Premium

How to keep your garden thriving in the face of extreme weather, from floods to droughts

The Hampton Court creation of designer Tony Woods shows the public how to find solutions
in an age of extreme weather and climate change.
The Hampton Court creation of designer Tony Woods shows the public how to find solutions in an age of extreme weather and climate change. Credit:  Christopher Pledger

At the RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival, which opens on Tuesday, the ­biggest garden will be by designer Tony Woods for sponsor Thames Water. His design for the 15m x 26m plot features a torrent of ideas to help gardeners beat droughts and floods.

Woods, who at Chelsea 2018 won gold and Best in ­Category for his Space to Grow garden (also for Thames), is best known for his John Lewis Oxford Street roof ­garden. Of his Hampton Court design, he says: “It is definitely not a generic garden,” and is “quite risky – a garden of contrasts”. Woods, 34, of Garden Club London, represents a young, urban gardener. Hampton Court show-goers have an average age of 55 and, this year, 30 years after its launch, the show billing has changed from “flower show” to “garden festival” in an attempt to appeal to a more youthful audience.

Extreme weather is never far from the headlines: last year at Hampton Court, visitor numbers wilted in the heatwave – 125,000 turned up, 9,000 fewer than in 2017, and water companies nationwide threatened hosepipe bans. This year, a rainy start to June may dampen visitors’ enthusiasm – yet some water companies have still not ruled out restrictions.

Woods, however, wants to focus on water-management solutions rather than the problems: “Hosepipe bans mean gardeners who depend on annual plants are left with a lot of brown in the garden and struggle to hand-water, particularly busy professionals.

Water companies need customers to be as efficient as possible with watering and that is why Thames Water are investing in horticultural education and advice at Hampton Court. They’re also demonstrating how rainwater can be harvested for later use.”

A garden at Hampton is “cheaper than putting up loads of billboards with ‘save water’ messages”. And, as Woods points out, the public needs to understand that a wet June doesn’t make up for three dry winters in a row.

Tony Woods in his garden for the Hampton Court Garden Festival Credit: Clara Molden for The Telegraph

During the dry summer of 2018, water consumption spiked, mostly for garden use. Among Thames’s 3.5 million households, a quarter were using hosepipes last summer, on average three times weekly, using 500 litres of water each time – a 17-20 per cent spike in water consumption.

Spreading the word

Woods may be on-message, but he also knows his own mind and has a realistic take on the garden design business. He doesn’t answer the phones in his office, to stop time-waster inquiries: “If they’re serious, potential clients will email a brief and a budget.”

Aeonium 'Zwartkopf' Credit: Andrea Jones

This is quite a statement from someone who has only been in business for seven years in the overcrowded urban garden design market. We had arranged (by email) to meet at his former Marmite factory office in Vauxhall, south London. Woods, who commutes from his Folkestone home, laughs that he was “kettled” getting off the Tube as police tried to corral World Cup cricket crowds heading to The Oval.

You can see how he is a good fit for Thames. Young, urban, gets plenty of plum jobs, wins awards, designs ­high-end gardens, and knows how to talk to people. What’s more refreshing, he is a career horticulturist who has done the hard yards and will add some ballast to Hampton Court.

For his Thames Water garden, he wants to get across two key messages: “plant at the right time” and “use the right plants for your conditions”. The layout contains three main planting areas: drought-tolerant “bulletproofs” – such as Eryngium giganteum and Agave americana; a damp area featuring plants such as Caltha palustris and Lythrum salicaria; and a wildlife woodland and wild flowers area, with a boardwalk through the middle.

Oxford Street John Lewis roof garden Credit: Hannah Metcalfe

“The idea is to deliver messages in those contrasting areas, looking at gardening and planting that deals with climate change in its current form – so flash flooding and periods of drought. We’re exceptionally lucky that we didn’t have hosepipe bans last year.”

