Chelsea Flower Show
My first visit to RHS Chelsea Flower Show was as a boy being dragged, kicking and screaming, by my mum. I thought it would be full of the “paisley-skirted ladies who lunch” brigade. Turns out I enjoyed it in all its diversity, the wacky and bizarre end of things, of course! But I was also struck by the elegant, contemporary urban gardens – something I hadn’t been exposed to in my beloved rural Yorkshire.
My next visit was as a freshly graduated design student from the INCHBALD School of Design and I was accompanied by my father. Dad was the de facto “head gardener” throughout my childhood – in charge of all grass cutting, loose horse chasing, Dutch elm felling and so on. Therefore, I viewed him (with hindsight, a tad unwisely) as the true font of all garden knowledge. There we were, standing by a striking main avenue show garden – surrounded by the aforementioned “paisley-skirted ladies” – I asked my Dad what the nice blue coloured flowers were.
“Just a bit of old catmint,” was his confident reply. Which was good enough for me. However, a kindly giggle from the ladies was followed by the correction that these were in fact salvias. This was the first dint in my blind trust of dad’s horticultural prowess. He, on the other hand, was completely undeterred and we spent a happy afternoon touring the show “identifying” plants.
Fast-forward to our 2009 gold medal winning garden “Nature Ascending” – by this stage I knew a little more! With this year’s Chelsea Flower Show just around the corner I thought I’d offer my two-pennies worth – and reminisce on the elements I consider key to creating a successful flower show garden.
“No alarms and no surprises please!”
Like all ATD projects by the time were on site we knew the design inside out. The process of creating the necessary 3D modelling, CAD elevations, sketches and plans form an extensive key planning tool – allaying fears of any unexpected last minute rethinks. Chelsea is no exception. Thus, it should be with quiet confidence that one sees, in a staggering 2-4 weeks, the garden being constructed. The work itself is like being reacquainted with an old friend – and it is a delight to witness a three-dimensional space emerge and bloom so swiftly.
A great team, who are fully invested in the project is both essential and much more fun than working alone. We also collaborate with great perennial nurseries, tree nurseries, metal workers, plant specialists and contractors – who are key to scheduling deliveries on site (expect mayhem!) – timing plant blooms, to mock-ups and pre-build.
For “Nature Ascending”, we created a full-scale mock-up, using bamboo sticks, to get a better sense of movement through the garden and relative proportions. This was instructive and provoked some important amendments. Add to this render sample boards, “deck on edge” spacing options, stainless steel bolt variations and you start to get the idea of what it takes, the scale of it and the detail.
The build process has great potential to become stressful. That said, our own experience wasn’t so much about stress – more an intense feeling of being in the eye-of-the-storm. For all the reasons mentioned above, it was a demanding but stimulating collaboration between designers and contractors – good designers know when to interfere as little as possible! The work of a designer is often solitary, so this onsite element is always rewarding if you have good people around you who understand how you work. Once the main hard structures are in place and the planting begins then the designers take on full control of the site – this is exciting and intimidating in equal measure.
Quite suddenly you find that your trusty build comrades are gone and, in a show of two parts, you’re standing there alone in your Monday evening finest waiting for a visit from the royal troupe. It’s a strange juxtaposition that happens rather fast. There is satisfying a sense of achievement and relief – all that can be done has been done. The assessors and judges visit and give their verdict the following morning. Gold medals are nice – but if you yourself are proud of your work, really, that is good enough! The medal system is famously opaque and one can slip on a simple slight of wording – with the ‘brief’ being as important as the garden the public get to see. Experience counts!
As the week progresses, the vibe changes. The tv interviews and chats with Royals morph into something altogether rowdier – the great British public (including those knowledgeable, paisley-skirted ladies who lunch) three-deep, all clambering for a good view. These visitors exhibit such genuine enthusiasm for the show, the gardens, and the plants that it is hard not to be swept away with the ‘fizz’ of it all.
And then it’s over. Sadness mixed with a certain lingering, restless ambition and I find myself thinking, “right, these are three ideas I have for next year!