Gardens: Designs for Life with Newmarket's Colm Joseph
It started with a hunch. Colm Joseph - then working in international development, heading projects in some of the world’s poorest places - had a feeling, a gut instinct, if you will, that he’d make a good garden designer. On the strength of which, he persuaded his wife to sell their house and fund a career change with the proceeds.
Barely 12 months since graduating from London College of Garden Design, with distinction and the highest mark ever awarded, Colm has just made his Chelsea debut, winning Silver Gilt for his Perennial Lifeline Garden. His client list is also looking healthy, with projects ranging from a compact Cambridge city garden to the sweeping grounds of a modernist mansion on the banks of the Ouse. His hunch, happily, was right.
“By the time I’d completed my first project at college, I knew I’d been right; that I’d found the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” says Colm. “Sickening, I know. But I love it.”
The Chelsea garden was a particular coup. Perennial, the charity which supports horticultural workers in need, ran a competition to find a designer for its show plot - and Colm, in partnership with fellow London College grad Duncan Cargill, won.
Marking the charity’s 180th anniversary, the brief was to create a garden that reflected Perennial’s ‘lifeline’ ethos: it offers aid to people dealing with everything from disability to debt and bereavement. The design was also required to reference the glorious Laskett Gardens in Herefordshire, gifted to Perennial by famed art historian Sir Roy Strong, who co-created them with his late wife.
A looping rill and series of cascades was used to represent the lifeline Perennial provides to beneficiaries. Colm and Duncan then took a series of iconic Laskett features - most notably a colonnade and the rose garden - and reimagined them in their own style: the colonnade was aped by a combination of limestone pillars, metal screens and towers of topiary, while the rose garden became a meadow, massed with breezy grasses, pretty perennials, and a ramble of roses, with the single-bloomed species Rosa Glauca, which calls to mind country hedgerows, blooming alongside modern shrubs, such as the elegant Rosa ‘Ballerina’.
A walk-through exhibit in Chelsea’s main marquee, traditionally home to serried ranks of potted pelargoniums, Lifeline broke with convention with its wild, expansive planting. Judges were, says Colm, slightly unnerved by the odd going-over rose; left deliberately, the fading flowers were intended to signpost the passage of the seasons, a sign of wildlife-friendly hips to come.
Forging a connection with the wild world is, explains Colm, core to his practice: his gardens are all designed with sustainability foremost in mind. “I have those childhood memories of growing tomatoes with my grandparents - that smell of the greenhouse that everyone knows. . . But for me, my love of gardens really began with a love of landscape; of the natural world.”
Growing up in Belfast, Colm says he craved wide open spaces as a boy: “Getting out of the city and spending time in nature became a really, really important part of my life.”
He thrived at school until A-levels, when he “lost interest; I lost my way a bit, really.” What followed was three years of travelling - “the wilderness years” - which included a trip to Zambia. The visit proved way-changing: Colm came home, re-sat his A-levels, did a degree, then a masters, and went on to spend more than a decade managing projects providing economic opportunities to the impoverished, largely in Africa.
Though the work was rewarding, Colm admits the nomadic lifestyle it required lost its shine, plus he craved the chance to be creative. All his garden designs start with a visualisation in his mind’s eye, which he then recreates on the computer in CAD before making reality.
Colm launched his design business last summer, just before he graduated. It coincided with the Chelsea commission coming through, “so I’ve spent the last year doing two full-time jobs, really”. The Chelsea garden took up an average 40 hours a week in the planning stages, followed by the full-on build and show week. It was, concedes, Colm, exhausting, but also exhilarating. Ambitious, his sights are set, in the fullness of time, on a Main Avenue garden at Chelsea.
Colm has lived in East Anglia since his student days and, now based in Newmarket, says the region is very much home; its mercurial landscape and skies have won him over.
“As a garden designer, you’re creating a 3D space. But mentally, you’re thinking about the fourth dimension: how it will change over time, how it will impact on the people that have use of it. Creating gardens, for me, is a lot about trying to connect to something with something greater.”
Colm works across Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. For more information about his garden design services, see colmjoseph.co.uk
Colm’s portrait for these pages was shot at Cambridge University Botanic Garden. To find out more about the garden - and its programme of summer events - see botanic.cam.ac.uk
Portrait by Keith Heppell
Garden photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer