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Landscape Ideas: Jo Thompson’s Very English Garden

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Landscape Ideas: Jo Thompson’s Very English Garden

June 9, 2017

At this year’s inaugural Chatsworth Flower Show (put on by the Royal Horticultural Society), designer Jo Thompson’s garden stood up well to the rotten weather.

Opening day: Despite small, unintentional lakes around her garden, Thompson’s exquisite planting is spared flooding, and resists winds of 40 miles per hour. The flowers and design are very English-looking, I can’t help observing to Kathie from Brewin Dolphin, the garden’s sponsor. “Yes, the garden is very English,” she agrees. “Battered, but still standing.”

Join us for a tour, on the banks of the River Derwent in Derbyshire:

Photography by Jim Powell for Gardenista.

Jo Thompson&#8\2\17;s garden for Brewin Dolphin at the first RHS Chatsworth Show.
Above: Jo Thompson’s garden for Brewin Dolphin at the first RHS Chatsworth Show.

Building a garden on an exposed river bank is hard enough. Yet this one has the imposing palace of Chatsworth House with all its glinting gold in back, and a refined park orchestrated by Capability Brown in front. Plus, Chatsworth as a subject already has form on the show garden circuit: two years ago Dan Pearson made a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show which was a direct response to Paxton’s Rockery at Chatsworth, with giant boulders transported down from Derbyshire. Who would try to make her mark in these circumstances?

 Chatsworth House, during the show.
Chatsworth House, during the show.

“Fearless” Jo Thompson of course, and she has done a wonderful job. Her small selection of country trees (hornbeam and field maple) provides an indigenous shelter belt, working as a blending-in tool. Within this enclosure, Thompson’s flower garden, designed in swirls of flowers, turf, and rusted steel, and ending in a little hut, somehow gets away with it.

Smart hedgerow plants: Geranium &#8\2\16;Orion&#8\2\17;, dusky pink Campanula takesimana &#8\2\16;Elizabeth&#8\2\17;, and the maroon thistle Cirsium &#8\2\16;Trevors Blue Wonder&#8\2\17;.
Above: Smart hedgerow plants: Geranium ‘Orion’, dusky pink Campanula takesimana ‘Elizabeth’, and the maroon thistle Cirsium ‘Trevors Blue Wonder’.

This is the biggest garden that veteran Chelsea sponsor Brewin Dolphin has ever built, but it is a mere speck amid the grandeur of the Peak District. Jo has chosen pinks, mauves, and blues which glow in the miles of green. The garden is filled with smart and not-so-smart hedgerow plants, with room for ox-eye daisies, plantain, and buttercups with the kind of cranesbill geranium that is having its moment right now on British roadsides (the variety above is garden-ready Geranium ‘Orion’).

A colony of Campanula takesimana &#8\2\16;Elizabeth&#8\2\17;, which is planted elsewhere with the dark purple variety, C. &#8\2\16;Sarastro&#8\2\17;.
Above: A colony of Campanula takesimana ‘Elizabeth’, which is planted elsewhere with the dark purple variety, C. ‘Sarastro’.

Back to Jo, and her peculiar form of masochism: “I weirdly like the awful feeling of standing on a bare piece of ground on day one, wondering how on earth we are going to achieve what I’ve set out to achieve,” she ponders. “At the same time, I know that it will be achieved.”

Flower shows are a parallel world; real life is suspended, which can be very pleasurable, for designers as well as visitors. “I love the luxury of being involved in every day of the construction,” continues Jo, “which I don’t get in ‘real’ projects. I get to make quick decisions and amendments and tweaks, which change things up.”

Opium poppies, dahlias, peonies, white Orlaya grandifolia, and recurring pale yellow sulphur clover (Trifolium ochroleucon).
Above: Opium poppies, dahlias, peonies, white Orlaya grandifolia, and recurring pale yellow sulphur clover (Trifolium ochroleucon).

There is a lot of movement in this garden, notwithstanding the strong breeze. Some areas have neat and ordered planting (above) whereas others reflect the wilder landscape, with middle story wildflowers growing out of a low story wildflower turf.

Black stalks against green foliage: dahlia and salvia mingle with the dark branching stems of Astrantia &#8\2\16;Burgundy Manor&#8\2\17; and the taller stems of permanently fashionable and shockingly pink Dianthus carthusianorum.
Above: Black stalks against green foliage: dahlia and salvia mingle with the dark branching stems of Astrantia ‘Burgundy Manor’ and the taller stems of permanently fashionable and shockingly pink Dianthus carthusianorum.
Elegance segues into something more pastoral, with paths mowed through daisies.
Above: Elegance segues into something more pastoral, with paths mowed through daisies.
Tall, wavy (yet wind-resistant) Valeriana officinalis is a handsome self-seeder and pops up here at intervals, which it would certainly do in a &#8\2\20;real&#8\2\2\1; garden.
Above: Tall, wavy (yet wind-resistant) Valeriana officinalis is a handsome self-seeder and pops up here at intervals, which it would certainly do in a “real” garden.
Rusted steel rods make an unlikely but very effective pairing with the informal planting.
Above: Rusted steel rods make an unlikely but very effective pairing with the informal planting.

Derbyshire is a fabulous landscape, where the Midlands of England rise into rocky peaks, with moors, miles of stone walls, huge houses and former mining villages. Jo is a designer whose sense of purpose is closely tied with her sense of place: her mix of industrial materials with earthy planting strikes just the right note at this first Chatsworth Flower Show.

N.B.: For more about Chatsworth, see:

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