Charlie Harpur is a plantsman, landscape architect and ultramarathon runner. After an initial stint stuck behind the computer at work left Charlie struggling with depression, his focus turned to the more physical elements of gardening. On the team at Tom Stuart-Smith’s landscape design studio, he splits his time between the design studio and a community garden project. We spoke to him about how the link between being outdoors and mental wellbeing is intrinsic to his approach and thinking around plants, gardens and garden design.
Image Credit Zara Napier
WE'D LOVE TO HEAR A LITTLE ABOUT THE REASON YOU GOT INTO PLANTS AND YOUR APPROACH AS A GROWER.
Gardens have always been a big part of my family. My grandfather and uncle were garden photographers, and so growing up with the ‘Garden Library’ must have had a little bit of an influence. We were farmers too, but I didn’t come to realise that plants were to be my salvation until I was offered a job working at Tom Stuart-Smith’s landscape design studio in 2014. I had trained as an architect, but I was usually tied to the computer, very unhappy, and experienced recurring episodes of crippling depression. Working with plants and the landscape with Tom was a real breakthrough. Even though I started with a more architectural role, I was soon given more and more plant-based tasks – and then I was hooked. I started volunteering at a couple of gardens; began collecting and growing plants I liked at home in earnest; and then one day decided I needed to get my hands properly dirty: rather than gardening with design software or my pencil, I went to the Chelsea Physic Garden to help with propagation, and then to Kew to study the 3-year Diploma in Horticulture where I chose to focus on ecology and the management of habitats amongst other things. These experiences taught me a lot, but above all they reinforced the importance of plants to all life on earth, and not just to my mental wellbeing. And with that in mind, I re-joined Tom’s design team as a plantsman.
TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR DAY TO DAY AS A GARDEN DESIGNER, WHERE DO YOU SPEND MOST OF YOUR TIME?
At the moment, I split my time between the design studio and the Serge Hill Project for Gardening and Health – a community project started by Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith (author of The Well-Gardened Mind, which is a brilliant and important read) near St Albans.
We are currently in the process of setting up the project, which includes a nursery and community building to be used by various charities (including the fantastic Sunnyside Rural Trust); vegetable plots; and the vast space which we call ‘The Plant Library’. This is a living catalogue of about a thousand different plant species and varieties which will be available to students of horticulture or planting design, and anyone who is interested in plants really! It’s all no-dig, and half of it is planted directly into sand so we can grow more drought-tolerant species that don’t like the winter wet. We will increase the number over the coming months and are even planting a large and unusual bulb collection this Autumn which I’m very excited about.
WHAT'S YOUR VIEW ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PLANTS AND DESIGN, HOW DO THE TWO WORK TOGETHER FOR YOU?
Designing plant communities adds so many layers to the creative process. It’s tempting to see planting design as painting with plants, as if the result is static. It’s such a basic point, but you have to try to understand nature and plant succession - thinking about how the space will change day to day, year by year – and that’s fascinating. By designing with plants, you not only create something that is pleasing to the human senses, but you’re creating a living community and a habitat too.
DOES YOUR WORK / WAY OF WORKING DIRECTLY LINK TO THE WAY YOU SEE THE WORLD AND LIFE OUTSIDE OF WORK? WE KNOW YOU LOVE TO RUN - DOES THIS FEEL CONNECTED FOR YOU, OR DO YOU KEEP WORK / LIFE VERY SEPARATE?
Work and life mostly blend into one, but that’s not a bad thing! I notice plants wherever I go, and I’m thinking about them most of the time. When I run, I love to study the plant communities that I pass, whether they be be in the hedgerows, mountains, or cracks in the pavement. I’m a country boy at heart, but one of my great pleasures is to run around where we live currently in London, enjoying how people garden and use the small spaces that we have here. Gardens say lot about how people perceive the world, and it’s always interesting to see these as I run past. We have a small roof terrace which is full of plants, and I can’t help but constantly tweak it, try things out or move things around to keep things interesting. As well as giving me ideas for other London projects, this pot shuffling is a great way to forget real worries for a few glorious moments and makes me feel better too.
ANY STRONG PASSIONS OR VIEWPOINTS THAT YOU WISH TO AMPLIFY ABOUT WHAT YOU DO OR THE INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE? OR MISCONCEPTIONS YOU'D LIKE TO SET STRAIGHT?
I hear the sentence ‘but I’m not green-fingered’ (or variations on this theme) a lot when I talk to people about plants. It’s getting a lot better nowadays I think – which could be due to the months of lockdown - but there is a still a commonly held belief that gardening is a secret code that only those in the know understand. There is an infinite amount of stuff to be learned in the world of horticulture, and it can be quite daunting, but it can be as simple as sticking a plant in the ground. Anyone can grow something (now a hashtag used by friend and gardener Aaron Bertelsen from Great Dixter!), and sometimes it’s just a case of getting stuck in, sowing some seeds and trying things out. Things won’t always go the way they’re supposed to, and that’s OK. It’s all a learning process, and as my boss (and incredibly experienced plantsman) Tom says, ‘I’ll keep learning until the day I drop’.
We know that plants are the glue that sticks everything together on this planet, and we also know that growing them is phenomenally good for our mental well-being. I would love it if more people gave it a go and didn’t worry about achieving perfection but persevered and found the joy and connection in it which is in us all.
HOW DO THE SEASONS AFFECT YOUR PRACTICE AND YOUR DAY TO DAY, NOT JUST IN GROWING, BUT IN YOUR OWN ROUTINES AND PHYSICALLY TOO?
The last wet winter for example, limited the time I spent outside in my work – which I found challenging at times! I usually find winter quite difficult as I feel that I am powered by the sun, but it’s in these dark months that I am in the studio, almost entirely designing and preparing projects for the busy spring. As soon as buds begin to burst, people get excited (and so do I) and quite understandably want to see progress on site. So, it’s all go! Then it’s like riding a big wave all the way to the time the leaves fall once again. There are seasonal times that things need to be sown, planted, ordered, propagated, submitted, cut back etc, so it’s straight forward enough to get into a routine.
CAN YOU SHARE ANY DREAMS FOR THE FUTURE THAT YOU HAVE IN RELATION TO HORTICULTURE AND THE PLANT WORLD?
Garden ecosystems are incredibly important pockets of biodiversity, and there are a lot of potential gardens out there. I would love to help people to think more about the relationship of plants, climate and wildlife, and how they can use whatever outdoor space they have to maximise biodiversity in a simple, sustainable and beautiful way. I think about this a lot in my day-to-day work - and even whilst gardening on our roof terrace – and it’s given me some ideas. It’s something I hope to focus on more in the future.