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Garden Tour: A Dazzlingly Colourful Outdoor Living Room

The designer of this garden, which sets sculptural plants against vibrant backdrops, was inspired by Mexico

Houzz Contributor. I’ve been writing for interiors magazines for over 10 years and… More

Visitors to this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show enjoyed an award-winning and colourful design, dramatically different from any other garden at the 2017 show. The bold, beautiful creation, named ‘Beneath a Mexican Sky’, transported visitors to the garden’s namesake and its designer, Manoj Malde, took his inspiration from the modernist architect Luis Barragán, famed for his unique use of colour. Painstakingly selecting the perfect shades for his huge colourwashed walls, Malde used them as backdrops for cacti, agave and other drought-resistant plants. Soothing pools of water complete the tranquil scheme.

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Garden at a Glance
Show RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2017
Garden designer Manoj Malde of Couture Gardens
Contractor Living Landscapes
Sponsored by Inland Homes
Prize awarded Silver-gilt Medal in the Fresh Gardens category

Photos by Chris Snook

Their backgrounds may be different, but when Manoj Malde first came across the work of Mexican architect Luis Barragán he felt an instant affinity. “My ancestry is Indian and I was born in Kenya, so subconsciously I’m always attracted to colour and when I discovered Barragán’s work I thought it was really amazing.”

Recreating the architect’s trademark concrete structures from textured stud walls and meticulously finding the right shades, Malde created a set for plants more commonly found in the Mediterranean and the Americas than London SW3. It’s hard to believe that this mammoth project is Malde’s first Chelsea Flower Show garden, but it’s the culmination of many years of creativity. “I worked for 18 years in the fashion industry so I know a fair bit about colours and how they work together,” he says. “I’ve brought that experience and I apply it to garden design. It’s about all the details coming together.”

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The garden was designed to look just as impressive at night. “The site we were allocated was pretty much south-facing so we got lots of sun and we strategically positioned lights in the borders so that in the evening the light would shine through the plants and create amazing shadows on the walls,” says Malde.

Agave, Kelways.

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A horse sculpture made from copper wire (in the foreground) references Luis Barragán’s passion for the animals and adds to the drama in the evening light.

Sculpture, Rupert Till.

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Malde used plants indigenous to Mexico and drought-tolerant Mediterranean plants.

The echeveria stands out against the turquoise pool. “The contractors mixed a pigment into the microcement when they were making the pool.”

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“Barragán used a lot of orange and pink in his buildings, which is actually a very Indian combination,” says Malde. “The trick was to find exactly the right shades.” Malde asked his contractor to create a rendered panel which he put by his work desk, testing out various paints on it.

“I watched the colours changing along with the daylight. It’s amazing how much the light affects them.” The silvery grey of the agave is a beautiful contrast to the vibrant paint. “I carried the final colours around with me on pieces of cardboard so that when I was looking at the plants I could use them as a backdrop to see if they worked.”

Walls painted in Mimi’s Kimono and Pink Martini, Valspar Paint. Cushions, Botanical Cushions. Sofa, Roberti Rattan.

Are you a novice gardener inspired by Chelsea? Learn all the right terminology here

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Malde worked closely with his plant supplier Kelways to make sure all of the plants were ready for the deadline in May. “Unfortunately in garden design and horticulture you can’t control the plants. We knew there was a risk that some just wouldn’t produce any flowers so we produced more than we needed as back up.”

Planters, Indigenus.

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“The initial design had open windows in the wall so you could look through to the landscape surrounding it, but there was a trade stand behind us so we turned them into little niches,” says Malde. “I put storm lanterns in them and some very fine copper wire with tiny LED lights which gave a lovely little twinkle at night.”

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Anyone keen to save water in their gardens will find inspiration in Malde’s choice of drought-resistant herbaceous plants such as Californian poppies. His ‘country cottage’ planting style proves that it’s possible to take an English horticultural tradition and use it with plants more suited to warmer corners of the globe.

A great deal of effort went into sourcing the plants. “I found a company in Los Angeles that sold the seeds and I got my niece, who lives over there, to post over a thousand seeds. These are the lengths you have to go to!” says Malde.

Read a guide to prairie-style planting

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A few steely blue Agave americana stand out in front of the orange wall. The walls are timber with rendered cement boards on top. “I wanted an authentic rough stuccoed finish so the contractor started rendering the wall and asked me to show him the texture I was after, then he recreated that. I didn’t want the top edges to be perfect and sharp either, so there’s a very fine undulation on there. All those tiny little details are noticed by the judges.”

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The multi-stem Arbutus unedo, or strawberry tree, in this garden is something Malde is particularly proud of. “Every nursery I got in touch with said I wouldn’t be able to find a multi-stem tree – they only had multi-stem shrubs. I did a trip to Italy with Kelways and we found one in a neglected corner of a nursery, heavily laden with fruit, and transported it back here.”

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The steps that lead across the water to a seating area are made with a layer of microcement over a powder-coated steel frame. This means they are structurally strong but also lightweight.

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A Puya coerulea plant, also known as pink torch, creates a strong silhouette against the steps in the heat of the day. “We were so lucky with the weather. I couldn’t have asked for more.”

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The cactus plants are Stenocereus marginatus and the tall flowering plants are Hesperaloe parviflora. Erigeron karvinskianus or Latin American fleabane is planted at ground level.

Malde wanted his garden to do more than echo the architecture that inspired him. “Part of the reason I used the agave, the cacti and the succulents was to represent Luis Barragán’s life. The plants grow in dry, arid areas, coping in harsh conditions – as an architect he really struggled to be recognised until the end of his career.”

Wall painted in Dream Weaver, Valspar Paint.

Which strong colours feature in your garden? Tell/show us in the Comments section.

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