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The Casual Gardener: Chelsea gold medallist Sarah Price heeds the call of nature

Sarah Price returned to Chelsea this year to secure a fourth gold medal and as she prepares for the Carlow Garden Festival, she tells me why natural planting is the way to go

Chelsea gold medallist Sarah Price is giving a talk in Leighlinbridge at the Carlow Garden Festival

GARDEN designer Sarah Price is looking forward to getting back to Ireland. She's due to visit this coming Friday for the Carlow Garden Festival, where the 37-year-old will deliver a talk entitled ‘Plants First'.

From childhood trips across the Irish Sea from her home in London she recalls the hawthorn billowing from the hedgerows, packed with native trees and shrubs.

You get the impression that many years before she won the first of four Chelsea gold medals, Price had a greater awareness of her natural surroundings than most, an ability to absorb the elements and transform them into creative energy.

Her acclaimed designs are essentially faux wildernesses, inspired by places where man and woman's impact is minimal.

“Walking and looking in wild landscapes is always important to me, it's where I get my ideas from,” she says.

She developed her love of plants in her paternal grandmother's garden in Abergavenny, south Wales, and helping her father tend his city allotment. After studying for a degree in fine art, she still felt compelled to garden so chose to combine her horticultural and creative talents.

Landing a job as an amenity gardener at Hampton Court Palace on the edge of south-west London, the young Price also studied garden design. She's been designing professionally since 2006 and subsequently picking up accolades at a rate of at least one a year.

“My style has evolved over the years but along a consistent line,” she says. “The planting is always informal and the plant associations mimic those of the wild.”

The materials employed for the hard landscaping – if there is any – are always natural. Price also chooses her plants on their ability to decay gracefully, extending their appeal many months beyond flowering time.

If you don't know her name you might at least know her most celebrated collaborative work – London's Olympic Park for the 2012 games. The naturalised prairie and meadow planting employed on a huge scale at the Stratford site is Price's signature style.

“I like to make a garden with a strong atmosphere, but one that's also soft and romantic,” she says. “That means lots of colour and textures – in many ways, my designs are informed by fine art.”

During her talk at the Arboretum Home and Garden Heaven in Leighlinbridge, she will explain her philosophy of “plant-driven design” and its advantages over gardens where the planting is dictated by the hard landscaping rather than being complementary.

Price will also provide an insight in to the design process that in June, following a six-year absence, secured her a fourth Chelsea gold medal.

Her Mediterranean-style M&G garden was lauded as the most romantic at this year's show, with its lime-green euphorbias, butter-yellow horned poppies and lemon-yellow mimosa, set against towering rammed earth walling made from clay and aggregate and stacked reclaimed terracotta tiles.

Speaking alongside Sarah Price at next Friday's event will be Alan Gray, who will be outlining the history of his East Ruston Old Vicarage garden in Norfolk, which he and his partner, Graham, have transformed from a blank canvas into a stunning vista of creativity, featuring mixed hedgerows, banks, wild flower areas and ponds.

Other guests appearing at the annual horticultural extravaganza, which runs until August 6, include Helen Dillon, Carol Klein, Dermot O'Neill and Chris Beardshaw.

:: For more information on the Carlow Garden Festival's extensive programme go to carlowgardentrail.com

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