The Questions - Sam Ovens, Garden Designer: Animal Health Trust Garden

RHS Chelsea Flower Show will soon be upon us.  Before we have time to blink an eye hoards of people will descend upon the site and the gardens and exhibits will start to emerge from the earth looking as if they have been there forever.
photo c/o John Hersey

One of the show gardens on the Main Avenue this year is being designed by Sam Ovens for the Animal Health Trust.  As a pet owner myself I care very much for their health, and the Animal Health Trust is the UK’s leading charity for researching, preventing and curing diseases in dogs, cats and horses.  When asked if I was interested in knowing more about the garden and its designer of course I said yes.

The Animal Health Trust Garden is based on the double helix structure of a DNA molecule.  This is to represent the work the Animal Health Trust does in researching diseases such as cancer, blindness and epilepsy.  Research into DNA is a key part of their work.
Sam, who is from and based in Cornwall, has a landscape garden design business and has won various RHS medals including Gold at RHS Tatton and a Silver-Gilt at RHS Chelsea.  I often talk about how much I look for Chelsea Flower Show every year, and my excitement for the show has not diminished.  I am really looking to seeing this garden in reality and I wish it every success.

Sam has also very kindly agreed to answer the questions.  

The Questions

1.    In which garden to you feel happiest?
There are so many gardens I love I am not sure I could pick one… although I suppose I might choose my own garden, whilst it’s only a tiny courtyard, there is something special about it as I have handled and planted every plant myself. Two years ago, when I bought my house it was just a barren concrete yard without a single plant, while now it is brimming with life and full of plants, so I do feel a great sense of satisfaction when I spend time in it. I think it’s that personal connection that makes for happy gardens.
2.    What was the most defining moment in your life so far and what are you most proud of?
Winning the RHS Young Designer of the Year back in 2014; it was one of the first gardens I took from design right through to completion and the first garden I made that I think fully represented me as a designer and my own style. Winning the competition cemented my passion for landscape design and made me excited for more.

3.    Who are your garden heroes (list no more than three) and why?
Neil Lucas at Knoll gardens, his understanding and knowledge of ornamental grasses is second to none. I think without him we wouldn’t be using ornamental grasses in designs like we do today and we definitely wouldn’t have such a wide selection available.

Christopher Lloyd, for sharing his passion for meadows and making us see them as a garden worthy feature.

Piet Oudolf, I think seeing Piet’s work for the first time made me realise that landscape design is so much more than just horticulture, it’s a living, breathing form of art.
4.    If you could visit any garden right now, which one would it be?
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens is somewhere I am desperate to visit but have yet to have the opportunity. It’s a garden that values and celebrates its native flora and that is something that I think we need to see much more of.
5.    What is your current plant obsession?
This changes all the time depending on the season but right now I am obsessed with Hellebores. Now in February they are at their peak and you remember why they should always be included in a planting scheme. I love how for most of the year they are inconspicuous and quiet and then suddenly out of know here in the depth of winter they flower. There flowers are one of my all time favourite flowers because they are so modest but at the same time incredibly intricate, Harvington Picotee is my current favourite!
6.    What is the most important lesson you have learned so far?
Not to try and impose or force something into a space that just doesn’t belong, it never works!
7.    What makes a perfect day for you?
My perfect day would be one where I’m out on-site placing plants. That’s my favourite part of the job, to see a garden finally coming to fruition and the anticipation of what’s to come. Outside of work I am a keen gig rower so finishing the day out on the sea would take some beating. Both things would involve my dogs, they come everywhere with me, and like to get involved in both of the above activities!
8.    If you had one piece of advice to offer to someone what would it be?
Follow your gut, and don’t be dissuaded from doing something if you are confident in it.
9.    In your design for the garden you are designing at Chelsea this year, how do you ensure the balance between the theme and the material of the garden (plants etc)?
With the Animal Health Trust Garden, I felt it was important not to take things too literally, and not try to do too much but instead focus on one key message and DNA really stood out to me as the key element that links everything they do. The Animal Health Trust has a dedicated team researching DNA in order to prevent, treat and cure devastating illnesses in dogs including cancer, epilepsy and blindness. It is central to the work of the charity.

The garden’s central structure, a double helix, therefor takes inspiration from the structure of a DNA molecule. Standing out amid the low level planting, it reflects how this scientific research is at the heart of the Animal Health Trust.  The structure draws people into the space and takes them on a journey, highlighting interesting views and features along the way and encouraging its users to stop and take a moment to sit and enjoy the space. Hidden behind a veil of trees the ribbon like structure forms all the main garden elements; a boardwalk, arch, pavilion and bench. The captivating and personal space is full of surprise and intrigue.  The surrounding garden is an understated yet confident landscape that stops you in your tracks and then draws you in. Ornamental grasses make up over half of the planting. Creating a verdant space, full of texture and movement. By using green en-masse, it allows the select palette of flowering plants to take centre stage and be appreciated as individuals. The understated planting palette ensures a calming space and allows the helical structure to stand proud yet grounded.

10.   What are the main challenges to creating work for Chelsea? 
The biggest challenges faced when creating a Chelsea garden are without doubt the plants! Turning a barren plot into a beautiful and seemingly established garden full of colour and interest in just a few weeks. You are relying on plants to perform in a 5-day window that is show week and it is always a bit of a roller-coaster ride in the final few weeks up until the show. Plants you think are a guaranteed bet may surprise, if the weather is too cold plants may not flower in time and if it’s too warm everything could be over before the show has even begun. Getting the right balance and working with a skilled nursery is key but there is also a certain amount of luck involved!

11.    Last but not least, gnome or no gnome?
No Gnome!