At home in Wales with Sarah Price, the garden designer who was the talk of Chelsea

Andrew Montgomery

Inheriting a family garden is a wonderful thing, but it can also be inhibiting, as Sarah Price found out in 2013, when she moved to the house that had belonged to her grandparents in rural Wales. With so many nostalgic memories of the garden from her childhood, she has found it difficult to make her own changes. ‘It was like a children’s paradise,’ she remembers. ‘Since moving here, I have struggled with what to do with the garden, wanting it to stay the same, almost worshipping the way it used to be. But now I’ve reached the point where I can start again, and I’m making plans.’

Set on the hilly margins of Abergavenny, overlooked by nearby Blorenge mountain, the two-acre walled garden is indeed a children’s paradise, with old glasshouses, trees to climb, a fast-flowing stream and an overgrown secret garden accessible only by a tunnel under the lane. Sarah’s grandparents bought the house just after the Second World War and made the Victorian walled garden their own, opening it regularly for the National Gardens Scheme. Her grandmother and later her father were expert vegetable gardeners, while her grandfather tended the peach espaliers. Her grandmother was also interested in wildflowers, collecting mosses and flowers for a book that documented the local flora. Sarah spent school holidays running wild in this garden or going on ‘extreme walks in unsuitable shoes’ with her father, a passionate lover of the outdoors.

During this formative time, Sarah developed a lasting affinity with nature, discovering that she had an almost photographic memory for the plants, colours and forms of the natural landscape. ‘In all my work I try to recreate an atmosphere or the sense of magic that you find in nature,’ she says. ‘Sometimes I use plant combinations you actually find in the wild, or experiment with similar plant shapes or forms. Other times it might be just the shape of the land or the way a stone wall snakes down a hill that inspires me. It’s all about close observation – really looking at things. Sometimes I take photographs, but mostly I just hold things in my memory. I might jot something down or sketch it in a notebook.’

Originally trained in fine art and having graduated with a well-earned first, Sarah felt increasingly unsure about a career in art. Spending time down in Abergavenny after graduating, ostensibly to give herself time to paint, she found herself more and more drawn to the practical art of gardening, and eventually accepted a job as a gardener at Hampton Court. With a background in art, perhaps the next step into design was inevitable; she enrolled in a part-time garden-design course and entered an RHS competition to design a conceptual garden at Hampton Court. She won the competition and her garden-design career took off, culminating in her high-profile involvement in the Olympic Park gardens in 2012. When her son Lewin was born soon afterwards, she and her husband Jack Thurston decided to move full-time to Abergavenny. Now expecting her second child, she is designing gardens part-time and enjoying being out of the limelight for a while, giving herself time to bring her grandparents’ garden back to life and putting her own stamp on it. ‘I have a completely different pace of life here, which I’m finding is opening up my imagination.’

So what are her plans for this rural idyll? Her first steps have been tentative, using the existing framework to build on, clearing and paring back, seeing what self seeds. In the kitchen garden, she is restoring the old glasshouses and the gravel paths with their stone edging. She plans a mixture of vegetables and annuals here, inspired by the gardens of Priona in Holland, where the late Henk Gerritsen created his utopian vision of what he called ‘dreamt nature’, with wildflowers, weeds and cultivated flowers intertwining with edible crops. ‘I want my garden to be productive and practical but romantic and beautiful at the same time,’ says Sarah. ‘It has to be a real garden, expressive of us as a family, where Jack can guerilla-plant veg among my flowers and Lewin can run around.’

She plans to link the different garden areas with what she calls ‘theme species’: structural, easy-to-grow plants that can be repeat planted in generous drifts throughout the garden to give a sense of connectivity. Turning away from the traditional concept of organised borders, she envisages instead a kind of ‘graded meadow’, with low-growing alpines, wildflowers and taller perennials all blending together in a painterly sweep of colour and texture. The parallels between this and one of the abstract watercolours she paints at an easel set up in the greenhouse are easy to see.

The secret garden is set above the rest of the garden, reached via a low stone tunnel, which adults must stoop to get through. Emerging from darkness into light, you find yourself in an enclosed, sloping meadow, overgrown at the moment with self-seeded oak and hornbeam saplings, and edged with taller trees. It’s an enchanting place with a special atmosphere that Sarah is determined to preserve. Here, her touch will be light and delicate. She will tame the wildness, perhaps, by cloud-pruning the oaks and hornbeams into crazy forms and encouraging more wildflowers, but little else. ‘I look at what I see in nature and manipulate it, exaggerate the layers on the edge of a stream or woodland, for instance, and pull out those elements to create a place with the same sort of atmosphere,’ she says. Her dream is to have a hut over here for overnight camping and gatherings – ‘a really private space’. The perfect family setting.

For the moment, she is growing lots of plants from seed, looking forward to trying new, exciting plants and combinations and looking closely at how they grow, from seedling to seed head. ‘Growing plants from seed is like alchemy, isn’t it? It’s just so satisfying. I’m just looking forward to really observing how they grow, how they flower, how they die back. And then, next year, I’ll try something different. The magic is in the garden being transient. I never want it to stay still.’

Sarah Price Landscapes: 020-7703 3973; sarahpricelandscapes.com