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The Road to Chelsea: the final countdown
With t-minus six days to the greatest flower show on Earth, I caught up with designer Alexa Ryan-Mills to find out how her garden at the show is coming together
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Back in November 2022, I published an interview with Alexa Ryan-Mills, a friend who I met on the local gardening scene. I’d just welcomed a tiny baby into my life. Alexa, meanwhile, had taken on an equally daunting responsibility: to design a show garden at the 2023 edition of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
Six months later, and a lot has happened. My son is now almost sitting up, and beginning to experiment with solid foods. By which I mean he is, on a daily basis, smearing vegetable mush all over his face, high chair and – in defiance sometimes of most of the laws of physics – every available surface in the house. And Alexa? Well, she is a mere six days away from revealing to the world the most public and pressurised garden of her career to date.
If you’re reading this newsletter, you probably have enough of an interest in gardening to be at least vaguely aware of the Chelsea Flower Show. But just in case you’ve never heard of it, know this: it is a kind of a big deal. For the best part of one week each May (and once September, thanks to Covid), the eyes of the horticultural world fall on a patch of land on the banks of the River Thames, transformed from formless lawns to botanical bonanza.
Dozens of leading nursery growers share their greatest and latest cultivars. Top designers with massive reputations and budgets to match build Show Gardens that can draw an “oo!” and an “ah!” out of even the most cynical of observers. The BBC, with its daily coverage from the show, devotes dozens of hours of primetime coverage to the latest trends, the fanciest features, and the showiest show gardens. Chelsea, basically, is A Thing.
Chelsea’s Press Day, when the show officially opens (not yet to the public, but to celebrities, journalists and usually a royal or two), is now less than a week away. All hands on deck does not describe the pandemonium – albeit a surprisingly organised one – that is the Chelsea show ground right now, as thousands of contractors (and a fair number of volunteers) work sunrise to sunset on turning a patch of neatly manicured grass into a hay fever sufferer’s worst nightmare.
Needless to say, this is a busy and stressful period for designers like Alexa. Needless to say, it is a terrible time to try to interview designers like Alexa. Needless to say, that is precisely what I did.
Reminder: Alexa’s is The Sadler’s Wells East Garden – in support of London’s newest theatre dedicated to dance and the country’s first hip hop theatre school – and belongs to a judged-for-medals category called All About Plants, where hard landscaping has to be kept to a bare minimum, so the plants can do the talking/dancing. You can read more about it here.
Below, you’ll find an insight into the thoughts of a garden designer as they enter the most caffeinated week in the horticultural calendar. Plus some behind-the-scenes pictures!
Hi Alexa, with just under a week to go before Chelsea officially opens, how are you feeling?
Really happy. Though I won’t lie, I’m a bit tired. That’s completely to be expected though.
Things have been going really well. We’ve completed most of the build and can get on with planting now, which is my favourite bit. We’ve made sure we have lots of time for this as the plants and the planting are very important in a category called All About Plants! Getting them in the ground also means they have time to settle and it will look more natural.
What’s the atmosphere like on site? Fun? Tense? Manic? All of the above?
An absolute hive of activity. Very, very busy, and lots of people and traffic. Today more of the exhibitors are arriving so the site is getting fuller and fuller. You really have to keep your wits about you when walking around the showground. I saw one collision on my first morning, but luckily no-one was hurt.
There’s lots of chatter and people laughing. It feels very friendly, and earlier there were lots of people stopping to chat. But with only a few days to finish, I think there will start to be more of a feeling of stress, and maybe some tempers will fray. But we’ll see…
The atmosphere on my garden has been great. We’ve had a lot of fun.
When did you first set foot on site? And what did you find when you got there? A whole lot of grass, I imagine.
I arrived on Wednesday, last week. And yes, it was just grass inside the pavilion [Ed: the gardens in Alexa’s category are contained inside Chelsea’s famous Great Pavilion], with white markers sprayed on the ground to show our plot. My contractor, Big Fish Landscapes, pre-built a lot of the garden, so very quickly we had a shape and by lunchtime we had the trees more or less in place too.
