Behind the scenes of a Chelsea garden

Behind the scenes of a Chelsea garden


Posted 15th Apr 2015


If you love beautiful gardens then a trip to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show is a must, this year being held from 19th to 23rd May. It has been called the ‘greatest flower show on earth’ and it never fails to inspire and amaze. We caught up with garden designer Adam Frost this National Gardening Week (13th to 19th April) to find out what it takes to create a Chelsea garden

I’ve designed seven gardens at Chelsea in the last eight years and I’m always excited to be back at the show rubbing shoulders with fellow garden designers and seeing old friends. There’s a lovely sense of camaraderie when everyone gets together at Chelsea.

The show runs for just six days in May, but it can take almost a year to plan and prepare for with sourcing materials, choosing plants and working with the construction team that will turn my idea into a reality. This year I’ve designed an urban community garden for Homebase called ‘Urban Retreat’. The garden is inspired by modernist design and architecture – a long-time passion of mine – and it’s been great fun sourcing contemporary materials such as poured concrete and corten steel and trying out different finishes to make sure we get the urban feel just right. It is always a team effort putting a Chelsea show garden together. I often work with craftsmen and specialists for elements of the design which means visiting workshops and design studios in the months leading up to the show to check on progress and ensure everything is coming together as planned.

It is not just the materials that need careful preparation. The planting plan for the Homebase garden was put together almost a year ago and I’ve sourced plants and trees from four different nurseries this year. Between them, the nurseries will be growing over 4,000 plants for me, of which around 3,000 will actually make it into the garden. The standards at Chelsea are really high. There are around eight nurseries that regularly work with the garden designers showing at Chelsea – all of whom will be looking for perfect specimens for their gardens.

The garden I’m designing for Homebase (pictured below) is sited on Chelsea’s main avenue. It is one of the 15 show gardens and one of over 30 gardens at the show overall. It’s a huge logistical challenge for the Chelsea show manger to organise the arrival and departure of the teams that build the gardens before the show opens. We have just 19 days to build and plant the garden on site and invariably the good old British weather will hamper our progress. It always feels like a sprint to the finish line in the last few days of the build as you race to perfect the garden to Chelsea standards.
Just before the show opens the RHS judges will be inspecting the show gardens and horticultural exhibits to decide what, if any, medal to award them. We are all chasing that coveted Gold medal, so the garden has to look perfect.

And it’s not just the judges that will be inspecting the garden. On Monday 18th May, journalists, celebrities and members of the Royal family are all invited to catch a first glimpse of the gardens and the horticultural highlights before the gates open to the public the following day. Once the crowds throng in, it’s a whirl of activity from early morning to late at night, when the private parties are held on the gardens. When the crowds have gone and the parties are over I like walking past the show gardens and taking it all in – the wonderful smells, the magnificent floral displays and the buzz of excitement - it just amazes me that I’m part of it all.

We asked Adam he got started:

When did you first become interested in gardening?
I think I developed an early fascination for working with nature on my grandfather’s allotment in Hertfordshire.

How did you get started professionally?
I actually started out as an apprentice. It was a great springboard for me. I think the people you meet when you are just getting started can have a real impact on you. I was lucky enough to meet Geoff Hamilton – the late BBC Gardeners’ World presenter – who was incredibly generous with his knowledge and a real inspiration. Geoff found a way to bring out the best in me, and his passion, well, it was sort of infectious. It definitely rubbed off on me.

What is about gardening you enjoy most?
It’s really very simple. I love being outside, I love watching the hedgerows come to life in spring; just being among nature and seeing the seasons unfold excites me.

How is your own garden designed? Do you take a lot of inspiration from Chelsea?
My own garden is a work in progress. At the moment, I am actually working on it with a group of young gardening students from the Garden Academy I helped set up with Homebase two years ago. It’s a great opportunity for the students to work on a ‘real’ garden and will be great experience ahead of the Chelsea garden, which they will also be helping me to create.

How did you come to design gardens at Chelsea?
My dad was part of the landscape team that built gardens for designer John Brookes back in the 1970s. I have a clear memory of being around 11 or 12 years old and being on site at Chelsea when the garden was being built. I think I knew then that one day I would be back at Chelsea in my own right. I was fascinated by the whole event.

Where do the ideas come from? Does something particularly inspire you?
Almost anything can inspire me; modern design, the glorious British countryside, a beautifully crafted object, even a stimulating conversation. Inspiration is everywhere! My Chelsea garden for Homebase this year has been inspired by a design movement that has long held my imagination – Bauhaus. For me, the Bauhaus movement is fascinating. I get excited when I see an iconic Bauhaus building in all its concrete and steel glory or feel the sensuous curves of the furniture designs.

What does it take to win a Gold medal at Chelsea?
It is always a team effort and a lot of hard work. I estimate it takes around 100 days to design, plan and build a show garden at Chelsea. I also think you need a great idea, one with a good narrative, one that is going to appeal to the judges and the visitors alike.

Do you have a favourite Chelsea garden from over the years that sticks in your mind?
It has to be the show garden designed by David Stevens back in 1994. It was quite a controversial rock garden that played with new materials like steel and sawn stone. It got a lot of attention and I think sitting on that garden and listening to the comments from passing visitors confirmed that I was on the right path and that garden design really was what I had to do in life. It was really something special.

For those of our readers that have a very small garden, do you have any top tips for making the most of a smaller space?
Don’t over complicate it, is my best advice. Small gardens have to work very hard because ultimately you have the same list of requirements as you would for a large garden, but in a smaller space. It has to be designed very carefully. Think about using levels to make the space seem bigger and also consider elements such as built-in furniture and raised beds that allow you to really make the most of the space you have.

The Homebase ‘Urban Retreat’ Garden is at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show from 19th to 23rd May 2015. Buy tickets here: www.rhs.org.uk/shows-events/rhs-chelsea-flower-show

 





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