My final post about the Garden Academy. Reflecting on the amazing year with have had – lots of highs, very few lows and plenty of silly photos.
The most peculiar moment of the whole experience was when the medals were awarded the day before the show opened to the public. We had been told that it would happen at 2pm, so I eagerly arrived at 1:30pm only to quickly realise that the medals were already waiting for us. However, there was no one else around! So I coolly walked down the row of borders, peering at each medal in turn until I reached my own and to my complete amazement saw a gold medal in front of me. It felt very strange that there was no else there to tell the news to, I think I whispered my exclamations of shock and excitement before reaching for my phone and calling my parents.The show days were absolutely fantastic. Different Academy members joined me each day, it was lovely to share the experience with them and I definitely needed their energy and enthusiasm because I was feeling pretty exhausted. Everyday I was overwhelmed by everyone’s comments. I had never set out with the intention of designing something that was going to be a ‘crowd-pleaser’; in fact until the show began I had not even contemplated what visitors were going to say. I think I was probably too worried about what the judges were going to say first!
When I first arrived at the show I was surprised to see how organised so many of the other designers were when it came to planting. I was pretty jealous, why hadn’t I done a dress rehearsal at home, or devised a planting plan so exact I could unload the plants straight from the van onto the border? Whether my laid back approach was right or wrong, I had an album of key words in my head, which described the atmosphere I wanted to create and I just kept repeating them to myself. I couldn’t visualise the position of every plant, but I could close my eyes and know exactly how I wanted it to feel. I wonder whether this is why it struck a cord with so many people. With out trying to sound overconfident or bigheaded, I somehow managed to cram a mountain of emotion and mood in a 3x3m plot. So when people saw the border it was so much more than just a collection of plants. The three Salix (willow) trees were a big talking point, so many people had to go and inspect the braches to see whether I had glued them on, or arranged them in florist’s oasis. The Rhodanthemum (Atlas Daisy) were incredibly popular too and when the sell-off neared on the final day, people tentatively waited by the border 45 minutes before the sale had even started, just to make sure they could buy a daisy to take home.When the bell rang to signal the start of the sell-off, I climbed into the border and began digging up plants that people wanted. It was a frantic experience and after around 30 minutes of just digging, placing in a pot, passing to the eager crowd and repeating, I looked up to see my Beautiful Border transformed, like a tsunami had washed all of the plants away. It was a little upsetting, but I knew I couldn’t take the plants back with me. The upside was that, because all of the money raised was going to be donated to two charities, Macmillan and Greenfingers, I raised over £700!I had anticipated that the breakdown of the border would probably be an emotional experience. However, I was surprised that it did not feel wrong and on Monday morning as I watched the diggers scoop up the last mounds of soil, I felt happy to have seen the process travel a full circle. I could not feel upset after having the best and most exhilarating week of my life, plus I was too busy contemplating where I should build my next show garden…
My second day on site and I was joined by fellow Academy student, Adam. After leveling out the soil in the border, we sorted through all of the plants, picking off dead flowers, leaves and the odd rogue weed.
As we worked though the plants I decided to start placing a few in the border. Starting with the tall white-flowered Primulas, which needed to be positioned so the willow trees shaded them from the strong afternoon sun. After that I moved onto the low planting around the stepping-stones, trying to make the plants flow between the mosaics.
To begin with it was quite easy to place the plants, but as the border filled I had to start shuffling them around to avoid having blocks of one particular type. I knew I wanted the border to look informal with soft drifts of blue and white flowers and eventually after some experimentation I started to achieve the look I was after.
The sun shone for most of the day and by the late afternoon the plants were in place. We then walked away from the border and returned a while later to scrutinize each plant, circling the border numerous times to check the flow and composition. It was hard to know if they were in exactly the right place, especially with the plants sitting on the soil in their pots. So Adam made the decision and we began! It was great to start putting some plants in the ground and at the end of the day I was really happy with what we had achieved. I can’t believe the border is actually beginning to look like the design I had imagined.
Day three on site, the final full day of working on my Beautiful Border. Owen joined me today to help complete the planting and brought delicious, homemade edible treats to fuel our day! We continued with planting, having to work in harmony with the bees, who did not care that I needed to get the plants in the ground before judging on Wednesday. Owen and I both agreed it was lovely to spend time doing some gardening, even if in quite an unusual setting.
