This is really happening…

Initial sketches developing my garden design…

Every morning for the last few weeks I have looked in the mirror and thought to myself, ‘Is this actually happening?’ Every week, something occurs that makes it all a little bit more real. Paperwork to sign, the surreal joy of ‘tree shopping’, writing biographies about myself and then today, the exciting news shared with the rest of the gardening world.

For a long time I have wanted to build a show garden and this year I am lucky enough to be a Young Designer of the Year finalist at RHS Tatton Park Flower Show.

It’s going to be one hell of a journey and as people keep on kindly pointing out, the next few months are going to fly by.

I could easily lock myself away from now until July, mumbling about plant heights, measurements and the number of grey hairs that may appear on my head. However, I want to share the experience, so that on Tuesday 17th July when I am stood on my completed garden, I can remember just how much has been achieved.

Hopefully I can give a little behind-the-scenes snapshot of the process, from finding plants, to scratching my head over construction methods. I’m also making several handmade features for the garden too. There is every possibility they might not work, but I’ve got everything crossed that they will.

I’ll write more about my garden in the coming weeks, but you can also read about it on the RHS website.

Advertisements

Places: The Beth Chatto Gardens

After such a long hiatus (take a look at my Published work to see what I’ve been up to), I couldn’t help but write about a long awaited trip to a very special garden.

bethchatto1

Stood with in earshot of the A120, and less than 15 minutes from the centre of Colchester, it is difficult to imagine that a garden could so easily transport you away from the present moment. And yet among the island beds of Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden, I could have been stood in the mountainous foothills where she found inspiration.

The Gravel Garden was started in 1991, converting 0.35ha (¾ acre) of parched grass car park into a new garden. Faced with low average annual rainfall and poor quality, heavily compacted soil there was uncertainty about whether anything would ever grow. However, instead of despairing at the conditions Beth used these to her advantage. This included taking into consideration the changing weather patterns, with hotter, dryer summers and milder winters.

By early spring 1992 the first plants started to fill dry riverbed-inspired design. Beth used hosepipes to define the beds, creating two long outer borders with a series of sinuous island beds between. The pathways looped their way around the garden with no formal direction or shape.

bethchatto5

bethchatto3

Bergenia and Poa labillardieri (left); Allium sphaerocephalon (right)

Every plant was dunked in a bucket of water until saturated, planted and watered again, after that only Mother Nature would provide further watering. To begin with Beth experimented with plants that grew wild in countries bordering the Mediterranean; tolerating free-draining soil and dry summers. She knew that not every plant would be able to cope with the irrigation-free conditions and at the end of the first summer wrote: ‘Not all plants will be successful, some may die, other may prove unsuitable, or simply it may be I won’t like the effect, or the way one thing smothers out another.’

Exploring the borders

In a dry, gravel-covered garden, especially on a hot summer’s day, the atmosphere could have felt arid. However, the Gravel Garden is anything but. The planting is abundant and vivid, combining herbaceous stalwarts with unusual neighbours. Swathes of purple and silver, including Allium sphaerocephalon, Eryngium giganteum and Verbena bonariensis mix with airy grasses, such as Stipa tenuissima and S. gigantea. The planting is a magnet for wildlife too, with pollinators hopping between blooms and birds taking cover in the plants.

bethchatto2

bethchatto4

Sedum telephium (Atropurpureum Group) ‘Karfunkelstein’; Verbena officinalis var. grandiflora ‘Bampton’; Origanum laevigatum

Many of us are driven by colour when we garden, but in the Gravel Garden dramatic combinations of texture and shape are the main focus – even in the height of summer. At the edge of one bed the almost succulent leaves of Bergenia, with their stout, upright stems of flowers are set against a background of the fine billowing New Zealand blue grass, Poa labillardierei.

