There’s an enviable confidence in Jack Dunckley’s voice as he casually reels off the numerous medals he has won for garden design: “I’ve been at Hampton Court many times, won a number of awards; been at Chelsea too – won a medal. I’ve got eight Royal Horticultural Society medals in total, a combination of gilt, silver, bronze.” Then comes the “but”: “I’m still waiting for that magical gold, but it will certainly come in time.”
In garden design – an occupation perhaps more often associated with middle age – the 21-year-old Dunckley has made a name for himself as a prodigy. He’s appeared on popular TV programmes such as The Alan Titchmarsh Show and Gardener’s World, and last month exhibited at the UK’s leading home show, Grand Designs Live. When he was just 17, his father bought him a nursery, in Birchfield, and business is booming. Dunckley is having the kind of success that most twenty-somethings could only dream of. But it takes just a few minutes of talking to him to see that he has set his sights much higher: “My aim is to become the youngest ever gold medal winner at Chelsea,” he coolly says. “I have two years still in which to do that. I’m not going this year, but maybe next year. We’ll see…
“It all began when I was just 14,” Dunckley explains. “I’ve always been very passionate about getting out into the open. Back then I rather crazily designed a garden for the RHS Malvern Spring Festival. The penny dropped: I loved what I was doing and became completely obsessed with it. I haven’t stopped since.
“Initially, it was just about scribbles on paper, but obviously I went on to train properly as a garden designer, and learned about 3D models, graphics, detailed planting plans, construction detailing and all that sort of thing.”
It’s clear from the way that Dunckley talks that he is already an astute businessman. When I ask if there’s a particular design or look that he favours, he responds by referring to the importance of, “the client’s requirements.” In what he acknowledges is a highly competitive industry, he accepts that his job is all about producing a garden to fulfil set criteria.
“There are lots of designers out there,” he adds, “and you have to stand out to succeed. Each designer has their own creative ability and everyone responds to different forms of creativity, so ultimately it all comes down to personal choice.”
But if it was up to Dunckley alone, he would favour a more contemporary design. He gives this description of his personal preference: “Something clean-lined, quite chic.” You can’t go wrong with futuristic materials, he believes. He talks at length about the types of plants that can be used to create a specific look, insisting that a grounding in horticulture is essential if you’re really going to excel in the business.
“I’ve always been into my plants and from an early age had a strong knowledge of what can be used where. That really informs my design. Yes, it’s a definite bonus.
“If you’re after a low-maintenance border then go for those low-maintenance shrubs, a variety of colours, foliage interest. Others opt for a cottage-garden style, where you’ve got contrasting perennials. Some clients are after purples and whites, pinks and pastels. You can combine that with low-grain creeping plants, or perhaps you’re after an exotic look. You can’t beat Yuccas for this. Then you can throw in water features – they always provide a point of interest. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a big thing: even a small feature in a pot can provide a focal point. The sound of water alone gives you that all-important peace.”
Over the last few years, Dunckley has incorporated all of these elements into his commissions, which vary from small, suburban terraced gardens to the grandest of mansions.
“The largest garden I’ve designed is for Lord Saatchi,” he says, again almost casually. “I’m still working on it. He is very much a man of ideas and my job is to turn those into reality by planting, designing, incorporating all that he wants. When I started working with him he already had a very formal garden, but I’ve radicalised it by cutting down trees and replanting. It’s been a fascinating project to work on.”
But not all clients are like the advertising mogul – with firm ideas about what they want – and they need Dunckley to guide them. This is one of the most challenging aspects of the job, but one he relishes.
“It comes down to chatting with them and gradually working out what they’re after. Some people really don’t have a clue what they want. And this can be good as it allows me to pitch more creative ideas and then translate those on to paper. It’s a skill.
“You start by looking at the client’s personality, but also the styling of their house. That gives you clues. They know certain things: if they want a barbecue or seating area or a water fountain, so you can run through a list of things with them.”
The design stage then begins. Dunckley will survey the garden and start playing around with where each element could be placed. Further chats with the client follow to see what they think of the concept. Once they are in agreement everything is detailed on the master plan.
Dunckley’s last big win was at The Hampton Court Palace Flower Show: a medal for designing their retirement garden. It’s a highlight of what promises to be a hugely successful career. Again, the essence of the design came down to carefully examining the mission statement. His voice is animated as he describes the process.
“It was about translating the journey of life into a walk through a beautiful garden. Every person who came to Hampton Court could walk through it and experience it. The journey theme took youth as the starting point, moving on to maturity and ending at retirement. Each area of the garden was defined by a style of planting. So, for youth I had perennials and lots of vibrant colours, then with maturity thick, elegant shrubs and, finally, when you reached retirement, there was a lovely pavilion where could sit back and look at your life. Garden designing, at its best, can be a form of poetry.”
The biggest challenge, however, is still to come: that elusive gold medal at Chelsea. How does Dunckley think he’s going to pull it off? He gives a cheeky, but self-assured laugh.
“Well, the design’s going to have to be really explosive! Reality-wise I’d like to be there in 2016 or 2017. That’s only a dream at the moment and I’ve got to make it happen by securing a sponsor. But I’m confident I can deliver the goods when the time comes.”
Jack Dunckley is only 21 years old, but he is on his way to becoming one of the country’s top garden designers. Alex Hopkins meets a prodigy