Talk us through what has happened since, and what you’ve personally been having to do.
My biggest job has been making sure everything is delivered at the right time and everyone knows what to expect. That’s so it can all run smoothly. We’re not allowed to excavate in the pavilion, and have to build up from the ground instead, so our trees and hedges have to go in way before we get to add any soil.
Then there’s checking we’re following the plans, but also being flexible when we need to adjust something as you realise in real life it doesn’t quite work. For example, we’ve added two more stepping stones as we need to be able to walk comfortably through the garden.
Then there’s the positioning of shrubs and trees to make sure they work in the space. You can plan that on a drawing as much as you like, but until you’re in the space and have the plants in front of you, there will always be adjustments.
Now everything on the construction side is more or less done, the levels are all correct and we have filled the garden with soil – we also have pallets and unopened bags of warm compost underneath to bulk up the volume – so our focus is on planting. Our plants from How Green Nursery are all now here and I’m looking forward to working with them.
It’s a team effort of course – you’ve already mentioned How Green Nursery and Big Fish Landscapes – tell us about the various contributors who are helping to bring your design to life
We have Majestic providing the trees [Ed: click the link to read my interview with Majestic’s resident tree whisperer Carlos Guinand], and they are looking amazing. I’ve chosen a couple of species a lot of people here don’t know, so I’m expecting most visitors won’t either.
How Green are providing all the perennials. They have been brilliant. I met Simon who runs How Green last summer and spoke to him about the garden before I even knew I was definitely doing it. Growing plants needs a fair bit of forward planning!
Big Hedge Co have supplied – you guessed it – the hedges. It’s been such a cold spring, I was a bit worried about the fate of our hedges, but they managed to find me some beautiful hornbeam which is lovely and thick. And New Wood Trees have supplied some stunning Euonymus alatus, so we have a really nice shrub layer.
I mentioned Big Fish Landscapes. What a team! They’ve worked so hard with so much attention to detail. They’re fun and also very calm, which is what you need, really.
I’ve also worked with a couple of artists and makers. Daniel Higgins made the furniture – absolutely beautiful benches and stools – and he’s a real perfectionist. He’s also made a brilliant prop which I will reveal on Press Day. Sorry!
Benjamin Wachenje, aka Bro Ben, has produced the most stunning mural. This was a bit of a late addition, relatively speaking, but I think it adds to the drama of the garden. I’ll also be revealing that next week. Sorry, again!
Then there’s Fish Fabrications, who have made the metal sculpture. They have been great to work with and were recommended to me by Mim Studios, who have been integral in the detailed design of the space. Teoman at Mim Studios came up with the sculpture, which gives so much scale to the space and fits in beautifully with the trees.
Wow, that’s an even bigger list than I’d anticipated.
There’s more! Charlotte Armer arrived on site yesterday. She’s managing the planting team and has been great in getting us to a position with the soil levels so that we can plant. She also volunteered to be on site at 7am this morning to receive our second lot of plants, so I owe her a coffee. She has bags of experience working at Chelsea and making sure the planting is finished to a top-notch standard.
Your garden is in the All About Plants category – I guess the relationship with How Green must have been a really crucial one. Has everything gone according to plan, in terms of getting the plants ready for the show? Or has this dark, cool, wet spring had any impact on your plans?
A few things have not come up in time, but I think generally it’s OK. A warm week this week would be nice to encourage a few more flowers. I have blossom buds on two of my trees. I would love to see them open in time, but I’m not going to lose sleep over it.
Have there been any unexpected challenges that you’ve had to problem solve?
Well, my accommodation cancelled on me the night I was supposed to move in, yesterday! So that was unexpected. I live about an hour away, so it could be worse, but I need to come up with a plan for show week as there are some very long days plus evening events so I need to stay close to the show ground.
Thanks for your time, Alexa. And good luck. You’ve got this!
Watch this space for photos of the finished garden, and some final thoughts from Alexa, live from Chelsea!