“Is a garden a work of art? I think it is” - Sarah Eberle on Impactful Garden Design for Oxford Botanic Garden

Thursday 19th January saw the in-person return of Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum’s Winter Lecture series. Held at Oxford Mathematical Institute, and followed by a drinks reception, we were pleased to welcome so many people back after three years of holding all our lectures online.

Sarah’s talk, ‘Design for Impact at RHS Chelsea Flower Show,’ took us on a whistle stop tour of her career. Having won more than twenty gold medals at RHS Chelsea, she is the most decorated garden designer in history, and the innovation of her designs shows why. From gardens that turn our gaze outwards to other planets or a nebulous future, to spaces that invite us to look inwards and explore our personal relationship to green space, Sarah’s approach to garden design is consistently groundbreaking.

It was fascinating to hear Sarah talk about the practicalities of designing for Chelsea: the reality of getting sponsors for high concept gardens, how to use the sponsor’s products in a way that allows viewers to connect, and how to create something extraordinary to win those elusive gold medals.

This was evident in her Martian garden: 600 Days with Bradstone Best (2007). Sarah had spoken with the European Space Agency to make sure the garden was grounded in science. They filled it with the right kinds of plants, some for food, some for aesthetic, some to purify the air; while also highlighting Bradstone's products throughout, making concrete and stone stand in for Martian wastes. Sarah also enlightened us to the realities of using a garden to tell a story as well as sell a product.

It’s not just the novelty of a garden on Mars that resonated with the audience at Chelsea, the Judges, and the audience in the room at the lecture, but the idea of seeing oneself on Mars. Sarah’s approach to working with Bradstone was that her design focused not only on highlighting their signature products, but in creating a space that could be easily understood by an audience. Placing the garden on Mars allowed them to connect to concrete and stone on an emotional level. What would it feel like to be on Mars? What would an astronaut need in a garden? What would make us feel at home, or have a positive impact on our Martian experience? All these questions are answered in 600 Days.

As Sarah’s talk continued, the importance of connecting with an audience through the art of garden design continually surfaced while describing her process. Garden design, she said, is ‘about stopping people, engaging people. Making them want to see more and ask for more.’

Other gardens in her catalogue of gold medal winners and ‘Best in Show’s include the Resilience Garden (2019) and Garden of the Future (2022). Both gardens were about looking forward into the future; asking big questions about climate change, wellness, and the future of our planet at large, as well as our more familiar natural spaces. The Resilience Garden specifically focused on substantial challenges facing our forests, while The Garden of the Future highlighted the possibilities of sustainable garden design, creating something with longevity and a commitment to wellness for both the planet and people. As always, the experience of the garden was front and centre in Sarah’s explanation of her processes. An important part of every garden she has designed is how it feels to be in it.

While the practicalities of garden design are important and necessary – finding sponsors, building a talented team of gardeners, builders, contractors, etc. - it’s clear that Sarah’s love of landscape is the backbone of her designs. Beginning her career as a landscape architect, this is only natural, but seeing her speak so passionately and engagingly about the human relationship to landscape through gardens was electrifying.

“Is a garden a work of art? I think it is.”

Art has always been about reaching outside of the self to connect with others. In a way, all forms of expression can be considered art, so long as they become something separate to the maker. Sarah’s gardens communicate a message that works beyond her own communication about them. The gardens, once made, speak for themselves.

At the end of her lecture, we opened the floor to the audience for Q&A. When asked for her advice for budding garden designers she simply said:

‘Work hard, go with your heart, and do what you believe in.’

She also impressed upon us all that the work of learning is never done: ‘I've been in this industry 46 years and I haven’t stopped learning yet.’ Designing, like a garden itself, must continue to grow and evolve to be exciting, and engage audiences. That which ceases to grow dies.

The final question was brilliant:

‘Which is your favourite?’

To which Sarah replied:

‘The answer is always the same: the one I’m working on now.’

Sarah Eberle’s ‘Designing for Impact @ RHS Chelsea Flower Show’ was only the first in our series of winter lectures.

We’ll also hear from:

Dr Chris Thorogood, ‘Chasing Plants’, 2 February

Professor Dave Goulson, ‘Silent Earth: Saving our Insects’, 2 March

Naoko Abe, ‘Saving the blossom: Cherry Ingrahm and his rich legacy’, 9 March.

[Buy tickets and find out more here]

All lectures are followed by a drinks reception, and a free drink (wine or soft) is included with your ticket.