Charlie Albone on gardening, design and the Chelsea Flower Show

If you thought gardening was a relaxing pursuit, you haven’t met Charlie Albone. Contrary to the practice of patience, trial and error in embracing the seasons and their natural elements, the multi-awarded Chelsea Flower and Garden Show recipient, LifeStyle Channel’s landscape design expert and television host of Selling Houses Australia, Chelsea’s Greatest Garden 2013, Charlie And The Flower Show and The Party Garden, Charlie also juggles a thriving landscaping business and young family. “I got in last night at 10 o’clock after finishing a TV makeover in Brisbane and I’m in Sydney now. I’ve been at work all day and it’s my birthday today. The way I balance it (career and personal life) is that I love what I do, so it doesn’t feel like work,” he says.

Being driven has its rewards. “It’s funny. I said at the beginning of our interview that gardening is not competitive, and (Chelsea) is trying to make gardening somewhat competitive,” he laughs. “I wanted to go to the Chelsea Flower and Garden Show, the pinnacle of landscape design, I guess. I first started going because I wanted to win gold medals, but I quickly realised that it’s much more enjoyable if you just go and enjoy the experience of going to the other side of the world, building a garden, and focusing on that,” he says.

Appearing to a full house at his World of Style Masterclass in August, Charlie was not only fresh faced and impeccably attired in a silver-blue blazer, crisp white shirt, navy trousers and pocket kerchief, but a seasoned professional. A PowerPoint slide presentation displayed his landscape designs and awarded Chelsea Flower and Garden Show entries to winning effect. “One of the terrible things about my job is having to go to Europe to source plants,” he quips. More than 3500 varieties featured in his first entry and 3000 in the second. The feeling that he yearns to return in his quest for glory is palpable. “People ask if I’m going to enter again at Chelsea and I always say: ‘Have you got some money for me? I only need about $800,000’.”

He also jokes about being on a first-name basis with royals Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, becoming acquainted at the Chelsea Flower and Garden Show. Charlie says when the Prince asked the name of Buxus hedge in the second silver-gilt entry, he turned to the Duchess and exclaimed: “Babe, we’ve got loads of these in the garden”.

Being born in Hong Kong and raised in England from age 12 before moving to Australia at age 18 has not only given Charlie a range and abundance of botanical inspirations, but also proud antipodean roots (“I call Australia home”). A beautifully spoken English accent belies but also gives rise to his adopted country. “Everyone thinks of Hong Kong as being high rise everywhere, but we lived in the countryside, outside of Hong Kong, and that obviously influenced me,” Charlie says. “When we moved to the UK, I had horses, so being outside is something I’ve always loved.”

Charlie’s creative vision extends to unlimited scope in his perception of landscape designs. “I love all sorts of gardens. That’s what inspires me because everything is different and has its individual beauty and I love seeing different garden styles and the way people have done things,” he says. Although he works less outside and more in the office, Charlie relishes the industry’s possibilities of what can be imagined, achieved in a set space and accomplished through the design process. His company is called Inspired Exteriors, but the landscape designer is a firm believer in blending outdoors with the interior for maximum effect. “The way that people are living these days is totally different to the way it has been in the past, and it’s so important to have that inside/outside connection,” he says. “We are blessed in this country to have such a fantastic climate, so it makes perfect sense to combine the two.”

Keeping the greenery inside alive and thriving is anathema to outdoor gardening, Charlie suggests. “Indoor planting is tricky,” he says. “Unlike planting in the garden, you must get the right plant in the right spot for it to succeed.” Inside planting, however, requires greater delicacy and forethought. “You need plants that don’t need much natural sunlight; something that can withstand drought, unless you’re an avid waterer,” he says. For the H2O averse, Charlie recommends Zanzibar Gem. “The label says it thrives on neglect and it really does.” He also advocates the use of lady palms to imbue a similar effect to outside planting, with its layered appearance. Despite the increasing uptake of vertical gardens, Charlie advises caution because, while they can look spectacular upon installation, he counters that they require “huge amounts of maintenance”.

A thriving business, Inspired Exteriors was ultimately born from frustration. While studying horticulture and landscape design at TAFE, Charlie was labouring for a landscaper who forbade verbal communication on the job. “He was very strict on working as hard as you could and I thought, ‘This isn’t what I want to be doing. We work in the industry all our lives and I want to be enjoying this. That’s why I’m doing landscaping’,” he says. “I’m not doing it for the money because there is no money in landscaping. I’m doing it because it’s a career I want to enjoy, so I started my own business to work the way that I wanted to work.” His plan bore fruit. The company is based in Sydney, but also conducts work in Melbourne, Brisbane and throughout the world, according to demand and to suit varying budgets.

He cites influences such as British gardening great Alan Titchmarsh, whom Charlie refers to as “the Graham Ross of the UK”. “He’s a huge inspiration, just because he was the first one to do a garden renovation show (on television) and inspire people” in all matters horticultural. Charlie says he was lucky enough to participate as a volunteer in the creation of a garden dedicated to Titchmarsh several years ago at the Chelsea Flower and Garden Show. “I went there to gain hands-on experience and worked for a month for free. I got to meet him and work beside him, which was really interesting and fascinating.” Diarmuid Gavin, an Irish landscape designer of surrealist proportions, is also inspirational in that his work was unlike anything Charlie had seen. “Not that I particularly would want to do his style for any of my clients,” Charlie counters. “Yes, let’s put a crane somewhere and have a hanging Garden of Babylon! “The garden he (Diarmuid) built at Chelsea when I was there last time encompassed a roof that was going up and down, topiary spinning around, mad music playing, and it was totally out there. And I think that’s fantastic.”

Trend-setting in the extreme. Yet harking back to the art of patience and cyclical traditions, slavish attention to fads is a notion that Charlie shuns. “Gardening should never be about trends, but always about the person who owns the garden: what do they like and get enjoyment from? That’s what a garden should be,” he says. “Trends just come and go too quickly.” Charlie’s idealised Garden of Eden would encompass absolute seclusion. “If money were no object, I’d become a recluse and never leave the garden,” he laughs.

Words: Nicole Bittar

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