TV presenter Danny Clarke designs garden at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital

Danny Clarke, known as The Black Gardener, in the garden at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital.

Danny Clarke, known as The Black Gardener, in the garden at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

The hospital garden giving solace to NHS staff. When I meet designer Danny Clarke at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital to talk about the garden he’s created there, the sky is leaden and there’s a distinct possibility of rain. It’s not ideal for an outdoor interview but he’s untroubled, pointing out that it’s still a lovely day. 

‘I never say, when it’s raining, it’s a bad day. I say it’s a beautiful day, but it’s a different kind of beauty to when the sun’s shining and the sky is blue,’ he explains. 

Grasses add a vertical note to the planting and provide year-round colour.

Grasses add a vertical note to the planting and provide year-round colour - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

It’s a mindset he learned from his first gardening mentor, a woman who asked him to help in her garden at a time when his sales company was struggling in the early 90s. 

‘I didn’t know a plant from a weed,’ he recalls, ‘Jo really was my first teacher when it came to horticulture.’ 

She also taught him the value of looking at the small things, what we would call mindfulness today. 

‘Jo would enthuse about all the things that a lot of people tend to miss. She might see a little flower grown out of the paving and she would say ‘Look at this little flower, look at the colour of the petals. Look at how delicate it is and what a miracle it’s been able to grow here.’ 

‘She was right really because there’s a beauty in everything if you wish to try and find it. So, she would take positive out of negative, and just switched my mindset around.’ 

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It’s an attitude that’s got him through family tragedy – he lost two sisters, a brother and his father in a six-year span – and life under lockdown when he discovered new green spaces on daily walks through south-east London. It also underpins the hospital garden, which is designed as a place to unwind and be close to nature. 

The planting has been chosen to give different textures and year-round interest.

The planting has been chosen to give different textures and year-round interest - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

Conceived of as a way of thanking the staff who worked during the Covid pandemic and a memorial to lives lost, it’s become much more than that. The space is used for lunchbreaks, informal meetings and as somewhere to escape for a while. 

‘I just wanted something where people can come and relax, and spend time,’ says Danny. ‘I thought ‘What would be the best place to unwind? and for me it would be a forest glade, so I’ve tried to put that into this space.’ 

Existing hornbeam have been supplemented by more trees – Prunus serrula, silver birch and more hornbeam – with the garden set in the middle. 

At its heart is a sunken seating area with benches of varying lengths set into the retaining walls and backed by planting. 

There's plenty of seating around the central sunken area.

There's plenty of seating around the central sunken area. - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

‘I want people to get up close and personal with the plants so that’s the reason I decided to sink the garden.  

‘We’re sitting here now, where can you get touchy feely with the plants,’ he says, reaching out to stroke a grass. ‘You get up close them, you’re intimate, although it’s a big area. 

‘For me, it was all about being surrounded by plants. I always think plants first and then hard landscaping second.’ 

That hard landscaping is deliberately laid out in an asymmetrical way with irregular shaped beds and off-centre paths. 

‘I didn’t want it to look contrived. I wanted all these angles and it being a bit funky, something a bit modern.’ 

With the seating all around the edge, setting it at different angles also avoids the ‘doctor’s waiting room’ feel. 

A Corten steel planter adds a contemporary note to the garden.

A Corten steel planter adds a contemporary note to the garden - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

‘Seating to me is very important in the space,’ says Danny. ‘In any garden, seating is important to be able to look at it from different aspects. You don’t want to be in one place to view a garden because it can get quite boring. So, it’s nice to be able to move around and get different angles and vistas. It’s also important because there’s going to be a lot of people using in the garden.’ 

With this in mind, he’s also created an upper level where a table and chairs are set under a plain, black pergola. 

‘I did it on two levels because I thought to myself ‘Maybe people want to have a bit privacy, don’t want to be sort of in the throng’. So, you can get away and maybe do some work on a laptop or whatever.’ 

An angular Corten steel planter at the entrance adds to the contemporary feel and introduces more colour to what is a deliberately calm palette of mainly green and grey. 

Beds are filled with a mix of ferns, euphorbia, lavender, silver-leaved convolvulus, spiraea and the Japanese painted fern. Ericaceous compost has been added to help rhododendrons, grasses – among them pheasant’s tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana) and stipa – add movement and there are bulbs planted for spring colour.  

Grasses add movement to the garden.

Grasses add movement to the garden - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

Lighting set under the benches means the garden can also be used at night – important for a 24-hour hospital. 

Running through the garden are a series of wire dandelion sculptures, made by Dursley artists Sadie Kitchen and Jackie Lantelli. These were planted as part of the Commemorative Dandelion Appeal to raise money for the garden, which was paid for through donations, sponsorship and fundraising by the Cheltenham and Gloucester Hospitals Charity. Costs were reduced by using Gloucester green sandstone cladding rather than building stone walls and hoggin instead of paving. 

The wire dandelions echo wooden dandelions given to Covid patients and their families.

The wire dandelions echo wooden dandelions given to Covid patients and their families - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

The dandelion has a special significance for the hospital as during the pandemic when families were not able to be with loved ones in their final hours, they were given a specially commissioned carved wooden dandelion while a second went with each patient who died. 

At the very centre of the garden, there’s a large dandelion sculpture, while another reminder of the difficult months at the hospital comes with a rainbow sculpture, donated by artist Simon Probyn. 

Danny Clarke, known as The Black Gardener, with the rainbow sculpture donated by artist Simon Probyn

Danny Clarke, known as The Black Gardener, with the rainbow sculpture donated by artist Simon Probyn - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

Danny, better known as ‘The Black Gardener’, describes his horticultural career as a series of chance things, from the one day a week gardening with Jo to maintenance in other gardens, a design course and then television including BBC’s Instant Gardener and Love Your Garden with Alan Titchmarsh. 

‘It’s almost like somebody has been moving these chess pieces,’ he says. ‘It almost feels like they [his family] and Jo are up there looking down on me, moving these pieces. It’s just a nice, comforting thought for me.’ 

His latest chance development saw him introduced to guerrilla gardener Tayshan Hayden-Smith in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire. It’s led to the establishment of the Grow2Know non-profit organisation, which promotes greater access to gardening, and plans for a garden at the 2022 RHS Chelsea Flower Show. 

Meanwhile, he says the logistics of working on the hospital garden miles from his London base was made much easier by a chance reunion, after years of searching, with an old schoolfriend from his days in Germany where his forces father was based. The friend is now living locally and helped with finding contractors. 

The garden, which was opened in April by the Princess Royal, is still in its infancy and Danny describes it as a starting point that he hopes the hospital will develop with more plants and possibly extend to other areas.  

‘We mustn’t let this garden be static, it needs to move on.’ 

For more information about Danny Clarke, visit theblackgardener.co.uk 

For details of the Cheltenham and Gloucester Hospitals Charity visit gloshospitals.nhs.uk/charity

Local artists Sadie Kitchen and Jackie Lantelli made the striking wire dandelions.

Local artists Sadie Kitchen and Jackie Lantelli made the striking wire dandelions - Credit: Mandy Bradshaw

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