The gardens designed and built by landscape architects and garden designers Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliam are renowned for their exciting and creative ideas, exhilarating and distinctive planting, and for their intense attention to detail.
I caught up with the pair, fresh from another Gold and Best in Show medal-winning appearance, this time with their garden, Sacred Grove (pictured), at the Singapore Garden Festival.
Andrew, Gavin, what is the Singapore Garden Festival?
“It’s a biennial event run by National Parks Singapore and is one of the big dates on the international garden show scene. It began in 2006 and up until now, all the shows have been held inside, at Suntec City in downtown Singapore, but this year, the organisers decided to venture outside and into the spectacular setting of Gardens by the Bay, a park set on reclaimed land in the centre of Singapore. This was our first year – you can only exhibit if you’ve been invited to do so – and we found ourselves alongside fellow designers Andy Sturgeon, Adam Frost and Chris Beardshaw from Britain, Joe Palamino from America, Jim Fogarty from Australia and Xanthe White from New Zealand.”
It’s similar to the Chelsea Flower Show, then?
“The concept is similar to Chelsea, with a short period (approximately eleven days compared to the three weeks or so for Chelsea) to build a show garden in competitive conditions. Funding is provided by the National Parks body, at the end of the building process, the gardens are assessed and judged. This year, a bit like Chelsea’s Main Avenue and the Grand Pavilion, some of the gardens – around half – were situated outside, and these were the Landscape category. The other half are the Fantasy gardens category, and they’re all built within a blacked-out and air-conditioned tent to allow designers to explore lighting effects.”
What inspired your design for Sacred Grove?
“Actually, we were inspired by both Singapore and the showground site itself. The climate is incredibly humid and hot, of course – while we were there, the average daytime temperature was 32 degrees – so gardens tend to be seen from the comfort of a cool house or office, although many incorporate shade and cooling breezes. The Singapore government also promotes green architecture and many buildings include high-rise planting and green spaces, which chimes with a lot of our work.
“On a practical level, however, the meadow on which we had to build the show garden is intensively irrigated, which meant that nobody was allowed to dig down. Combining all of these factors meant that the garden, naturally, had to go up!
“The concept of Sacred Grove is something we’ve toyed with for some time: the idea that a certain combination of planting and construction can create a special or even spiritual place, contemplative and calm. For the planting, we wanted to use local and indigenous species but instead of planting them in blocks of repeated texture or colour, which is a feature of planting Singapore, we used the much more random planting style of a British meadow.”
Is the roof garden accessible?
“For the show, we incorporated a maintenance pathway but we had no direct, physical access to the roof which meant that during the building process, we had to use ladders and a cherry picker to get up there. We envisaged the garden as part of a larger development, though, so in reality, yes, the roof would be accessible.
“Being able to see the grove of tall tower trees (Schizolobium parahyba) and dense tropical meadow from the shaded space below was vital to our design, however, so we created a large amorphous opening – we called it a sky lens – in the roof directly above the rain-water reflecting pool.
Tell us a bit more about your choice of planting
“The delicate fronds of the tower trees are perfect for creating a soft, light-diffusing effect, and we used climbers such as asparagus fern andStephanotis to soften the roof line. The spectacular aerial roots of Cissus nodosa were chosen to drop down almost to the pool, to create a natural curtain for the shaded space below.”
Would this garden work anywhere?
“In a word, yes. Many major world cities are turning to high-rise living and sky gardens are increasingly common, as are green roofs: the planting helps to reduce the amount of rain water running off the roof and so eases the pressure on city drainage systems. The planting would need to be adjusted to suit the climate, but the benefits gardens such as these can have on our urban wildlife and bio-diversity are considerable.”
What has happened to this garden, now the show is over?
“It’s under discussion. The garden was incredibly popular and it’s possible that either the whole garden, or at least part of it might be rebuilt in the Gardens by the Bay setting. Otherwise, the garden will go back to Evershine’s Nursery, our partner contractor for the garden.”
If it lives on, will any of the planting need to be changed?
“No, as it’s all very happy in the Singapore climate. The tower trees will continue to grow and will eventually become quite tall. The structure itself was tested for all local weathers by Fluid, structural engineers based in London, but if the garden is to live on, it will need to be retested.”
After the heat of the tropics, what are you working on now?
“We’re currently negotiating a contract in China, which should be exciting, and we’re working on gardens in Wentworth, Weybridge, Notting Hill, Holland Park, Belgravia, Knightsbridge, Buckinghamshire and The Chilterns!”