Who’s who

The colour­ful gar­den de­signer on her Da­m­a­scene con­ver­sion to gar­den­ing, her trep­i­da­tion over TV pre­sent­ing and why she wants to en­cour­age vis­i­tors to pic­nic in her show gar­dens

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS JODIE JONES POR­TRAIT CHAR­LIE HOPKINSON

De­signer Ann-Marie Pow­ell talks about her ca­reer and tells us why she would like vis­i­tors to her show gar­dens to be able to sit down and en­joy a pic­nic

It was on a hill­side full of lupins that Ann-Marie Pow­ell found her des­tiny. “I was in New Zealand, on the last leg of a gap year, and that ocean of colour just stopped me in my tracks. was over­come by a vision of Mother Na­ture fly­ing free with her skirts in the air, and I knew I wanted to cre­ate gar­dens.”

This rev­e­la­tion came as some­thing of a bolt from the blue. Ann-Marie was an outdoorsy sort of girl, but gar­den­ing cer­tainly hadn’t fea­tured in her life plans up un­til that point. Her father was in the army, so Ann-Marie and her lit­tle sis­ter moved ev­ery cou­ple of years and at­tended board­ing school, which was good for build­ing so­cial skills but not hor­ti­cul­tural ones.

From there she went to Trent Poly­tech­nic to study tex­tile de­sign, but had more fun on the party cir­cuit than the course, and left early to travel and re­think her fu­ture. “I had al­ways loved be­ing out­doors, but it took a while for me to con­nect that with my cre­ative side. When I got to New Zealand, a switch just flipped in me and I fell sud­denly, wal­lop­ingly, in love with Na­ture.”

At the end of the trip she signed up for the gar­den de­sign course at Capel Manor College. “It was great,” she says. “We had 20 acres of grounds with proper demon­stra­tion gar­dens and, un­like a lot of cour­ses, Capel Manor taught hard land­scap­ing, which I ab­so­lutely loved. I don’t know if I still can, but back in the day I could lay a very ser­vice­able pa­tio all by my­self.”

She grad­u­ated with Dis­tinc­tion, and then went to Ten­der­care Nurs­eries, to con­sol­i­date her plant knowl­edge. “The co-owner, An­gela Halksworth (a very glam­orous and forth­com­ing woman), let me stage plant com­bi­na­tions near the of­fice, just pick­ing a bunch of pots I thought looked good to­gether, and cus­tomers would come up and buy the whole lot.”

She was sur­rounded by plants all day, and in the evenings tuned in to a new tele­vi­sion pro­gramme called Gar­den Doctors (pre­sented by a lovely young man call Dan Pear­son), which was tak­ing Chan­nel 4 by storm. “I loved ev­ery­thing about that pro­gramme. It showed how, as a gar­dener, you can en­hance people’s lives.”

And then a fax ar­rived in the of­fice, scout­ing for new pre­sen­ters for Gar­den Doctors. “I flatly re­fused to ap­ply, but An­gela put me in for it with­out saying any­thing. I got one heck of a shock when the pro­duc­tion com­pany called me in for a try out.”

De­spite huge mis­giv­ings about the whole ven­ture, on the morn­ing of the au­di­tion she knew she didn’t want to dress “like a gar­dener”, so she bor­rowed an Ar­mani suit from her boyfriend’s mother, and stopped off at a pub near Spi­tal­fields for a spot of Dutch courage. “It was the strangest thing. I re­ally didn’t want to go for it, then all of a sud­den I knew I des­per­ately wanted the job.”

Need­less to say, the pro­duc­ers snapped her up, and she was thrown in at the deep end. “It was real hard graft all day long, then in the evenings I would go home and re­search end­lessly. It was a bap­tism of fire, but an amaz­ing chance to learn on the job and build my port­fo­lio.”

By chance, Ann-Marie had hit the sweet spot for tele­vi­sion gar­den­ing, and she went from Gar­den Doctors to Real Gar­dens with Carol Klein and Monty Don, then Lost Gar­dens (also with Monty), and Take Three Gar­den­ers, with Joe Swift and Cleve West. “We were all to­tally on the same wave­length, de­ter­mined to make prop­erly good gar­dens for people, not take short cuts for the telly.”

It was fun, but also ex­tremely hard work. Ann-Marie once filmed for 53 con­sec­u­tive days, so when she found she was ex­pect­ing her first child, it was the ideal ex­cuse to step away from the small screen and go back to her draw­ing board.

“When I set up the de­sign practice, my first client had such a mas­sive gar­den I couldn’t fit the plan on a sin­gle sheet of pa­per. I was pet­ri­fied, but also un­be­liev­ably ex­cited. I must have done a rea­son­able job be­cause 15 years later I’m still work­ing for the same client.”

These days a raft of pri­vate and cor­po­rate clients are at­tracted by her unique com­bi­na­tion of tech­ni­cally im­pec­ca­ble hard land­scap­ing and wildly colour­ful and in­ven­tive plant­ing. The pri­vate clients of­ten ask her to sign a pri­vacy agree­ment but, fortunately for the rest of us, she has also de­signed a num­ber of high-profile show gar­dens and has a shelf full of medals to prove it. Most re­cently, she cre­ated the Green­ing Grey Bri­tain gar­den for the RHS at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show. It was vin­tage Pow­ell, full of crazy colour, clev­erly steal-able de­sign ideas and – most unusu­ally for a Chelsea show gar­den – people. “I ab­so­lutely in­sisted that vis­i­tors should be able to walk through it. I wanted them to be able to have a close look, to sit down and eat their lunch.

“I re­ally believe, as the land­scape ar­chi­tect Thomas Church said, that gar­dens are for people and as a de­signer I can open their eyes to a won­der­ful plea­sure that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”

USE­FUL IN­FOR­MA­TION Ann-Marie Pow­ell Gar­dens, Lower Cow­grove, Heath Farm, Heath Road East Peters­field, Hamp­shire GU31 4HT. Tel 01730 825650, ann-mariepow­ell.com

NEXT MONTH Iris ex­pert Sarah Cook.

“My first client had such a mas­sive gar­den I couldn’t fit the plan on a sin­gle sheet of pa­per. I was pet­ri­fied, but also un­be­liev­ably ex­cited”

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