Garden designer Will Williams on his career in horticulture and winning silver at Hampton Court

PUBLISHED: 09:58 13 October 2016 | UPDATED: 09:58 13 October 2016

Garden designer Will Williams of Midhurst with his dog Fig (Photo by Jim Holden)

Garden designer Will Williams of Midhurst with his dog Fig (Photo by Jim Holden)

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Twenty-year-old garden designer Will Williams from Midhurst speaks to Jenny Mark-Bell about how a casual summer job led to a career in horticulture and scooping silver at Hampton Court Flower Show

Twenty-year-old Will Williams was hanging out with a group of friends on Brighton beach when he got a phone call that would change his life. The former Seaford College pupil, who says he “wasn’t too academic”, left school at 16 with no concrete idea of what he wanted to do.

On the phone was Will’s mum, asking if he would like to spend the summer working for the man that was constructing their fence – a landscape gardener. Four short years later and Will is something of a horticultural wunderkind who this year won a silver medal at Hampton Court Flower Show.

When that summer was over Will found work with another landscape gardener but after a year and a half he decided he wanted to learn more about the subject. “I was hooked on horticulture,” he admits. Study at Chichester College’s Brinsbury Campus – “to get a better understanding of plants, how they grow and what works together” – followed and Will discovered his love for design. While he was still studying, he drafted the college’s entry for the Young Gardeners of the Year competition at the Ideal Homes Show, netting the institution a gold medal and Best in Show.

Will later became the youngest-ever student at the London College of Garden design where he studied under Andrew Fisher Tomlin, who has become something of a mentor and friend. “I like to think he’s taken me under his wing a bit and given me lots of opportunities to show what I can do. He helped me out with the submission stages for Hampton Court and put me in touch with a few people.”

After Will’s design was accepted for Hampton Court, he was straight on the phone to Andrew to ask for help finding sponsors. “He put me in touch with Streetscape, who are an award-winning enterprise based in Lambeth. They take on apprentices that have been long-term unemployed between the ages of 18 and 25. They are a great company and they fitted what I wanted to show – which was the rise of youngsters in horticulture.”

The other thing Will wanted to show in his garden was the beauty of his native Sussex: but how to cram all that into a plot of six by four metres? “I didn’t want to replicate the Downs so I took inspiration from bits and bobs that I see around,” he says. So there were flint sculptures and the bricks used were made in the traditional way, by hand, with Sussex clay.

The star of the Summer in Sussex garden was the Pride of Sussex, or round-headed rampion, which grows more prolifically on the South Downs than anywhere else. “It only flowers a certain way in Sussex: the spikes come out a lot firmer and prouder in Sussex than in any other county,” says Will.

Although preparing for the show was all-consuming, he thinks the experience was invaluable. Of course he also won a medal, but he says that the silverware is not important. “As a young designer at an event such as Chelsea, Hampton Court or Tatton Park you are competing with people who have been in the industry a lot longer than you have, some of the best in the world. It would be nice in a few years’ time to come out with gold but at the moment it is more than enough to be there and gain the contacts of all these contractors and plantsmen.”

One such plantsman was botanist and television presenter James Wong, who interviewed Will for the BBC’s Hampton Court Flower Show coverage. Wong became the youngest-ever medal-winning designer at the event in 2004 at the age of 23 and is passionately outspoken about the need to attract young people into horticulture. Will shares that passion and says that the industry is generally welcoming to the younger generation: “It has been great to work with a few people and gain experience from them: I still have a lot to learn and working with these people will help me get further along in my career. I feel that the industry is doing a lot to open doors, which is great news.”

If anything, he thinks there is a problem with perception. “I think the younger generation think of gardening as something their parents do, they don’t really see it as a career choice. And they don’t see it as a career choice because they don’t know the vast variety of subjects within the industry.

“I can see myself in 50 years’ time still doing exactly what I’m doing and still absolutely loving it. I just think more young people need to know more about what can be done within the industry.” He thinks after-school activities educating students about planning, preparing and harvesting a vegetable bed would kick-start interest in young minds.

Will, who describes his own style as minimalist, predicts a continuing move towards contemporary garden designs. “You see that at Chelsea where a lot of things are straight-lined. One thing I did notice at Hampton Court this year was a lot of the gardens are using wild flowers, which was really nice to see. Again they were being used in a contemporary fashion, taking small areas of traditional countryside and expanding them into this big swathe.”

Will has big plans for the future, too: “I definitely want to branch out and do lots of things, whether that’s on the TV or writing or having a large design practice. I’d like to put my fingers in a few pies and test the water.”

I wouldn’t bet against him.


Visiting Stonehealed Farm gardens in Streat - Leigh Clapp enjoys the beautifully planted gardens at Stonehealed Farm in Streat, East Sussex

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