Elsewhere, Verbascum bombyciferum seeds freely around the garden. As a biennial, the silvery leaves create architectural rosettes, before throwing up triffid-like spires of yellow flowers that tower over the borders. The rosettes, which almost look like a Sempervivum on steroids, are such a contrast to the surrounding plants, including the strap leaves and arching blue heads of Agapanthus, and delicate, scented Origanium. Somehow everything is harmonious, yet the considered planting design means that every border is punctuated by a glut of shape and texture.

bethchatto6

Verbascum bombyciferum

With such a varied and rich use of plants, the gravel plays an important role in keeping the whole area securely linked together. Although the borders and pathways have clear definition, the sea of gravel that creeps between the spreading plants softens any hint of a line.

In many ways the Gravel Garden doesn’t feel like a garden at all. It is an ongoing plant study, living art installation, nod towards our changing climate and sickening proof that so many of us could spend less time watering. If the ‘right plant, right place’ adage needed a mascot the Gravel Garden would surely be it. Flaunting the rules of planting may seem like fun, but if following them can create a garden as beautiful as Beth’s then I’m happy to oblige.

Photos taken: early August 2016


Visit The Beth Chatto Gardens website for more information.

 

Gardener’s World Live – Day 1

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt 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.

BBC Gardener’s World Live – A confession

photo-6

Wrapped and ready to go

I cannot start work on my Beautiful Border soon enough. Even though a large part of me just wants to be at home in sunny Somerset and celebrate my first sweet pea flowers opening, if I worry about how I’m going to place my plants for many more days I will be grey-haired by the time the show opens.

press

I’ve been appearing here, there and everywhere.

Yesterday I visited New Forest nursery to select the plants I will be using in the border. Everyone was hugely helpful and even more patient as I wondered back and forth between row upon row of plants, trying to make firm decisions. I am really happy that the plants are now sorted and I have got some beautiful things, but it was hard. There was no one there to hold my hand and it felt weird that I just had to make my mind up.

So, having previously spent my time worrying about not having any plants, I am now worrying about the plants I do have and I am feeling a bit embarrassed.

Is a public show really the best place to bring my first ever planting design to life?

I should have probably done something behind closed doors first, with out prowling TV presenters and judges with clipboards to look at what I’m doing. I have plenty of books about planting design and I have spent far too many hours adding hundreds of garden photos to my Pinterest account, but nothing compares with practice and experience.

Trying to think a bit more positively, if I can, for want of a better phrase, ‘pull it off’, then it hopefully proves that anyone who wants to have a go at designing his or her own border absolutely must give it a try. However, unless they want some added pressure, maybe in the familiar surroundings of their own home first.

Today I have been packing the van with everything from tea to topsoil and then tomorrow morning I am off to the NEC to start work on my blank canvas. I’m wondering when it’s going to sink in that I’m actually bringing my design to life, hopefully sometime in the next 24hours…

photo-7

Not everyone is quite so worried

The Urban Retreat in photos

urbanretreat1

Now that the Chelsea Flower Show is over, it is sad to think that photos are the only means we have to revisit so many beautiful gardens. I hope I have taken enough to remember all of the little details that intrigued and fascinated me, especially in our garden. The texture of intense green leaves again the coarse rusty steel. The contrast of shapes throughout the garden; bold collections of circles sitting within linear boundaries of concrete and the way the building perfectly framed the jungle-planting behind. Watching bees appear from nowhere and make the garden their temporary home, and the spicy, sweet smell of cedar. One benefit is that I can spend as long as I want looking at each photo, studying the layers of planting or the sun through the petals of the Iris. They flatten the busy real-life scene into a one-layered image and really allow the garden to be fully appreciated as a whole.

urbanretreat3

urbanretreat7

urbanretreat4

urbanretreat8

urbanretreat6

urbanretreat5

RHS Chelsea Flower Show Part 2 – The Planting

CP5I returned to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show last week to experience four days of planting. The garden had altered dramatically since I was last at SW3, even though I had only been away for a couple of days! A fortress of plant trolleys guarded the developing design. Two-deep and surrounding the two open sides of the garden, uniformed rows of solider-like plants were ready and waiting to create wildlife friendly borders.

