Creative Conversations … with Ollie Pike RHS Young Garden Designer of the Year Finalist 2023

Contentment for me is a garden on a summer’s day. Gardens are places of beauty, offering the respite and quiet space we need to reflect and recalibrate in an increasingly noisy world. But as I visit different gardens on my travels, and continue to potter about in my own little plot here in Ireland, I realise that each one is unique. Every garden has a story, and that story tells us something important about the person that created it.

Sarah Eberle RHS Chelsea Gold Medal Winner
Psalm 23 Garden 2021.
Bible Society/Clare Kendall.

I was fascinated back in 2021 to find out about the story of Bible Society’s Psalm 23 Garden, created by Sarah Eberle. Sarah’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medal winning Psalm 23 Sanctuary Garden resonated with many people, not least 24 year old creative Ollie Pike.

Ollie had been working in the M&G Garden at Chelsea, adjacent to the Psalm 23 Garden, and had been watched its development. This experience encouraged Ollie to design his own garden, also inspired by Scripture, this time by Psalm 27.

As Bible Society’s Hazel Southam points out, Psalm 27 ‘is a song of comfort and faith, but the context is fear and doubt.’ Young designer Ollie first heard Psalm 27 at a funeral: ‘its hopeful message was very comforting at a time of sadness’.

‘The most comforting line to me’, Ollie explains, ‘is the one about ‘seeing the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living’. This meant a lot to me, provoking ideas of the beauty in our natural living world and that there is always comfort to be found in the beauty and calmness of nature.’

I caught up with Ollie recently to ask about his love of gardens, and to find out about his very exciting current project: the 2023 RHS Young Designer of the Year competition! Ollie is one of just three finalists in this prestigious competition, and his Psalm 27 Garden will be showing at RHS Flower Show Tatton Park this July.

Writing Home: Ollie, you have entered the 2023 RHS Young Designer of the Year competition. Can you tell us about your journey into garden design?

I have always been passionate about plants and nature. I decided to study landscape architecture at the University of Sheffield straight after college, as it really blended all my passions of people, design, and nature. I then went on to work for Harris Bugg Studio where I worked on creating the RHS Chelsea Gold Medal winning M&G Garden in 2021 and the Best in Show Horatio’s Garden in 2023. I think this really kick-started my love of Show gardens and this inspired me to enter the RHS Young Designer of the Year Competition and create the Bible Society’s Psalm 27 Garden.

Writing Home: What are your earliest garden memories? Are they significant?

My grandparents have a beautiful garden in Somerset which I have helped in for as long as I can remember, and I still help whenever I visit. I remember it as this place of escape growing up. It’s a big garden, with lots of nooks and crannies to hide in, trees to climb, and space to run around. I think this is where my love of gardens really began. I realised how healing they can be. Gardens are places to connect with people, yourself, and also nature. I think this comes through in all my work, including the Psalm 27 Garden.

Writing Home: Do you think children and young people benefit from spending time outside engaging with the natural world?

I believe that young people can benefit from engaging with the natural world just as much as older people, potentially even more so. Young people are much more vulnerable to suffering from mental health problems, and engaging with nature both actively and passively is proven to improve your wellbeing. I can’t go a day without being outside and I find nature to be very healing. This is again something I want to get across in my work, and particularly in the Psalm 27 Garden which is a place to reflect, to engage with nature and leave with a new sense of hope and courage in the world.

Ollie Pike RHS Tatton Park
Garden Designer for Bible Society 2023.
Bible Society/Alex Baker.

Writing Home: Would you recommend gardening as a hobby or career for other young people?

I would 100% recommend gardening as a hobby or career for other young people! I think the tricky part is having access to a garden, a green space, or a career path in horticulture. I think it is really important that we make gardens accessible for everyone to experience.

Writing Home: As a garden designer you must have a great understanding of different kinds of plants. How did you learn about them?

Knowledge of plants is a never-ending sliding scale. I like to think I know a lot about plants, and I have picked up most of my knowledge from working with amazing plants people, but there will always be someone else who knows more than me. I am a very practical and visual learner. I struggle to remember things by reading or writing down, so I picked up most of my knowledge from watching other people, working with plants, and just observing new things every season.

Writing Home: Do you have any favourite trees or plants? Can you explain your choice?

I am a great lover of plants that have texture and movement. I enjoy watching them sway in the breeze, as I find it so calming, like waves in the ocean. Grasses are a favourite for this reason. Deschampisa cespitosa, Briza maxima, and Calamagrostis varia are just a few of my favourites, all of which you’ll be able to see in the Psalm 27 Garden.

Ollie Pike’s Psalm 27 Garden
RHS Tatton Park 2023.

Writing Home: Many creative people find inspiration in the work of other artists. Are there any designers whose work you admire, or gardens that you particularly love?

Some of the biggest inspirations to me are actually sculptors, like Barbara Hepworth and Antony Gormley. I love how their art responds to its setting or subject. Seeing the process behind their work and seeing how everything comes together is really inspirational. My favourite garden has got to be Trebah Garden in Cornwall. As a family we would always stop there on our holidays. You can’t beat a garden with a beach at the end!

