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Money talks: building a Chelsea show garden
Show gardens don’t come cheap – but where does the money come from? Introducing Hattie Ghaui, CEO of Project Giving Back – the charitable organisation funding 15 of this year’s Chelsea gardens
There’s an elephant in the show garden, and its name is Sustainability. (Which, I agree, is a strange name for an elephant, even a metaphorical one.)
One of the most common criticisms levelled at the Chelsea Flower Show – and any similar large-scale temporary garden expo – is that it is heinously unsustainable. And historically, that criticism has been entirely justified.
In a typical year at Chelsea, some 30-odd show garden spaces are built from scratch on the 11-acre show ground. Those gardens take around three weeks to build, are heavily cooed over and photographed for the six-day duration of the show, before finally being bulldozed and wiped off the face of the planet. From building site to show garden to scrap heap within the space of a few weeks. Goodness knows how many tons of poured cement and other hard landscaping materials, and how many tens of thousands of plants, have been unceremoniously dumped after the show’s conclusion, in years gone by.
In more recent times, the RHS has taken small but meaningful steps towards making their flower shows more sustainable. And this year, that journey has taken a great leap forward. To the extent that, in my humble opinion at least, the sustainability credentials of the Chelsea show gardens actually look pretty decent. Really.
Full disclosure: I am currently a paid-up contractor at the RHS. However, I can assure you that I remain editorially independent and am not under the influence of the RHS or anyone else, for that matter – you can’t shackle an Earthworm! It is, however, the reason that I happen to know more than you might normally expect about this year’s gardens – their creation, their materials use, and their afterlife – considering the show is yet to officially open.
When thinking about sustainability, we obviously need to consider what is being put in: what are the materials? Where have they been sourced? How, where and by who have they been made? When it comes to the plants, have they been grown using peat and pesticides and huge amounts of water and energy? Then we need to think about a garden’s shelf life: what happens to it after the show? Where do all the constituent parts end up?
And on all of these grounds, this year’s cohort of show gardens fares well. Designers have packed their spaces full of salvaged and reclaimed materials; have limited the use of cement or opted for low-carbon alternatives; and have sourced plants from ethical growers. But most importantly, it is now a mandatory requirement from the RHS that every single garden created for this year’s Chelsea be relocated after the show, which means the materials, the sculptures, the structures, the furniture, the plants, the lot of it, will all live on. That is a big deal.
Partly, this giant leap towards sustainability is due to a far more enlightened approach within the hallowed halls of the RHS. See also: no longer referring to pests as pests; banning the sale of pesticides in RHS retail spaces; advocating for peat-free gardening; and more.
But when it comes to Chelsea show gardens, if you’re looking for the catalyst that propelled the RHS towards long-term sustainability, perhaps look no further than Project Giving Back.
Some background: Due to Covid, there was no Chelsea Flower Show in 2020. It returned in 2021 (held for the first time in the show’s history in September, rather than May), but in the not-quite-post-pandemic environment, the charities which are so often responsible for sponsoring the show gardens, didn’t feel financially up to it.
Now, you may reasonably think: “What the hell is a charity doing spending tens of thousands of pounds building a show garden at Chelsea? Shouldn’t they be putting that money towards some proper, you know, charity stuff?” The answer is – in terms of a return on their investment, increasing brand awareness and encouraging donations – a Chelsea show garden actually represents pretty good value for marketing budget. Cheaper than a national TV campaign, and you get Monty Don repeatedly using your organisation’s name, as he explores The Undeniably Good Cause Garden, designed by Dan the Earthworm in support of An Undeniably Good Cause. Every night. During Primetime. On the ad-free BBC. For a week.
Anyway, thanks to Covid, charities were missing out on this full Monty exposure. Enter stage left, two mysterious anonymous donors [spoiler alert: I have not managed to uncover their identities!] and their brand new charitable organisation called Project Giving Back [PGB]. At Chelsea 2022, PGB funded 12 show gardens. This year, that number has risen to 15. From day one, PGB stipulated that in order to receive the cash, their funded gardens would need be created in support of a charity, and would have to be relocated to a permanent home of the charity’s choosing after the show.
As sleuthier readers may already have deduced, one of the gardens being funded by PGB at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show is none other than the Sadler’s Wells East Garden, designed by Alexa Ryan-Mills. Yes, the one whose journey to Chelsea I have been chronicling here on this very newsletter since last November.
