May Garden Academy – Chelsea Part 1

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I imagine it is similar to arriving at multiple film sets. Hustle and bustle, beeping lorries reversing, generators whirring, drilling, hammering, cement mixers churning, shouts and calls from every corner of the site. People dart between forklifts and diggers, as enormous trees are plucked from the ground by cranes. Somehow everyone manages to hurriedly move around and get on with his or her job with out getting in each other’s way. However, the swarm of builders and landscapers will not compare to the 157,000 people that will come to visit the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in just over a week’s time.

I was excited and apprehensive before joining the build of Homebase’s show garden. The eleven-hour days were more than a little daunting. Plus, as I was joining the team less than a week into the build, I wondered whether I could deal with the physical work that would need to be done, on what I knew would be a male-orientated site.

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The Academy had been split up so that three or four of us would be working together on the garden at a time. It was great to see some familiar faces when I arrived at Chelsea and any initial nerves quickly vanished once I was given jobs to do. It felt peculiar to actually be working on the garden after such a long time talking about it and for the first day I was afraid to touch anything just in case I chipped, scratched, dented or damaged it.

Everyday there was about a dozen of us working on different areas of the garden and at the end of each day it was incredible to see the progress that had been made. The space around the garden to store materials and use equipment was really tight, especially as the garden ‘next door’ also shared the same roadway. It amazed me that the huge forklifts and diggers were able to manoeuvre so effortlessly in such a crowded space.

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I did a huge variety of different tasks over the six days on site and had more responsibility than I had imagined. From receiving plant deliveries to laying flooring, I loved the variety of things I got to do. With out a doubt the biggest proportion of my time was spent laying the cedar flooring inside the building and on the roof garden. Having no carpentry experience whatsoever, it was quite possibly the most irritating and addictive thing I’ve ever had to learn to do. There were times when I could not stand the site of it. Cedar, being a soft wood that damages easily, does not respond well to heavy-handedness and frustration when things aren’t going smoothly. Although, it was hugely satisfying to see how adding the wood changed the building and made it look complete.

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I have to admit that after a couple of days I was aching terribly and Thursday was a particularly bad day. That evening I genuinely was not sure how I was going to find the energy to get out of bed the next day. However, it is amazing what copious amounts of tea, bacon butties and biscuits can do to keep morale high. Plus the rest of the Academy were absolute gems to try and keep me going.

By the end of the week the plants had started to arrive. It was a refreshing reprieve to spend some time moving them around and to soak up all the different plants that were going to go into the garden. I am really looking forward to seeing the different flowers and foliage against the manmade materials in the garden, particularly the concrete and cor-ten steel. I was also lucky enough to spend most of a day with Jim Buttress, judge from the BBC’s Great Allotment Challenge, who will be helping with the planting. He is a fountain of knowledge about anything plant-related and it was fascinating to hear about his career in horticulture.

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The atmosphere on the garden was really friendly and positive, especially if the kettle was boiling. The professionals who were guiding us could not have been more helpful, and patient too. Everyday when we travelled back to our hotel, we would talk about how much admiration we have for them. It is an unbelievable amount of hard work and effort to create a garden that will exist at Chelsea for less than a week.

chelsea8Initially I had put my name down to do just the planting, although I am so glad that I decided to do the build instead. I revelled in being one of the few women on site and feel like I can really appreciate the garden because I have seen it whilst the most dramatic changes were occurring.

I was genuinely sad to leave the garden on Saturday evening and decided that after a couple of days rest I would have to go back again to help with the planting. We all knew that Chelsea was going to be an amazing experience, but I think it is exceeding all of our expectations.

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