Chelsea Flower Show 2014

Chelsea Flower Show 2014 was my fifteenth visit to the show but the first time I’d ever exhibited in my own right. In the past, I’d helped plant some of Andy Sturgeon’s gardens and had a taste of how special the ‘behind-the-scene’s experience’ is; how everyone helps each other and how the show looks before the covers are pulled back and it is revealed to the great British public! However, I’d never produced an exhibit myself. It was a fantastic experience and the garden looked great. We were delighted to win a medal and it has sown the seed and the desire to do more show gardens in the future! The short time-span we were allowed to build and plant the space was testing but it’s amazing what can happen when you have real deadlines to put plan into action.

I thought it might be interesting to see how the exhibit grew from the original brief from FERA (Food and Environment Research Agency)—a department within DEFRA who are responsible for plant health in the UK—to the finished garden.

The invitation to participate came in the form of a competition through the Society of Garden Designers. All Registered Members of the SGD were invited to submit a design to answer the following brief:

The exhibit has the working title of “Plants need passports too”. It is intended to provide an eye-catching plant-based display demonstrating how plant pests and diseases could be unintentionally introduced to the UK via plant imports and individuals bringing home plant material from trips abroad. 

The exhibit needs to illustrate how the movement of plants around the world presents a route of pests and diseases to spread, in particular three major risk pathways:

 Ornamental plants imported from Asia—ornamentals such as Acers are a potential pathway for damaging pests such as Citrus and Asian Longhorn Beetles.

 Large specimen trees from continental Europe—outbreaks of the highly damaging pest Oak Processionary Moth (OPM) are thought to have resulted from the importation of semi-mature oak trees on which OPM eggs had been laid.

 Private imports/passenger baggage—the introduction of Fuchsia gall mites from South America has been attributed to the import of propagating material by private Fuchsia enthusiasts.

The Brief was sent out at the beginning of January 2014—relatively late in the day for a Chelsea exhibit—but everything is possible if the mind is focused!  I submitted a proposal in the form of a sketch and by the end of January—my submission had won the competition and the pressure was on! The photos below show the progress from the initial rough sketches and notes to detailing the build and construction.

Original Sketch for FERA exhibit at Chelsea Flower Show 2014

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Every Chelsea garden is put together by a team.  The Client produces the brief and the budget; the designer the concept, the detail and the planting scheme and a team of contractors makes the whole thing happen! The construction is so important and can make or break a garden. All too often the accolades are lapped up by the Client and the Designer but without the muscle, skill and organisation of the Contracting team – Chelsea would not happen.

My contractors were a mixed bunch this year! The exhibit was not a conventional garden space and as such it needed the skills more often seen at an exhibition or in a theatre when building a stage set rather than traditional garden builders. I pulled on the resources of  companies I had worked with in the past during my marketing career. Exhibition stand builders, set builders and a very talented scenic artist joined forces with The English Garden Company to turn the loose sketches into the finished product.

The majority of the exhibit was built in a large warehouse just off the M4 in Berkshire and then shipped to SW3 for the installation. The graphics and airport signs were approved by the Border Agency and produced by my marketing agency (cforce); the copy written to ensure that the client’s brief was answered and the plants sourced from my reputable and fantastic suppliers.

The specimen Oak was sourced from Majestic Trees, the shrubs were bought from North Hill Nurseries and the herbaceous material from Orchard Dene Nurseries under the watchful eye of the horticultural genius Chris Marchant! The tree was always going to be tricky as Oaks are one of the last trees to leaf-up in our climate and a fairly cool spring meant that our chosen specimen was looking resplendent … in bud … right up until two weeks before the show. Plan B was put into action and another specimen chosen and put into the greenhouse at the nursery to speed development!  The herbaceous plants were delivered to my garden early on to ensure we had what we wanted for the show. I then brought them on; re-potted, cosseted, pruned and titivated until they were show-worthy! We spent days covering the specimens with shade netting to prevent scorching or too much growth; uncovering in dull weather to promote growth; even fleecing to prevent frost damage at a ridiculously late point in the season and watering—just enough to keep everything looking amazing. This was possibly the most stressful part of the whole show and something I would do differently if I were to repeat the experience again!

Exhibits in the Discovery Zone were allowed on site exactly a week before the show opened to the public and Tuesday morning, we were at Chelsea ready to start the construction. The large show gardens were well under way but the marquee was completely empty and looked slightly sad and forgotten when we arrived. How this changed almost overnight!

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The basic construction took a couple of days and then Jonny, the amazing scenic artist took on the job of turning the walls of the stand into rusted shipping containers! The lighting and fixing was installed and the plants arrived on site.

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The finishing touches including cleaning, snagging, covering the planting areas with mulch and ensuring everything looked perfect took place on Sunday and then—as the showground closed—we left the garden to the Client and the RHS Judges!

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FERA were delighted with the results and had a good show with many opportunities to speak to the general public and the media.  After the show closed, some of the plants from the garden went to FERA’s offices to form part of their Centenary display in York and all the others went to excellent homes via the charity Groundwork London. Every year the RHS run a reuse scheme at RHS Chelsea Flower Show and this scheme aims to ensure show build materials and plants have a life after Chelsea. Taking part in the Reuse scheme reduces waste costs for exhibitors and has a hugely beneficial impact on local community projects. Groundwork collected the plants from the show during breakdown and these and any useable landscaping products were taken to community projects in Wandsworth. Their intention is to create at least 10 new community gardens on neglected spaces in some of the most deprived communities across London. In doing so, they enable resident groups and volunteers to improve their existing community gardens and growing spaces and offer local people the opportunity to learn how to build and look after their new community gardens and gain accredited horticultural training and work experience to help get them back into work. It was comforting to know that the plants I had nurtured for the past three months were moving on to provide beneficial enjoyment to so many people!