At Home With… Jo Thompson
The doyenne of garden design walks us through her book-filled home and rambling rose garden
Garden designer and four-time RHS Chelsea gold medal winner, Jo Thompson, draws design inspiration from nature and Venice
What’s the story behind your home?
My home is a little Georgian cottage that has been extended over the years. I bought it because of its location in the middle of a lovely village, and because it had great potential. There wasn’t a garden as such, only a large driveway and a tumbledown garage, but plenty of space and light. I rethought the garden completely, planting a hornbeam hedge and redirecting the route to the front door, and filled the garden with scented roses. There’s a small veg patch which I made during lockdown, where I grow easy annuals for cutting and beds where I trial bulbs for Colour My Garden, our bespoke bulb subscription service.
What was your inspiration when it came to designing it?
I love florals and colour – these are my inspiration, and I was so lucky to have interior designer Octavia Dickinson transform the bedrooms into beautiful spaces. I’m a firm believer in everyone doing what they are best at, and whilst I can easily see a garden transformation in my mind’s eye, Octavia brilliantly re-imagined some very tricky spaces.
Do you have any interior brands that you love and always go back to?
I adore floral fabrics by Sarah Vanrenen, Bennison Fabrics, and classic chintz by Colefax & Fowler. William Yeoward is a treasure trove for glass, china, table linen; and Pentreath & Hall for whimsical, wonderful things. And I can’t leave Anthropologie without a piece of ceramic wonderfulness.
What’s your favourite room in the house and why?
My own bedroom really is my retreat: with pale blue walls, crisp linen from Sophie Conran, and curtains in Sarah Vanrenen’s Aspa.
Does your house in any way reflect your business?
It’s full of books, paintings, flowers and florals. I’m not very good with blank walls – they bother me and I have to fill them with beautiful things. Every painting needs to have a meaning for me, and the sitting room walls are full of paintings and prints of places I have loved. The same goes for shelves; my late father once observed that there isn’t a single surface in my house that hasn’t been filled with books. To me, a room without books to me is like a sky without stars.
Where’s your best view?
My bedroom is dual aspect, so from one end I can see the sunrise over my garden and the Norman steeple of the village church, and the sunset over the fields and down into the valley from the other. The morning and evening colours of the sky are incredible: I’m always thinking about how extraordinary colour combinations glimpsed in nature can be worked into a planting scheme.
What’s your signature dish? Can you share the recipe with us?
My signature dish is actually one which features in my book Rhubarb Rhubarb (Unbound, £16.99), and was taught to me by my great friend and co-author Mary Jane Paterson:
Feta, mango, orange and watercress salad with a lime and olive oil dressing
- 2 bags watercress salad, rocket or mixed baby leaves
- 3 avocados
- 2 mangoes
- 1 orange
- 1 and a half packets of feta cheese
- 6 spring onions, finely-sliced
- Coriander, finely chopped
For the dressing
- 5 tbsp olive oil
- Juice of 3 limes
- Salt and pepper
Put the watercress, rocket or leaves in a salad bowl. Slice the avocados and add to the bowl, along with their stones – this stops the avocado going brown. Cut up your mangoes into small, bite-size pieces and add them to the bowl. Peel an orange and segment it, and de-pith each pig of the orange. Add these to the bowl along with the feta, cut up into squares. Slice your spring onions and scatter over the salad. For the dressing, mix up the olive oil and lime juice, and season with the salt and pepper. Liberally sprinkle chopped coriander over the top of the salad.
Share your top five books with us if you were to start a book club, and why:
This is a tough one as I have so many favourites:
- I’ve recently re-read my lovely friend Justine Picardie’s biography of Coco Chanel. That has to go on the list for the beautiful writing and the uncovering of layers and layers of mystery.
- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, for her description of the landscape around Fowey – a place I love to visit.
- I’m not sure how good this would be for a book club but I love Spirit of Britain. Susan Hill has put together a county guide to places in the UK which have inspired our greatest writers: Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall, Thomas Hardy’s Dorset, the Tintagel of Arthurian myth.
- EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia for its hilarious descriptions of the vying social queens of Tilling based on Rye. You can go to Rye and spot the places he depicts so clearly.
- Last but not least: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. I saw the adaptation before I read the book so I’ll never be able to separate the images of Castle Howard and the theme tune from my first response to reading the book.
Share your must-see movie and TV list:
I realise these all have exquisite costume, location and atmosphere in common – which is very important to me. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never understood Star Wars!
- A Room with a View
- Howards End
- The Talented Mr Ripley
- The newest adaptation of Emma
Describe your office space?
I have two office spaces: the Jo Thompson Landscape & Garden Design studio is based in the barn, which has come in very useful since March. As a team, we need individual space as well as a communal areas, with soft colours and excellent lighting that’s conducive to creativity. I also have a study in the house – full of books, of course. I need to be able to have light and to see the garden.
What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?
The mornings are getting earlier and earlier! I get up around 6am and feed two very hungry labradors who are always delighted to see me. Then I have two strong cups of tea and skim-read The Guardian and The Times which gives me a feeling that I might have gained a bit of a balance on what’s going on, then I read their lifestyle/design sections much more carefully. At around 7am, I throw on some clothes and take the dogs out for their main walk of the day. During lockdown, these started a bit later and I was Instagramming live every morning – the #8amdogwalk became a habit. It was very therapeutic being able to share what I was seeing on my morning countryside walks.
How do you love to spend your evenings?
I do love being at home, which is a real haven for me after the busyness of a packed working day. From 7.30pm onwards, it’s about relaxation. The dogs are sleepy and I like nothing better than settling down with a good book, podcast or box set (and hopefully having supper cooked by someone else!)
If you were to throw a party at home, what are the ingredients to make it go with a bang?
Someone else to do the catering! Atmosphere is key, and people feeling comfortable and relaxed is the most important thing to me. The last party I had, back at the end of January, consisted of 12 of friends who came to stay for the weekend. We ate delicious simple food (planned beforehand by kind Mary-Jane), went for long walks and spent the evenings chatting by the fire.
What gadget could you not live without in your home?
My kettle. I probably have around 12 cups of tea a day, decaffeinated after lunch. If we ever have a power cut, that’s the one thing I’ll really miss.
How’s your garden behaving at the moment?
This was actually the first May in 10 years that I have spent in my own garden – as the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, where I was due to have my 11th garden, was cancelled. It’s been an unexpected treat seeing all the roses bloom; the garden is full of roses interplanted with perennials, some areas wilder than others. I also had time to see how I could improve the garden further. I realise what I really need is a summerhouse a bit like Rapunzel’s tower – a retreat whose walls I will probably fill with more paintings and books.
Whose home would you like to be a fly on the wall in and why?
Skye McAlpine’s house in Venice (sorry Skye!) I’m half-Italian and spent a great deal of my childhood in Italy, and lived in Venice for a year as a student. I see Skye’s exquisite house and kitchen on Instagram (@skyemcalpine), and would just love to see it in reality. Venice is a very special place to me – I go each year and breathe in the atmosphere: it’s my inspiration and my meditation. The architecture and colours find their way into my designs.
Has lockdown made you re-assess your work and home life?
It really has made me so thankful to live in the countryside, and the simplest of pleasures that go with it: getting up to listen to the dawn chorus, watching the bluebells slowly come up and fade away as other wildflowers take their place, learning to identify butterflies and birdsong. I’m also lucky to have excellent shops in the village, and shopping locally is a habit which I don’t want to lose. The whole lockdown emphasised also how important outside space is. We were amazed at the number of enquiries each day, from people who realise their gardens could be so much more than a patch of lawn. A haven for people, for flowers, for wildlife – you name it – your garden can do that for you so easily.
What makes a house a home?
Comfort, a sense of ease, smiles and flowers.
Follow Jo on Instagram @jothompsongarden
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