Garden designer Michèle Martin spent twenty years in the corporate world before choosing to pursue her passion for gardens. Having earned an HND from Reaseheath College, Michèle went on to get an honours degree in Garden Design at Myerscough, Lancashire.
Image right: garden designer Michèle Martin
After winning a gold medal at Southport Flower Show she was able to get enough work to start her business.
Since then Michèle has done some amazing jobs in the industry, including BBC TV Chelsea flower show team 2010; BBC TV Adviser Chelsea Flower Show where she worked with Carol Klein & Chris Beardshaw; Regional Organiser for the Society of Garden Designers professional body; Gardening Guru for BBC Radio Merseyside on their weekly live phone in show.
Michèle is currently Executive for Southport Flower Show Gardens.
Michèle has an interest in traditional Chinese gardens and talks to Landscape Juice about her passion.
Can you pinpoint the time and place when the spark for Chinese gardens was first ignited?
I was walking across Tatton Park on the way to visit the Japanese garden with Sam Youd the head gardener. During our conversation I asked Sam if he had been to Japan to see the gardens there. ‘Not as often as I could have’ came the reply. I asked him why and he told her when he first got this job he wanted to go to China first to see how the Japanese style had developed from its roots in China.
So that was the trigger for your interest in Chinese gardens?
Yes. I came away from that visit determined to find out more about Chinese gardens and two years later I devoted my final year project for my degree in garden design to discovering more about the mind games Chinese garden designers play on their clients.
I then used my new found knowledge by joining a group set up to restore Rivington Gardens (summer residence of Lord Leverhulme) and devised plans to restore their derelict Chinese gardens.
Have you been to China to see any gardens?
Yes, following the Rivington project I went to China and visited many of the gardens recommended by Sam Youd.
I saw how the traditional scholar’s gardens attempts to mimic the vast acres of the emperor in much more modest spaces created lots of visual tricks to expand space.
First of these tricks is to make all visitors enter the garden via the house. Chinese houses always have a threshold and the more important the home owner the higher the threshold, the emperor has the highest of all, around a foot high. Those who've been rushing round out in the busy city traffic are confronted with a high step leading to a hallway kept deliberately dark.
The natural reaction is to stop while their eyes become accustomed to the gloom. In doing so they physically and mentally slow down and the result is the subsequent garden seems bigger than it would have because the visitor is no longer rushing around.
The next space expanding trick is to show the visitor a tiny courtyard. It’s a bit like a canapé before a banquet. Often just a small tree or a rock or a stand of bamboo this sets expectations and forces the visitor to notice small details, rather like setting your camera to macro mode.
From there you are led round the garden from one focal point to another. At each point there is another glimpse of something else that leads you on to a reveal. No path is straight and few are level and there are lots of choices “shall I go over the bridge or up the rockery?”.
Soon you've lost all sense of the outside world and become delightfully disorientated and totally immersed in the garden. You may cross over a previous path but because it looks different coming a different way you’re led to believe the garden goes on forever. Entering a traditional Chinese garden is like becoming a child on a secret mission to discover hidden treasures, waterfalls, seats or dragons running along the tops of walls.
We all know that dividing up spaces makes them appear larger but the Chinese have lots of deft ideas for adding interest to tempt you to stay a while and to prevent the space from feeling claustrophobic such as having roofs of buildings from adjoining courtyards visible over walls.
Chinese scholars would never waste a plot of land by just building on one corner of it and leaving the rest to use only when the weather is dry. Instead their homes and gardens are more integrated with the buildings strung out round the plot like a pearl necklace.
Chinese gardens are designed to be enjoyed in rain and snow in sunshine and moonlight and it was this and the last couple of years poor summers that propelled me to design my ‘Dirty Stop Out’s Garden at Tatton Park Flower show this year.
A bit more about you
What are you and how do you define what you do?
I'm a garden designer – I create individually tailored gardens their owners love.
How long have you been designing?
I designed my first garden for a client in 1999 but professionally for 8 years.
What route have you taken to get to your current position (i.e. college; self-taught; mentoring?)
Initially self taught and doing evening classes in the RHS general certificate and the complete set of City & Guilds exams then went to college to do HND in Garden Design followed by Honours degree in Garden Design.
How many designs do you do in a year and what is their average value?
Not as many as I’d like: My biggest job was 6 figures my smallest a few hundred pounds.
Typically how long do you spend on each design?
I aim to get back to the client after we've agreed their wish list within a couple of weeks.
What gives you most pride, designing the garden or seeing it built?
Neither – it’s seeing the clients’ enthusiasm for their garden. Just today I was in the middle of a tricky construction drawing when a message popped up on my computer saying one of my clients had sent me some photos of their garden which was built a year ago. How many jobs are there where clients contact you after a year to say how much they are enjoying your work?
What irks you most about the garden design and landscaping industry?
The way it’s so undervalued by the general public from the prime minister to the builder’s labourer. I'm hoping for a public epiphany about our parks and gardens similar to the one about our architectural heritage which was being destroyed during the 60’s and 70’s.
Does the Chelsea Flower Show inspire you or is it unrealistic?
Both. It’s the best opportunity for showcasing the industry as it’s one of the few (only?) horticultural events that the general population and the powers that be, take note of.
Do you design every day?
What is your most creative time of the day?
How do you get inspired to produce unique drawings every time?
The clients. Every client is different and wants to use their garden in a different way and every site is different. I just respond to them and the creation creates itself.
As a designer you have to be creative. Can you define creativity?
Making something new, sometimes unique sometimes a new twist on an old idea.
Who is (or who are) your favourite designer(s)?
Edwin Lutyens, Bunny Guinness, Alain Provost, Ge Yuliang and the unnamed Chinese designers of the great classical gardens of the Ming and Qin dynasties.
Contemporary or traditional...what's your preference?
Both – I love good design no matter what style.
Do you listen to music (or watch the television) when designing?
Sometimes I play music or have radio 4 on in the background.
Do you ever get designers' block?
Oh yes nearly every time I get a new design I think I’ll never square this circle, but usually after a couple of 3.00am with ‘I've got an idea’ it resolves itself.
Do you consider you take risks when designing?
All the time – that’s what the job’s about – pushing new boundaries.
Has a client ever said they don't like what you've designed for them?
Only once Actually they loved the design but wanted the garden to look full from day one so they ripped out all the plants and replaced them with totally inappropriate ones including a monkey puzzle planted 5 feet away from the patio doors; You win some....
What makes a great garden designer?
One who listens to their client.
Hand drawn or CAD?
After a busy week, how do you unwind and relax?
Go to the theatre, watch a film, eat out with hubby or potter in my garden.
Who (or what) in your life has given you the greatest inspiration?
John Brookes – it was his lecture that ignited my dream to become a garden designer as my next career.
What would you like to do more of in the future?
Fruit gardens with trained fruit trees. Fun things to get kids of all ages (like me) outside and enjoying the great outdoors like wacky dens and tree houses.
Can you offer any advice to other designers?
Network – it can be a lonely job and joining groups with others in a similar situation can help you keep grounded and sane. I made a lot of friends and mentors by joining the Society of Garden Designers.
Would you recommend garden designing to someone considering it as a career?
No, it’s not easy to earn a decent living (bit like being an actor) but if you’re driven and want to do it you won’t need my encouragement.
...and finally - please provide a photo of your design studio or drawing area.