Marie-Louise has a challenging task at hand: She’s designing a garden for one of the biggest London events of the year: The Chelsea Flower Show. This year is the show’s 100th anniversary, so all eyes are on Chelsea with big expectations for the centenary. With her partner in design at Balston Agius, Michael Balston, she’s working to represent London’s newest neighbourhood in E20, the East Village in garden form.
Read on to hear from Marie Louise on what it’s like to design your first garden at Chelsea, a special feature in her garden that’s pretty rare to find without connections like hers (she’s the Director and Trustee of Exbury Gardens) and of course, her best food and drink recommendations in this fabulous city.
LLO: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background in garden design.
M-LA: I trained in garden design post university and immediately found myself a round peg in a round hole, I loved it. Looking back on it, given my family links in the horticultural world, with my great-grandfather (mother’s side) building Exbury Gardens and sponsoring some of the great plant hunters to bring back seed at the turn of the last century, and with my father’s passion for plants and gardening, it was probably a destiny that was greater than any one decision!
LLO: East Village, London’s newest neighbourhood, is sponsoring you and Michael Balston to create a garden for this year’s Chelsea Flower show. Give us a short summary of their brief.
M-LA: We wanted to capture the ethos of the East Village, the ‘design for living’ theme that Delancey has for combining good architecture with great external spaces. It was also important to reflect the history of Stratford and the Lea Valley where the East Village is located.
LLO: I hear this is your first time exhibiting at Chelsea? What have been the biggest challenges and rewards so far leading up to the fast-approaching exhibition date?
M-LA: The challenge has been in the preparation, trying to ensure that we had as many elements prefabricated off site for reconstruction and tweaking when we started the build on site. It’s a complex design with some of the more architectural details having challenged our fabricators, who have been stars. The preparation of the plants through a challenging winter has also been nerve-wracking. However, for me, one of the most rewarding elements of the process has been the team camaraderie, the sheer number of people who have worked tirelessly with us to help us achieve our vision.
LLO: You’ve translated building materials from the East Village into some of your garden structures. Can you give us one of the best examples of this?
M-LA: The balcony structure at the side of our garden uses timber for the deck and the canopy and has a glass balustrade at the front; it will bring the public ‘into’ our garden and allow them to feel as if they were standing on a balcony in the East Village, looking out over a landscaped green space. The curved glass, timber and steel cantilevered seat in the top corner also abstractly reflects the history of glasshouses in the Lea Valley. In the 1960s at their peak, it had the largest concentration of glass houses anywhere in the world!
LLO: East Village is all about design for living; how does your garden encompass this ethos?
M-LA: Our garden is a space which can be enjoyed when viewed from above, as it would be if you were in East Village, or from within – as you wander through, appreciating the textures and colours of the plants and when sitting on the seat at the end, looking back down the garden, picking up the curved forms of the design that references some of the architectural elements within East Village and the Queen Elizabeth Park. It’s about quality of space, quality of materials and quality of experience.
LLO: What’s your favourite East London discovery and why?
M-LA: The Thames Barrier Park. It is a great outdoor space with a mixture of different areas – contemporary structures and materials as well as some very unusual structural planting and great views out over the Thames Barrier itself.
LLO: Tell us a bit about the logistics of putting together a garden for Chelsea and some of the plants and shrubs you’re including in your design.
M-LA: We have been working closely with Willerby Landscapes, our contractor, and we both knew that the key is the preparation. We have worked through the design to the highest level – for example, drawing the pattern of the decking to even include the 2mm gaps to ensure that there are no surprises when we started on site. Logistically, the plants have come from a number of different nurseries, all around the UK, as opposed to a single source, to ensure that we get the full range of plants we hope to be able to use. This has meant a lot of travelling for me to visit both nurseries and fabricators throughout the pre-build to monitor progress and make tweaks as necessary.
LLO: Has your position as the Director and Trustee of Exbury Gardens allowed you to do anything special with your garden that you may not have been able to do without that resource at your fingertips?
M-LA: Yes, we have lifted two very large Rhododendron macabeanum’s which were grown at Exbury from wild collected seed. These plants are rare and certainly not commercially available at the size we have got in the East Village garden. They are simply spectacular, prehistoric looking plants that have extraordinarily large leaves and would be sensational planted somewhere like East Village where a sheltered courtyard environment would suit them.
LLO: Which public garden space in London would you redesign if given the opportunity and what would you most like to change about it?
M-LA: I walk my dog in Kensington Gardens & Hyde Park in the mornings which are sensational as they are; however, I’d love to introduce more interesting collections of trees around the parks, diversifying the seasonal and species interest.
LLO: Give us your best London food and drink recommendations, away from the tourist trail.
M-LA: The White Cosmopolitan at Bar Boulud is my favourite cocktail in town; the Martini’s in Dukes Hotel have to be tried once in a lifetime; for a no decisions needed, one choice on the menu only fabulous dinner, grab a steak at L’Entrecote off Marylebone high street and if you don’t want to head out anywhere, I’ll always head to The Garden Basket on Stratford Street for the best fresh fruit and veg in town.