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As the Chelsea Flower Show 2023 comes to a close, I catch up with designer Alexa Ryan-Mills to hear her thoughts, feelings and reflections from her first Chelsea as a show garden designer
Last year, I attended my first ever RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Readers who have been following The Earthworm since then will remember that I found the experience to be somewhat discombobulating. Because yes, Chelsea is a flower show – a very famous and well-attended and ubiquitously broadcast flower show – but it is also an event. An institution.
This year, I went back for round two, and it was a much calmer day out. Not because anything about the show had changed, but rather because I had a better sense of what to expect. I’d got my eye in.
In a way, Chelsea represents the antithesis of most people’s gardening experience. Especially when I was there, on the Monday of show week – aka Press Day – with its celebrity stroll-abouts and royal visits and performance artists on every corner. Visitors get dressed up, in dry-clean-only clothing that would disintegrate or explode at the merest hint of contact with soil; then they stand behind a little rope and admire gardens from a distance, peering through gaps between the shoulders of four-person-deep crowds. Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but this is not what gardening looks like in my back yard.
On the other hand, Chelsea is intoxicating. (And I don’t just mean that in a literal sense, owing to all the champagne that I was handed, and happily accepted.) There is an atmosphere, a vibe, that permeates the show ground. There is a sense that there is something special happening here; that we are all witnessing or sharing in something important, something worthwhile. And in many senses, we are.
Chelsea is full of distractions – Monty Don filming for the evening’s TV coverage, Joanna Lumley posing for pics with Chelsea Pensioners, the King doing kingy stuff – but there is real substance here too. Because the thing that Chelsea unquestionably gives you is quality. Whether your penchant is for painterly planting, sustainable substrates (hello crushed site waste aggregate), or gardens created with such clear and powerful narratives that they can reduce people to tears, Chelsea delivers. It isn’t an earthy or authentic gardening event, but it consistently introduces big audiences to big, new, progressive (and therefore often controversial) ideas. And a lot of those ideas are really important, and urgent, and do steer the HMS Horticulture into uncharted waters.
Hence Chelsea’s status and rep. A bit like how Glastonbury has transcended the realm of the run-of-the-mill music festival, existing on some higher, quasi-mythical plain – so too has Chelsea. It’s become a bucket list item, not only for gardeners and horticulturists, but for plant-curious people the world over. And just as for a musician, playing a Glasto set might mark the pinnacle of their career, so too for a garden designer, building a Chelsea show garden is a significant milestone. Not everyone gets the opportunity.
I was very excited, therefore, on behalf of Alexa Ryan-Mills, when she told me this time last year that she may have secured funding for a plot at the 2023 edition. And, place confirmed, I was thrilled when she agreed to let The Earthworm follow her journey from concept drawing to planted garden. (If you’re the kind of linear, completist person who likes to start at the beginning and end at the end, you can read the first, second, third and fourth instalments of that journey here.)
This time last week, Alexa and her team were applying the finishing touches, ahead of the first round of judging, to the Sadler’s Wells East Garden – a show garden in the plant-forward All About Plants category, located inside the expansive Great Pavilion. On Monday, I got my first glimpse of the garden that I’d heard so much about, and my word was it beautiful. I was lucky enough to be invited onto the garden, to be immersed in all of that elegantly layered, satisfyingly textured, gloriously naturalistic planting, and be able to enjoy all of those carefully considered views through the space.
I visited Alexa on her garden a couple of times that day, and went back to see it again the next. We raised a glass of bubbly. I enjoyed it all very much. The gardens, the glamour, the lot of it. And Alexa? Well, she was working. All week, she stayed on site to talk to members of the public, Sadler’s Wells stakeholders, prospective donors and more, about the stunning garden that she had created not only for the week of the Chelsea Flower Show, but in perpetuity – any day now, the garden will begin its relocation to a permanent home in East London.
The show finally closed on Saturday afternoon, at which point I immediately inundated Alexa with a series of questions about her debut Chelsea experience as a show garden designer. These questions, and the answers to them, you will find below.
Alexa, congratulations on your beautiful garden! Is it everything you hoped it would be? As in, does it look how you’d imagined?
Thank you! It was very strange through build to see it all come together so quickly and loads of people have said it looks just like the image in the show guide. There are a few plants that we wanted in the garden that weren’t quite big enough or healthy enough so they got scrapped, but I would say it’s pretty much like I hoped it would be.
Some elements were even better: the mural by Benjamin Wachenje is just fantastic, and we were able to link the colours in the planting to some of the colours he used. Our Chionanthus retusus (Chinese fringe tree) also flowered right on cue and definitely helped to increase the number of people coming to the garden to ask about it.
Were there any last-minute challenges in pulling it all together?
We had a few unexpected challenges. Someone came off the tracks and drove into our benches during build. I had to break the news to Daniel Higgins who made them. But he’s built them so well that the breakage was pretty minor and he was able to fix them in time.
We also were trying hard to get our Achillea ‘Paprika’ to flower. There’s no sunlight in the Great Pavilion, so we held back planting them so we could put them outside for a few hours a day. We didn’t quite nail that one – some of the specimens were pretty stubbornly refusing to turn in time for judging. During build, it was like a fridge in the Pavilion, but in show week it was a much more pleasant temperature.
How has the garden been received? What have Joe Public, Sadler's Wells, your family, your fellow designers, and the rest, said about it?
The visitors loved the garden. The team received so many positive comments and I had people stopping me to tell me themselves. Sadler’s Wells were delighted – it’s their first time at a flower show and it was a brilliant opportunity for them to engage with Chelsea showgoers and donors and others learning about the garden via the media and social media.
