Floral heroes


by Camilla Ridley

We caught up with gold medal-winning garden designer and lover of tailored floral silk dresses Jo Thompson at Hampton Court Flower Show


Garden designer Jo Thompson catches up with Radio 1 DJ and Hampton court presenter Jo Whiley and influencer and cancer campaigner Deborah James @bowelbabe. Jo is wearing a Ridley London luxury silk Virginia dress while Deborah is wearing printed silk Grania midi dress.

Suddenly its July, which means the start of Wimbledon and Hampton Court Flower Show, without doubt one of my favourite events of the summer. While possibly not as well known as Chelsea, for me Hampton Court Flower Show is in every way as good and in some ways even better. Set in the magnificent grounds of Hampton Court Palace, the show is larger and features many of the amazing show gardens and superstar gardeners from Chelsea earlier in the summer. And if you missed  Chelsea, the incredible 'Back to Nature Garden' designed by The Duchess of Cambridge in collaboration with our friends Andrée and Adam from Davies White Landscapes will be there. Hampton Court Flower Show is spread over a larger area and definitely feels less congested and far easier to get around than Chelsea. Consequently, its easier to see the amazing gardens and floral displays up close and meet and chat with the creative dynamos behind them. With this in mind, I caught up with another horticultural friend... the very talented, gold medal winning garden designer Jo Thompson, in her beautiful BBC Springwatch Garden at Hampton Court yesterday. And it turns out she knows a thing or two about fashion also.

The minute I saw your Chelsea Garden this year Jo, I completely fell in love with it. It’s incredibly feminine and romantic and yet subtly modern. And your BBC Springwatch Garden at Hampton Court this year is very different but equally intricate. Could a sophisticated show garden like this work practically in a domestic setting? Especially one with kids running around?

Thanks so much Camilla, I’m so glad you like it so much. I really enjoyed creating this one, and the answer is yes absolutely. I design all of my gardens to work within their specific locations and particularly with the people who inhabit them. For me, this is one of the most interesting challenges of garden design, and for a garden to be successful, it really needs to work and be enjoyed all year round and not just be a show garden for a week in June or July. So all of the plants in the Wedgewood Garden are practical choices for a home garden. I’m not certain how compatible it would be with boys and footballs but that’s not to say that you couldn’t design a beautiful garden that is! 

Is there anything that epitomises these two very different gardens? For instance do you have a specific approach to design?

I believe every garden is completely individual and for me, everything is driven by the garden itself. Unlike some garden designers, I don’t think I have a particularly distinct style that I want to impose. Again it’s all about how the garden works for the unique people and the place. I see garden designers as a conduit to help people find their vision and enhance their space. However, that said I tend to try and drill down into projects to find deeper, more meaningful solutions and avoid pastiche. For example, I wouldn’t put a copy Moroccan courtyard into a London garden as I just don’t think it would work with the London climate and architecture. However by analysing how a Moroccan garden functions and why the client likes it, I think you could interpret and adopt certain elements to create a more authentic space that has an intrinsically Moorish feel and works harmoniously within its setting. I have been recognised for my relaxed planting style and recently been labeled the 'New Romantic’ of garden design, possibly because of my love of roses! 


(Top) Jo Thompson's romantic Chelsea Flower Show garden for Wedgewood this summer. (Middle) Jo talks gardening with influencers @theturquoiseflamingo and @shedreamsofgucci all wearing luxurious printed silk dresses by Ridley London. Meanwhile influencer @bowelbabe enjoys the meadows of Jo's BBC Springwatch Garden in her Grania luxury silk dress at Hampton Court Flower Show this summer

What do you love most about what you do Jo?

I absolutely love making places look and feel beautiful and creating something that challenges but ultimately enriches each individual client's life. Creating a garden together is an amazing and incredibly positive journey. Gardens give. It’s a cliche, but nature has a very therapeutic quality. And because every client is different, every day is always different and so you are always challenging yourself and learning. So its never ever dull. I’ve also been incredibly lucky to work with some fantastically creative people and some wonderful and very trusting clients.

What’s it really like being a garden designer... on a daily basis Jo?  What are the things people don’t see? 

It is incredibly varied. People often think I’m outside all the time but in reality, most of the time I’m in a studio designing or running the business. Also, there are much quieter times in winter and completely crazy manic times when you’re finishing projects or flower shows. It’s probably like most creative industries, there tends to be a show season with deadlines which require massive pushes and herculean effort. And then its suddenly much quieter again. So there’s definitely a lot of contrast. It’s also the variety of people and places as well as the challenges. 

Is there a particular quality that has stood you in good stead in your career so far?

