The question can’t have surprised her. Who wouldn’t ask the winner of eight RHS gold medals, including Best in Shows at both Chelsea and Hampton Court, what her own garden is like? Her answer threw me, however: “I don’t have one,” said Sarah Eberle.
Eberle, who is designing a garden for Viking Cruises at this year’sChelsea Flower Show, went on to explain, “I’m a country girl, married to a farmer, living on a farm. I have a landscape.”
Landscapes are her passion. She remembers being intrigued by her surroundings from an early age. “I noticed every detail: the shape of a hill, rock formations, the play of light through hedges in the Devon countryside where I grew up.”
Architecture fascinated her, too. “The way that landscapes and architecture interact excited me even then. If I hadn’t become a landscape designer, I’d probably have been an architect.”
- The Mekong river cruise guide
Her show garden for Viking Cruises is inspired by the Mekong. Eberle had never been there so Viking arranged for her and her daughter Lucy to take a cruise on the river. “It was the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition, and we scampered about like excited children. Smaller boats took us closer to local life, so I could see how the people use their landscape to live by.
Her garden design reflects the floating gardens found along the riverbank as the Mekong wends its way through Cambodia taking its cues from the silk-weaving work and fishing undertaken by the communities along the route.
There were also visits to temples and food markets.
Relaxing on the sun deck afforded Eberle opportunities to gain inspiration from the river and the landscapes through which the Mekong flows. The garden, which will be the fourth for Viking at the Chelsea Flower Show, will reflect her experience and give the show’s visitors a taste of life along the river.
Green fingers don’t run in the family. After leaving school Eberle went on to qualify as a landscape architect. She is a member of the Landscape Institute, the Society of Garden Designers and the Chartered Institute of Horticulture, and has an honorary doctorate in design from the University of Greenwich. This, she admits, is the award of which she is most proud.
- Mekong: Exploring Cambodia and Vietnam from the water
Today she runs her own practice and tackles projects ranging from private gardens, large or small, to international projects on a grand scale. In 2007 a large private garden that she designed in the New Forest won two BALI (British Association of Landscape Industries) awards: the Principal Award for Category and the BALI Grand Award for Best Overall Scheme. It was the first private garden to win the latter for a decade.
Eberle’s other current projects include designing a large private garden in Sicily, where she is also part of a committee setting up a new garden show in 2017 in Radicepura near Giarre, on the island’s east coast. “These days I choose projects on a want-to-do basis,” she says.
“I’m looking for commissions that I will learn from, that aren’t repetitive and which challenge me and engage my skills,” she explains. Those skills include visualisation, an appreciation of the spatial hierarchy within a setting, and creating designs on a scale that is comfortable for humans.
“I aim to produce a ‘hunter refuge’ – a place where people seek to be, because it feels safe and right.”
She explains further: “Think of walking into a public space, and the bench there that you instinctively choose to sit on. That’s the hunter refuge instinct at work. You also have to pay attention to ‘the void’. That’s what’s left behind when all the solid features are put in place; the space that they don’t fill.”
In her own words, Eberle manipulates landscapes.
- Laos: The magic of the Mekong
Among those in the industry she has been described as a “leading international fusionist”. “I’m known as ‘not a stylist’ – in that no one would necessarily recognise one of my gardens as being one of mine.
“I do traditional and I do contemporary. Each design is tailored to the site. Landscape design is all about where it is, the genius loci – the spirit or character of a place.”
She knows what it takes to succeed at Chelsea. “If you haven’t engaged passers-by as they walk past, then you’ve failed. The more you look at a garden, the more you should see. It has to offer instant and continuing engagement.”
Just as the Mekong does.