I have no formal qualifications as a garden designer, but this year will be my 10th designing a show garden for the Chelsea Flower Show.
Show gardens for Chelsea are a labour of love. Run by the Royal Horitcultural Society (RHS), the show lasts a week and gets international coverage, so the individual gardens are a chance to showcase your work to the world and inspire trends for the coming year.
As it is a competition, designing a winning garden puts you at the front of the horticultural world. There will be blood, sweat and potentially tears – as well as a huge amount of fun and laughter.
I always think of a show garden a bit like an iceberg; there is a great deal of work to be done during the build but there is an awful lot of preparation that goes on before and once the show is over, too. You can put a year of your life into a show garden that is viewed for only a few days.
Day to day, I run my own garden design business. We do a lot of work in towns and cities and always have projects on the go, from tiny courtyards to large estates. But planning for Chelsea starts almost as soon as the previous show has ended so it can feel like your feet barely touch the ground.
If I am working with a sponsor, a lot of planning time will be spent on initial ideas, explaining my thinking and how it reflects their brief. It is the same process as any garden design really, except that the plans and information generated will form your application to the RHS. So no pressure!
Then there is usually a nail-biting wait while the application is considered. If you are lucky enough to be approved then the ‘Chelsea machine’ starts immediately in terms of final material selections, trees and plants.
Inspiration for my designs comes from many places. Whether consciously or unconsciously, I am constantly observing my surroundings and absorbing the space, plant combinations, textures, finishes and materials used in unusual ways.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to design just as long as the proportions of the various plants fit together. The only true taboo is to sow the wrong plant in the wrong soil or situation – it’s horticulture’s cardinal sin!
I am enormously lucky to work with a brilliant team who all contribute to the design process with extremely can-do attitudes, but building a show garden is tough work.
When we are preparing a show garden for Chelsea we work 16-hour days (let alone the off-site pre-Chelsea preparations).
It would be lovely if all we had to do was design and build a garden, but after show week there is breakdown when the efforts of a 16-day build are reduced to flat-pack in just five days.
No matter how much planning you do for a show garden at Chelsea Flower Show, there is always something that comes out of left field once you start to build.
I’ve come across bits of the old marquee, manholes and a water pipe in various locations that have all had an impact on the design and progress. I remember cutting up 3.5 miles of fiber optic cable into 75mm lengths and into 75,000 pieces for a garden wall, which was pretty nuts. It’s all brilliant fun but we hold our breath until the last screw and plant are in place.
I have always approached show gardens knowing that they are loved passionately for a few days and then live on in our memories, blisters, splinters, cuts and bruises ever after! Perhaps the hardest bit is standing still for 12 hours during the show, talking to people and sounding sensible while trying to keep from falling asleep. Adrenalin can only get you so far and I have been known to have a sneaky speed nap in a garden.
The long wait from judging to medals day, and the terror of opening your medals card, is far more stressful and exhausting than any of the build days.
The reveal of the medal can bring either tears of joy or sadness – but generally it’s just relief.
People are often intrigued as to how I became a garden designer. I was working full time in a general admin role and needed some creativity in my life, so I started looking for an evening class like pottery or sculpture, and somehow stumbled onto a garden design course instead.
No two days are the same (apart from an over-enthusiastic consumption of coffee) and I could write a book with the oddities that I have been asked to design into gardens or that I have seen, many of which are possibly not actually printable. I once found half a dead pigeon and a boomerang in my bag after leaving it too close to some roofers on site who thought it would be funny to pop these in.
I am also completely prone to do stupid things, especially when Chelsea is approaching; I have left the handbrake off a car and filled another car with the wrong fuel. Replying to emails at speed with auto-correct is also both dangerous and sometimes downright embarrassing.
Gardening has a reputation for being a pursuit for older people (perhaps because older generations have more time to garden) but younger generations are slowly realising how rewarding it is to plant something and watch it grow and thrive.
I am also well aware that garden maintenance isn’t a sexy statement, but the key to creating a beautiful garden is hard work. You can put together a great design, but if it’s not cared it’ll turn into a weed patch pretty quickly, as well as a complete waste of money.
Our private gardens are becoming ever more important to the environment, especially in urban areas, so being able to attract wildlife, bees and butterflies may encourage young people to garden themselves and hopefully it will grow their appreciation for how much we need plants.
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