Alexa put me in touch with Hattie Ghaui, CEO of Project Giving Back, who kindly obliged to an interview. If you have any interest in the behind-the-scenes, months-in-the-making creation of a show garden, then I hope you will find this interview fascinating.
Hi Hattie, how did you become involved in PGB? Do you have a personal love for or interest in gardens?
I became involved in PGB probably about six months into it being set up in 2021. Very randomly, in fact! I was aware of the team that were freelancing on building the brand and the website for the project, and they let me know that Project Giving Back was looking for a director – someone more permanent to head up the project.
On a personal note, my background is not horticultural at all. I started my career in the charity sector. I worked for a conservation charity when I first graduated and then I moved to London and worked for a couple of marketing and branding companies. I spent some time working for a WPP branding agency before moving to a branding start-up so my experience is very rooted in storytelling; and I think the start-up world really conditions you to get comfortable with building things from scratch and following your gut instinct.
I had one of those pandemic moments of realisation that I wasn’t in the right job for my skill set or my mindset. I wanted to work with charities and I specifically wanted to work in the philanthropic field, really helping people who want to make a difference do so in a way that is as effective and inspiring as possible.
I do have a personal love of gardens though – anyone who follows me on Instagram probably knows I've got a very enthusiastic amateur’s take on things! But I think gardens are really special places that give us a glimpse into the time it was created, or the people or person who tends to it – their design is by choice, the plants and the planting combinations all have a personal story or reason for being so. Even the green spaces that are left to their own devices, there’s a reason for that, and I find all of that intriguing. I was lucky enough to grow up with a garden and a mum who was passionate about gardening and about flowers and about exploring nature, and that's definitely been passed on.
Can you tell me a bit about how PGB comes to support someone like Alexa Ryan-Mills and her Sadler’s Wells East Garden? What is the selection process?
We’re really excited to be funding Alexa’s garden for Sadler's Wells East.
We run a thorough process for applications when it comes to funding, so Alexa and Sadler’s Wells will have submitted an expression of interest to us in September 2021 and received confirmation of our intention to fund them in March/April 2022 – a six month assessment timeframe.
When we open our website for expressions of interest, we then have an external team that looks through all of the applications and does due diligence on the charity. Once they've passed our due diligence, we then move them forward to a long listing stage where they're invited to submit a description of their concept, more information about the cause, a set of mood boards and then information about the relocation.
We then review the longlist of applications with our trustees to take that down to a shortlist, who are then invited to present to a wider panel. Following a brief period of deliberation, we then inform everyone of our funding decision and the successful applications get a letter confirming our intention to sponsor their garden. This means they can go ahead and do an RHS Chelsea Flower Show application with a confirmed sponsor.
That certainly sounds thorough! How competitive is that selection process?
For the 2023 and 2024 processes, we had around 200 expressions of interest in total; we then take that down to a long list of 75, or thereabouts. That then becomes a shortlist of 30-40 that present to our panel, and then of that we typically fund between 12 to 15 gardens for good causes in a year.
Well then, congratulations to Alexa! Why did you, or the PGB selectors, feel that she and Sadler’s Wells East were a good fit for funding?
One of the reasons we felt that Alexa’s application with Sadler’s Wells East was a great fit, and particularly a good fit for the All About Plants category, is that Alexa has approached the planting plan from an interesting angle that starts with the form, the shape and the movement of dancers as an inspiration point.
We are drawn to funding gardens that can translate the message of the cause into a memorable and inspiring concept. Sadler’s Wells aims to make and share dance that inspires all and, whenever I see plants moving in the wind now, or I see something like a willow leaning over water, I think of Alexa’s dancing plants.
What happens next? Do you write designers a blank cheque and let them get on with it? Is there any involvement from PGB, post-selection?
No, we definitely don't just write designers a blank cheque and leave them to it! What happens is that once they've got our confirmed intention to sponsor them, they go ahead and complete their RHS application – the deadline for this is typically May/June and then they tend to hear back about whether they’ve been successful in the RHS process towards the end of the summer [Ed: in other words, Alexa submitted her application to the RHS this time last year, and designers are applying to the RHS now for Chelsea 2024]. What we’ll do with them in that window is have a series of financial- and legal-focused meetings to put in place a draft agreement and payment schedule.
