By: KRISTAN SVEDA
Groomed by his great aunts at a young age in Lexington, Miss., Phillip Watson seemed destined to have a green thumb. His country upbringing revolved around feeding livestock before school and tending his flower garden after. Instead of focusing on the sermon at church, he doodled patterns of the stained glass windows (which later became inspiration for his parterres). He spent his lawn mowing money on plants at the local feed store. “Then, my great Aunt Irene taught me a trick,” said Watson. “She owned a flower shop and had a greenhouse. In no time at all she showed me how to root cuttings. Sticks made into plants—magic! At that point, I was hooked on horticulture and I never looked back.” Today, he shares his knowledge and knowhow with others as a published author of two books, including his latest release, Garden Magic, serves as a familiar face on QVC, and turns backyards into outdoor oases seemingly from nothing. Here, the celebrated master gardener and horticulturalist opens up about his childhood, favorite things and inspiration.
In addition to your aunts, who has been a mentor for you?
Rosemary Verey, the famous English doyenne of garden design, was my single biggest influence. She took me under her wing shortly after I graduated from college and showed me the ropes. Her advice to me was know your plants, know your clients, and develop a plan that is sensible, exciting and rewarding for all concerned.
Where do you find your inspiration?
My inspirations come mainly from first impressions: the style of the main dwelling, the lay of the land and how light, shadow, frost and fog embellish its parameters. I like to get to know the personalities of the clients and how they relate to the land (some casually, some intimately). When I arrive for the initial serious consultation, I bring a suitcase and ask the client, “Which room will be mine for the evening?” There is a sudden vision that comes to me as I sit in that particular garden at night when it is devoid of light, texture and color. At that time, I see only shapes, and it is easier to see where screens need to be placed for privacy.
How would you describe the ideal client?
The best client is a trusting client who has done the proper vetting before choosing the garden’s artist. Trust is the main ingredient for a successful design recipe, and too many cooks…well, you know the rest. So, my three most important items to achieve a great garden are these: knowing the client and mining that relationship to develop an achievable and sustainable garden that is personal in nature, using uncommon ingredients as the bells and whistles of the scheme, and making sure that all seasons are breathtakingly beautiful.
Tell us about your relationship with QVC. How did you first connect with the home shopping channel?
I am about to enter my 20th year as a garden expert on QVC. It all fell into my lap when I least expected it. Two decades ago I was giving a talk in Texas and had invited an old friend, Elvin McDonald, to attend. He and I had been friends in Manhattan when I was just getting started in the garden design business. At this juncture in Texas, he was about to become the garden editor for Traditional Home magazine, but I digress. After my talk, I was asked to stay for the remainder of the day because PBS was shooting two episodes for The New Garden. The film crew had arrived, but the hosts were stuck at an airport and were unable to get there, so I was drafted to fill in. After the shoot, Elvin asked if I minded if he sent a copy of the taped show to a friend who was looking for a spokesperson for his garden products on QVC. Two months later, I was on-air!
How have your designs changed and developed over the years?
My first garden designs were rooftop gardens in Manhattan, all containers. Then, I moved to Fredericksburg, Va., opened a rare plant nursery and set about designing all sorts of gardens, most of which were brimming with colorful annuals and perennials and had precisely clipped evergreens as well. I saw it as a pleasing balance of discipline and whimsy. The gardens I currently design are vaster than those early projects, but the principles and guidelines remain the same. The reins may be loose in some areas, but my steed is always under control.
What are some of your favorite plantings?
My favorite plantings will usually include the perpetually blooming perennial, agastache ‘Heatwave’ with the annual purple verbena bonariensis peppered between and above, climbing Winner’s Circle roses combined with Major Wheeler honeysuckle (red) on a post in the center, chartreuse-leafed salvia ‘Golden Delicious’, and white lobularia as a skirt of foam at the edge of the bed.
Describe your favorite project?
My favorite project is pictured in the aerial photograph. It is in Greenwich, and I got to help the clients select the property. I was given the freedom to do what I enjoy most without scrutiny. I did stay with the clients, and they were able to see the project unfold. It was exciting for all of us.
What is next in store for Phillip Watson Designs?
In the future, I look forward to designing and photographing more exciting projects in the Greenwich, CT, area. I also hope to set aside some time to write. Currently, I am working on my first short story. I have always enjoyed writing and got to reveal bits of mischief in my first book, Pleasure Gardens, and in my current offering, Garden Magic. I wrote Garden Magic to show how the gardens within had matured since they were first seen in Pleasure Gardens. It is my opus and says to me, “I was here and this is what I did.”