Rowland Lacey: An Accidental Gardener
"With his father’s exhortation to do what was in his heart ringing in his ears, he quit his job and declared he was going to be a landscape gardener."
Ask Rowland Lacey how he became a landscape gardener and he is charmingly vague. “I’ve always been around plants,” he says. He started working in a garden centre as a 15-year-old, and his mother was also a keen gardener, but then he casually lets drop that around that time he used to cut hedges for artist John Piper. “I used to burn his hedge cuttings… and his drawings.” My heart skips a beat. “I had no idea who he was.” It was only much later in life he realised the significance of what he had burned along with the hedge cuttings. “Yes,” he says, “he had a wild cottage garden in the Chilterns. Very John, very quirky. Things everywhere… I was doing it to make money to buy records.”
At that point he didn’t have a plan and didn’t think of formal training – perhaps because he hadn’t decided to become a gardener. “It just kind of happened. I was rubbish at school, but I liked visual things, trees and big spaces.” In fact, he later discovered he was mildly dyslexic, which accounts for his leaving school early. He went on to work in a garden centre. “In those days you had to grow everything. They’d say, ‘That’s a photinia – now do a hundred cuttings.’ It was very old school.” He was there a couple of years gaining plant knowledge whilst picking up other jobs here and there – sometimes paid, sometimes not.
At one point he recalls he spent some time as a teenager helping a friend sharpen garden tools in another garden. “It was a huge garden… magnificent really.” He was just helping out he says between his other jobs. But that garden was Friar Park which was then George Harrison’s. The friend he was helping was George’s brother, Pete. “I had no idea; I didn’t catch on at all.” This apparent naivety seems to have served him rather well in the sense that he wasn’t easily overawed by individuals or grand-scale gardens.
His first proper job came from a man in the pub who asked him if he could ‘build’ gardens. “I told him I’d never really done that, but I went to see him and made a few suggestions and he hired me. The brief was just to make a garden. There was no timescale, so I learnt on the job. I got a local builder to build a patio but he messed it up and I had to redo it all.”
It was when he went travelling in Australia and then Egypt that he began to work on a large scale. He became an assistant to a landscape gardener on a large property in Perth, then on an extended trip to Egypt he spent some time around the area where the embassies were. “They all had magnificent gardens,” he says. “I didn’t take much notice at the time.” But clearly they had an influence on his vision.
Only later did he start to read about gardens and gardening and take the idea of a career in gardening seriously. Meanwhile practical considerations led him into a regular job as a salesman which he hated. A crossroads came however, when his father died. With his wife pregnant with their first child and with his father’s exhortation to do what was in his heart ringing in his ears, he quit his job and declared he was going to be a landscape gardener. His first proper landscaping commission went on for three months and from then the work flowed in and has never stopped.
It was when he began to work on a Gertrude Jekyll garden that he started to really understand more about gardening as an art. The owner was very respectful of the heritage of the 2.5 acre garden which was attached to a Lutyens house. He wanted it kept faithfully to Jekyll’s design. The two years Rowland spent maintaining that garden consolidated the knowledge he had so far picked up. The garden belonged to Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin.
Nowadays he enjoys variety and takes on small gardens as well as large. Asked what he really enjoys, he quickly answers, “A blank canvas.” It was just such an overgrown blank canvas he was presented with in a South Oxfordshire garden. As he had a cup of tea with the client, he suggested planting an orchard surrounded by a huge yew hedge and filled with wild flowers, daffodils, and fritillaries. Roses were planted to climb into the fruit trees. It took a year and is an ongoing project. It’s an example of his style which he describes as “a combination of English Cottage and Mediterranean – ideally with a twist”. He’s a fan of Nicole de Vésian, the French doyenne of the Mediterranean style as well as Jinny Blom and Arne Maynard. He likes English roses, hollyhocks, lavenders and herbs.
In contrast to this romantic style, he turns his hand to the most ambitious and demanding hard landscaping. In a garden in Stonor, featuring an ultra-modern house, he and a team painstakingly built a 70 metre wall from tonnes of Welsh blue slate as well as a rockery and a waterfall. As well as embracing these extremes, he mentions his love of sculpture (as the various small sculptures in his house attest). He enthuses about Antony Gormley and a local sculptor Andrew Thompson. He values making those links with other artists and credits them with inspiring him, along with a host of other creative personalities.
Do most people know what they want in a garden? “On the biggest scale, generally not,” he replies. How does he guide them then? “I try to build relationships, rather than do lots of fancy drawings. I’m quite happy to stand with people and ‘paint pictures’ for them and say you can have this or this.” Does he ever turn anything down? “Oh yes.” He acknowledges that he has an eclectic client list. From the little old lady down the road, to the odd rock star and even Lord and Lady so and so. “But yes, the longer it goes on, the more selective I am. It’s not about the money; I just want to make unforgettable gardens.
“Gardening is largely an invisible life,” he says. “The finished product does not betray the amount of work in it.” Having completed some 250 gardens there is plenty of tangible evidence of his work. I wonder if he has ever regretted not having more formal training than a certificate in horticulture. “In a way,” he says, “but on the other hand, if I had, I wouldn’t have done things in the way I did.”
Images © Alexandra Davies 2017
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