Wild, evocative show gardens like James Basson’s M&G Garden, inspired by the landscape of Malta, new plants to discover (my favourite this year is Raymond Evison’s Clematis ‘Pistachio’) and new technologies like the use of microalgae to capture energy at Capel Manor’s ‘Compost, Energy, Light’ Garden: these are all part of what makes RHS Chelsea such a captivating and vibrant show. But after six hours exploring the showground, learning about new plants and discovering new ways to combine old favourites, I had still to find a garden that evoked feelings strong enough to draw me into its story and planting, creating what Coleridge described as the ‘suspension of disbelief’ – in which the show garden recedes and you find yourself immersed in a landscape where nothing external exists. Then I found myself in Nigel Dunnett’s RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden and the showground faded away. Wandering through the garden, past the black elder (Sambucus nigra ‘Gerda’), surrounded by the loose planting of Camassia quamash, Euphorbia palustris, Dianthus carthusianorum, Libertia chilensis Formosa Group and Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ in deep purples and vibrant lime greens, with soft water over pebbles and looking up to green walls and roofs, I was in a garden that created a sense of peace: an instinctive oneness with both the planting and the environment.
Up on the balcony overlooking the lower garden, Nigel explained that the main garden is designed as a community space where residents of high-rise and apartment developments could come together to relax, socialise and enjoy the planting based on drought tolerant, low maintenance species like Euphorbia cyparissias ‘Fen’s Ruby’ and Stachys byzantina that will thrive in our warming climate. The water channels running beside the walkways and benches create a sense of tranquility for residents and also provide hollows and wetland areas to deal with runoff from flash floods, whilst the pebbles enable water levels to remain higher even in dry periods. Like Nigel’s 2015 Greening Grey Britain Garden at RHS Hampton Court, this garden includes recycled materials, green walls and green roofs. I was pleased to see the binstore green roof, having designed a similar roof on my binstore after being inspired by the idea at Hampton Court in 2015. Next to the binstore, tall, multi-tiered ‘Creature Towers’ designed with recycled materials mirror the high-rise apartments, offering urban homes for the insects which form such an important part of the natural ecosystem.
On the balcony, intended as a private garden, Nigel demonstrates how even tiny outdoor spaces can provide colour and edible crops. The small wooden planters are full of tomatoes, artichokes, herbs and a wisteria which trails along the balcony, whilst the walls provide a vertical growing space with a simple pocket design attached to a mesh on the wall. These pockets can be used for planting or simply to place plants still in their pots and the wall is small enough to be watered by hand, making this a practical and sustainable way to maximise space, especially as many of the plants (like the Mediterranean herbs thyme and oregano) require little water. Looking down from the balcony the private garden is set in context – a small space to provide privacy, flowers and food: a personalised area within a larger landscape of community planting.
As a community garden volunteer, I believe that working with plants is a healing and nurturing activity. Gardening also helps us to appreciate the fundamental role that plants play in our lives: a role that will become even more important in the future. As climatic challenges arise we will need to develop our understanding of horticulture, crop production and environmental protection to keep up with the changing climate, so engaging young minds with the beauty and importance of nature is a priority. With this in mind, the fact that the plants and other elements will be relocated to a school garden via the BBC One Show’s competition after Chelsea ends exemplifies the ethos of the garden and adds to its environmental credentials. The only addition I would like to have seen was more detail on the information leaflet about the plants chosen for their drought-resistant or pollution-soaking qualities, for example links to the informative RHS website pages, such as the section covering plants which tolerate dry conditions.
During my recent sessions running a growing club at my local primary school, I have seen firsthand the impact that becoming involved in gardening has on children. They are so open and keen to learn about the magic of nature, so receptive to the ‘wow’ moments when a seed germinates or when they learn to identify a plant. After half term I’m planning a session about careers in horticulture and botany – looking at what it takes to become a greenkeeper, a NASA plant scientist, a horticultural therapist or a park ranger. Maybe one of my pupils or a student from the school which receives the RHS Garden will become a future soil scientist or a biodiversity officer. Let’s hope so because we need experts in these fields like never before. The RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden has engaged the horticultural community in discussions about sustainable gardening, offered environmentally-friendly options for both domestic gardeners and landscape architects and I’m sure it will go on to inspire the next generation when it becomes part of a school garden. The creation of a show garden with this level of aesthetic and environmental integrity is an impressive achievement, especially when it provides such a practical model for the development of urban spaces in the future.
A garden full of practical ideas, yet suffused with beauty
Further information about the Greening Grey Britain campaign and to sign up to turn a grey area green, follow the link to the RHS website.
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