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Meet: Phillip Johnson

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Where did your interest in garden design originate?

From a young age, my grandparents had a big influence, encouraging me to help them in their gardens. I had a little patch where I built things with rocks, making creeks and streams. It helped that dad loved gardening, too. But my major connection to nature came after Year 12. I took a year off and started teaching outdoor education at Caulfield Grammar's Outdoor Education Centre. Students who had no connection to nature would spend 5-10 days completely immersed in the outdoors. In doing so, they grew, evolved, and discovered more about themselves. Nature changed them as people, so it became my main drive to connect people to nature. I design to create beautiful, naturalistic environments that could change the lives of families in suburbia.


You’ve won multiple medals at Melbourne’s International Flower & Garden Show (MIFGS), what prompted Chelsea attempt?

My first garden design for MIFGS was their largest at 700sqm, which we built in 10 days and won Gold and Best in Show. That’s when Wes Fleming (of Fleming’s Nurseries) said we have to take this to Chelsea as, “they would gobble it up.” I waited five years as other designers were already booked, and Wes saved his final shot for a win at Chelsea for me. Chelsea was also an ultimate career goal of mine since being a horticulture student at The University of Melbourne, Burnley.

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What is the main aim in your garden designs, both real and exhibition?

Connection to nature and promoting sustainable principles. 


What were the main challenges creating the gold-winning Chelsea garden?

It was an ambitious and complex build that consisted of a sloping embankment with 11m level changes from ground to the top of the Waratah studio. We moved over 600 tonnes of rock into position with a 200-tonne crane. We also had to source Australian plants in Europe, as we could not ship any from Australia. All this work is equivalent to a five month build, but it was completed in just 17 days. It was also Wes Fleming’s goal to win ‘Best in Show’ – the pressure was on!


It’s been eight years waiting for government support to rebuild the gold medal garden, were you losing faith?

Yes, and no. I am tenacious, and while it’s been a roller coaster journey, I never lost faith. Knowing that one day we would build this garden for the people of Australia was enough to keep us going.

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A three-dimensional render of the awardwinning garden in its new location, Dandenong Ranges Botanic Gardens.


What benefits has the new location?

It’s huge! One acre compared to 300sqm – it’s 20 times the original area. It needed to become a public garden. Not everyone can go to Chelsea but now everyone can celebrate this garden which will be around for hundreds of years in the Dandenong Ranges. It’s particularly touching as the vision started here, with the design inspiration coming from my own garden in Olinda.


Phillip Johnson’s award-winning garden will be replicated in the Dandenong Ranges Botanic Gardens. To help develop this garden, you can donate to the People & Parks Foundation. For more information or to donate, visit www.peopleandparks.org

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About this article

Author: Words: Graham Ross