Interview - Melissa Jolly, Founder, melissa jolly garden design

To say that Melissa Jolly has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the world of garden design could be regarded as something of an understatement. Just over two years ago she embarked on a one-year postgraduate diploma in residential landscape design at Oxford College of Garden Design after having spent the previous eight years as a full-time mother caring for her two children.

Melissa Jolly, Founder, melissa jolly garden design - image: Melissa Jolly
Melissa Jolly, Founder, melissa jolly garden design - image: Melissa Jolly

Prior to starting a family, Jolly, who has a degree in behavioural science, had spent two years in a "dream job" travelling around the world as a researcher for a wildlife documentary programme maker. Designing residential gardens was certainly not on her agenda. Even farther from her thoughts was creating show gardens for the RHS.

But just 12 months after graduating with a distinction from her diploma course, Jolly runs her own garden design business, set up in January 2010, has designed two show gardens, has one RHS medal under her belt and has recently had a conceptual garden design for this year's Hampton Court Palace Flower Show accepted by the RHS.

"I never set out to do show gardens," she says. "They weren't hugely encouraged on my course. In fact, some lecturers were pretty scathing about them," she reveals.

However, Jolly seems to have almost fallen into the realm of show gardens after her "Salad Bar" garden design was one of three to win a competition to be built at BBC Gardeners' World Live last year. The garden caught the eye of the programme makers and its development was subsequently featured on the BBC TV show. It went on to win the vote for the public's favourite garden of the show and an RHS silver medal.

Six months later the RHS asked Jolly to design an urban rooftop garden for this month's London Plant & Design Show, giving her just eight weeks to design, source and compile the materials. "I never expected to get this kind of recognition from the RHS," she says, looking bemused. But, despite initial doubts about creating show gardens, she says she would be a fool to turn anything down. "I'm only at the beginning of my career, so I am saying yes to everything. There will come a time when I hope I will be able to afford to say no, but right now I can't - I am on a roll." She adds: "I will just have to keep telling my husband that things will calm down."

Jolly is under no illusions that designing show gardens is in any way similar to working for private clients. Rather, she says she views the shows more as an opportunity to present her creative ideas on a public stage and, although time-consuming, Jolly adds that there are benefits: "I have met and talked to so many manufacturers, craftsmen and suppliers from all over the world. I am learning so much in an incredibly short space of time. The whole process can come together in weeks and go up in two days, whereas designing for private clients is a much slower process."

"Being relatively new on the scene, it also gives me an immediate portfolio," she adds. "And whether it's good or bad, people are impressed that I've done show gardens and have an RHS medal. It seems to hold weight."

According to Jolly, her rooftop garden design attracted a lot of interest from people looking to maximise their city living spaces, but she says the UK needs to be more open to the idea: "Europe is strides ahead as far as rooftop gardens are concerned. I don't see why we can't have more in this country."

Jolly thinks too few planners are willing to build roof gardens into their designs. "We need planning departments to encourage them. It has to be considered at the building stage because you can't just stick a roof garden on a structure that hasn't been built to hold it," she points out.

But she says DIY and garden centres need to diversify their products if the idea is to take off. "If you could go into a store and buy a living-wall module designed for roof gardens, people would buy it, but you can't quite do that yet. Our centres need to start branching out - it will happen, but it will take time, particularly now, when people are being cautious."

Although Jolly feels garden designers are seen as a luxury by many people, she does not think it is affecting the flow of private work. "The industry is still busy despite the tough times - possibly because people aren't moving house and want to improve what they already have instead," she says.

But for the next few months, having just dismantled her show roof garden, Jolly will focus on developing her conceptual garden for Hampton Court. She intends to create what will look like an art gallery, complete with frames on the walls, but instead of paintings in the frames the viewer will see a series of plant designs. "At the moment I've no idea how I'm going to build it," she admits, "but that's the challenge."

And beyond that? "Hopefully a horticulture course, maybe a landscape architecture course and, well, hopefully Chelsea."


2008-09: Diploma, residential landscape design

Jan 2010: Launched Melissa Jolly Garden Design

June 2010: Won competition to build show garden at BBC Gardeners' World Live

February 2011: Designed and built rooftop terrace show garden for RHS London Plant & Design Show

February 2011: Design for conceptual garden accepted by RHS to be built at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in July.

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