Queen of Colour

phillipa-pearsonSandy Felton talks to garden designer Philippa Pearson about her passion for colour and ‘catwalk’ glamour in the border.

Spend five minutes with Philippa Pearson and you quickly realise that you are in the company of an experienced and passionate plantswoman. Based in Gamlingay, Cambridgeshire, where she runs her garden design business, Philippa has worked in horticulture for over 10 years and like several of her contempories came into horticulture from a totally unrelated background.

Philippa admits that she never envisaged being a garden designer – after a career in marketing and advertising she left work to bring up her family, however, a voluntary role with the Hardy Plant Society as Publicity Officer led her to starting her own business specialising in horticultural Public Relations in the late 1990s. Her client list was impressive, including Alan and Adrian Bloom (Blooms of Bressingham) Peter Beales Roses and the spring plant fair Fetes des Plantes Vivaces at St Jean de Beauregard, near Paris.

During this time Philippa also found herself getting more involved in practical gardening: “I really love my plants and the use of colour”, Philippa explains. “As I worked in people’s gardens, one thing led to another and soon I was designing bits of their gardens and putting in new planting schemes for borders.”

colourPhilippa’s love of plants and colour fired her enthusiasm to learn more about horticulture in a practical way and she decided to work towards the RHS qualifications up to Diploma level. She admits that she had no specific formal design qualifications, although the RHS qualifications cover design in one of their modules, but lots of ideas about how to use plants in gardens. When a friend, who had designed a courtyard garden at Chelsea, pointed out that Philippa had a really good plant knowledge and should consider becoming a designer she decided to change the nature of her business and started to concentrate on garden design in 2005.

Today, Philippa’s work encompasses a wide range of design commissions. She runs a Border Design service by Post which means lots of people all over the country can have the chance to have some of Philippa’s planting in their own gardens: “It’s quite cost effective too for garden owners,” she explains. “Changing the planting in a border can give a garden a whole new ‘feel’ so a range of border designs is always on the go from small courtyards to large country houses. Sometimes we just need to update our flower borders, give them a new lease of life or even start again with new planting so quite a few people come to me just for border designs and its something I really enjoy doing; the chance to work with different site conditions and plants, the opportunity to create a unique planting plan which will bring years of enjoyment to garden owners.”

Current design projects include a large country garden in Essex, three village gardens on the edge of Cambridge, several borders at an estate in Scotland and a country estate in the Midlands. “Each garden and border design is unique with different requirements and this is something I love about my job,” she explains. “The main problem is not finding enough hours in the day to get everything done so I do start work very early and finish late which is not always ideal.”

flower-colourPhilippa’s work has received recognition at both RHS Chelsea and RHS Hampton Court. Her delightful garden for the Girlguiding UK Centenary at RHS Hampton Court, in 2010, saw her awarded a Silver Gilt medal and the People’s Choice Award for the best large show garden. I have to admit that if I close my eyes I can still that lovely Girlguiding garden with its many facets and design styles woven into one and it was no surprise to me when it was voted the People’s Choice.

Her success at Hampton Court in 2010 followed her first garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, the same year, where she was awarded Silver for her Victorian Aviary Garden. Philippa points out that the amount of work that goes into planning a show garden can take 12-18 months and its ‘full on at the coal face’: “The tiniest detail is discussed and watched like a hawk at every stage, whether its plants or garden features being made. Plants are always affected by the weather and I always have a panic that I haven’t ordered enough. Plant for Chelsea Flower Show are the most difficult to get the timing right as a cold or warm spring can mean no flowers or flowers have gone over, so you always have to have a planting plan B and C, at the very least, in reserve!”

Problems during a show build-up are also common: “At Chelsea last year we had frosts during the first week then temperatures in the mid 20s the last few days. Plants were suffering and so were people. Hampton Court show is either scorching hot (temperatures were consistently in the 30s last year for over a week) with concrete baked ground or there is torrential rain and you can’t do anything.”

She likes to include lots of colour in gardens with a good mix of straight lines to define areas as well as having informal planting that spills over and softens hard landscaping. She also likes to introduce harmony into her gardens.

Philippa has quite definite rules for creating a colourful border with a bright bold look: “Rule number one is don’t be afraid to clash colours and take inspiration from tones used by fashion designers like Zandra Rhodes who mix blocks of colour very well. Rule number two is to experiment with different textures too, the flat daisy flowerheads of Echinacea work well with the tall spires of Veronicastrum. Third, if you want to bring some order to how you use colour, grade colours as you see them in a colour chart: start with cool blues at one end and rise to hot reds and oranges in the middle, or other end of the border. Finally, use Gertrude Jekyll’s advice to add a splash of white to create breathing spaces between hot colours.”

Phillipa’s style is unique, colourful and aims to make your garden a delight to look at and enjoy. Both her gardens at Chelsea and Hampton Court were a riot of colour and she is happy that bright, blousy colours has become something of her trademark style. She loves working with perennials and plants that give year round interest or feature to the garden. As she explains: “I think this originates from the great Alan Bloom whom I worked with over a few years. His love of perennials and his incredible knowledge of them were fascinating and we would sit and talk plants for ages. I also like his use of tactile plants for year round interest in his garden at Bressingham.”

Asked about her favourite garden designer her answer is no surprise: “Gertrude Jekyll. She loved colour, wasn’t afraid to use it and had a natural gift for blending colour themes in borders. Her principles still work today and I am always inspired by her planting which works in traditional and contemporary planting designs.”

When she is not busy with her design business, Philippa writes for Hertfordshire Life and Essex Life and has a monthly Grow Your Own diary on the Soil Association’s website. She enjoys having the chance to see other people’s gardens and write about them: “I like to seek out the background to the gardens I visit and write about, what was there when the owners moved in, what has motivated them to create the garden’s layout, why have certain plants been chosen?” Interviewing plantsmen and women whether involved in a garden or a nursery is also another welcome facet of writing about horticulture: “Their enthusiasm for their favourite plants is something that makes the world go around and a tonic everyone should dip into.”

Since February 2011 she has also had a stall on Cambridge Market once a week: “It’s full of lovely things for the garden you can’t get from the usual sources plus lots of Franchi Seeds and Italian soaps,” she explains. “I also get to talk to people about their gardens and plants, offer advice and sell the vegetable plants I grow from seed. It’s a bit cold at times, but great fun!”

Philippa offers a full design service; plant and garden maintenance advice and Border Design by Post. For more information about Philippa’s design service log onto: www.philippapearson.co.uk

Photo credits: All photographs © Philippa Pearson