Planting the seed: A prolific British couple refle...

Planting the seed: A prolific British couple reflects on moving to Portugal

By: James Mayor

Essential spoke with garden designer Noel Kingsbury and Screen Studies lecturer Jo Eliot about their new life

Not everyone is fortunate enough to immigrate by choice, as the news reminds us every day. But for those who are able to choose the life-changing journey that is immigration, there can be many different motivations. We are drawn by interest in other cultures, professional opportunities, attractive property prices, beautiful landscapes, gastronomy, love, a better life balance…

In 2018, Noel Kingsbury, a celebrated British garden designer and prolific writer on gardening, and Jo Eliot, a long-time lecturer in Screen Studies at the University of Bristol, uprooted from Hay-on-Wye in Herefordshire, United Kingdom, and settled in Oliveira do Hospital, near Coimbra. Noel and Jo are part of a growing swell of international expats moving to Portugal’s interior, attracted to a Portuguese lifestyle, peaceful environment and wonderful scenery.

For Noel, the move meant giving up a much-loved garden, nurtured over many years. For a gardener, the United Kingdom and Portugal could not be more different: climate, soil, vegetation and gardening traditions are all worlds apart.

Essential Algarve asked Noel what had driven him to take the plunge: “It was a challenge, something new.” Four years after their arrival in Portugal, Noel and Jo’s roots are now established, with Noel creating a no-irrigation garden in Portugal’s Centro district, a possible model for all gardens of the future.

Noel is a leading proponent of naturalistic planting design, an approach to gardening that encourages biodiversity and wildlife in gardens, favouring plants native to a particular location and therefore more likely to be low-maintenance and sustainable. For many years he has collaborated with the influential Dutch garden and landscape designer Piet Oudolf, working on ecological planting design. Noel has equally made a significant contribution to disseminating “green roof” and “green architecture” technology in urban, public and private projects. In 2009, he was awarded a doctorate by Sheffield University for research into long-term perennial planting.

Noel is optimistic about Portugal’s role as a territory for renewable energy, projecting that government policy will create a favourable legislative and fiscal environment, propitious for audacious and green public initiatives.

In the last four years, Noel has planted many seeds, and not just in his garden. His latest book Wild: The Naturalistic Garden, published by Phaidon, is a portfolio of exceptional naturalistic gardens around the world, with Noel’s text accompanied by glorious photographs by Australian photographer Claire Takacs. This is the perfect armchair travel reading that will get you informed and leaping up to head to your nearest garden centre.

Noel and Jo’s new life has coincided with the Covid pandemic, a time when many have dug deep and some innovated. Portugal has become a haven of choice for digital nomads and IT specialists who have realised they can work from anywhere, whilst in their spare time surfing, hiking or tending a garden. Noel has recently been developing his educational outreach through Garden Masterclass, a bouquet of webinars, workshops and chats.

Plants are as much immigrants as humans are, they just do not need a residency card. What a contribution their export has made to global welfare! Think of tea or rice, for example. Let’s consider the garden as a metaphor for life, a space we create, in which we reflect, grow and learn, an intimate space but different to that occupied by politics and war – a space for hope and regeneration.


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