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Meet Jo Thompson, garden landscape designer

PUBLISHED: 08:00 23 March 2015 | UPDATED: 08:00 23 March 2015

Jo Thompson at Sissinghurst

Jo Thompson at Sissinghurst

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

Kent-based award-winning landscape designer Jo Thompson is creating a show-stopping garden for RHS Chelsea Flower Show sole sponsor M&G Investments – inspired by her beloved Sissinghurst

With a brief to design a garden that had stood the test of time from the sole sponsor of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, M&G Investments, Jo Thompson naturally turned to the place that has inspired her ever since she moved to Kent from London some 16 years ago.

So here we are at Sissinghurst, taking tea and comparing notes about just why we both love Vita Sackville-West’s creation so much.

“Sissinghurst is one of the first places I visited when we moved here and I immediately loved the roses and started to copy ideas in my own garden. I’m drawn back and back to the place,” she tells me. A girl after my own heart.

The M&G Garden Jo has designed will feature a two-storey oak framed building inspired by Vita Sackville-West’s writing room, a large natural swimming pond edged with water-loving plants, and a woodland of river birches, acacias and acers. The garden will be filled with tumbling roses and peonies in a palette of greens, punctuated by soft pinks, lavender blues and creams, with a touch of orange.

Partially covered by trees and lush planting, The Main Avenue garden draws on Jo’s local influences: from the vernacular architecture features synonymous with the Sussex and Kent countryside where she currently lives, to the use of Purbeck stone in benches, 
as boulders within the swimming pond and for two stone sculptures by artist Tom Stogdon that reference her 
childhood spent in Dorset.

It’s a wonderfully romantic garden, representing a quintessentially British restorative retreat, and a hugely ambitious one too; although this is Jo’s sixth Show garden at RHS Chelsea, it will be much the biggest garden she has ever done at the prestigious London event.

So how is she coping with the pressure to not only deliver all the different elements on time but also being in the spotlight as the sole sponsor’s designer of choice for 2015?

“It’s a lovely responsibility to have, working for the Show sponsor, and it doesn’t feel frightening, it’s a good challenge to have and I like a challenge and a deadline,” she smiles.

“M&G are very supportive of the garden and it pulls in what they are all about as well, which is this idea that if you invest time in something you reap the rewards later, so if you invest time in a garden, years later you reap the rewards.”

She adds: “Every year I think I’d love to bottle the energy Chelsea gives you, you’re on site at 7am and you don’t finish until 8pm, you get no weekends. You’re unstoppable.

“I commute for the first couple of days when we’re just laying out then I stay up there. The lead-in time is only 19 days, the trees go in first around the edges (River Birch, really lovely bark), then we have a week to 10 days to get the building up.”

Now a single mum to George and Cecilia, both still at school, Jo has had to learn the art of juggling work and family. “I’d never complain – it’s my job – but sometimes it’s really difficult balancing my work and childcare, the cooking and cleaning, especially in the holidays when I’m more 
or less a taxi service. They have no interest in gardening – but I didn’t at that age either, it was something adults did.”

However, Jo, whose father is Italian, adds: “I did always enjoy the arrangement of space so I would be the child on holiday who would say ‘let’s go to St Peters’ because I liked the way it was arranged. We would always stay in Rome, so it became our normality, that we’d stay in a flat and next door to it would be a ruin.”

Jo studied Italian and French at university, which included history of art, and spent a lot of time in Venice and Rome (her fluent Italian comes back after a week of being in the country).

After college she trained as a primary school teacher, got married and had her son while they were living in Little Venice, right opposite Clifton Nurseries. With an empty, flat rooftop space to develop, the garden design bug was about to bite.

“I used to love visiting the Nursery and when George was born that was my walk with him. The guys there came up with a great plan for my rooftop garden and I was fascinated at how it was done, like a jigsaw puzzle that can fall into place quite quickly. All of a sudden we had this garden we were using all the time.”

As so many young couples do, Jo and her then-husband moved out of London to the peace of rural Kent in Horsmonden, where home now became an oast house set in an awkwardly shaped third of an acre.

“It was very wide and shallow and I couldn’t think what to do with a space like that, so I looked through the Yellow Pages and found a whole section on garden designers. The penny dropped that this was a career, something you could study and then transform outside spaces.”

Despite now having two children under the age of two and a half, Jo investigated courses and started studying at The English Gardening School under the legendary Simon Pyle.

“I did my interview with my baby daughter on my lap,” she recalls. “That’s how it began, a manic, intensive year – and that’s how I first learnt to juggle home and career, but it was important for both of my children to realise that mum works.

“The shock to the system was learning about the construction details and water features and things like that, which I probably hadn’t realised I needed to know about – the plants are always the very last thing to go in and before that stage it’s all about the structure.

“Now that’s part and parcel of what I do day to day – although of course I will still take advice if, for example, I need a structural engineer.”

Indeed, in addition to her all-female gardening team, Jo is once again working with Roger Platts, a multiple gold medal winner at RHS Chelsea and twice the designer of The M&G Garden in previous years, to ensure that the 2015 garden has only the best in trees, shrubs and flowers timed perfectly for the Show.

Roger – Kent Life’s head judge in our Garden of the Year Awards – is also building her structure, The Retreat, at his nursery in Edenbridge. It will then be taken to pieces, transported to Chelsea and put back together again on site – all 4.5m of it.

The lower storey is open and the upper (the writing room) closed, and behind the sturdy oak-framed structure are trees of 6-7m tall to be in scale with the building.

Jo is very excited to be working with Cornish firm Ancient Industries, whose creative Kendra Wilson is styling the building “in quite an off-the-wall way, for example she wants a slab of wildflower turf to use as a temporary blotter,” says Jo.

“Her mood board is just fantastic, a mix of so many different elements. This is why it is so lovely to collaborate, because I haven’t told Kendra what to do, I didn’t want a pastiche of Sissinghurst and she has just put together what was in my head without me really knowing it.”

Will Jo get a chance to see the rest of the Show or will she be glued to her own garden for the week? She smiles: “Towards the end of the week I like to leave the garden and go round the back of people looking at it to listen to what they say.

“When I did the Caravan Garden in 2012 I overheard two old dears saying ‘ooh, I just don’t like caravans,’ which was funny.

“Designers can lose sight of the fact that Chelsea is a flower show and that it does and will give people ideas about what they can do in their own gardens, just as Sissinghurst has inspired me.”

My favourite Kent

Gardens to visit

The Walled Nursery in Hawkhurst has these crumbling glasshouses and the owners used to work at Sissinghurst – it’s beautiful and they really do love their plants, so it’s a real treat to visit there

Marle Place – a great example of a family garden

Sissinghurst – of course!

Roger Platts’ garden Leydens – it was a field and is a great example of what is achievable within an ‘ordinary garden’, somewhere you think ‘I could do that, it’s achievable.’

Places

Broadstairs – my daughter Cecilia was at boarding school there, told her it wasn’t going to be like Enid Blyton and the first week I heard nothing then I got a phone call to say ‘Mummy, it’s just like Mallory Towers.’ I love that coastline.

Walks

Down to Bewl Water from home with the dog, a chocolate lab, and there are always lots of bluebells around Cowden and Wadhurst.

Eat and drink

The pubs in Goudhurst, the Three Chimneys at Biddenden and the restaurants in Canterbury, we love Deesons

Shop

Tunbridge Wells and Canterbury – the children are in school there so I am in Canterbury a lot. Downstairs in Waterstones one wall is glass and there’s a fragment of the old Roman baths on view.

Find out more

2015 is M&G’s sixth year as the sole sponsor of RHS Chelsea. M&G has been managing investments for individuals and institutions since 1931.

Twitter: @MandGGarden

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MandGGarden

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show runs from 19 to 23 May 2015.

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