Warner Edwards Gin Garden features on Main Avenue

Sandy Felton talks to garden designer Helen Elks-Smith as she prepares to make her debut on Main Avenue at the 2019 RHS Chelsea Flower Show with a garden for Warner Edwards Gin.

Award-winning landscape and garden designer Helen Elks-Smith will return to the 2019 RHS Chelsea Flower Show with her first Main Avenue Show Garden for Warner Edwards. Inspired by the natural springs at Falls Farm in Northamptonshire – the home of the distillery – Helen has designed a garden using a sequence of structures and techniques to create multiple water features which run quietly through different areas of the garden.

This year (2019) will see a good representation of female designers on Main Avenue and I asked Helen how she felt about the challenge of designing ‘The Warner Edwards Garden‘ on the prestigious plot: “I don’t really feel daunted,” she said. “We are very comfortable designing large gardens for clients in the ‘real world’ so it is very much business as usual. We have a very experienced team building the garden too, with Bowles & Wyer and Dan Riddleston at the helm. I think a more specific challenge might be the plot. We are sited at the very end of Main Avenue by the white pavilion buildings so controlling the garden boundaries will be key.

The garden will be a modern interpretation of Falls Farm where sponsor Warner Edwards have their Gin Distillery. Helen points out that after she first visited Falls Farm, which is a working farm, she was at once struck by the terracing, ditches and the remains of a once grand Manor House: “These were a real inspiration to me. I loved their dramatic linear quality and the way they interrupted the beautiful natural landscape,” she said. I had heard that the design will be a ‘nod’ to Frank Lloyd Wright and I asked Helen if his work was an influence: “The work of Frank Lloyd Wright was never far from my mind as I experimented with the sharp lines and rolling hills to create the design for the show garden,” she said. “I wanted to achieve the same harmonious union between design and nature that Lloyd Wright created at Fallingwater where the organic architecture sits beautifully in the natural landscape,” Helen added.

Helen admits that the water elements in the garden are going to be challenging: “They have been inspired by the springs at Falls Farm and designed using a sequence of structures and techniques to create multiple water features, which run quietly through different areas of the garden creating gentle arcs and streams,” she says. “Working with water is always a challenge. You have to ensure it flows in the right way, with the right speed and that it generates the right sound to create the atmosphere you want to achieve.”

The garden’s composition is also a major challenge for Helen who likes to take a holistic approach to design to ensure that the design ideas follow through and that all the garden elements work together as a cohesive whole to give a space of sense and calm: “For instance, the stone paving in the garden has been cut to the same proportion as the roof of the pavilion so the repeating ratios will give the garden a very balanced composition. I’m a bit of maths geek and I find geometry fascinating so a real sense of achievement for me will be to have all the elements working beautifully together.”

I am always interested to know if any particular designer has been an influence on my subjects and Helen doesn’t hesitate when she says that she admires an independence of mind and spirit: “The designers who carve out their own path in life and who are willing to experiment and explore new ideas are the ones that influence me,” she says. “I clearly remember being 18 years old, stepping off a train in Barcelona and seeing Gaudi’s work for the first time. The importance of good design was overwhelming.”

Helen is in no doubt that landscape and garden design is a fantastic profession for a woman: “It’s diverse, interesting and a real challenge, but it is hard to be really successful in this business,” she points out. “To get ahead you need to have a wide range of skills and be a great team player. Generally, I think women make great designers and, in my experience, they have the skills set to really excel in a team. My advice would be to embrace every aspect of the job. There is an expectation in the industry that women have limited construction knowledge and this can hold us back. I would say there is a long way to go in terms of equality but my advice to women starting out is to make sure you really understand every element of the job.”

Helen (pictured left) has recently moved home to a run-down farmhouse and the garden can only be described as a muddy patch of ground: “Great plans are afoot, but I am really missing having a garden. However, I live in the New Forest and I walk or ride horses in the forest every day. It’s a wonderfully relaxing space and it is part of who I am. I also love the excitement of visiting London and try to get up as often as I can for exhibitions and events,” she says.

The show garden will feature a series of complex drystone walls that form a central pavilion with two large cantilevered roofs and a central chimney where water will flow down through a string of copper ‘fins’ mimicking the internal engineering of ‘Curiosity’ – the Warner Edwards copper pot still – before disappearing into the ground.

The pavilion, with its floating cantilevered roofs and protruding water rills will offer that ‘nod’ to Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Fallingwater. Planting will be seen in four distinct, but complementary, zones that blend throughout the plot and, in line with the Warner Edwards ethos ‘giving back to nature’ will provide good habits and food sources for birds, insects, bees and butterflies.

A relaxed Mediterranean-style border will dominate the foreground, punctuated with shaggy Yew ‘pillows’ merging with a textured wildflower turf, while a swath of native hedgerow planting, underplanted with ferns and grasses, will wrap around the pavilion. To complete the garden, the cantilevered roofs will be crowned with Sedums, Euphorbias and Thyme.

Materials for the garden build will include limestone, copper and glass, reflecting the heritage of the village of Harrington, said to be built on rock and water, as well as the distilling materials of the distillery.

Tom Warner, Warner Edwards Founder comments that in Helen, they have found someone who has the experience and vision to bring their brand to life in garden form: “We knew immediately that she would be perfect and had to get her on board,” he said. “Last year, the Warner Edwards team were lucky enough to win a silver medal, and so our hopes are high for another medal this year.”

Helen and her team have just been awarded the prestigious Society of Garden Designers (SGD) Award 2019 for best Medium Garden Category as well as being a finalist in the Planting Design Category. Her garden, ‘Reflecting Photonics’ was awarded a Gold Medal and winner of the People’s Choice Garden at RHS Tatton 2015 (pictured right). To find out more about Helen’s practice please visit: http://www.elks-smith.co.uk/

Best of luck to Helen and the team – as far as I am concerned as a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright and a gin drinker, this garden has certainly got to be a winner!

Photo credits: Banner and garden image ©Helen Elks-Smith, ‘Reflecting Photonics’ garden ©Reckless Gardener.