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Xa Tollemache

Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medallist Xa Tollemache has been designing gardens since the mid-90s, working in London, the US, and across Europe and Scandinavia.

Her own award-winning garden at Helmingham Hall in Suffolk, has been a life’s work for Xa—nearly 50 years in the making! It’s also the feature of her first book, A Garden Well Placed: The Story of Helmingham and Other Gardens, and it’s here where today’s edition of Have a Seat With begins…

Sue Biggs and champion tree

Hello, Xa. Thanks for speaking with us today! 

You’ve recently written your first book, A Garden Well Placed: The Story of Helmingham and Other Gardens. Can you tell us a little bit about your remarkable journey at Helmingham, and how you went from being a relative novice, in your own words, to creating 10 acres of Grade I listed gardens and establishing yourself as an award-winning garden designer?

At first, it was really just a case of having to take care of the gardens at Helmingham! Then, naturally, the interest followed, and it made me want to learn more. The passion grew as I became more familiar with horticultural knowledge; how to do things, learning about plants, roses, shrubs and finally trees!

You’ve been working on the gardens at Helmingham for nearly five decades. Do you have memories of your first day at the gardens, back in 1975, and did you ever imagine it would transform into the stunning natural landscape it is today?

Yes, it has all passed in a flash! The first day in the garden when I was pregnant was very daunting. I never for a moment imagined where the journey would lead as custodian at Helmingham.

A Garden Well Placed book cover

Helmingham is open to the public from May through to September. How important do you think it is to share these spectacular spaces to the public—to provide inspiration, or simply as a way for all ages to connect with nature.

It was always our plan to share the garden. To keep it private was never the intention…even though it’s quite nice to work in the garden in peace on shut days!

But it's also an incentive to constantly keep it looking great, healthy and well-looked-after. Making something new every year, however small, provides interest and keeps people coming back. We would like to make it firstly a place for enjoyment, interest, discovery, and inspiration.

You’ve stated before that you don’t necessarily think you have a style when it comes to garden design. But can you tell me a little bit about your influences and approach when embarking on a new project, or does that change with each brief?

When I visit a project for the first time, I look at the house, the architecture, the landscape, the light; I learn about the climate and then ask the client for their preferences and what they had dreamt about for their garden.

I also have the first look at what I think is wrong, as fresh eyes notice things like that. So, my style depends on where I am and who I am with.

"Making something new every year, however small, provides interest and keeps people coming back. We would like to make Helmingham Gardens firstly a place for enjoyment, interest, discovery, and inspiration."

What advice would you give to anyone looking to begin a career in garden design, and what advice would your younger self have appreciated when you started your gardening journey nearly 50 years ago at Helmingham?

I would advise a course of some sort, but most importantly, actually work in a garden; doing practical gardening and handling plants. I would have appreciated starting earlier in my design work, but family commitments prevented that.

Did you enjoy the process of writing your first book? You’ve mentioned before that you didn’t see yourself as a writer. How challenging was it to draw on your experiences and remember everything you’ve achieved at Helmingham?

When lockdown happened, I thought this was the perfect moment to write the book. And, because I was working every day in the garden, I was intensely involved, so the memories and details were easy to extract.

I was introduced to an editor and we worked on Zoom throughout the pandemic. She encouraged me to explain each area of the garden and to articulate what I did there and why.

Excluding any of your own, what’s your favourite garden in the world?

It’s too hard to choose. It’s like saying what is my favourite flower! In the spring, it would be a primrose, and in the summer, it would be a rose.  So it’s the same for gardens.

Sue Biggs summer

"My passion grew as I became more familiar with horticultural knowledge; how to do things, learning about plants, roses, shrubs and finally trees!"

What does a normal working day look like for you? Or is every day different? 

First I cook breakfast for my husband. In the summer, I get up early and swim; in winter, I go on my exercise bike. Then it could be a project meeting, taking the whole day or working in the new garden at Framsden. I might go to the office to send invoices or sign off some bills. 

Working for the RHS takes me to London, usually for one or two nights, as I fix other things and meetings while there.

I might go food shopping or order food. I love cooking, so it might be that I am prepping for guests. Every day is very different!

A great deal of my time is spent on Ormiston Families, a charity which looks after vulnerable and disadvantaged children and young people. Being a granny also keeps me very busy, and I have the children here continually, which is wonderful!

Having designed gardens all across the world, from London to the United States, to Europe and Scandinavia, how much does your approach vary when working with clients from different cultures and with diverse styles and tastes.

The joy of working with clients from all over the world is that they all share a combined interest ….their garden. I also make an important point of connecting with the gardener or team already in place. Getting them involved is a win-win for everyone. The team who is fully involved is an enormous help during the design and implementation process.

With such a busy working life, what do you like to do in your downtime? What’s your perfect recipe for a relaxing day off?

My idea of relaxing is gardening, but on a day off, it would be tempting to ride a horse, have lunch in a restaurant with a friend. A bit of shopping or an exhibition could be followed by a concert, a fun dinner, and then perhaps a dance!

You’ve won numerous awards during your career, including Helmingham winning the Historic Houses Association (HHA) Garden of the Year in 2017, and, of course, your Gold Medal at your first appearance at RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 1997. Would you be able to choose an award that holds the most significance for you?

I never look for awards. I was very pleased with the Garden of the Year award and getting my medals at Chelsea. The biggest award for me is implementing a garden for a client that looks beautiful…that’s reward enough.

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

I have been invited to lecture in South Africa and also in the US next Spring, which is exciting—and also to carry on designing and looking after my grandchildren and seeing lots of my family.

Thank you, Xa. It’s been a pleasure, and congratulations on the book!

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 by Alex Rowe on September 15th 2022

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