Charlie McCormick’s astonishingly wild and exuberant English gardens are a delight, not just for the many ways in which they go against the norm.
When asked what ignited Charlie McCormick’s love of flowers and gardens, the London-based talent credits his childhood, his grandparents and the New Zealand farm he grew up on, which was filled with an abundance of overblown rambling roses. It must have been a heady environment for the budding horticulturist who would go on to take cues from the way in which his family planted to seasons: “My grandparents were wonderful gardeners, I spent my childhood growing vegetables and flowers with them and really learnt, in a practical sense, what worked and what could be beautiful.”
As McCormick tells it he always knew gardening would be his life’s purpose, so when he moved to England to pursue his dream he “knuckled down and just got on with it”. A neglected garden at an historic former rectory in Littlebredy, Dorset, was McCormick’s starting point and proved the ultimate showcase of his skills as a gardener firstly, but also as a young modern master of colour. Today, the stone-walled parsonage, which he shares with his interior designer husband, Ben Pentreath, is revered for its colour-focused perennial border, its kitchen garden and sweeping meadow.
McCormick’s aesthetic could perhaps best be described as casually exuberant. “I’m all for bold, big hits of colour – mad, mad colours that you wouldn’t expect, and putting them all together.” There’s a sense of irreverence in McCormick’s gardens underpinned by his understanding and respect for formality and classicism. “To a degree, it’s also all about having fun. I feel there is a lot of the same thing going on [in garden design], it can be rigid and lifeless, which is why I love to push it, to create something surprising and new.”
“To a degree, it’s also all about having fun. I feel there is a lot of the same thing going on [in garden design], it can be rigid and lifeless, which is why I love to push it, to create something surprising and new.”
When you take in McCormick’s study of nature, design, colour and composition, his gardens can be likened to a painting. Does McCormick consider his work to be an art form? He says, “The one thing I love about gardening is that it is a never-ending project unlike, say, an oil painting – once you create a garden, if you then leave it, it will never be the same, even if someone else takes up its care. That to me is amazing, it’s a wonderful creative process.”
Indeed, McCormick’s creativity tends to revolve around emotion: “I study the space and think about the mood of the project; you have to sort of analyse what the client likes and then push them through a journey where we often end up outside the square, feeling something quite different.” Not surprisingly, his inspirations are wide-ranging: “I’m drawn to Victorian and Edwardian gardens, structured planting which can be turned into productive gardens with vegetables. I love looking at old Victoriana wedding arrangements because they were so wild, and I’m currently into natural seaweed colours.” He also loves the circus. “Not the big modern-day ones,” McCormick explains, “but rather the early 1900s circuses with their striped tents and artful costumes. It plays out in my mind.”
So, how then, does he translate all that into nature? “I would describe the perfect garden space as being one that is mostly productive, with lots of things you can pick and take inside; armfuls of cut flowers. It is quite formal – I love using hedging to create rooms but then inside each room it is wild and free. I also love mass planting of the one thing, for example my dahlias which look incredible at this time of year.”
McCormick is rightly proud of his dahlia border at the old parsonage in Dorset, largely because it took months of trialing to achieve, and also because it challenges traditional codes by using an old-fashioned flower in new ways. “I feel as though I have opened up this kind of colour to people who thought these flowers were completely awful – it warms the heart and I find it very moving when I receive a letter about it.”
His favourite season, naturally, is one of romance: “If I had to pick, I would say Autumn, again because of the dahlias. I do love the spring with its fresh blossoms, but there is something so exciting about Autumn when the leaves are changing and there is an abundance of flowers. It feels dramatic to me, I love it when the leaves turn from green to orange. In England at this time of year, you also get this eerie low mist, which is incredibly beautiful.”
When McCormick describes the feeling that he gets from working in nature, he often comes back to the idea of a simple kind of joy: “I really love getting my hands in the soil. It’s amazing seeing everything come up especially when you’re planting from seed, I find it fascinating – you put a tulip bulb in the ground and five months later it’s here, gorgeous, and you can cut it,” McCormick says. “You can create whatever vision you set your mind to. Ultimately, I love the idea of creating a garden scene that makes people feel great. I’m truly lucky in that respect.”