Meet the Professionals On the road

An interview with… Nilufer Danis, garden designer.

One of the shadiest, most fragrant gardens at Hampton Court was the ‘Turkish Garden of Paradise’. Having promised not to step on any plants, we sat down amongst the hand-stitched cushions* and had a chat with Nilufer Danis, landscape architect and multi-award winning garden designer.

Hi Nilufer. Tell me a bit about your horticultural background…

I’m Turkish, and I studied landscape architecture at the university of Istanbul. I came to England to do my Masters degree.

When I told my parents I wanted to be a landscape architect, they asked me if I really wanted to be a gardener. I was like, yeah! I always had good marks in school and they were expecting me to become a doctor or engineer or something.

I have a really close friend; she lives in my parent’s town and we both graduated together. She designed her first park close to where my parents live, one hour away from Istanbul. And my parents were like, “hmm, your friend, that park she designed is very beautiful”. And I said yes, this is our job, it’s what we do!

I did my first public park, the Commonwealth Park in Gibraltar. This took 2 years to design, to do all the details etc. And there wasn’t a park in Gibraltar before mine; they didn’t even have any grassy areas. So we had Mediterranean plants and we had grass as my client wanted British elements. When that park opened to the public at 12 o’clock, oh my god! That was the best thing I have seen in my career. Thousands of people turned up. Parents brought their children; they took off their shoes and brought picnic boxes. It was amazing. So I sent pictures to my parents. “Oh, now we see. Our daughter is doing very well!”

So this is your third year at Hampton Court…?

In 2012 I did my first show garden, called ‘Our First Home, our First Garden’. It was a low cost, high impact garden and I got gold in my first competition, so I thought, “oh, there you go, I must have some skills!” And last year I did my ‘Wrath’ concept garden at Hampton and that again was a gold medal and so yes, this is my third one but my first Turkish garden. I thought it’d be much easier as I know the Turkish culture, but no, it’s been the hardest!

Was it harder because you felt more pressure due to your Turkish background?

No, not so much pressure; it is because Turkey is such a big country, we have so much rich cultural heritage it was difficult to choose which direction to take the design. If you go to the south of the country, the gardens are more Mediterranean in style, but if you go to the north of the country, it’s more like England… more green, raining – if you go north west or west, it’s more European. So I sat down with my client, the Turkish tourist board, and said, OK, which part of Turkey would you like me to represent?!

What are the elements that make this a Turkish Garden of Paradise?

I had to include traditional Islamic elements and features. Obviously, time has moved on, so I had to mix it with more of a modern approach, but the concept is still the same. There are still ‘Garden of Paradise’ elements in the garden; you can see the high walls with grilles – they are providing enclosure for the garden and also representing the nature of paradise to be hidden away, to be secret. And two other, important elements – a plane tree for shade, with fountains and rills for cooling water. So we have the Turkish pavilion, the metalwork and the marble water features – they came from Turkey. The paving came from Turkey also. It was important to be authentic. And the planting against soft and hard landscape – they had to include hot, bold colours and highly scented plants. The fruit trees and pomegranate along the sides – these create and support the garden of paradise concept.

How does the garden design process begin with you? Does it start with a sketch?

Absolutely. And as I read more about the origins of Turkish gardens, I would take notes. The reading process took two months, but when I sat down, after a couple of days I had the design, it was there. But of course after the quick sketch – the master plan – comes the hard part, the details. You can see the patterns on the pavilion; you can see the repeat patterns on the window grilles. Gates, benches, water features, all of these things take time. You have to make sure the cuts are done properly. It’s not just about the design; it’s all the construction details as well. I worked upon this garden for 5-6 months in total.

So on the morning before judging, did you run around the flower beds with nail clippers, checking everything in a panic?

The assessors came yesterday (Sunday) at half four. So until half four, I didn’t have breakfast, I didn’t have lunch. I was a walking… I don’t know what I must’ve looked like! But today it’s calm. I just water the plants in the morning, just so they survive to the end of the show! (Laughs)

Also, actually, we might be rebuilding this garden as a memorial garden for the Turkish soldiers that died in Galipoli, the Anzac soldiers. So my client is looking for a park at the moment, so hopefully this garden will become a real garden. I don’t want to waste the garden at the end of the show, so to have it transported and made permanent would be fantastic.

Is there anything you’d change?

I don’t think so… I’m very pleased. But I’ll tell you this; before we received the marble water features, I was so worried that they might get damaged during the journey from Turkey, but when we opened the boxes, everything was in one piece. I was very relieved. But we did have a problem with the Turkish tiles that we used to line the rills. They are all hand-made – old ladies hand painting them in this little workshop I found – but in transit, a few boxes got broken. We reached to here (points to the bridge across the rill) but we still had to continue, as it’s still a very important area. So we had a good solution – we got them digitally printed (laughs). Nobody noticed, and you can’t really tell the difference, but we had to tell the Hampton Court judges. If I could change anything, I’d order more tiles!

Are there any standout Turkish gardens that you admire?

I really like Ataturk Arboretum, which is in the Sariyer area of Istanbul. This is part of the University where I studied. So if you go down, you can see many different species of plants. It’s a beautiful, beautiful park, almost like a national park. And there’s another little one in Yalova I really like. Not just for the design but for the surrounding landscape as well.

When I was researching for this garden, I discovered that we have more than 9,000 species so far identified in Turkey, and that we have almost as many species of wildflower as the rest of Europe combined. When people think about Turkey, they think about blue seas, lovely mountains but never really think about the rich flora. So hopefully this garden will connect with the people that Turkey is also an important horticultural travel destination.

Do you have any horticultural heroes?

Monty, of course! And I like him even more now that he’s chosen to sit in my garden to present his show! I also like Diarmuid Gavin, he’s different to many designers – he’s very creative, a really brave designer. And because of my landscape architecture background, I like West 8, the Dutch company based in Rotterdam. They designed the Jubilee Gardens on the South Bank. Their approach is very original, minimalistic and modern. This is maybe more in keeping with my own preferred style but, saying that, I loved creating this garden.

And what’s your own garden like?

I’ve got a little garden, not a family house, not a family garden yet. I spend too much time on other peoples’! There’s a Turkish saying: ‘A tailor can’t sew his own rip.’ I don’t spend much time there, but if I had a bigger garden, then maybe I’d put in the effort!

And finally, as you relax in your Turkish Garden of Paradise, what drink do you reach for?

Ah! Many! Maybe a Pimms and lemonade? Summer is here, this is a summery garden, so I’d say a glass of Pimms.
Actually, maybe a jug of Pimms!

Turkish garden2



Find out more about Nilufer’s projects here…
Lotus Design Studio


*The cushions were still warm from Monty’s linen-clad backside, as he and Joe Swift had just conducted their Hampton Court TV chat from Nilufer’s Garden of Paradise. Neither of them had put the cushions back neatly. See photos for evidence.

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