The afterlife of an RHS Flower Show Garden

By Jane Perrone

The Chelsea Flower Show is nothing short of miraculous. It takes 19 days to build pristine show gardens that look as if they’ve been established for decades; once the show is over, in just five more days the gardens vanish and the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London have returned to flat turf.

But what happens to those gardens once they are taken apart, the plants prized from the ground and the paving stones stacked up?

I have been attending Chelsea for nine years now, and the fate of the plants, trees, shrubs, hard landscaping, sculptures and structures that make up the gardens has always nagged at me.

In my early years at the show, I’d ask designers what was going to happen to their “shack at the back” - designer-speak for the structures that usually grace gardens.

Sometimes the response would be a shrug, or they’d say it was destined for a client’s garden; perhaps even their own.

Lots of plants and materials were reused and recycled, but it wasn’t something the designers and their sponsors felt the need to publicise.

There’s always been one part of the show where hardly a plant goes to waste. The final day at Chelsea, the Saturday sell-off as it’s known, is famous for the scrum of visitors trying to bag their favourite iris or astrantia, but the action tends to be focused in the Great Pavilion where the nurseries offload stock they do not wish to transport home.

Show gardens get involved less often, although there are exceptions: Chelsea first-timer Ian Price sold many of the plants from his gold medal winning 2017 Mind Trap garden in the fresh category to raise money for the charity Perennial, for instance.

These days, though, many more gardens are being relocated lock, stock and barrel. Judging by the flow of press releases that I receive around show season, the fate of the gardens has gone from an afterthought to a key part in the PR narrative of many garden, with press releases sent out announcing that a garden will be transferred wholesale to a new location.

Katherine Potsides, RHS deputy show manager, says the RHS encourages designers to think about an afterlife for their Chelsea garden right from the application process onwards. “It’s a great way for a sponsor or designer to add a bit of longevity to a Chelsea campaign,” she tells me.

During Chelsea, the RHS champions such measures by issuing a list to the press of how gardens are going to be used, and teams up with a reuse partner to ensure that any plants not already earmarked for reuse find a new home nonetheless. This year it’s Wayward Plants, an organisation that worked with a team of 40 volunteers and partners the Barking Riverside London redevelopment, landscape contractors DF Clark and ‘placemaking agency’ Futurecity to rehome 2,500 plants from Chelsea - and tonnes of hardcore - to 25 schools and community spaces in London.

The local nature of these recipients is important, as distance and speed is crucial when finding a future home for plants. As Potsides points out, “it can be quite stressful being a plant of display at Chelsea”.

After being cosseted for months in a nursery, trees and plants are shoehorned into a show garden, often still in their pots, then hoiked out a week later to be transported on to a final home. “We try as hard as possible to make sure that anything that’s planted and living is sent on elsewhere, the distance they travel is not high and there’s a quick turnaround,” Potsides explains.

Thoughts of the “afterlife” of a garden and its components are also informing the initial design, too, as sponsors build the future fate of garden into their brief.

This year, designers Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins used architectural 3D modelling software to design the triangular Chengdu Silk Road garden so that the large fin-like panels were modular and easy to transport, and with good reason - their sponsor, the Chinese Chengdu City Government, specified in their brief that requirement that the garden would need to be transportable so it could have a post-show existence as part of the Flower-shrouded Chengdu project, featuring 20 large-scale gardens in the suburbs of the Chinese city.

The eventual home of her garden was also a big concern for designer Charlotte Harris, who won a gold at Chelsea 2017 for her Royal Bank of Canada show garden inspired by the boreal forest of northern Ontario.

RBC has sponsored Chelsea gardens for seven consecutive years now, donating each one to a charitable partner, so it was always part of Harris’s brief that her garden would be relocated.

