Mark Rendell Garden Design Consultancy


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Article in Hampshire Gardens Trust magazine, Autumn 2009

Standing in the very small but eclectic back garden of Mark Rendell’s terraced house behind the Avenue in Southampton, you feel that some special kind of person has created it. A tropical border planted along the northern boundary was designed to hide an ugly development (“bananas and bamboo are ideal for quick screening”). The multi-stemmed ‘thicket’ of 3m tall banana plants are now bearing tiny fruit for a second time, clearly benefiting from the shelter and warmth of this city yard. On the patio there are tomatoes and melons in grow bags (all sown from seed at different phases of the moon), more pots on the decking, a small lean-to greenhouse to one side, on the other side, a raised wooden bed with ‘orphan’ plants and left-overs from Mark’s various gardening jobs and a brightly-painted shed claiming the few remaining square feet. 

He was brought up in a small town in Somerset and says that aged 10 or 11 he was put in charge of the garden. When asked what exactly that meant he explained that he was allowed to do what he liked (“by and large”) and quickly filled up the greenhouse and the vegetable patch with plants and flowers. The countryside was just a short walk away and so all things natural were a part of daily life. Over time, he combined his life-long love of drawing and sketching into his gardening activities and designed and built a new pond (“still looking good after 25 years”), bigger borders and a wildlife area. He also gardened for neighbours, too.

Through a kind of osmosis he believes he picked up how to garden from two sources: next door was the local allotment site and so it was very natural to see people tending their patches and growing their own vegetables and fruit, and his grandparents who had a large back garden and kept chickens and grew a wide range of fruit and vegetables. One of his earliest memories is helping his grandmother line the bean trench with newspapers and then seeing it get filled over the winter months with kitchen scraps.

This love of and skill in gardening lapsed somewhat when he left school at 16 and went into the local helicopter factory to work as an electrical engineer (‘most boys in my town went there after leaving school’), though he did join the thriving Gardening Club there.  Eventually, he left the factory to follow his earlier passions, drama and acting. He then followed a degree course in film and drama at King Alfred’s College in Winchester.  It was here that the power of story-telling and narrative was grasped and after leaving College, he worked for the NHS as a Health Promotion Officer, sublimating his abilities to construct powerful narratives and stories into innovative health campaigns with hard-to-reach communities across Hampshire. 

At this time, too, Mark was becoming more and more interested in Eastern spiritual philosophy - a philosophy, he stresses, not a religion. He then embarked on another 4 year course with an American tutor that included a module on the role of nature in the healing process in hospitals, hospices and care homes.  At this time – the late 1990s – the United States appeared to be more advanced in its approach than the UK.  “My interest in gardening was re-awakened at this time” he said and he felt that the American approach could work just as well here. This was a pivotal moment in Mark’s return to his earlier interest in gardening and garden design. “Suddenly, I saw two strong threads in my life come together in a powerful new way – healing and gardening. My wonderful journey through eastern philosophy helped me to see the world afresh and also reinforced my earlier insights gained through my wonderful times in the family garden as a teenager – we are all connected with each other and with the earth. It’s as simple as that.”

Friends and contacts already knew that he was a keen gardener and that he had designed his own garden as a hobby and he started to get commissions and offers of work. For a few years, he crammed this work into evenings and weekends until one day he thought, “why don’t I turn everything around and make my hobby my new career?”

He then completed a City & Guilds course in garden design which reinforced his belief in his natural abilities as a gardener and a garden designer. He became self-employed and on 1 July 2000 formed the growing company. ‘Growing’ was just the right word, he says, because it also refers to our ability to grow in many different ways and on many levels when we interact with our gardens and outdoor spaces.

Mark had talked earlier about a ‘zig zag’ approach towards becoming a garden designer which, over time, turned into a broad circle and as time went on I began to piece together what he meant. “I’ve returned to my first love – being close to nature and the soil. Only, it’s taken me 20 years to close the circle!”

