Taking the Chelsea challenge
PUBLISHED: 14:56 26 February 2016 | UPDATED: 16:30 26 February 2016
Cotswold gardeners will be well represented at this year's Chelsea. Mandy Bradshaw has been talking to them about their plans
It may have been jetlag but when we meet, Jekka McVicar still seems faintly disbelieving that her first Chelsea show garden has finally got the go-ahead. The project has been fraught with difficulties but somehow seemed destined to ultimately succeed.
“It’s unbelievable the serendipity that surrounds this garden,” says the well-known herb grower, “It’s quite something.”
Plans were laid for ‘A Modern Apothecary’ months ago when Jekka met Dr Michael Dixon and sculptor Susan Bacon, who is also chair of the RHS herb group, to discuss creating a Chelsea garden that would show the importance of herbs to well-being and health.
At first, all went well: Jekka put together a design and sponsorship was found. Then, just as the RHS approved the proposal, disaster struck as the sponsor withdrew, plunging the scheme into doubt. With Jekka booked to lecture on an RHS holiday abroad, there was little time to find another backer.
“I rang around everyone, every friend, anybody, everybody.”
Those friends included chef Jamie Oliver who was “absolutely fabulous” and put her in touch with others but for many firms the request came too far into the financial year and funds were already allocated.
Then the first piece of serendipity came along. Just one week before the RHS deadline of Jekka’s departure, the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth approached the Society to ask about sponsoring a garden.
Poignantly, Jekka finally met hospital representatives on the same day as attending the funeral of her best friend’s daughter, who had died aged just 30. At the meeting she was told the garden would eventually be re-sited at St John’s Hospice, which is supported by the private hospital. It all seemed so fitting.
“It’s a really sad story and a beautiful story all in one.”
Even then, the scheme had to be approved by the hospital’s trustees, a confirmation that came only while Jekka was abroad.
The final piece in this jigsaw of coincidence and chance was on an answerphone message she played on her return. In it, sundial maker Joanna Migdal, who is married to Jekka’s cousin, revealed that one of her most moving commissions had been for St John’s Hospice. Jekka had seen the sundial when she visited the site but had not realised it was Joanna’s work.
“I had said it would make a lovely centrepiece for the garden,” she recalls. “Every which way this garden is meant to be. I’m just so pleased because it’s just so right.”
Her design is simple: a circle within a square with a water feature at its heart.
“Water is everything to life,” comments Jekka, who now runs workshops at her South Gloucestershire herb farm.
A cobble and brick path, designed for walking on barefoot, runs through beds packed with health benefitting herbs, including fennel, a digestive and diuretic, antioxidant and antibacterial oregano and wild celery used to counter osteoarthritis and gout. The garden will also feature ‘Jekka’s Thyme’ a May-flowering variety bred by Jekka and Lavandula viridis ‘Jekka’s Blue’, which has never been shown before.
The outer area is given over to a herb ley, with plants, such as chicory, that help maintain soil vitality. There will be mown paths through and height from espalier apples, columns of yew, used to fight cancer, and hawthorn, which promotes a healthy heart.
“I grew up as a child eating hawthorn sandwiches,” recalls Jekka.
A bronze statue by Susan Bacon of the rod of Asclepius will reinforce the link between herbs and medicine.
Jekka, who has grown herbs for 30 years, is raising 90 per cent of the 15,000 plants needed, including plugs of weeds to ‘drop into’ the path: “Chelsea is all about detail.” The scheme will then be put together by Chelsea veterans Crocus: “I’m so grateful I’ve got Crocus to lean on.”
While she has won 62 RHS gold medals, 14 of them at Chelsea, they have all been for exhibits in the Great Pavilion. This is her debut show garden and her first exhibit since 2009 when she won the prestigious Lawrence Medal.
“I felt I could only go down after that. I’ve been chairman of judges for the floral marquee for the past five years at Chelsea. It’s going to be great to be there as an exhibitor.”
What excites her is the chance to show off her herbs: “I want to show how fantastic herbs are as garden plants. By simple planting and with a simple palette I want to be able to give inspiration and for people to say ‘I could do that at home’.”
Chris Beardshaw’s garden for Great Ormond Street Hospital
Beautifully composed herbaceous planting has always been a feature of Cotswold designer Chris Beardshaw’s work. His Chelsea entry this year will be different. Rather than using colour to make an impact, his garden for Great Ormond Street Hospital will be based on texture.
“It’s not hugely glamorous colours,” he explains. “That’s not really what this scheme is about. It’s about the subtlety of texture and the interplay between those textures.”
The design, sponsored by Morgan Stanley, has been dictated by its site, not at Chelsea but at the world famous children’s hospital. After the show, the garden will be relocated on a two-storey rooftop at the heart of the hospital, where it will be almost completely shaded by surrounding buildings.
“It’s bringing new life into the heart of the hospital,” comments Chris, who is based in Cheltenham.
To deal with these conditions, he has created a woodland garden with a top storey of trees, such as dissected acers and multi-stemmed liriodendron.
“It will be coppiced so we get a rejuvenation of life from the base of the tree that fulfils part of the story of the garden about the cyclical nature of life.”
Coppicing will also maintain the drama of specimen trees without allowing them to become too big both for the site and the overall design. Meanwhile, hi-tech solutions, including light-weight growing mediums and ways of anchoring trees to stop them moving in the wind, will overcome the challenges of a roof-top garden.
“In a way it’s no more complicated creating this garden than a normal garden.”
Fleeting colour in the tree canopy will come from Cornus kousa, C. mas and C. controversa, while a “tapestry of woodland flowers” underneath will feature ferns, epimedium, trillium and luzula.