Even if that hadn’t been the case, it’s something she would have prioritised, Harris says. “If you think about the resources used to create a theatrical piece of work for a five-day show, both plants and hard landscaping, it is absolutely right and proper that every garden should demonstrate how it is going to be reused. We make gardens not only because we believe them to be beautiful, but because they have an impact on people’s lives. It would be inconsistent not to let that garden go on.”

Harris acknowledges that designing gardens ready to be repurposed after a show does bring additional issues and stresses. Most Chelsea gardens are not designed for heavy foot traffic; they are designed to be viewed from perhaps one or two sides, planted with a palette of species looking their best for a week or two in May that fit in the close confines of a show garden plot.

Often gardens need to be reconfigured to suit the space they are destined for. And, Harris adds, “there’s a cost implication about making things that last”. A pavilion or other structure that can survive a five-day show in May may not be sturdy enough to weather a few winters in a real garden.

Mark Fane, director at show garden builders and plant suppliers Crocus, is a veteran of many a show garden build. He agrees with me that it is difficult now to build a garden at Chelsea and not expect the press and public to want to know what happens to all the materials afterwards. “We try to recycle everything in a garden - that doesn’t necessarily mean it will go to one place in its entirety,” he says. “It depends a lot on who the sponsor is - some sponsors such as the Daily Telegraph don’t have somewhere for the garden to go, and it’s predominantly the charities who can find a home for a garden.”

Fane believes it is worth the effort, though. He cites Dan Pearson’s best-in-show Laurent Perrier Chatsworth garden of 2015, which was relocated to the stately home that inspired it afterwards. “I saw it about two weeks ago, it’s fantastic - not an exact replica but you can see the spirit of it.”

So it’s clear to see that in the last decade, the emphasis on reusing and repurposing materials and plants has grown immensely, but is it enough?

Aside from providing more positive PR for the sponsor, a Chelsea garden that has an afterlife can show gardeners that good show garden design can create a lasting legacy, a garden that “works” both within the razzmatazz of Chelsea, and continues to thrive in the wider world.

Environmental journalist John Walker hopes that continued scrutiny on Chelsea will lead to a sea change in attitudes. “I have been writing about the environmental burden of gardening shows for longer than I care to remember, and my view is (still) that we have to take a more holistic view: it’s the whole process that needs scrutiny, the energy used, the footprint of the exhibitors, the pollution caused, effect on climate chaos (the gardening industry and media seem to be in denial on that one), and if any of it is worth it in the end?

In other words, does it trigger positive back garden change?”

And can the RHS do more to make this happen? Harris believes so. She would like to see the charity taking an even firmer line on the issue with designers applying to make a Chelsea garden. “It does us all favours," she says. "During Chelsea I was on the garden every day and one of top five questions was what’s happening to the garden afterwards.”

One designer is taking recycling to another level this summer with a show garden based on reusing elements from years past. The Watch This Space garden at this year’s Hampton Court Palace flower show (on from July 4 to 9) is designed by Chelsea veteran Andy Sturgeon.

He’s been hunting down iconic elements from Chelsea shows past, including the columns from Cleve West’s best in show Daily Telegraph garden in 2011, seating from Sam Ovens’ 2016 Cloudy Bay garden, and dry stone walling from Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliams’s Breaking Ground garden and The Jeremy Vine Texture garden, both from 2017.

Sturgeon says, “I have had this idea in my head for years and am really excited that it is finally becoming a reality.” It’s going to be fascinating to see how this multi-gold medal winning designer pulls together a coherent garden from such disparate elements: and it can only cement the idea that this kind of clever re-use can and must be central to every Chelsea designer’s work.

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Jane Perrone

I'm Jane Perrone - freelance writer, producer and presenter of the houseplant podcast On The Ledge and author of The Allotment Keeper's Handbook. I like the growing of weird veg and walking in the countryside with my hound Wolfie. I also write for other publications, including the Guardian, Grow Your Own magazine, Gardens Illustrated, The English Garden, Rakes Progress and Garden Design Journal.

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