At the centre of the garden is a rainwater “pavilion”, showing rainwater collection ideas such as rain chains. A slim water butt with a planter on top is on offer to selected gardeners to trial, although Woods is wary of a quick-fix approach to water-saving: “Water butts are a bit of a tick-box exercise in new-builds now, for ecological reasons, but they just fill with one load of rainwater and if someone waters anything they’ll empty. Then they fill up with green sludge and end up not being used.”

A key inspiration for Woods is the dry garden at RHS Hyde Hall, never watered since planting in 2001. Another influence is the late Beth Chatto’s iconic dry garden, also never irrigated since planting in 1991. Coincidentally, this is being recreated at Hampton this year to celebrate her newfound status as an Iconic Horticultural Hero, courtesy of the RHS.

Why wasn’t Woods at Chelsea this year? “Ultimately, I wanted to design a big garden that people could walk through, touch and interact with. It seemed a shame not to do that.” Has Woods much experience of drought, or floods?

“Not personally. But I’m from the Lakes and when I went back I saw the devastation caused at Glenridding [wrecked by floods in 2015]. Ultimately, in London and cities in the South East, there’s no flooding like that where natural water sources keep bringing water in, but [there is a problem] when the drains overload and can’t physically take the level of water. It’s about creating places where you can trap that water and hold it temporarily.”

Early days

Woods learnt his trade young. Growing up with a father in the police and interior designer mother, the family had to buy a cheap, rundown house after all the police houses were sold off.

He helped renovate the house and garden and did gardening jobs for neighbours at £3 a time. At 15, an on-site school farm helped him pass GCSE practical horticulture. Still wet behind the ears, Woods then gardened professionally at tourist centre Rheged, near Penrith, abseiling down the green roof to seed it with wild flowers: “I learnt about fall arrest systems,” he quips. He then trained at Newton Rigg and Myerscough colleges, gardened for Westmorland, which runs Tebay Services on the M6, and propagated plants at Larch Cottage Nurseries, in the Eden Valley village of Melkinthorpe. It wasn’t easy starting out – Woods failed his driving test twice and “there are no buses to Melkinthorpe”.

Heliotropium arborescens 'Mary Fox' Credit:  MMGI / Marianne Majerus

But although it’s been quite a journey, Woods is upbeat: “I’ve enjoyed it since I was 13 or 14. I never really thought about the money side of it because I’ve been into gardening since before money. Only later on, when I wanted to do the Wisley diploma or go to Kew, I did the sums and needed another £10,000. You need a bit of extra backing or you’re going to have to knit your own socks.”

After completing his training in the north, Woods packed his rucksack and headed to London. Viewing a flat, he met a girl, the first he’d talked to in the capital. They later married. She works in corporate law (“As far from me as you can get”).

In the early days, after setting up on his own, Woods was “fixing wonky fences for £200 just to keep the business going”. Despite winning the RHS Young Designer of the Year award in 2013, his springboard to success was designing the Oxford Street John Lewis department store’s 150th anniversary roof garden in 2014. The route to the garden takes customers through the haberdashery department, where sales rose seven per cent.

Woods now has so much work that while he was at Chelsea 2018 his wife had to book a contractor to terrace their Folkestone garden. He saw the funny side and now uses the firm to build some of his designs. With 18 staff, his feet are still on the ground: rushing around to answer inquiries from celebrities “is a waste of time”.

And he no longer feels obliged to visit potential client’s houses: “…for three hours on Friday nights at 9pm to talk about their holiday”. Typical domestic clients are owners of terraced three-bedders in London who will pay him £30,000-50,000 to re-design their outdoor space.

Woods finds inspiration in Kent beaches, The Yellow Book (now known as The Garden Visitor’s Handbook) back gardens, Great Dixter and Sissinghurst, as well as the drystone walls back home in Cumbria. His forecast for the future: “Ultimately, it’s about longevity.” And, inevitably, a Chelsea show garden: “My wife’s technically banned me, but if it was the right sponsor…”