Chelsea Flower Show Throwbacks – The Wasteland 2013

The month of May for those who work in the horticultural industry is always about The RHS Chelsea Flower Show; whether you are designing and building a garden or simply there to support friends and colleagues who are, it is inconceivable that Chelsea would not happen.  It might rain, hail or sleet its way through May but Chelsea would always somehow magic its way to completion, even if it was occasionally just in the nick of time.  This year is very different and without Chelsea’s physical presence on the grounds of The Royal Hospital in London we became a bit nostalgic to our gardens of yesteryear and thought that we would pay homage to this greatest of British institutions and the event that heralds the beginning of Summer.

In honour of Chelsea tradition and all that makes the show a wonderful time, Kate sat down with her team (via a well-known online meeting platform that rhymes with ‘room’) to reminisce about past gardens and the lessons they have taught them.  Every Chelsea garden finds a place in your heart.  Some of them take time to find their way there whilst others leap in immediately, but all make memories and friends and above all lessons to be learned.

This week we are going back to 2013 to a garden that came from a random Google search for an image of concrete to a garden that Kate is very proud of.

The Wasteland was inspired by Kate’s personal experiences working in and around London where there are so many areas that could be greened if more thought was given to them.  Designed as a community space it was imagined on an abandoned industrial site where existing old, but reusable infrastructure was planted around to create a community space that could be easily gardened.  Items assumed to have been left on the site such as mattresses, washing machine drums, baths and shopping trolleys were repurposed as screens, water features and seats.  Rusty galvanised sheeting was erected as a boundary treatment, whilst the paving was crazy (both literally and metaphorically as time slipped away and the birds picked the moss out of the joints on more than one occasion overnight).  The original concept for the garden came from an image of a storm drain and although there was no way to use a real one in the garden it was possible to make one and make it look old and once that decision was made then the rest of the concrete elements which made up steps and walls had to go through the same laborious process.

Working with concrete is not an exact science.  Shuttering off site and transporting it came at a cost to time and money and it was still not an accurate fit when it landed on the showground.  Time is something you don’t have spare at Chelsea and rectifications to this caused the schedule to slip as adjustments were made.  Luckily with elements that were meant to look old and beaten it didn’t matter if in the process of adjusting the pieces they ended up looking worse for wear.

There is always a temptation to only showcase the new and shiny at Chelsea, but repurposed items can be beautiful too.  This garden made us look at things differently and has continued to enforce the way we work to this day seven years later.  What made the garden shine around these rough and ready structures and elements was the plating.  Trees cast shade and the rest of the planting was in tune with this. Thinking about how a community could garden a space effectively when perhaps they were time poor because of jobs and family commitments enforced the decision to use shrubs.  Often not used at Chelsea; they can be tricky as once they have flowered so unlike perennials which are easier to hold back or push forward they can be a little nerve-wracking to get exactly right for a specific week in May.  A semi-shaded site and a May timeline works for Rhododendron, Azalea and Enkianthus perfectly though.  There were also Choisya and varieties of Cornus as well as Betula nigra with their wonderfully shaggy bark and Stewartia with their rosy smooth.  All easy care and all completely viable and believable in the setting.  In reality they would form a strong backbone to the scheme and make the garden enticing all year round.  An important factor when creating a garden that only lasts a week for people to take ideas away from to try out in their own gardens.

Hard and uncompromising and with a little time to catch up on the garden looked slightly post-apocalyptic for longer than it should have but as soon as the plants arrived and were put in place it transformed from ugly duckling to beautiful swan.  As with gardens everywhere, it is planting and the choice and arrangement of those plants that makes all the difference. Planting can add drama or calm a scheme down in equal measure.  Here it is calmed and softened to a point where the concrete retreated into the background and all that was left was a space that you wanted to sit in and enjoy and we did – in between the rain showers that peppered show week whilst watching the plants grow.