Weekly Studio: Garden designer Taina Suonio

Before the COVID-19 pandemic saw the 2020 Chelsea Flower Show postponed until next year, Weekly spoke to garden designer and green roof enthusiast Taina Suonio about the ideas behind her Finnish Soul Garden and her move from international diplomacy to horticulture.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic saw the 2020 Chelsea Flower Show postponed until next year, Weekly spoke to garden designer and green roof enthusiast Taina Suonio about the ideas behind her Finnish Soul Garden and her move from international diplomacy to horticulture.

This is your second time designing a garden at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. Do you think many Finnish people are familiar with CFS?

I’ve been involved with garden design at CFS for sixteen years. When I started no one in Finland knew about it, but over the years I have been writing in Finnish landscape magazines and giving lectures, telling people what Chelsea is about, so professionals certainly are aware of it. But if you were to ask someone on the street, they might remember reading something about it in the newspapers last summer, but not necessarily. That said, this year’s garden has received much more attention at home because the main sponsor is the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, so it’s a big thing.

Taina on the roof of the Greenest of the Green block in Jätkäsaari, Helsinki.

You lived abroad for much of your previous career working for the Northern Ireland Peace Process Commission. What prompted your move to garden design and returning to Finland?

We lived abroad for twenty years before returning to Finland ten years ago. When we moved to Northern Ireland it was because of my husband’s assignment with the peace process. The peace process was facilitated by three countries—the US, Finland and Canada—who had been requested by the Irish and British governments. Those three countries sent representatives who worked from two offices, one in Belfast and one in Dublin, and the staff in both offices worked together. I worked as a personal assistant and office manager in the Belfast office and my husband was the chef de cabinet for the commission chaired by General John de Chastelain.

Although I’m from the countryside, I didn’t know anything about horticulture when we moved to Northern Ireland. Growing up, my best friend was a farmer’s daughter. In the summers, I would help with growing potatoes, but I didn’t know any Latin names of plants. At that time, it was only really big manor houses that had gardens; it wasn’t a big thing in Finland for everyone to have a garden.

In Northern Ireland, our driver’s wife, Meryl, was really the person who introduced me to horticulture. She took me under her wing and explained all the basic skills you need in horticulture. How to grow things from seeds, why you have to weed and water. Everything connected to cottage gardening.

But I always want to know more and she couldn’t answer my questions, so I went to study at a local college about how to become a gardener. At the same time, I volunteered in the gardens at Mount Stewart [a 19th-century mansion house owned by the National Trust] and  local nursery. But even that didn’t answer all my questions, so I applied to study at Greenmount Campus [a horticultural and environmental college] to become a landscape designer and continued later on at the University of Helsinki for Environmental Biology.

Working for the Commission it was interesting that, even though the meetings could be very tense, gardening was a common topic among everyone and helped to break the ice in certain meetings. I don’t think I would have ever started doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t lived in Northern Ireland, because the influence, passion and history for gardening is so rich and deeply embedded in everyone. I can talk about flowers or gardens to anyone in the UK. Coming from Finland, where people talk about forestry, hunting or fishing, to Belfast where people talked about the scent of roses was such a culture shock. But in a good way.

Finland’s climate clearly makes it more difficult to have the same kind of gardening culture as in the UK for example, but the relationship with nature is obviously very strong.

Absolutely. That brings me back to my childhood, because we lived in rural Finland and I have an extremely strong connection to nature. I have two brothers and, as a child, I was like one of the boys, climbing trees, skiing or riding my bike in the forest. I spent all my days in the forest or swimming in the nearby lake. If I close my eyes and think of nature, I think about the scent of plants in the forest when I was a child. I often use those memories when I’m selecting plants for my garden designs.

When we lived abroad, my father always used to ask what I missed from Finland and the answer was always nature. I missed the forest, everyman’s rights and the freedom those rights bring. No one expects anything from you when you’re in the forest and it’s humbling to realise that you’re just one small creature in a big world.

Your Chelsea garden for this year is called the Finnish Soul Garden? What are the ideas behind it?

The design is really inspired by the heart of Helsinki. During the week, I live in Töölö and I often walk in Hietaniemi beach. It’s an important beach for people living in the city who spend a lot of time there and because there are also saunas available for rent. It’s something unique, you wouldn’t find this combination in many other cities—where you’re in the city centre, but also somehow feeling like you’re in the countryside. I wanted to recreate this feeling and connect it to the Baltic Sea as well. Even though the Baltic Sea faces serious challenges from pollution, I wanted to talk in a positive way about how important it remains to Finnish people.

