Sophie Walker has transformed her uniquely positioned, lifelong love of nature into a career making remarkable, award-winning gardens. Her careful choice of words there - ‘making’ rather than designing, which she elaborates on during our interview - offers an insight into the mindset of the youngest woman to ever present a garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show: she is prolific without being afraid to delve into thoughtful dissections of bigger-picture issues.
It is these twin qualities that are embodied in our conversation with Sophie, which we share with you below. Our talk traverses diverse terrain: from childhood dreams of the Amazon to the relationship between gardens and art, the universal challenges that women face in a male-dominated system and the intrinsic qualities of Japanese gardening that form the focus of her upcoming book for Phaidon. As her world begins to take shape, you quickly find that every answer is as considered and conscientious as her own creative output.
How did you first become interested in gardens and the horticulture world? When did you realise it was something you wanted to do professionally?
As a child I was never afraid of flowers or of wild untamed landscape; I had fantasies about travelling up the Amazon river. Once, when my grandma had been left in charge of me, my poor mother came home to find that I had snipped all the roses off the bushes in the gardens - all the ones I could reach, that is - to make gardens with them on her baking trays! I never imagined though, that horticulture could be a 'serious' work, so I trained in art history and art. Then I went on holiday on a trip into the Amazon jungle. We were headed to stay with an indigenous tribe, and as we chugged up river in a motorised canoe, I saw a fully grown tree being dragged by the river back down into the river. I had never seen such a connection between growth and decay. The river banks were being eroded by the rushing water, and then new islands were being created with silt deposits that had been carried downstream by the river, it was an astonishing site. When we arrived that night after trekking for hours in the jungle, we camped on the banks of a lake - a lake that was black from the tannin of the surrounding tree roots, such that it was completely mirror reflective. I promised myself there and then that I would return to study horticulture, and I did. I had no idea it would lead to making gardens.