So what place, I asked him, do gardening and garden design have in the community?  I think he turned my questions round to ‘what place does a garden designer have in the community’ as for an answer he said that the primary skill of a designer is to listen – listen to the needs of the client as well as the garden itself. And further, that gardening is an activity which sharpens the senses so that we notice things and can put things into perspective - so essential in the crowded and busy lives we lead today.

As part of his work to link gardens with healing, he devised a campaign called ‘Wards Without Walls’ to encourage local health care organisations to use their grounds for the benefit of the patients.  An exceptionally good example of the success of this campaign is Marks’ work at Petersfield Community Hospital. Here in 2003, he redesigned two uninspiring interior courtyards of grass and gravel with seating, large borders, trellis, plants and shrubs, to create two contrasting ‘circular wards’ which are used therapeutically by care workers with their patients. Lots of windows look out onto these spaces and so Mark intended the new gardens to calm and reassure patients by reminding them of the seasons and the changing face of nature. “We are hard-wired to nature – it is a source of our strength and confidence. Why shouldn’t this relationship be reinforced when we are at our most vulnerable – in hospitals and care homes?” He added poignantly.  When I queried how well it was maintained, I learnt that the League of Friends do a marvellous job throughout the year. 

At Havant War Memorial Hospital, Mark designed a curved rustic pergola and interlocking circles in an irregular dead-end space overlooked by two wards. “Circles create balance and order”, he believes, which communicates a sense of reassurance and calm. At Godbey House on Hayling Island, Mark has brought to life a small but powerful outdoor space linked to a therapy room. This small garden space was one of the early collaborations with Hampshire Gardens Trust.  As Mark puts it, “it’s a negotiable space under the sky - adults do not dominate in the same way as can happen indoors – power over the space can be shared more equitably”. This small garden contains a slate tile speaking wall for those who find it difficult to verbalise their problems, a calming water feature, a friendly L-shaped seating area (‘to aid different conversational layouts’) and a ‘measuring path’ where young people can express their feelings and concerns on a scale along the path.

The garden he has perhaps most pride in is the Thrive Secret Garden, at Beech Hill, near Reading, completed in 2007.  Mark’s brief was to create an interactive garden for two contrasting user groups: older people with dementia and cognitive impairments and for younger people with behavioural problems.

Recently, he has supported the gardening team at Hardmoor Early Years Centre in Bassett Green, north Southampton, to develop a shady corner of the playground into a sensory garden. “I worked with some real dynamos at this centre – Karen, Denise and Emma have bags of enthusiasm and commitment. All I had to do really was to help channel this into a coherent design and layout, working to reveal all the gardens many objectives for the young people at the Centre.”

I asked Mark what his plans and hopes for the future were.  His ambitions are straightforward. His primary aim is to become a full member of the Society of Garden Designers and he would like to do more training and workshops. “I love working with groups and communities – it’s that background in drama and story-telling still bubbling away!”

He marvels at the different soil types in Hampshire which means that you have to know your plants! “This county is an amazing kaleidoscope of soil types and microclimates. I garden in at least four different soil types in any given month which makes it a really varied job.”

Before we ended, we talked about his involvement with the Hampshire Gardens Trust. Mark was anxious to stress that some of his garden design skills had been learnt through his work with Hampshire Gardens Trust; working with people such as Vicki Jordan, Colin Burden and Rachel Bebb, with whom he collaborated on various urban community projects. Being a volunteer with HGT has meant that he was able to collaborate and support a wide range of projects, big and small. “Working with the HGT has undoubtedly helped me to raise my game as a gardener and designer. I have been involved in projects that I just wouldn’t have had an opportunity to support otherwise.”

So the zig-zag finally turned into a circle. Mark’s weaving of horticulture and philosophy into his work may have been brought into sharp relief by his studies in America, but it seems more likely that it was already at play when he gardened in his family’s vegetable patch all those years ago in Somerset.

He firmly believes that what we are and what we do in the community as well as how we create and use the space around us is of vital importance to the world we live in. How subtle is the relationship we have with nature and how healthful are the consequences of this partnership when we put on our wellingtons and lose ourselves in our gardens.


Interviewer – Jan Hurrell, Hampshire Gardens Trust – June 2009