete, supported by thin cables will hover above the delicate foliage of the plants below. Towering above this will be the giant, architectural form of Aralia chapaensis making the entrance to the garden feel brutal and foreboding,” he explains.

The pathway into the garden will appear cracked with deep fissures leading down into the darkness, where the sound of gushing water can be heard. Beyond this, the garden will open out into a welcoming sanctuary as you walk down into a sunken area where a sculptural Oak bench sits under the canopy of a stunning small-leaved Elm (Ulmus minor ‘Jaqueline Hillier’), providing a space that will encourage visitors to talk, be heard and gain perspective on their struggles.”

Darren likes to push boundaries and find a line between chaos and disorder so that a garden does its own thing. He explains that The Samaritans’ Listening Garden is a perfect example of finding a line between chaos and order: “I want to take visitors on a journey where they experience a range of emotions from a state of chaos to a feeling of calm and serenity, much like the experience of many Samaritans’ callers. While there are certainly chaotic elements within the garden, it is very much considered chaos. The planting will feel calm and understandable while the sculptural elements might feel slightly unruly in comparison, but it’s very balanced. I feel very comfortable with that. I take enjoyment in the happenchance.”

Darren knows what to expect at Chelsea, however, this garden is quite a challenge given the theme and construction. Chelsea visitors will remember the technically difficult garden Darren created at the Show in 2017 with his design for ‘The Linklaters Garden for Maggies’, with its hidden garden viewed from an elevated pathway. One will never forget that inviting doorway (pictured right) into a secret garden or the technical skill displayed in the various aspects of this multi-faceted design, justly deserving a Gold Medal. So, yes, the Samaritans’ garden will be just as challenging: “It’s been uphill all the way, but you hold on to the very important reason why we are bringing this garden to RHS Chelsea – to demonstrate the lifesaving work of Samaritans. I like a challenge. It would be very boring to create a Chelsea garden that is easier than the last garden I designed. I wanted to take the challenge further than anything I have ever experienced at Chelsea before and to create something really thought-provoking.”

Asked about the main challenges with the 2023 design, Darren admits that the garden, is in fact, quite unusual in that he has sourced 85% of the hard landscaping material from demolition sites, scrap yards and farmyards in Cornwall: “I will personally be honing, shaping and polishing this salvaged material to create beautiful new forms and textures. It is in the spirit of the Japanese tradition of Kintsugi where broken pottery is repaired using gold to transform it into a new work of art. Every element of the garden has been designed with a meaning behind it and to encourage visitors to think how listening can save lives. Logistically, this means meticulously planning ahead to ensure that some of the very heavy pieces of concrete and steel are moved very carefully and as little as possible to minimise unnecessary damage.”

(Above) Darren working at his Cornwall practice

With a practice in Cornwall one might wonder how the scenery and environment of this special place influences his design thinking. Looking at his design for the 2023 Chelsea garden you can see the influence in the rocks and planting he is using: “The planting I’ve chosen for the Samaritans’ Listening Garden has been selected with the relocation of the garden in mind. We hope that after the show, we will be able to relocate elements of it to the Samaritans branch in Truro. So, while it is not a Cornish garden, all the plants have been chosen with the Cornish climate in mind,” he says.

Darren strongly believes that all garden designers should be designing and creating gardens with longevity in mind. The need to build high-quality gardens using the best quality materials available (or recycling existing materials) so that gardens stand the test of time and still exist in 30 or 50 years time: “I also think we need to ensure that the ratio of hard to soft landscaping is always in favour of planting. I certainly try to ensure that as much of the garden in my designs is given over to planting to support biodiversity, wildlife and rain saturation,” he adds.

Coincidentally, the home page of Darren’s website – https://darrenhawkeslandscapes.co.uk/ – has always referenced the importance of listening, whether to clients to really understand their brief, to the land to create a true sense of place or listening to one’s gut instincts and impulses in order to trust our own intuition.

Based in Cornwall it’s not surprising to learn that any spare time Darren has means you will find him out on the water: “When I can, I crew with friends on a beautiful 85-year-old boat in the Fowey River Harbour.”

We wish Darren and his team every success as they prepare for Chelsea, with this important garden, and feel sure that he will create a thought-provoking and enlightening design to help us all understand the importance of “listening”. You can find out more about the Samaritans by visiting: https://www.samaritans.org

Image credits: Banner ©Darren Hawkes; door ©Reckless Gardener; image of Darren working in his barn on the Samaritans garden ©Melissa Love.