The plants I’ve chosen are also linked to plants found on the historic Suomenlinna fortress island, but it wouldn’t be a show garden if I only used plants from Suomenlinna, so I have also included forestry planting and other plants found on Hietaniemi beach. And there are also rocks, because the way the sea kisses the rocks is extremely important. We use a lot of granite and bring the rocks into use in different ways.

Part of the garden is dedicated to an allotment area where we will grow herbs. Something I learned from living in Northern Ireland, but also Finland to an extent, is how important allotments are to people around the world. It’s one way to connect people. Plants are such good ice breakers. Speaking about the plants in your roof garden or allotment is such an easy way to start talking to someone. It’s also an area of the garden where we can eat which is important because Finns go mad for outdoor living in the summer and I wanted to highlight that aspect of the Finnish lifestyle.

Finally, there’s a sauna and on top of the sauna is a green roof because I’m a member of the Fifth Dimension, a green-roof research group at the University of Helsinki. I’m proud of all the hardworking and talented people in the group and it’s my way of informing people of our work and thanking my colleagues.

The design sounds like a combination of your personal background and an expression of Finnish culture.

That’s exactly what it is. When I design something, I often bring my personal experiences to the design. That way there’s a backbone and a story to the design. If you create a garden without a story at its heart, there’s no soul in the garden. And that’s why we’ve called it the Finnish Soul Garden, because there’s a soul—a personal soul, but a connection to the Finnish soul as well.

I’m interested in the research work you do at the University of Helsinki looking at green roofs in urban areas. Could you say more about that? 

We look at things like which plants best support biodiversity in cities and which of those plants best thrive in urban areas. In my design work, I use that research to make decisions about what to plant for various residential housing buildings.

For example, there’s a housing block in Jätkäsaari—the Greenest of the Green—and I’m the mother and Markku Hainari is the father of the roof garden for that project. There are kitchen gardens for residents to grow produce, biodiversity gardens and green facades. The entire block is based on research about how plants best survive in those types of environments, but also about how people want to live, and as a project it has won many awards. The research group has also just published a book about green roofs and biodiversity in Finland, which we’re hoping to have translated into English as well.

Would you say that landscape and garden design is undervalued in new housing developments in Helsinki or is there support for spending money on these things?

There’s quite a lot of support, actually. It’s impossible now to receive planning permission if you haven’t properly considered landscape design and it’s something the City of Helsinki is very strict about. The work also has to be done by professionals, so not only is it thinking about things like how the landscaping fits with the building and the surrounding area, but also things like how greywater is managed and avoiding invasive species use.

You can no longer build the housing and assume it’s fine to landscape however you want. You have to show landscaping at the planning stage, so green space and green infrastructure has changed hugely and become more valued in the last ten years. I think people living in cities have also become more vocal about their demands. They want greenery and trees and they get upset if an old tree is chopped down. The connection to nature in our cities is improving and we are really thinking much more about supporting biodiversity and which plants and trees are best for achieving that in our urban spaces.

What about your work processes? Do you have a dedicated studio space or are you always working outdoors? 

In terms of my process, I take a lot of photographs on my phone. The current number is 103,000! I take so many photos because it’s an easy way to bring back a moment which I’ve felt is important or was an interesting sensation. It’s also like taking visual notes that aid when I’m designing later. The way I design is to scribble something on paper and start from there. With my first Chelsea garden, the first sketch took less than fifteen minutes. It just came out and I knew exactly what I wanted, I don’t know where it came from.

I used to have a dedicated studio, but it was away from home. We have four boys and I’m so used to studying and working surrounded by my family that it didn’t feel right working away by myself. I’m much more productive when I have my family life and noise around me. Having totally quiet surroundings isn’t normal, in cities, gardens or in homes.

At the moment, I have a work table in our Helsinki home, but I’ve ended up gathering all my stuff on our dining table. I take up space there and then move things as I need to. I can work anywhere, really. I work in libraries or have meetings in coffee shops. We have research group meetings at the University or walking meetings and go to sauna afterwards. I’m flexible in the way I work, which I think is important. Overall, I think how I design is linked to my childhood and then what I’ve done as an adult. The people I’ve met in my life and am still lucky to know, these things have a huge influence on me. Good people and their good influence are far more important to me than any particular working space.