Interview with Richard Blackledge: Gardener's 20 years of horticulture by design in Sheffield

When Chris Parsons starts a project with a new client, she begins by handing them a questionnaire to identify what they feel is most important about their garden '“ and the answers, she finds, are always different.

Tuesday, 31st January 2017, 7:00 am
The results of a project by Hallam Garden Design at the home of a Sheffield steel baron

“It might be peace and quiet, to get away from neighbours, status, all kinds of things,” says the Sheffield designer.

“But I had a client recently who just looked at me and said ‘It’s vital to life, I have to garden’.

A Hallam Garden Design project at an 18th century farmhouse in Dore

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“And that’s how I feel, really. It makes me feel better.”

It is now 20 years since Chris began helping people across the city and beyond make their most of their outdoor spaces through her company, Hallam Garden Design.

Her projects have won 10 national awards over the past decade – the most recent coming at the weekend when the firm picked up a Society of Garden Designers Award for Chris’s work on a major scheme at Ashgate Hospicecare in Chesterfield.

And despite the busy schedule, she is still passionate about her craft, maintaining a large garden at home in Fulwood on Hallam Grange Rise, the highest residential suburban road in the city.

A Hallam Garden Design project at an 18th century farmhouse in Dore

“I can’t believe it’s been 20 years, and neither can anybody else,” says Chris.

Originally from Nottingham, she came here to study art and design at Sheffield University, graduating in 1976.

Chris was ‘always around gardening’ from a young age – her grandfather and father were enthusiasts, while drawing and working with textiles at university gave her a grounding in the skills necessary for her future career.

“That’s where my expertise comes from,” she says.

Chris Parsons

But Chris’s working life took a different turn initially. She worked as a middle manager in the public sector before deciding she ‘needed to do something creative’.

“It was such a big step for me,” she explains.

“I needed to use the artistic skills I’d got, and garden design brought that all together. I needed to be outside and be my own boss.”

Chris took a course at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Harlow Carr site, in Harrogate, in 1996, before Hallam Garden Design was set up in August 1997.

The day centre garden at Ashgate Hospice, Chesterfield

At the time, EU funding was being provided for free courses aimed at start-up firms, through the organisation now known as Business Sheffield.

“It made such a massive difference for me. I wouldn’t have known where to start,” says Chris.

Finding a designer based in the north wasn’t an easy task, either, in the 1990s.

“At that time there were no other garden designers up here at all – I couldn’t work for somebody else.”

Her first job was for a friend at Banner Cross, to gain experience.

“I think I’m quite a cautious person, but the whole thing was very challenging.

A Hallam Garden Design project at an 18th century farmhouse in Dore

“You start off thinking you need to be creative, and that it’s about plants and being outside, but it’s more about your design skills; pattern-making, understanding balance and proportion.

“Then you realise it’s actually all about people. It helps them to get a better quality of life.

“Problem-solving comes into it as well.”

Each project is a lengthy process, from the initial consultation to the site survey, preparing a brief and hiring contractors.

As one might expect, her favourite gardens are those that have won awards.

“They are all ones where the clients really went for it, decided to trust me and we worked as a team together. People have much more of an idea now about what they want,” says Chris, who is a registered member of the Society of Garden Designers and the British Association of Landscape Industries, the only two professional associations representing her trade.

She has served on the governing bodies of both societies, mentored and trained other designers, run training courses, and talks regularly to horticultural groups.

Chris’s husband of almost 40 years, Nigel, joined her in the company in 2004. A computer specialist, he deals with the 3D designs.

Ashgate represented a ‘career-defining, if not life-changing’ job. She was first contacted by the hospice more than a decade ago, and over a span of eight years created gardens over the six-acre site featuring a terrace for the day centre, a large walled garden and a three-acre wildflower meadow converted from a field of builders’ rubble.

“It is a humbling experience to hear patients in wheelchairs, accompanied by loved ones, enjoying looking at the plants and remembering gardens past and lives lived.”

Chris’s own garden has been a labour of love for nearly 30 years.

“Every garden needs reviewing every 10 years, I generally find. It’s like a painting that changes every year.”

She adds: “Fashions change. At the moment I’m buying lots of roses. When I moved into this house I threw away 150 old roses, but they were past their best anyway, as were the 1970s heathers and conifers.

“There’s so much more variety in newer roses now. I love the scent.

“I never put a plant in a garden unless I’ve tried it out myself. It’s just a love 
affair, really – I love being out there.”

A Hallam Garden Design project at an 18th century farmhouse in Dore
A Hallam Garden Design project at an 18th century farmhouse in Dore
Chris Parsons
The day centre garden at Ashgate Hospice, Chesterfield
A Hallam Garden Design project at an 18th century farmhouse in Dore