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Sarah Price: Designing a Cedric Morris-inspired garden

For the 2023 RHS Chelsea Flower Show, The Nurture Landscapes Garden built by Crocus and designed by Sarah Price will be inspired by artist-plantsman Cedric Morris and his garden at Benton End. To find out more about what to expect from this exciting project, we had a few questions for Sarah:

Garden designer Sarah Price at home in Wales. Picture by Daniel Lewis

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your work?

My designs stem from childhood experiences; from my love of art (I would devour art books and endlessly paint and draw) and from family walks in relatively remote landscapes like the Black Mountains, where I live and garden today. At art school I was taught to be resourceful, and to have the agency to independently shape my practice. Perhaps this is reflected in the diversity of my portfolio, from detailed small private gardens, urban community projects like The Exchange at Erith, gardens within health care settings (for example Maggie’s in Southampton) or large scale public works such as plantings designs for the 2012 Olympic park.

Sarah’s garden in Abergavenny, Wales

I’ve always worked with the intricacies of a site – treading with a light touch that highlights or develops what is already there, a tree for example that is shrouded in shrubs waiting to be revealed, saplings that could be pruned into expressive forms, or stones re-laid to form cobbles amongst wildflowers. It’s a creative approach that requires a circular approach to sourcing materials (including valuable waste streams) and local skills (there are so many unsung heroes of craft and build). Plants come first, and I’m constantly looking at innovative ways to frame looser, ‘wild-looking’ planting; to make these living compositions beautiful and legible rather than ‘messy’. Gardening in this way balances the need for habitat creation and our innate desire for a degree of order and intent.

Over the last three years I’ve had the brilliant support of designer Rachel Seaton-Lucas, (who has a background in geography and fashion) and who is equally ambitious to make beautiful, practical landscapes that are rich in wildlife and which have a low impact on our environment.

Sarah’s garden in Abergavenny, Wales

How did this project come about?

Nearly four years ago, I was lucky to visit Benton End, and spend time immersed in the garden. It was April and demure fritillaries and Anemone pavonina scattered the long grass like a beautiful tracing. Entrancing, and as close to a medieval mead as I’ve ever seen, this filigree was a physical and enduring memory of Cedric Morris’ plantings.

This visit to Benton triggered memories of Sarah Cook’s mesmerising display of Benton Iris within the Pavilion at Chelsea in 2015. The poise of the Iris and their wavering hard-to-describe colours were pure, visual pleasure!

Together with Cedric Morris’ paintings, these two experiences helped to build up a picture of Benton End as a place of astonishing creativity; a place latent with inspiration for a Chelsea garden design. Knowing that the plants and materials of a Chelsea garden could support the reimagining and reopening of Benton End gave the project added depth and longevity.

Illustration for The Nurture Landscapes Garden, courtesy of Sarah Price Landscapes

What can we expect from The Nurture Landscapes garden?

The Nurture Landscapes Garden takes as its inspiration the work of Cedric Morris and his garden at Benton End, including his personal plant selections. The garden will be multi-layered, combining textures reminiscent of the house at Benton End with a wild planting palette and more carefully gardened moments that incorporate the Benton Iris, Elaeagnus Quicksilver and other Morris cultivars.

Boundary walls of richly coloured canvas and textured, straw-cob walls will set the tone and atmosphere, providing a backdrop to ‘wild’ looking, semi-abandoned plantings. In contrast there will be carefully composed moments with the hand of the gardener very much evident, for example succulents growing in raised planters and potted plants set on a generous, worn table, a focussed place for gathering. Inspired by the witness pine trees at Benton, the solid, dark accents of two tall pines will tower above intricate compositions of plants and brick patterned paths.

The garden’s ambition is to be as sustainable as possible – sourcing locally and using reclaimed materials wherever possible.

Cedric Morris image courtesy of Sarah Cooke

Were you aware of Cedric Morris and his great work as a plantsman before?

I was first aware of Cedric Morris through his paintings, and then later through Beth Chatto’s writings on the cornucopia of plants collected and bred by Morris in his garden.

After Morris’ death his garden (including the Iris) were dug up and distributed amongst local and far flung gardeners. Yet a magnetic and creative atmosphere still lingers at Benton. Witness trees still stand; towering Pines, orchard Pears and an ancient Medlar with sprawling thickset limbs. In one corner of the garden a rambling rose (Rosa ‘Cedric Morris’) has formed a room-sized thicket, complete with secretive entrance. Surprising, rare, species bulbs accentuate the seasons: Snowflakes, Aconites and exquisite, sultry Fritillaries. At the edge of the garden ethereal Nectaroscrodum – a type of pendulous Allium – are threaded densely through a spinny, their flowerheads appearing to float above the rough woodland floor.

Benton End

How have you been inspired by Cedric’s garden and paintings for your design? Can we expect Benton irises?

The rich and unusual colour palette of pink, yellow and blue in two of Cedric Morris’ paintings (Cotyledon and Eggs, and The Eggs) inspired my first conceptual ‘mood’ drawing of the garden. It’s an unlikely combination of colours that somehow Morris makes work brilliantly in his paintings. I’m using this distinctive colour palette in the boundary of the garden to offset the complex tones of Morris’ Benton Iris and his grey poppies.

Irises at Benton End

Your proposed theme is “The Art and Craft of Garden Making”, how will you be incorporating this into the garden?

The Nurture Landscapes Garden explores a fresh approach to garden making that places emphasis on craft as a way to add aesthetic, environmental and social value to a garden. The sixteenth century surroundings at Benton were constructed using traditional techniques, which have provided inspiration for the contemporary use and reimagining of locally sourced, sustainable materials.  This design aims to communicate to a wider audience the detail, beauty and vast possibilities of creating beautiful and sustainable building materials from waste and craftsmanship.

In this way the garden will demonstrate how care and skill are a sustainable, practical, economical and beautiful alternative to procurement of imported materials and high-carbon design features.

The garden aims to be as sustainable as possible, can you tell us a bit about that and any challenges that presents?

The biggest challenge is about changing mindsets and, in turn, the approach and pattern of how we make gardens. Designing sustainably requires designing with consideration, care and tenacity. More time is required to be invested in research and development at the start of the design process. For example, auditing what local resources and skills are available, and how these may be best utilised.  Assessing the carbon footprint of garden construction is still difficult – with data collection and methodologies in their infancies – not to mention complex, it’s therefore crucial to stay local in our sourcing and minimise transport wherever possible.

For Chelsea we’re collaborating with Local Works Studio, innovative makers and thinkers based in Lewes, UK who focus on the creative and sustainable use of resources. They forge new ways to make, and turn waste products into beautiful and functional building materials. They are helping us to create the hard landscape of The Nurture Landscapes Garden, using waste or reclaimed materials sourced from within a transport corridor between Crocus and the Chelsea showground.

What is the plan for the legacy of the garden post-show?

All the herbaceous grasses and plants including the Benton Iris will find a new home at Benton End. In many ways this will signify the return of the ‘lost’ plants returning home. Similarly, all of the garden’s materials – the bricks, canvas boundaries, planters and furniture will be gifted to Benton End for reuse within the house and garden.

Follow Sarah Price on Instagram: @sarahpricelandscapes

Find out more: Sarah Price Landscapes
The Nurture Landscapes Garden Show garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2023

The Nurture Group (nurture-group.co.uk)