Have a seat with...

Marcus Barnett

Marcus Barnett is a former Army officer-turned award-winning garden designer. A three-time gold medal winner at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, Marcus also lectures at design schools and colleges and has given public lectures at the V&A, London, and across Europe.

In this latest edition of Have a Seat With, we talk all things gardens with Marcus. From his surprise win at Chelsea while still at design school, to his love of the open water. Dive in and have a read…

Marcus Barnett

Hello, Marcus. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. Your route into the world of horticulture wasn’t exactly a typical journey! How did you go from a career as an Army officer into setting up your own award-winning garden design business?

During my military career, I had something of a growing desire that came from seemingly nowhere…and the subject matter was that I just wanted to design and build gardens. That was it! It wasn't to be a film star, or a racing driver, or to go into the city. It was very specific: design gardens

So at first, I thought that was a pretty ridiculous ambition to have as I knew nothing about garden design. I wasn’t sure if the role even existed. But, the more I tried to ignore the voice, so to speak, the louder it became. And, so, after military service, I left conventional employment and went to study…and the rest is history!

How would you describe your philosophy and approach to garden design?

I think fundamentally that a garden is there to enchant rather than impress, and that's what underpins all our work. No matter the scale, no matter the geography, no matter the brief: they should be atmospheric spaces. And it's an opportunity for us as humans to have a literal interface between being human and the landscape around us. I think it's important to slow down the mind and for one to engage, and, at the studio, our aim is to create a planting plan that is seemingly wild and not contrived.

Marcus Barnett at the drawing board

Having designed gardens across the world—spanning four different continents, including North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia—how would you say your client’s approach and tastes vary from country to country?

Taste can be a great influencing factor but if a plant isn't going to survive in a particular place or geography then taste doesn't come into it. It’s about the realities of Mother Nature. 

If you think about it, if you're planting a garden in Kuwait, it has to survive in temperatures of minus 10°C in winter and plus 50°C in summer, and if you're planting a garden on the west coast of Scotland, it's going to be in severe weather for much of the year. So you just have to be very aware of where you are, the intentions for the garden, and for whom you're designing and building it. And I think with those three things at the forefront of your mind, you should arrive at the right outcome in one way, shape, or form.

Excluding your own, of all the gardens you’ve visited across the world, which has made the biggest impact on you?

I think it was Rousham. For some reason, whatever the frequency Rousham was broadcasting on, I seem to receive it loud and clear. It just resonated with me more than any other garden space that I've been to.

"I think fundamentally that a garden is there to enchant rather than impress, and that's what underpins all of our work. No matter the scale, no matter the geography, no matter the brief: they should be atmospheric spaces."

With such a busy working life, what do you like to do in your downtime? How do you like to relax?

Well, that's easy. I'm very passionate about being on the water or near the water. So I love being on the beach, and I'm very passionate about kite surfing, wind surfing, and dinghy sailing. But first on that list would be sailing, that's what I absolutely love. When you're doing those activities, you can't think of anything else other than what you're doing, and I find that incredibly relaxing. 

Which has been your most ambitious garden design project since your career began?

Well, there are many ways to interpret ‘ambitious’. The literal interpretation of ambition could be that it was a very risky undertaking. I don't necessarily think it's about risk. I think it's about putting together a whole series of elements and clients and budgets and geographies and just getting them to harmonize. I think that's probably what we aspire to do on each occasion, and I hope we are successful!

Marcus Barnett garden

"It's about putting together a whole series of elements and clients and budgets and geographies and just getting them to harmonize."

You won your first Gold Medal award at Chelsea Flower Show while at Inchbald School of Design, working with a fellow student. Does anything compare to that first win or have you enjoyed more recent successes just as much?

I think of them all as an incredible reward. Each one is unique and marks a particular chapter in my life; and they each have their own very special place in my memory. But I suppose it was the out and out surprise and unexpected joy of that first garden that probably won't be equalled in subsequent gardens.

What advice would you give to anyone looking for a career in garden design?

I think you've got to think about it carefully and cautiously. It's a difficult industry to be successful in, so you must do a lot of research and contact the various bodies that exist in Britain. And speak to friends and family for advice and guidance and any contacts that you know. But if you do select it as a career, it's one that can bring you real joy because it's a pleasure to work in nature.

What’s next on the horizon for you, Marcus?

Well, we've got some very big projects that are bubbling away in the studio. There are those that we're working on right now that are on-site and those that will be on-site over the next six or eight years. So that's very exciting. And it's lovely to see new plants coming up—in areas that have been mud for what seems like an eternity! It’s also very interesting seeing what’s coming off the drawing board and what will be planted in a few years' time!

Thank for your time today, Marcus. It's been a pleasure!

The Sitting Spiritually 'Have a Seat With' series takes a look behind the scenes at how we switch off from the bustling modern-day lifestyle. We speak to people of all sorts of backgrounds and lifestyles around the country as we seek to explore the different ways of relaxing and just taking a moment.

Posted on June 24th 2022


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