RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2023 – A Gold Medal Experience
It was a real pleasure to assist Joe and Laura Carey of Carey Garden Design Studio (https://careygardendesign.co.uk/) with the planting of their show garden, the ‘Talitha Arts Garden’, entered in the ‘All About Plants’ category at RHS Chelsea 2023.
Joe is a former teaching colleague turned Garden Designer and he and Laura are two of the most naturally talented designers I have ever met, with extraordinary abilities to marry exceptional hard-landscaping layouts with the most stunning planting schemes.
The Talitha Arts Garden came as a result of Project Giving Back: an organisation that funds many Chelsea gardens both big and small. These gardens typically represent the charity they have chosen to support; Talitha Arts works with the victims of trauma to deliver therapeutic arts and training schemes. Joe and Laura’s garden was designed to celebrate the creative arts and their power to transform lives. The garden uses sculpture and a highly specific colour palette within the planting to reflect the depth and complexity of trauma.
I was thrilled to be asked to join the Core Planting Team for this project. This involved helping to bring Joe and Laura’s vision to reality. We first met at their chosen plant supplier: Katie’s Garden Plant Centre in Suffolk (www.katiesgarden.co.uk). Here we met Jeanette, the staff member tasked with both sourcing and cultivating the wide array of plants in Laura’s initial scheme for the garden. It was great fun to start arranging combinations of plants for the various light conditions around the garden, and selecting new varieties to try from around the nursery. The scheme called for plants showing ‘bruised’ undertones and shades of purple; Lamium, Geum, Digitalis all played a strong role and were supported with the use of two stunning grasses: Luzula and the unusual Melica uniflora alba. As the garden moves into the light, representing the path from trauma into a more positive frame, the planting becomes brighter; Persicaria, Trollius, Thalictrum and Anthriscus add vertical character and brighter flowering. The whole garden is anchored by two large Prunus serrula trees, with larger forms between provided by shrubs such as Cornus, Viburnum and a beautiful Enkianthus in full flower in time for the show.
At the centre of the garden is a purple Acer, providing the backdrop for a sculpted chrysalis from which over two hundred porcelain butterflies appear, punctuating the planting on their pre-made steel supports. A Corten steel framework supports steps and a central ‘stage’ which no doubt will enjoy much use when the garden is eventually re-located to its final destination at the Talitha Arts Centre in North London.
The week before Chelsea opened to the public I met Joe and Laura and colleagues from the planting team in the Chelsea Grand Pavilion to start the process of arranging the plants. Around twenty plant trolleys were arranged around the bare garden, and we were assigned ‘zones’ to focus on, study and perfect. As the week progressed the garden was ‘planted’ several different times – with the time-lapse camera recording each time the garden looked full and then suddenly empty again. Each time, the scheme was refined, with Laura ensuring that her vision was realised. It was highly satisfying to be able, as time moved forward, to truly come to understand this vision and during the final stages it felt like the placement of the plants had become second-nature; I was particularly happy with my role in planting the right hand side of the space, where conditions move from deep shade to full sun via areas of dappled light and moist soil around the central pond. Within this wide area the planting heights ebb and flow, with Laura’s pre-determined lines of sight for the pond characterised by multiple groupings of Persicaria – these looked truly unbelievable.
As the plants were slowly secured into place it became clear to me that Joe and Laura’s vision alongside the planting team’s endeavour had led to the creation of something truly special. The feeling of calm and serenity that one experienced within the space was profound, and to say that the brief for the garden had been achieved was an understatement. It therefore came as no surprise to me that the garden was awarded both a Gold Medal and ‘Best in Show’ in its category.
Producing a planting layout to these standards was exhilarating….and exhausting both mentally and physically. The close spacing of the plants to produce a dense display is not the way that we plant most domestic or commercial spaces; these are usually produced with a 3-5 year plan in mind to allow the plants to mature and spread out in a pre-determined space. In addition, we would look to include more evergreen structure in most schemes in order to maintain interest and form during the long winter months. However, it was inspirational to learn from Laura’s planting vision that a cohesive flow to a space can be achieved without overly obvious ‘blocking’ of plant species and that is certainly something that I will carry forward into my own practice.
It was truly a pleasure to work with Joe, Laura and their team; I can’t wait to see their next steps and I am very hopeful that one day we might work together again!