“It should really enjoy being a green space, a jewel-like space where colours are there to allow us to lose ourselves in the garden. The flowers are deliberately small and hidden within the garden and not blousy and ostentatious.”
Running through the garden will be a reflective water feature, and a Japanese-style pavilion, designed in three interlocking sections, will provide a place to sit and reflect.
Underpinning the project is the desire to provide a green space both for the youngsters undergoing treatment and their families.
“It’s a role that at the moment is missing through much of the hospital,” says Chris. “A space in which we can sit and relax, contemplate and perhaps find a new perspective.”
And creating a garden that has a purpose beyond the few weeks of Chelsea is for him the most important element; his gold-medal winning design for last year’s Chelsea was part of a much larger community garden and has now been relocated to Poplar, London.
“The reason for me to be at Chelsea and the thing that motivates me is the reality of the gardens. It’s the fact they will have a very specific role. It’s a dream scenario.”
Peter Dowle and James Basson mark 40 years of L’Occitane
Landscape designer and builder Peter Dowle will be helping to create a slice of Provence at this year’s Chelsea to mark the 40th anniversary of beauty firm L’Occitane.
Working with designer James Basson, he’s building a Main Avenue garden that depicts the landscape of Haute Provence where Olivier Baussan founded the firm in 1976.
It will, explains Peter, be a design that draws heavily on the native plants of the area, using sages thymes, small-leaved holly and wild French lavender. Specimen trees will include almonds and the white oak, Quercus pubescens.
“It has a light, felty underside to the leaf,” says Peter, who also runs a nursery near Ruardean. “I’ve never used it at Chelsea before and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it as a feature tree.”
One corner of the plot will be planted with lavender to give visitors the impression of standing on the edge of a commercial field, looking out to the woods and then plains of the area. There will be a traditional stone borrie and a stream running through the space.
The project will see the return of last year’s design and build partnership that won gold for L’Occitane with a depiction of a perfumer’s garden. Although it too was based in Provence, Peter stresses that the feel will be very different.
“We’re not going to have olives, figs, osmanthus, things that we’ve had in the past. It is something quite different. It’s a privilege to be involved.”
John Everiss’ Meningitis Now garden
There’s a fine balancing act in creating a successful charity show garden. Err too much on the side of caution and the message will be lost among the flowers. Too far the other way and it risks becoming more advert than garden.
It’s a balance that designer John Everiss is determined to master in his Chelsea garden for Gloucestershire-based Meningitis Now. While the aim is to highlight the charity’s work and the way people cope with the aftermath of the disease, he is determined to create something that is also a beautiful space.
“It’s important to have a story with a garden,” says John, “but it can be a bit overwhelming and the garden can be lost in the story. I want the story to come out after people look at the garden.”
The Artisan garden marks the 30th anniversary of an outbreak of meningitis in Stroud and the formation of the Meningitis Trust; two years ago it merged with Meningitis UK to create Meningitis Now, which supports affected families and works to raise awareness of the disease.
Central to the design are five 3D wooden sculptures, modelled on real children, a striking modern counterpoint to traditional, country-style planting. John is using the 3D modelling techniques he employed last year in his ‘The Evaders Garden’ although this time the sculptures will be solid wood rather than layered metal.
“We’re using hard wood ply so when they are finished they will have layers of colour running through.”
The first sculpture is seen running, carefree through the planting unaware of what is about to happen.
“This garden is about lives changing,” explains Amanda Oxford, the charity’s development director. “This disease comes out of nowhere. People liken it to a car crash.”
This suddenness is represented by a dry stone wall – another often used metaphor is that meningitis is like hitting a brick wall – while a second wall represents recovery and adapting to changed circumstances.
“It’s about taking what you’ve got and turning it into something amazing,” says Amanda.
Two of the sculptures are shown going through the disease wall, one reaching through for help, the other failing to reappear.
John explains: “It’s important that those who have lost children or young adults are represented in this garden as well.”
The final two figures are on the recovery side of the garden, one reaching back to offer a helping hand, the other setting off to run again. Both will show the sort of disability that can often result from meningitis and have been inspired by the charity’s Young Ambassadors, including Paralympic hopeful cyclist Lauren Booth.
A gravel path – a calm moment of reflection between illness and resuming life – runs between the two walls to a folly at the back where a stone tableau depicts the Greek god of medicine, Asclepius, and his five daughters. The charity’s motto, ‘Believe and Achieve’, is also featured.
Fittingly, given the charity’s Gloucestershire roots, the style is pure Cotswold with local stone used for the walls and folly and plenty of herbaceous planting, set against a yew backdrop.
The colours are soft pastels, with lavender, Stachys lanata, veronica, pimpinella and the sculptures’ soft cedar tones. Specimen Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ and lilac will provide height, while Welsh poppies, white honesty and miniature iris will be ‘self-seeded’ in the gravel.
“What I want it to look like is a country garden where the owners are keeping on top of it but only just,” says John. “I don’t want it all coiffured and perfect.”
Running through the planting will be flecks of orange – Meningitis Now’s colour – provided by the Welsh poppies and geums, including ‘Totally Tangerine’. This splash of colour will increase from left to right to symbolise the on-going help the charity gives families affected by meningitis.
It’s a spirit of co-operation and mutual aid that runs through the whole project: the cost is being met by private donors; stone firm Chilstone are donating the materials for the folly and walls; the garden will be built with the help of Young Ambassadors.
“We’ve received so much support,” says Amanda. “This garden provides the vehicle for us to tell our story and the story of these inspiring young people.”