In conversation with the garden designer, Sara Jane Rothwell

Winner of the Society of Garden Designers’ prestigious Grand Award, one of the highest accolades in the industry, Sara Jane Rothwell’s company London Garden Design celebrates its twentieth birthday this year, with a firmly established reputation for meticulous attention to detail in the design and build of stunning urban gardens and roof terraces.

Highgate based, Sara Jane spent a decade working as a designer in Film and Theatre before retraining to become a fully accredited member of the Society of Garden Designers and the British Association of Landscape Industries.

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What do you love most about your work?

The concept design process, when all the initial ideas are developed, and hand sketched out, and then put onto CAD to present to the client along with 3D visuals. This only accounts for about 10% of the process of designing and building a garden but I love it. The planting design stage is lovely too and then there is the reward of seeing a design come to life on site and the feedback from clients of the pleasure and enjoyment they are getting from their garden once it is an ingrained part of their home life.

Who are your typical clients?

Most of our clients are working professionals, who have either completed renovations on their homes, or have moved into a new place and want to develop the garden in tandem with the architects. I work on all sizes of gardens. Whilst I love big gardens, which allow large swathes of planting for dramatic impact, there is a huge satisfaction when working on much smaller London schemes, in the minute attention to detail, and through clever design, making a garden feel twice as big as it is.

What is a typical London Garden Designer project?

The Villa Garden and the Muswell Hill Garden are good examples of what we do. Both were delightful clients, who completely trusted my vision.

Muswell Hill Garden was set on a steep slope that the clients initially described as a ski run. They had completed the renovations on their house and were turning their attention to the garden after 2 years of building works. It was a real challenge due to the slope that rose over 7m from front to back. My main aim was to avoid the typical approach of terracing, which is not only very expensive, but can be limiting. I wanted to create a view from the house of plants cascading and tumbling, with tantalising glimpses through to the rear, that would encourage you to explore and immerse yourself in the garden on every level.               

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The newly designed garden and access is via staggered steps and landings, that allow you places to pause and enjoy the garden. We created a level lawn at the top of the garden and built a studio-gym right at the top of the slope with a large deck that has great views over London. This area backed onto a protected site, so we enveloped the space in trees to make it feel like you were entering a woodland as you reached the top of the garden. The garden won three awards in the recent Society of Garden Designers ceremony – Best Planting Design, Best Medium Residential (500- 2000m2) and the coveted Grand award, the “Winner of Winners.”

The Villa garden in Highgate was another sloping site. This was a modern house that was being completely renovated and required careful co-ordination with many different contractors and specialists, The existing plot was over 50% hard landscaped in a very unattractive white porcelain tile and tall white rendered retaining walls, that blinded you on a sunny day. My intention was to reclaim the garden and create an oasis that enveloped you in greenery on every level, and to hide the retaining walls, that needed to stay due to the roots of protected trees. We introduced a living wall to wrap around part of the rear elevation and soften the red tiles. To tackle the expanse of paving, it was all taken up, and new staggered planting beds introduced in its place. We re-used the sub-base to avoid extra excavation and where new paving was required, introduced slate, Corten and timber to soften and ground the design. We planted 24 new trees in all, over the site, front and back.          

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Does a home’s story and history play a part in garden design and refurbishment?

There are so many things that may inspire or influence a design, a client who has travelled a lot may want to incorporate elements that pay homage to the cultural heritage of places they lived or visited. In London my clients are so diverse and multi-cultural, many were born in another country and would like to reflect their roots in elements of the design. It could be a simple as a copse of Silver Birch Trees to reflect a Swedish Landscape.

What places and resources feed your ideas?

I get inspiration from architects like Tadeo Ando for their inspirational use of light and materials. The other source of ideas for me has always been the natural landscape. The Lake District is an extraordinary landscape to absorb at any time of year. The bracken, grass and meadowland offer up incredible swathes of umber, rust and burnt orange hues which I love.

We have spent many hours as a family walking – and swimming – at East Head, the fragile and ever-changing sand dune spit at the entrance to Chichester Harbour. The palette of pale sand and grasses there has inspired a lot of ideas. If I could live anywhere, it would be in a bluebell wood in a shepherd’s hut. I take a lot of inspiration from ancient woodland. And when I visit my sister in Umbria there is something about the distinctive simplicity of that landscape, the umbrella pines, cypress, and dome-shaped evergreen planting, that I have learned a lot from.

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Tell us about your home as a workspace.

I am lucky enough to have a double reception room as my workspace, so one half is office and the other half is lounge, it has bright windows either end, so is flooded with light on a sunny day. I have a full-time landscape architect who works with me, and she has her own desk here as well as working from her own home. I have 100’s of books that I have collected over the years that fill one wall, and a cupboard full of countless landscape material samples. Although I mostly meet clients on site, my home office is a great space in which to present designs, as everything is to hand.

I love the flexibility that working from home offers me and running my own business from home has allowed me to be around for my family when they need me, a key deciding factor in switching from the film industry to running my own garden design business.

What are your favourite haunts and routines?

What I love about living in Highgate is the people around us and the sheer range of places and things to do in the local area. We are right by Hampstead Heath, and a 15-minute walk to the ladies ponds. I love the cafes and local shops, especially our favourite café, Bistro Laz, down by Swain’s Lane, an area which is now a whole village in itself.

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How do you like to enjoy London?

I love the South Bank to walk along the river, Covent Garden at Christmas, and the south side of Marylebone Rd, for all its small streets and stunning traditional architecture. The East and West Reservoirs near Manor House are fantastic for swimming, sailing and walking.

There is a small theatre called Park Theatre in Finsbury Park that we like, it’s a tiny intimate space, but has great performances, and is very affordable. I love the fact that we have so many museums and art galleries on our doorstep, many of which are free to enter. We have Tate and RA membership and often go with our daughters. One is applying to study Architecture, specialising in social housing, so we are very happy to accompany her on trips to view London architecture and exhibitions.

I love my work, it’s what I would choose to do with my life if work didn’t exist, and it is always at the heart of how I enjoy London. I love the new Coal Drops Yard development at Kings Cross. It’s just a 20 min bus ride on the 214 for us and I regularly go there for a wander around Dan Pearson’s or Tom Stuart Smith’s planting. Like so much of this city, it gives me joy and inspiration in the same breath.

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