Gardens Illustrated Festival 2017 – a review

On Saturday I visited the Gardens Illustrated Festival set amongst the beautiful grounds, and palatial proportions of Westonbirt School. I love gardening, and to be surrounded by so many like-minded enthusiasts is a real joy and pleasure. Running across Saturday and Sunday, the festival is a horticultural treasure box of exhibitors and speakers discussing a wide range of topics, from the concept of paradise gardens, to Vita’s roses at Sissinghurst. It’s an intimate celebration and exploration of all things gardening, right at the start of the growing season.

As I drove up the long drive, with rays of warm spring sunshine filtering through my car window my excitement and anticipation grew. I had booked my tickets months ago to see Julian and Isabel Bannerman, and one of my all-time favourite designers: Tom Stuart-Smith. The entrance to the festival was through the main school building, flanked by large mature trees and surrounded by a rich green carpet of lawn. Walking through the tall marble columns into the wood-panelled reception room I felt as though I had stepped into a horticultural Hogwarts.

I was excited for the first talk by the Bannerman’s, after recently reading their book ‘Landscape of Dreams’ (an excellent read!). The talk covered their two personal gardens, the first at Hanham Court between Bath and Bristol, and their new project in Cornwall. One take away point that struck me was as Julian Put it, “Knowing when to stop gardening” and linking ones garden to the wider landscape. It was inspiring to see how they had transformed a “gloomy plot” with “lots of Leylandii” into something truly special. Equally their new plot in Cornwall, set in truly stunning surroundings, was equally inspiring in the rapid transformation that had been achieved.

Many of us will never work on the scale that they do, however there were some helpful take-away tips and advice, and I wrote down several plants that I intend to add to my collection. However, I was left overall feeling somewhat disappointed with the talk. The projector had dulled many of the slides, with some images barely discernible, and I felt that they seemed poorly prepared. That being said, what did come across was that Julian and Isabel are clearly excellent designers with a great deal of creative vision. Their passion and knowledge for their gardens, and the plants within them, shone through; and I left determined to visit Hanham Court on it’s next open day.


Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder

The second talk I went to did not disappoint. I have long admired Tom Stuart-Smith’s work, and count him as one of my design heroes. I therefore couldn’t pass an opportunity to hear him speak, on ‘The Pursuit of Paradise’. His talk explored the idea of a paradise garden, beginning with a Bible reading from Genesis 2… ‘The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it’.

His talk encouraged us to question ‘why’ we garden instead of the usual ‘how?’. Through a range of projects he has been involved with, he explored the concept of paradise; this idea of a return to Eden. As a designer, I was struck by how the elements of a paradise garden, and a more thoughtful approach to design might influence my designs. Echoing Julian Bannerman’s thoughts earlier, I was struck by Tom’s challenge to “ask what is the relevance of a garden? How does it relate to the landscape?” and that “…gardens are malleable like people or places, we need to give them a character”.

How as designers and gardeners do we create that character in our gardens? What elements or design skills can we utilise to breathe life into a designs? As a speaker Tom was engaging, eloquent and humorous. He finished by describing the new RHS garden he’s been involved with. As a young designer, it was so inspiring to hear Tom speak about his work, and be challenged in my attempts at creating that glimpse of paradise.


Gardeners and tea are inseparable

Aside from the talks, the festival is an excellent event with a good selection of plant and horticultural exhibitors providing some much retail therapy, just as our gardens are beginning to wake up. One of my favourite aspects of the festival was it’s intimacy, and the people you meet. I do believe that gardeners are amongst the friendliest people on the planet. The very nature of our horticultural endeavours, the sharing of information and plants unites us with a common love and interest.

One of my favourite quotes from the day was from a lady sitting next to me who was a Trustee of London’s Garden Museum: “…you know I’ve gardened my whole life. I think if there were more gardeners there would be less counsellors. If something awful has happened, or my children have played up I go outside and dig, dig, dig…gardening is good for the soul”. After a very stimulating, and truly enjoyable day, I think the Gardens Illustrated Festival was just that – good for the soul.

For more info:

Or follow the designers I heard on Instagram:

Julian Bannerman

Isabel Bannerman

Tom Stuart-Smith


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