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A design for life

About to represent Britain in the prestigious Gardening World Cup – which takes place in Japan this month – Wisbech garden designer Richard Miers tells Alice Ryan about his life, work and enduring love of Mother Nature

Richard Miers is clearly a man with a tidy mind. Look at any one of his acclaimed garden designs – which range from compact and bijou town plots to sweeping country estates – and you’ll see evidence of a creator keen on keeping order. Each has a pleasing geometry, defined by clean lines of hedging, paths, walls, espaliered fruit trees or even water, which are then gently blurred by the softest of planting.

“An old school friend maintains there’s an ecclesiastical influence,” laughs Richard. “He says walking into one of my gardens is like stepping inside a cathedral, complete with an aisle and an altar; I do like to have a focal point in my designs, I must admit. . .” The analogy certainly has its merits. Along with their architectural qualities, Richard’s gardens appear both quiet and calming: you imagine feeling cosseted by the velvety hedging, soothed by the sound of trickling water, and inspired by the ethereal plants. Named one of the country’s top 10 up-and-coming designers by House Garden magazine last year, he’s an undisputed master of his art.

Sitting in the kitchen of his Wisbech home – a glorious Georgian townhouse, which has a Grade II* listing – Richard is finalising plans for his latest project: Britain’s entry in the 2012 Gardening World Cup.

Taking place in Japan at the end of this month, the event is now in its third year and attracts entries from as far afield as New Zealand, North America, Europe and the Far East. Funded by a private benefactor, the competition takes place at Huis Tan Bosch, a sprawling Dutch theme park.

Each designer – 12 working on large gardens, like Richard, and a further 15 compiling smaller plots – will spend two weeks onsite overseeing construction. But everything else, including sourcing plants, has been done remotely.

“I got an email while we were on holiday in Greece which contained a photo of a tree, growing somewhere out in the countryside, with the question ‘Shall we dig this up for you?’,” says Richard. “The whole thing has been quite an experience.” In the past, Britain has been represented by Andy Sturgeon of Gardeners’ World fame, who has no less than five Chelsea Golds to his name; it is, admits Richard, ‘quite something’ to be selected for the job.

Inspired by Huis Tan Bosch’s close proximity to Nagasaki, the World Cup has been given the theme of ‘world peace’ by organiser Kazuyuki Ishihara (Japan’s answer to Monty Don).

Leafing through sketches, Richard explains his garden, titled ‘Serenity’, takes inspiration from the Olympic rings – being emblems of international accord – with a series of circular beds built into the design. In the centre of the plot, dappled with shade from mature trees, sits a table and chairs: “It calls us to sit down and talk, which is the start of any peace process.” A rill of water runs right round the perimeter of the garden, flowing smoothly and turbulently by turns; this reflects ‘the ups and downs in the journey of peace’.

At the end of the garden, a huge orb of polished stone shines brightly: the handiwork of British sculptor Emily Young, called Solar Disc III, it suggests ‘the rising of the sun, and the promise that a new day brings’.

Although this is a showpiece, it’s a remarkably liveable design; it’s not hard to imagine sitting in the shade of the trees, enjoying an early-evening glass of wine.

“I design real gardens, even when they are for a show,” agrees Richard. “In my mind, this is a town garden; we’re looking at it from the kitchen window.” Richard has loved gardening since he was a small boy. “My father was in the Army so we moved an awful lot: by the time I was my daughters’ age – Matilda and Venetia are 8 and 7 – I had lived in seven different houses. Whenever anyone asks me where I come from, I say ‘No fixed abode’.

“So I didn’t really have chance to garden until I was at prep school; I would have been 8. The headmaster’s wife ran a gardening club and, if you wanted, you could have a patch – about 4ft by 8ft – to call your own.

“I can still remember the satisfaction of carrying my own lettuce into supper, so I could have a lettuce and Marmite sandwich, instead of just Marmite. And coming back after the summer holidays – to find a crop of carrots – was just brilliant.” With his love of gardening gaining pace throughout his school years, it would have been a logical next step for Richard to do a degree in landscape architecture. But he decided to start work instead – and ended up spending several years as a leisure club manager.

“To start with, you think you’re helping people get fit and feel healthier. Gradually I realised that, aside from a hardcore of members, most people joined the gym, came along for a few weeks and then gave up.

“Eventually I thought ‘The hours are anti-social, the pay is rubbish, and I’m not really helping anyone. What on earth am I doing this for?’. . . I also wanted to get back in touch with nature and the seasons. And I wanted to do something real: there’s genuine satisfaction in seeing a garden – a design which started life in your imagination – coming to fruition.” Deciding to take a design course, Richard divided his time between studying and doing garden maintenance jobs. A dog lover (he currently has two terriers, the elderly Tilly and Coco, a pup), Richard’s big break came courtesy of his then-canine companion, a lurcher rescued from Battersea. “Having a dog in London is a very sociable thing. You find yourself talking to complete strangers; you don’t even know their name, but you know all about their dog. . . I got talking to this chap and next thing I knew I was being interviewed for a job.” Richard went on to spend seven years as right-hand-man to the esteemed Arne Maynard, the man behind this year’s Laurent-Perrier garden at Chelsea, before deciding to strike out on his own, launching Richard Miers Garden Design.

Moving out of London to raise their family, he and his wife settled in Wisbech several years ago and clearly have a huge affection for East Anglia; if they were to move anywhere, says Richard, it would only be over the border to Norfolk. Recent commissions include everything from the 15-acre garden of a new-build Palladian mansion in Surrey to tiny central London courtyards. Most work comes via word of mouth.

“A successful garden doesn’t have to be big: it’s not about scale, it’s about getting the right proportions. And it’s not about trying to cram everything in. For me, a garden shouldn’t shout: it should be restful, a peaceful backdrop to whatever you’re doing, whether it’s entertaining guests or just sitting quietly.” A great believer in gardens being an extension of the house they belong to, Richard likes his designs to be in keeping with the period of the property: “I wouldn’t slavishly recreate a Victorian garden for a Victorian house, but I would bear the history of the place in mind.” All Richard’s designs begin with a sketch, which he fleshes out on the computer – to show both aerial plans and 3D projections. “Sometimes I can see it immediately, other times I wake up in the middle of the night and think ‘That’s it!’ and have to get up and scribble it down.” Along with strong structure, Richard’s gardens boast almost fairytale planting schemes; a favourite palette is pink, white and purple, incorporating both cottage garden classics and more contemporary favourites.

Among his mainstays are Rosa rugosa ‘Roseraie de la Hay’ for heady scent, Geranium ‘Roxanne’ for plentiful blooms, Schizostylis coccinea ‘Fenland Daybreak’ for spirit-lifting colour and the swishy grass Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’ for both height and elegance.

“I even read gardening magazines to relax. I think it was Steve Jobs who said ‘If you really love doing something, you’ll do it much better than the next guy’ and I think that’s true. Designing gardens is more than just my job – it’s more like a way of life.”

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