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May 16, 2014 6:14 pm

Chelsea Flower Show: how Great Dixter inspired Luciano Giubbilei

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Gold-medal-winning gardener hones his skills at the garden of the late Christopher Lloyd in southern England
Giubbilei’s Laurent-Perrier garden©Harper/GAP

Giubbilei’s Laurent-Perrier garden, Chelsea 2009

For many years, designing at Chelsea never crossed my mind – for the simple reason that I did not do flowers. The language of my gardens was defined by light and influenced by my classical Italian design heritage of proportion, balance and spatial arrangement.

In 2009 something happened to change my mind. Tom Stuart-Smith introduced me to Laurent-Perrier who asked me to design my first Chelsea Flower Show garden. That gave me the opportunity to begin to experiment with perennials and develop relationships with some of the growers for the first time. Voluptuous peonies, filigree fennel and imperious salvias found harmony with the precision of my yew and box hedging and box-headed hornbeam trees. My eyes were opened.

I’m not a trained horticulturalist or plantsman but, after that floral baptism in 2009, I wanted to take my work to a different level and work with a mentor with encyclopedic plant knowledge and skill in design.

Great Dixter, the late great Christopher Lloyd’s garden in southern England, was the perfect answer with, who else, but Fergus Garrett, Dixter’s head gardener.

Garrett welcomed me and gave me my own border. “Just get on with it,” he told me. “Get your hands into the soil instead of following me around the garden. There is no right or wrong about this – you just have to do it.”

That was two years ago and I still travel there for two or three days each month to immerse myself, working intensively and disconnecting from everything. I love it. The drive back home at the end of the day is energised and rich with ideas. The gardeners among you will know that it is more than tending flowers and plants; gardening provides an almost meditative combination of physical and cerebral work. It helps with my own clarity of what is important in my personal life and work.

Peonies©Sean Ellis/Maria Mosolova/Jonathan Kantor

From top: pink tree peony; peony ‘bowl of beauty’; blooming peony

The border was planted the first year with the help of Dixter apprentice James Horner. We designed it and propagated the annuals together. I was fascinated by Christo’s famed successional planting and how interest can be injected throughout the year. As the seasons pass, I observe, photograph, write notes and hone the planting. And I continue to read Christo. His writing is exuberant and wonderful, and continues to inspire me.

“The joy of gardens is gardening,” he wrote, “and people should stop selling low maintenance gardens as an idea because it doesn’t exist and for those people who wished it existed they should be playing golf instead.”

I know many people have expressed surprise about my involvement at Great Dixter. My gardens had, until then, been known for their clipped hedges, espaliered trees, precise green lawns – the antithesis of the Dixter borders.

Collaboration with Garrett and his apprentices has been inspirational. In fact collaboration has always been at the centre of my design development, thanks to an early client who introduced me to the sculptor Stephen Cox. He taught me that it isn’t just about the placing of the sculpture as an object, but also the interaction with the artist and what that interaction provokes.

Instead of designing gardens with a singular vision, I realised that the spirit of collaboration is not only with artists but with architects, plantsmen and other specialists, and it is that which pushes the creative process harder and harder, moving me from my comfortable familiar language. My work with Garrett at Dixter has been transformative. It has brought me towards larger and more expansive landscape projects. For example, in the US we are working with perennial prairie seeding experts on projects in the wilds of the midwest mountains.

Giubbilei’s garden at Chelsea©GAP

Giubbilei’s garden at Chelsea, 2011

Closing the circle of the Chelsea connection, I am delighted to be back at the flower show this year, for the third time with Laurent-Perrier. This year I am working in collaboration with the award-winning sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard, whose first ever exhibition in Europe opened at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in April and who has just been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Sculpture Center.

Her monumental cedar structures have a wonderfully mysterious and organic quality. Her sculptures have inspired me to look at the themes of texture and layering anew and to re-examine relationships between sculpture and spatial arrangement.

Chelsea remains for me a laboratory – a platform to research and develop towards new methodologies, or ways of conveying philosophical ideas, or exploring collaborations. But it is as much about celebrating and developing existing partnerships. James Horner, the then-apprentice at Dixter who taught me so much when we dug our borders together, is working with me on the perennial planting design for the garden.

The Chelsea garden of 2009 was the very beginning of a journey in which Dixter has now come to play such a significant role. Since then, Horner and Garrett – sharing Christo’s famed generosity of knowledge – have taught me so much. This year at Chelsea the perennial planting of the garden will feel like an acknowledgment of this very significant time in my life with them, my hands in the soil, at Dixter.

Luciano Giubbilei has won two gold medals at Chelsea. This year he has designed the Laurent-Perrier Garden

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