What is it like walking around Chelsea and seeing the gardens turned into reality? And knowing that without you and your work they wouldn’t exist? And then seeing them re-homed around the country?
I actually went on site last week. The first thing that I'm always struck by is just how mind-blowing it is that the RHS can pull off an event in what is quite a tight space for what they're doing. I'm sure there's things that go on in the background that we never know about, but they make it look very, very easy.
This year I think they've got 36 show gardens, so you have 36 construction teams and 36 planting teams all there wanting to get their machinery on site, wanting to get their plants on, to get all of their materials in place, and it's quite an art coordinating all of that.
I think it's really magic to see people's visions come to life and it's very inspiring. They're a very hard-working group of people who are doing something fantastic. But the thing that excites me is that when I look at a lot of the gardens, I can start to imagine them in their permanent homes. All PGB gardens are relocated or repurposed across the UK, and it's really exciting to see that. Take, for example, the School Food Matters Garden in the Great Pavilion this year. After the show, that's going to go to two schools – one in London and one in Liverpool – and the ripple effect that that's going to have is huge.
This year's been particularly exciting because at the same time as gearing up for the 2023 show we were also seeing a lot of our gardens from 2022 open up to the public in their new sites. I was up in Barrow-in-Furness a couple of weeks ago with Andy Sturgeon opening the Mind Garden there, and that's going to make such a difference to that community and that area. Juliet Sargeant’s garden for Blue Peter has opened at RHS Bridgewater, and it's very cool to see that show garden come to life in a different space. We've got the St Mungo’s Garden by Cityscapes – that's been open in and around Southwark and London Bridge for quite a while now, and it just brings such an injection of life and colour to the city. And one of our team was also down in Bristol the other day visiting the Mothers for Mothers Garden that's been relocated to Hartcliffe Farm there.
What does success look like for PGB in terms of designers’ gardens?
We try not to impose our measures of success on charities. I think one of the first things we do is to try to establish through the applications process what it is that the charity wants to get out of this. Is it about fundraising and getting as many people to make a donation? Is it about brand awareness and just getting the charity’s name out in front of, and engaged with by as many people as possible? Or is it about re-strengthening the relationships that a charity has with its existing donors or with its team? Every charity will approach this in a different way, and that's a good thing.
But we also check in at the end of the show to hear how that's gone. We do ask for a degree of data and anecdotal feedback from charities so that we can create an impact report that can be shared more widely to really show the difference gardens for good causes can make – inspiring others perhaps to give back in a small way, or get involved in future years. We’ve just published our 2022 impact report that shows just how far charities can take it, whether that's fundraising or whether it's the types of media coverage they get during the week.
I think another thing that should also be talked about is what a charity is set up to do, and is it reaching the people it needs to. So another thing that we will want to make sure of, when it comes to Alexa’s Sadler’s Wells East Garden, is whether they really are reaching and inspiring as many people as possible through dance. And I think Alexa’s garden has huge potential for capturing people's imagination and engaging with an audience on a huge scale at Chelsea. And then once it's relocated, it's a very interactive garden that I think will help achieve that goal.
What do you make of Chelsea’s sustainability credentials? Have you visited any of the re-located gardens? Who do you think the mysterious, anonymous PGB funders are? Will you be going to Chelsea this week? What did you have for dinner last night? Tell me everything!
One of my favourite things about Project Giving Back – other than the millions of pounds they’ve pledged, the charities they’ve supported, and the gardens they’ve enabled, I guess – is that the donors remain anonymous. A rare thing in this virtue-signalling culture of ours.
Of course, in the Christopher Nolan cinematic retelling of the Project Giving Back story, there would be a twist.
The denouement. Probably a solid 3, maybe 3.5 hours in.
We see Hattie emerging from the back of a (fully electric) stretch limo. The camera tracks her as she walks into a palatial mansion, with its Italian marble floors and 24 karat gold banisters. The visual storytelling couldn’t be clearer: this is the home of our mystery backers. Finally, any second now, their identities will be revealed!
A butler – played by Michael Caine, natch – intercepts Hattie as she walks across a sumptuously appointed reception room. He bows his head, takes her coat.
“Welcome home, ma’am.”