I also had really great comments from designers – including some Main Avenue ones! – and journalists. [Ed: Main Avenue is the strip along which all of the “big” show gardens are situated – the ones that soak up all the TV coverage and adulation on social media.] My husband and son came to visit the show on Friday. They’re both very proud. But I think my son enjoyed getting a bit of VIP treatment best, especially going onto gardens while the crowds stood behind the ropes!
How have you found your debut Chelsea as a show garden designer? Fun? Stressful? Exhausting? Glamorous?
Well, it’s definitely been a rollercoaster. I would say all of the above. There were definitely some sleepless nights and a few tears, but there is something very special about being a designer at Chelsea during show week. There is such a good vibe amongst designers, contractors and other exhibitors, and I felt part of something big. The public love to meet the designers of the gardens they’re visiting, and I was able to get access to events and meet people I would never have met had I not been one. For three nights, my dinner consisted of Champagne and canapés – it was nice to have a bowl of pasta with my husband and son last night.
How have you found all of the attention?
It was very weird having my photo taken by the likes of The Telegraph as we were wrapping up build. The photographer was happy to wait for me when I was busy, even coming back the next day. I think they like Sadler’s Wells.
Being interviewed was fun. I used to work in PR so that definitely helped to quickly pitch an idea for Gardeners’ Question Time on the spot. [Ed: You can hear Alexa talking to GQT about her aforementioned Chinese fringe tree at about 11m30s.] Press day is a circus and there’s a lot going on, so understanding the kind of thing journalists want right away was key.
I did a lot of talking to donors and prospective donors, “saying a few words” at receptions on the garden. I also spoke on a couple of panels too – both for the public and for potential exhibitors for 2024.
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What have been your highlights? Are there any special memories you’ll hold onto?
I have met so many great people and got to know others much better. We’re still living in a world where I’ve been collaborating with people on design remotely, so spending actual in-person time with them at an event like Chelsea has been brilliant. It’s the connections I’ve made that have been most memorable. Not the champagne and canapés.
What about the other show gardens? Did any stand out to you?
I fear the question about fave gardens as it’s hard to see everything. When you spend all day there – during show week I was there from about 8.30am-10pm every day – you’re usually being pulled in different directions and have little time to just enjoy the space on your own. I was very taken by A Letter from a Million Years Past by Jihae Hwang. The detail was magnificent. I also loved Sarah Price’s – down to the rope around the garden. Sitting on a boulder with Jon [Davies] and Steve [Williams] on their Balance Garden was so peaceful – which is no mean feat at Chelsea – and I enjoyed the textures of the materials in Gavin [McWilliam] and Andrew [Wilson]’s Transcendence Garden.
Tell us about the judging: what was that process like? What medal did you receive? How did you feel about that at the time? And have your thoughts and feelings developed in the days that followed? What feedback did they give? And what response do you have to that feedback?
Oof! Well, each garden is judged against their brief rather than each other. [Ed: the ‘client brief’ is written by the designer ahead of the show, and judges use it to decide whether the garden has turned out according to plan.] I submitted my brief in advance and then had two minutes to talk about any changes from the brief I’d made. For example, missing or changed plants, which is a common one. I probably didn’t take advantage of this time in retrospect – I was very brief. I should have explained more about what the garden was not, rather than relying on them understanding what my garden was.
I received a Silver award. Not a bad medal, but there were some things I feel they didn’t understand or had preconceived ideas about that meant the garden just missed out on a Silver Gilt – what I feel it should have been. They found the planting too pretty and polite for an urban space. And not punchy enough. For them there was a dissonance between the content of the mural and my planting style. And they said it wasn’t spaced enough for a performance space [Ed: Alexa’s garden was imagined as a kind of stage, with the plants as the dancers and stars of the show], yet the concept was always that the plants were the performers, which felt right for a garden in the All About Plants category.
But judges at Chelsea, like all judges, don’t change their mind. So there is no point dwelling. A lot of designers were disappointed with their medal this year. I wonder whether judging should be followed by a more detailed discussion with the designer before a final decision is made.
The medal was never – and still isn’t – that high on my agenda of coming to Chelsea. What it’s done for Sadler’s Wells and the connections I’ve made were always the highest priority and they still are.
Overall, have you enjoyed the Chelsea experience? I know you had your doubts before committing to taking part, but are you glad you did it? And would you do it again?
Maybe ask me in a few more weeks, but I would say that I feel grateful for the opportunity and already, looking back, it was worth it. Whether I would do it again or not, I’m not so sure. I can imagine getting involved in a show garden again, but possibly not one with my name on it.
Finally: what’s next?
We’re heading to Corsica for half term, which is going to be lovely. And then I have lots of work lined up designing planting for large public spaces and smaller residential gardens. Elements of The Sadler’s Wells East Garden are moving to School 21 in Stratford, so the RHS Chelsea ‘23 story is not finished quite yet.
I hope you’ve enjoyed following Alexa’s road to Chelsea. It’s been one heck of a trip, and one that I feel privileged to have been let in on. Huge thanks to Alexa and all of her supporters and contributors and friends who have been so generous with their time over the past few months.
Have you enjoyed these peaks behind the show garden curtain? Did you go to Chelsea this year? Did you see Alexa’s garden IRL? Did you watch the wall-to-wall coverage on the telly? Is your Instagram feed full of people waxing hagiographical about Sarah Price and her Nurture Landscapes garden, inspired by the artist Cedric Morris and his garden at Benton End? What did you make of it all? Please do share with the class: