Interview - Peter Reader, winner, Wyevale East Nurseries student design-and-build competition

Peter Reader is a best-selling writer and was a high-achieving doctor for 22 years. He then enrolled at the KLC School of Design to study a part-time diploma in garden design, where he scored an instant hit. Late last year he won the Wyevale East Nurseries student design-and-build national competition and will piece together his creation at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show in July.

Peter Reader, winner, Wyevale East Nurseries student design-and-build competition - image: HW
Peter Reader, winner, Wyevale East Nurseries student design-and-build competition - image: HW

As a career start it could not be better, but the 47-year-old knows these are tough times to be starting any business, let alone his, Peter Reader Landscapes.

Q What can you tell us about your medical career?

A I was a GP for 11 years and later a medical director where I led a national consultation for the Depart­ment of Health on the role of clinicians in medical leadership. In 2007, I wrote Your Baby Month by Month with my paediatrician wife, Su, which has sold more than 120,000 copies worldwide.


Q Why did you quit a successful job?

A The NHS is great but there was a tendency to micromanage, which can be destructive to things you are trying to implement — it is difficult watching things happen that you feel shouldn't. I was tinkering with gardens, but a big turning point came a few years ago when I drove a 240-mile round trip from London to Bristol just to buy the delphiniums I wanted. Friends said: "You're a frustrated garden designer."

Q How important is horticulture to health?

A Benefits of green spaces and outdoors are absolutely essential and have been not only well documented but proven. This gives added importance to what we do as professionals. We lose our connection between earth and countryside at our peril and for that reason I see a link between medicine and horticulture.

Q Why is horticulture a popular second career?

A Part of it has to do with the fact that when my generation was younger garden design wasn't really seen as an established career option. The past few years have seen the advent of the "outdoor room" and now people see their garden as not just an outdoor space needing weeding and mowing but as another living room. It also taps into a deep inner pull towards nature.

Mature students have been through the girlfriend/boyfriend thing, are more sorted and passionate about what they want to do. The emotive force of horticulture inspires this kind of passion.

Q Isn't starting a business in economic turmoil too risky?

A No, I'm optimistic — you have to be optimistic to be a designer. I'm lucky to have a solid base to start from and am aware you can always be unlucky. But there's an element of you driving your destiny and making things happen rather than it being shaped by external factors. As a doctor I worked hard to deliver and I feel confident I will be able to do that now.

Q How important is this competition win?

A Absolutely critical. It has given me the one thing students are desperate for when starting out — practical experience. There's a huge difference between designing and doing. Wyevale East Nurseries has taken me to sawmills and quarries to touch and feel the materials I will use and see how they are sourced.

I'm also lucky to have a great mentor, BALI's Brian Herbert, and the Wyevale team, all of whom have pored over my design drawings and plant lists and helped with hard landscape construction.

Q What can we look forward to at Hampton Court in July?

A The style of the garden is structured around the Persian Chahar Bagh fourfold garden, with the 8x6m design divided symmetrically using four rills. Harmony is achieved across each area by using a unifying colour scheme and common plant structure.

The design, Four Corners, was shaped by the brief to build a courtyard garden for a young, professional, well-travelled couple who like art and nature. The four zones include a shady area and prairie planting, Mediterranean plants and New England style. This is an exciting time, being so close to starting off my new career. Having a design at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show is a great starting point.

Q Can you tell us what your ambition is?

A To become a successful garden designer working independently, maybe with others, on small city gardens right up to larger country gardens. As a doctor I worked in teams and I get a buzz from teamwork — it's a great way of learning. I'm looking at a couple of domestic projects right now where I live in north London but my main focus is Hampton Court. Starting all over, it makes you feel young again.

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