Writing Home: During the pandemic, many of us, including young people, found solace in green spaces. Why do you think this was the case?

The pandemic was difficult for many people, and I think that everyone struggled at some point or other. Being trapped inside for so long made people appreciate the outdoors and its benefits so much more. In a time when we all needed a bit of an escape and a sense of hope, seeing the beauty in nature really gave that to people. This is what I experienced in the pandemic, and it was actually a local churchyard that was one of the green spaces I could escape to.

Writing Home: Can you explain how working in gardens has helped you to develop as a person?

Creating gardens has made me much more confident within myself. Seeing something that I have drawn come to life is such a rewarding feeling. But to then see people using the space and enjoying it, and talking about their responses, gives me a real boost!

Writing Home: Do you find gardens therapeutic?

I find gardens very calming and therapeutic. Having a place where you can escape and feel safe is so important. Gardens can be such sensory experiences which really help to calm you and allow you to contemplate your troubles. This is something that I have tried to replicate in the Psalm 27 Garden as inspired by the messages of protection, reflection and guidance found in the psalm.

Writing Home: You have mentioned that Sarah Eberle’s Psalm 23 Garden at Chelsea last year made a significant impression on you. Can you tell us more?

I was working on the M&G Garden in 2021 directly opposite Sarah’s Psalm 23 Garden sponsored by the Bible Society, and I watched as it was being created. I thought it was amazing how it managed to create such a calm atmosphere even when there was heavy machinery, noise, and crowds all around. The garden really captured the message of the psalm so well, as a place of healing and restoration.

Scene from the Psalm 23 Garden
designed by Sarah Eberle for Bible Society
at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2021.
Bible Society/Clare Kendall.

Writing Home: The garden you designed this year for the RHS Young Designer of the Year competition draws on Psalm 27. How does the garden reflect the themes of the Psalm?

I first heard Psalm 27 at a funeral, which was obviously a great time of sadness. But I thought its message of hope was really powerful. I have taken from the psalm ideas of protection, reflection, hope, courage, and guidance. The key line for me was “to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living”. This really spoke to me of hope, and that’s what I want people to take away from the garden. I’d like this to be seen throughout the garden as a whole, but for me, hope is particularly evident in the planting. The plants I have chosen are very textural, with soft colours that will drift through the garden to promote calmness and reflection. I want to include flowers at all stages in their life: some in bud, some in flower, and some going over into beautiful seed heads. This is to show that there is beauty and hope in new life and in passing.

Writing Home: Do you see any broader relationship between your creative work and the Bible?

I think with my work being so connected with plants there are lots of obvious parallels with the appreciation of nature and the Bible. Creating the Psalm 27 Garden for RHS Tatton Park has also brought me a lot closer to Scripture. I generally struggle with reading due to my dyslexia but being able to see things such as Psalm 27 in a visual way, in the form of a garden, really helps me to become closer with its messages and hopefully this will do the same for other people.

Writing Home: Reading Psalm 27 has been inspirational for you. Where would you recommend that readers who are new to the Bible might begin?

Sitting down and just reading the Bible is probably daunting for many. Bible Society offer some really great resources to help people understand the messages of Scripture in many different forms. For example, in spoken word; interactive digital formats; and maybe even a garden! I think we can learn from the messages of the Bible in so many different ways other than just reading and it doesn’t have to be in any particular order, as different parts of Scripture speak to different people.

Writing Home: For you personally, what have been the most memorable aspects of working on the 2023 RHS Young Designer of the Year project?

Watching everyone working on this garden come together has been the most memorable thing to me. To think that originally the Psalm 27 Garden and entering the RHS Young Designer Competition were just ideas in my notebook a year ago still doesn’t feel real to me. The fact that all the people and components of the design are coming together is fantastic. So much joy is going into it all with everyone’s different specialisms – from the landscapers and plant growers to stone masons, carpenters and more.

Oliver Pike RHS Tatton Park
Garden Designer for Bible Society 2023.
Bible Society/Alex Baker.

Writing Home: What are your hopes for the Psalm 27 Garden?

I really want people to take away a sense of hope from this garden. The psalm is written in a context of fear and doubt, and it talks about life’s big questions, which can be scary and that many of us relate to. Whether it be grieving a lost loved one, experiencing bullying, or when the modern world’s pressures just seem too much, I want people to experience this garden, see its beauty, and leave feeling restored with a new-found sense of hope. It’s a garden for everyone and one that I think everyone can relate to.

Writing Home: Do you have any more exciting projects in the pipeline??

What I am really excited about is that the Psalm 27 Garden is going to be relocated to Sheffield General Cemetery after the Show, where it can be enjoyed by the public and local community as a place for reflection in a big city. After that, a bit of a break! Then I have two projects that I am really excited about, one in the Peak District National Park and the other in the Cotswolds so I am quite lucky with where my job takes me.

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