I was animated when the final plant was tucked into the border, only to then find another I had missed whilst watering later in the afternoon. So I got the satisfaction of planting the final plant a second time too. In fact, I then filled another gap with a cornflower, so that’s three huge sighs of relief!
I was so pleased to have the planting finished in really good time, I had been having visions of hurriedly stuffing plants into the border right up until the deadline. This meant that there was plenty of time to titivate (a word which has been thoroughly over-used the last few days), water and put down the bark mulch between the stepping-stones. My original plan had been to leave the protective plastic on the mosaics until Wednesday morning, but once the mulch was down I lost patience and had to reveal them. They need a wash, but even in their slightly muddy state I think they added another level of detail to the border.
I have loved the BBC Gardener’s World Live build. It has had a completely different atmosphere to the Chelsea build, a lot calmer and that has definitely kept any last minute stress at bay. I have obviously loved being able to create a design that I imagined and am a combination of relieved and sad that it is complete. However, I am really excited about talking to visitors once the show opens and hopefully giving them some inspiration to take home. I am really proud of what I have achieved.
A couple of hours up the motorway and I was united with my border. It’s funny that I have spent the last month or two thinking and organising my 3×3 meters plot, yet I could not quite imagine what it would look like until I arrived. It definitely feels a lot bigger than just 3×3 meters and I did not realise it was going to slope quite so much, however once filled with plants it will be a lot less noticeable. Plus, I’m hoping the gradient might work in my favor, giving more height and depth.
The first thing that had to be positioned were the stepping-stones, once they had been laid I was able to play around with where to put the three willows. I really wanted to get them planted by the end of the day, so that I can look at them with fresh eyes tomorrow morning and make sure they really are in the right places. Representing the chimneys of bottle oven kilns, I hope that the way I’ve staggered them will echo the many layers of kilns that would have once dominated the West Midlands’ skyline. The balls of foliage should hopefully provide some light shade, meaning I can have a bigger variety of plants in the border.
It was good to see the plants again today, even though I only last saw them on Friday! I had been worrying about whether I had made the right choices over the weekend. However, by the time I had unloaded them all off the trolleys and placed them in the shade, I thought they looked like they might work well together.
I’m really excited about making a start on the planting tomorrow. It is a little terrifying that I don’t have a concrete plan to work from, but I’m excited to see what I can create.
Experiencing the process of a Chelsea Flower Show garden coming to life over the last few months has made me eager to pick up a pen and start dreaming of designing my own show garden. Although, with the highs we have also seen the lows and there have definitely been times when we have not envied the gruelling obstacles that Adam Frost has had to overcome with his design.
About a month ago I read about the Beautiful Borders category at BBC Gardener’s World Live in Birmingham. It sounded like the perfect opportunity to design a small garden, only 3x3m, but still experience the planning, preparation and atmosphere of being at a show. With nothing to lose and a good opportunity to get the ink flowing from my pens again, I set about designing a garden inspired by the theme of, ‘Industrial Heritage of the West Midlands’.
Last week, completely out of the blue, I had a letter from the RHS confirming that they would like me to bring my design to life at the show! I’m completely over the moon. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the theme and settled upon the pottery industry of the West Midlands as my inspiration. It is a really fascinating subject. I never realised that so many important developments involving the mass-production of ceramics came from that area, plus there are some fantastic contrasts between the beautiful pottery that was created and the people who worked in the factories.
I imagine if I had not been a part of the Garden Academy this year, I might not have entered. However, meeting enthusiastic suppliers, working with Adam Frost and all the other amazing Academy students has given me a real drive. Now it is dawning upon me that I have a lot of planning to do!
About the design:
Inspired by the pottery industry of the West Midlands, particularly Spode and Wedgewood, the border has a white and blue palette, as they are the most common colours associated with these potteries. The planting will be informal, with lots of tall swaying flower heads, coupled with delicate sprawling ground cover. A large pollarded Salix stands in the border as living monument to the world-famous willow pattern. Tall spires of Acanthus tower above the rest of the planting, echoing the chimney-like bottle ovens that would have dominated the skyline. Mosaic stepping-stones cross the border. Made from broken blue and white pottery, the pattern of the stepping-stones reminds us of the factories where the ceramics were produced, with a haunting reminder of the people who tirelessly worked there.