I think being immensely practical and down to earth is very important as you are constantly dealing with an array of competing challenges. So being able to prioritise and ensure things like drainage and construction plans are effectively resolved is fundamental to success. I also believe gardens should be practical spaces so I only specify plants that will work in a particular environment. I also think being open-minded and flexible is a really underrated asset in design. At the end of the day, you are working with a client and it’s about creating a space that they really love so your vision often needs to flex around them. In the same way, you need to jump between multiple projects. So we’ll have about twenty different projects going through the studio at any one time with all sorts of unique and intricate challenges involved. So flexibility and multi-tasking are critical skills.

How and why did you become a garden designer?

It’s probably a combination of things. My parents always had a lovely garden and my father is Italian, so I spent a large amount of my childhood and as a student in Rome which has the most incredible spaces and Gardens like the Villa D'este. So I think I developed or had this natural affinity with spaces and a real interest in architecture. However, I didn’t formally study design until later in life. Initially, I studied languages in London and then did a phd in early Italian cinema at Cambridge. After graduating, I worked for Jasper Conran and It was here that I really fell in love with the creative environment and energy. But it wasn’t until I was married that I had my light bulb moment and realised I wanted to be a garden designer. We had a tiny flat in Little Venice with a roof space that had potential. We employed Clifton Nurseries and I worked with one of their designers to transform it, and it was at this point that I realised this is what I really wanted to do. I then studied for a one-year diploma at the English Gardening School where I spent a great deal of time learning about plants. My first formal project was helping a friend transform her garden, and once this was done, I helped a few more. And when I felt a little more confident, I entered some competitions and started to get some coverage and commissions. And gradually over 20 years, I built my business. 


Influencers @theturquoiseflamingo (top left) and @shedreamsofgucci (top right) get floral in their luxurious Ridley London floral printed silk Carman maxi dress and silk Rebecca maxi dress. Meanwhile Camilla and the girls catch up with friends and co designers of the Back to Nature Garden Andrée Davies and Adam White. Andrée wears a printed Virginia silk midi dress

Do you have a favourite garden you could recommend reader could visit?

I absolutely love the gardens at Iford Manor near Bath. They’ve got this incredible Edwardian landscaping and a real sense of structure and different spaces. All with their own unique personalities. It was clearly inspired by the Grand Tour so there’s this feeling of being in Rome with it’s depleted colonnades but at the same time, it's very very English. So I guess it feels like a bit of a home from home to me. Its been beautifully preserved and is very special. 

What do you love most about Hampton Court Flower Show?

It's the space and the people. I love Chelsea, but even though it’s bigger, Hampton Court has this very special, intimate atmosphere. It’s a real festival of flowers and gardening. Everyone is so passionate and its real gardeners looking for real ideas. So you have some really interesting interactions with the public. It’s a really practical show.

You’re wearing a Ridley dress for Hampton Court, how important is wearing the right clothes for you?

I would say very important. The right dress makes all the difference in helping you to present the right image to the world. I always make an effort as I think it helps to communicate a certain level of care and sense of togetherness and professionalism to clients. One of my strongest childhood memories is how fanatical my Italian father was about always looking smart and chic whenever we went out. On a practical level, the right outfit can also empower you to an extent, enabling you to feel relaxed, comfortable and confident in the knowledge you look and feel your very best. This means you can get on with whatever you’re doing without having to worry about how you look. I absolutely love wearing dresses, especially beautiful, floaty ones to summer events like flower shows and Camilla your Ridley dresses are an absolute exception. I remember first seeing one of your silk dresses at Chelsea and thinking “that’s what I’m talking about!”  They just immediately appealed to me. They’re really feminine, romantic and flattering. And very different to anything else out there I’ve seen. And I've noticed, that if you’re wearing the right dress people want to talk about it and you get lots of compliments and opportunities for conversation.

Is there anything you particularly like about the Ridley Virginia dress you’re wearing today?

Apart from the amazing quality and beautiful colours and prints, the big difference for me with Ridley dresses is the service and personalisation around them. I loved visiting the shop and spending time with you and you really helped me to find the colours, prints, and styles that really worked for me. And I came away feeling amazing. I also think a tailored dress that fits like a glove makes a real difference to how you look. My father was fanatical about good tailoring and I think it can make an enormous difference if something fits properly. I also really appreciated how versatile your dresses are and how you can dress them up or down for different occasions. I never would have thought of wearing a luxurious silk dress with a denim jacket and trainers but it looks great and really youthful and modern. And then I can wear it with heels for a totally different look.
Thanks so much Jo. Its been really great talking with you and learning a bit more about your world and garden design. And I think your BBC Springwatch garden is beautiful and I love the conceptual idea behind it. Visitors to Hampton Court Flower Show this week are certainly in for a real treat. Hampton Court Flower Show runs until Sunday 7 July with tickets available on their website

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