CP6

CP4Come rain or shine a small team of people worked tirelessly to recreate Adam’s vision of the planting. To begin with I found it hard to imagine how the completed scheme would look, but suddenly the puzzle pieces all locked together and the drifts of tall spires naturally flowed between borders. The bees began taking full advantage of the beautiful blooms, especially the nodding bonnets of the Aquilegia and the striking bursts of orange Geums. The garden has three distinct areas of planting. At the front of the garden three long rectangular beds overflow with bright, soft herbaceous plants. On the roof of the architectural Bauhaus building square corten planters are filled with wildflower turf, a perfect place for a cedar-wood beehive. Finally, at the back of garden is the jungle, where lush Tree Ferns, Hostas and Euphorbias weave their way between smooth concrete stepping-stones. I love this secret area, which takes complete advantage of a shady aspect enclosed by tall Yew hedges.

As the design drew closer to completion we had to dance our way around the garden (and one another) trying not to get the concrete or cedar dirty. Our efforts at trying to keep the walkways clean and mud-free were dampened on Thursday, when torrential rain poured down on the show ground all day. Cups of tea became hand warmers, as well as fuel to keep us going and I realised how lucky we have been to have so many dry days.

CP3

CP2The areas of turf were one of the last things to be completed. All the Chelsea gardens have pristine lawns, which are laid around the perimeter of the design, like putting a frame around a painting. Although, I have noticed that Adam’s garden is one of the only ones on Main Avenue to have a ‘proper’ lawn included with in the design. Perhaps lawns are not very fashionable anymore, however there is nothing nicer than spreading a blanket on the grass on a hot day and lying in the sun. The fresh blades of grass are like the punctuation between the overflowing borders and the crisp pools of water and I think they both soften and accentuate the framework of concrete copings.

CP1I have spent over 130 hours on site, with a diet consisting mostly of tea and takeaways. I knew that I would learn lots of new skills, especially having never experienced a garden being constructed before. Although, I had no idea about the variety of different things I would get to do. There are definitely lots of less obvious things that I have gained too, including an awful lot of patience and a keen new eye for attention to detail. I have heard a lot of people saying that it is not a competition between you and your neighbour; it is a competition with yourself. They are completely right. When you are soaked through to your skin with little sleep, probably smelling pretty unattractive and covered in more dirt than just one shower will wash off, you need to dig deep and find your own momentum to keep going.

 

RHS Chelsea Flower Show Part 1 – The Build

chelsea1

chelsea9

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.

chelsea2

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.

chelsea3

chelsea4

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.

chelsea5

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.

chelsea7

chelsea6

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.

Show Garden Update – April

Probably about time I did an update about my forthcoming show garden!

showgarden

I think everything is starting to take shape. I’m trying to get as much done as soon as I can, just in case any unexpected problems arise – quite possible considering I am feeling my way through the whole process. Whenever I sit down to spend some time planning one particular aspect, I usually realise I have at least four other things to plan before I can finish what I started.

I’ve been busy making final decisions about the number of plants I’m going to need. Probably over 200. The tree for the border has almost been finalised. Finding a mature pollarded willow has been difficult, so instead I have opted for three Salix that have been woven into bold living columns. Their shape is reminiscent of the chimneys of bottle oven kilns, which would have dominated the industrial skyline. Standing like living monuments to the pottery industry and the world-famous willow pattern.

I have started designing my mosaic stepping-stones and have a good collection of blue and white ceramics to use. Found in charity shops and boxes of plates that never made it into our cupboards, they are so lovely I feel guilty about breaking them. Imagine if one of them was a priceless heirloom and I take a hammer to it!

Juggling working full-time and trying to organise my border is a little tricky. I could easily spend all my time deliberating over the planting plan or the design of my leaflet, so perhaps it’s a good thing that lack of time will make me more focused. Fingers crossed the completed garden will look like the image I have in my head.

Starting Small – My First Show Garden

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!

gardeners world design

‘The Potteries’, Beautiful Borders Design by Nicola Oakey

 

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.