Our Stories: Rosemary Coldstream

Written by Ruth Keeling. Posted in Our Stories.


Rosemary Coldstream’s flowering English garden is heavy with summer rain, so it feels strange to be sitting in it discussing heat-resistant and drought-tolerant garden design.  “Landscape gardening will change radically in the next 15-20 years, because of climate change”, she says. While her clients typically desire a traditional English mixed garden, with trees, shrubs, perennials and grass lawn, Rosemary is certain that the favoured pittosporum and hebes - and even birch and oak - in the UK will have to give way to a Mediterranean or South American plant palate. “With any garden, you've got to tailor it to the site,” she says.

Rosemary has been helping her high-end clients make the most of their outdoor spaces since she established her landscape business in St Albans, Hertfordshire, in 2006. While promoting a forward-thinking approach to her business, Rosemary’s 2023 entry to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show was a nostalgic homage to her New Zealand childhood. Her small-scale container garden, 'Feels Like Home', with its simple lines and lush foliage, clearly also appealed to the show’s spectators. The entry scooped a remarkable three awards at the UK’s prestige gardening event; a Gold Medal, the prize for Best Balcony and Container Garden and a People’s Choice Award.

'Feels Like Home' was the culmination of a long arc of ideas which had been hanging around for a while. “I've always wanted to do a Chelsea garden, probably since I changed careers (from couture fashion) to garden design”. She first won a merit award at the Show in 2021, along with a Design Excellence award from BALI, the British Association of Landscape Industries. Some of her earlier, larger designs for Chelsea were too expensive to realise without full sponsorship, so for 2023 she turned to the 10-12 sq m container and balcony format. This small exhibit had to be entirely self-contained, without digging down. Rosemary filled enormous, specially-thrown black clay pots with greenery reflective of New Zealand’s varied landscapes and created a centrepiece bench seat with a single piece of 3000-year-old reclaimed “Northland bog” kauri. The winning entry at Chelsea shows how Rosemary’s garden planning business has blossomed since we last profiled her in 2017.

“The pandemic was actually great for the landscape gardening industry. Everyone went a bit loopy - ‘Well, I’ll do my garden’ - and so the whole industry got a bit crazy.” Rosemary is relieved that the pace has slowed recently with the more uncertain global financial situation, because “I was just too busy”. While Brexit has brought some supply issues, with plants delayed by paperwork and dying at the borders, the UK’s limited space for commercial cultivation means British gardens remain dependent on plant suppliers in Italy and the Netherlands, growing regions in France, and on wood and semi-mature FSC trees from Germany. Finding a mature Kiwi tree of show quality for her 2023 garden required Rosemary to work closely with a specialist UK grower. 

Rosemary runs her business from a quiet outhouse in her home garden, working remotely with her collaborators. Many of the Kiwi and Australian plants surrounding her home office have also featured in her show gardens, and are replanted to ‘recover’ before possible re-sale. Plants from Down Under are increasingly in demand with her clients, along with South African and South American varieties. Despite the challenges of Britain’s gardening terrain, Rosemary’s aim is to bring together complementary plant styles from different regions. Modern garden design involves working with suppliers, sculptors and even engineers to create integrated outdoor environments, often with easy-care plantings, laser-cut screens, natural water sounds and lighting effects that can be controlled through an app. Rosemary’s garden plans are no longer hand-drawn, because computer software can better help the client visualise the space in three dimensions.

Rosemary first came to the UK on an ancestry visa, as her British grandmother had emigrated to NZ in the 1920s. While Rosemary and her family are now more rooted in the UK, she says she “still [needs] to go home (to New Zealand) and have [her] fix.” She notices a distinct difference in NZ attitudes to outdoor space and do-it-yourself gardening, although she says the British are also embracing less-formalised aesthetics. Her clients are increasingly moving away from steel elements and back to natural stone and timber. Rosemary supports the growing market for reclaimed stone and even the recycling of ground concrete, as a means of working more sustainably. Her thoughtful repurposing of elements of her winning Chelsea garden demonstrates her commitment to sustainable, ethical gardening, with a distinctive Kiwi DIY touch. 

With the recent publicity boost to her business, Rosemary’s next entries to the Chelsea Show will be dedicated to charity. She plans to rebuild these upcoming works (in support of epidermolysis bullosa and ovarian cancer sufferers) at Great Ormond Street Hospital and at a London school. “I think involving charities is a really good use of the Chelsea Flower Show. Because otherwise, frankly it's a hell of a lot of money for a temporary exhibit, so the gardens really need to be rebuilt elsewhere in some format.” Plants, labour, planning and transport for a ‘main avenue’ entry at Chelsea can easily cost more than half a million pounds. Undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer herself in 2015 gave this new purpose and direction to Rosemary’s commitment to creating exceptional gardens which enhance people’s well-being.