Words by Hannah Tapping
Sharp geometrics meet soft natural planting to create inspirational and transportive gardens that soothe the soul.
Growing up on a farm in Cornwall it is little wonder that award- winning landscape and garden designer Sam Ovens is inspired by wild natural landscapes. However, with an original degree in product design before going on to study landscape design at Falmouth University, it’s clear that bespoke built elements are also an integral part of Sam’s gardens.
While studying and subsequently working for a number of private companies, Sam’s show gardens were what really set him apart. “My first show garden was at Hampton Court in 2011, and then in 2014, I entered and won the RHS Young Designer of the Year competition with my ‘Sky’s the Limit’ garden. Off the back of that win, I was able to secure sponsors for my next show gardens; Cloudy Bay for RHS Chelsea in 2016; Wedgwood in 2017 at RHS Chatsworth; and if it hadn’t been for Covid then it would have been a garden for Barbour at RHS Chelsea in 2020.” After such huge success for a young designer, Sam set up his own studio in 2016 and now works predominantly from Cornwall.
The overriding style of Sam’s gardens is naturalistic, based on wild landscapes with a strong sense of place as he explains: “I want people to know where in the world they are based on the plants and materials used within a garden, I like to draw inspiration from my immediate surroundings, and think a thorough understanding of the specific locations where I am lucky enough to work is key.”
In terms of current projects, much of Sam’s work is creating gardens for high-end, contemporary new builds, and clients tend to make contact with Sam at the same time as they instruct an architect: “I am usually involved from the very early stages, which is often two or three years ahead of the garden actually being implemented on site. I think that’s by far the best way to do it, because I can then work closely with the architect and other designers. Being able to design the building and garden side by side allows you to really consider the two elements as one entity, ensuring maximum connection between spaces and continuity of design.”
Saying that, Sam does work on existing gardens which he explains can be slightly more challenging compared to the blank canvas of a new build, making sense of an existing building which might currently not feel connected to the garden can be a challenge, working around existing plants or built elements can be a little restrictive but, says, Sam: “that often makes for a more interesting design. I think sometimes I’m spoiled when I have a complete blank canvas to work with and some of my most satisfying projects have been where I have been faced with a very specific problem, be it poor connection between spaces, lack of internal light/need for privacy etc, and have been able to transform a property as a whole by changing the garden alone.”
Sam feels fortunate in that the majority of his clients find him via recommendation or from seeing his work and unique style somewhere else. “I’m very lucky that the majority of clients come to me because they like what I do rather than based on locality. I think this leads to the best gardens as clients have the confidence to trust my judgement.”
I’m intrigued as to the design process and ask Sam how this works: “I’ll meet with a client in person on site, this allows me to get a good understanding of the client themselves, their wants, needs and aspirations as well as site conditions. I think it’s really important to take your time getting to know the site, how it feels, what’s currently growing there, how the light moves across the site, where it is in the world and its surrounding – some gardens are inward looking and need interest creating, with others it’s all about a view and working with that – every site is different!
Following this Sam goes away and produces a concept design, which is based around a 2D plan with a number of mood boards to back up the feel and materiality of the garden and the planting. After an initial meeting and further finessing, 3Ds are then produced so that clients fully understand the design; with new software the photo realistic visuals are an incredibly powerful tool for helping clients to understand how the new space will look and feel. “Once signed off, we will move on to the detailed design stage where there’s a full package of working drawings produced, leading to works starting onsite which I generally like to oversee until completion.”
Sam has two other designers who work for him and also works with a range of local landscaping companies and contractors to actually build the gardens. “Whilst I don’t physically build the gardens myself, I think it’s important I am on hand to oversee the process and sign-off the different elements as we go. The next most involved stage for me is the planting; I always come and physically place every single plant. Planting, particularly in a more naturalistic style, means you have to take into account site conditions and respond accordingly as plants would in the wild. You can only go so far on a piece of paper or at a computer, whilst planting plans are fully detailed in the studio beforehand there’s always an element of tweaking and adjusting on site.”
In terms of the plants themselves, it’s an ongoing learning journey for Sam: “I definitely came to landscape design from more of a design angle rather than a plant perspective one and it’s impossible to know everything about every single plant; I learn new things on daily basis. However, I think the most important thing is I always have a strong understanding of how I want the garden or landscape to feel when you are in it. Being inspired by natural landscapes doesn’t mean everything has to be native, I don’t want to replicate but instead try to capture the overriding feeling of a space.”
“The big thing with gardens as opposed to other designed elements is that they’re a living thing and constantly evolving. A garden is never complete, I will regularly revisit my gardens as it’s really important to go back and review, edit and adapt. It’s this ongoing process that drew me to landscape design in the first place.”