"That's the beauty of garden design in a way. Longevity is there in the plan and the structure and everything else changes all the time - whether you want it to or not." Legendary duo Isabel and Julian Bannerman are garden designers by appointment to The Prince of Wales. Their accolades include the majestic gardens at Highgrove, Trematon Castle and Houghton Hall. We had the privilege of asking Isabel about all things garden design.
Q: You left Trematon Castle in Cornwall in 2019, having transformed its landscape. What different gardening concerns come with a coastal setting?
A: Well, wind is the main one. It was very windy! You have to adopt a trial and error approach. We plant euphorbias and they literally blow out of the ground, so it’s a matter of seeing what will stay put. Because Trematon was a castle it was surrounded by walls and that makes it worse because the wind forms eddies and currents. It was a dramatic but lovely setting.
We used to stay at Arundel Castle when we were working there. They don’t have any central heating upstairs so you have to have a wood fire in your bedroom which is really romantic and lovely.
Q: Your third book is coming out soon. What will we learn?
A: Our first book was about our work - lots of people didn't actually know what we did all day. Our second book was about making the garden at Trematon and scent. The third, this book, is basically an anthology of smell literature. It also offers a lot of science about scent and pollination.
Q: Having worked on so many iconic houses all over the country, does any one in particular hold a special place in your memory?
A: We’d always loved Houghton before we even got to work there, so that was very exciting. Architecturally it is fabulous. Also, we used to stay at Arundel Castle when we were working there. They don’t have any central heating upstairs so you have to have a wood fire in your bedroom which is really romantic and lovely – so Arundel sticks in my mind.
Q: Working and living together with Julian, do you ever disagree on designs for a project? How do you overcome that?
A: *laughs* we have LOADS of disagreements. I mean it’s part of the process actually. I think it’s the reason we are quite good value for money in some ways. We argue things through a lot, so presumably the ultimate solution is the best because one of us has given in to the other!
Q: So, do you have quite different styles?
A: On one level not at all. But on another level… I’m much more environmentally concerned. I’m much more organic than Julian. We're of slightly different generations, he’s ten years older than I am and I think that makes a difference. Also, he’s probably braver. You know, he’s just that much more confident.
Q: On that note, how do you think the approach to garden design is going to evolve in light of environmental concerns in the near future?
A: Oh, I think a lot. I hope there will be a lot less mowing of everything. It has already started though, in Hyde Park they changed that in the 90s. I think the industry has got to change, plants are like cheap clothes at the moment- throwaway things.
We did this courtyard on Hertford Street that's a bit like the Sir John Soane museum - lots of plaster casts on the wall and a fireplace and stuff. We’ve actually done several gardens in London like that. They’re more like outdoor rooms.
Q: You design some huge grounds for your projects. For those with smaller city or town gardens, is it possible to bring grander features into a smaller space? Or is a completely different approach necessary from the get-go?
A: It is different, obviously. We did this courtyard on Hertford Street that's a bit like the Sir John Soane museum - lots of plaster casts on the wall and a fireplace and stuff. We’ve actually done several gardens in London like that. They’re more like outdoor rooms. That works very well in smaller gardens which are basically an extension of the house. But that’s what we’re trying to do in the big gardens too – make places for people to live in. This is sometimes more difficult in a big garden if anything.
Q: With grand country house gardens, do you bear in mind their interiors and the social and historical context when planning the garden design?
A: They’re definitely integrated. It’s all about how the garden and the house connect and how you live in those two spaces. It’s changing a lot, I find it a bit sad that everybody now wants to turn a barn into something else. Personally, I like lost dusty places to stay like that. There’s a bit of a compulsion to convert everything into something.
Q: How do you ensure longevity in garden design? How do you know what is right for the client now will be right in ten years? It's certainly a big element in interior design...
A: Well, it’s different with gardens in that they go on getting better if they are well-designed. That's the beauty of garden design in a way. Longevity is there in the plan and the structure and everything else changes all the time - whether you want it to or not. Gardens are constantly evolving. But you do want to get the basics, those bones, right from the beginning.
Q: I know you're fond of an obelisk... when it comes to garden ornaments, are there certain garden features that you come back to time and time again - no matter what the setting is?
A: Sort of, yes. Big coppers and big planters are generally always good… Sorry, my mind is flooding with things I don’t like! We always keep an eye out for nice benches and coppers. Strange planters are usually a good thing. We don’t like statues *laughs*, they’re mostly pretty awful.
Q: What will we find you and Julian doing when you are doing nothing to do with gardens at all?
A: Ooo. I suppose we drink and eat a lot! We like visiting churches and architecture. We read a lot. Going to antiques shops is another big pastime of ours.
Isabel's latest book, 'The Star-Nosed Mole: An Anthology of Scented Garden Writing,' will be published next month.
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Read all of our Q&As on L-Shaped.