Chelsea 2012

I’ll be taking part in my own Olympic event in 2012. We’re going to have a show garden in the RHS Lifelong Learning area at Chelsea to promote some of the things we’re trying to get folk to do. Gulp! I say “we” but I’m just going to be doing the signage and the running around panicking. The design and build is being sorted by the brilliant Phil Brown, and one of our suppliers, the equally brilliant British Wildflower Plants, are supplying the plants and doing the growing for us. We’ll do a splashy Press Release in the new year along with a whole lot of other stuff, but I couldn’t contain my excitement in the meantime, so by way of a taster here’s the outline of the design brief:


Habitat Aid aims to build a garden exhibit to show how diverse micro-habitats can be created in contemporary urban design. We will use British native plants exclusively but it will not look like a “wildlife garden”. We feel that “Wildlife gardening” is often marginalised because it ignores the aesthetic and practical requirements of the most important animal in the garden – its owner.

It is an important part of Habitat Aid’s work to create landscapes which are both attractive and functional for their users AND which also deliver biodiversity, focusing on plants and invertebrates. We are trying to put the creation of micro-habitats at the core of a design philosophy rather than offering it as an option.

The London Wildlife Trust’s recent survey, reporting increasing hard landscaping in the capital’s gardens, suggests that this approach should also include specific reference to SUDS and usage problems confronting urban garden owners – e.g. parking.

The Chelsea exhibit will also be used to promote key messages from Habitat Aid’s partner conservation charities, including Butterfly Conservation, Buglife and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, who are all keen to be involved in the project. We hope to make it interactive as well as educational.

I’m sworn to secrecy as to details, but it’s going to be very different to anything you will have seen before. Wish us luck!

Settling In

Now we’ve – nearly – resolved the usual moving in nonsenses with idiosyncratic plumbing and the idiotic BT Broadband we can almost peer through the mountain of empty packing cases and paper and see our new HQ in the light of day.

There’s so much to take in with a new plot it’s difficult to know where to start. We have just under an acre and a half of land sloping west to east, where a lane borders the hedge. We’re surrounded by fields in the other directions, with a hedge to the south close to the existing cottage, which sits in the south east corner of the plot. I am looking out west from my office towards some stables, an unlovely powerline and a lovely oak in the hedgeline. The views are generally stunning though (see below), and it’s part of the challenge for the architects in designing the new build to take advantage of them while folding the house into the existing landscape.

The land itself is a blank canvas. There’s not much of a formal garden and the rest of the land is either thistle and bindweed – already strimmed – in the southwest corner and some potentially nice grassland in the northern two thirds of the plot. I say “potentially” because the grasses are nice and the sward is open, but there are very few flowers out there. Apart from the odd milk thistle there is a good area of meadow vetchling, some buttercup and red clover, and a little agrimony and bedstraw. The local farmer has just very kindly topped it for us and will bale and remove the hay, when we’ll sow some Rattle to start to get it under control. Landscaper Phil Brown has lots of ideas for this section, which will be divided up into smaller, quite distinct areas.

As to the local wildlife, the folk who sold us the house were mad keen birders and did a great job attracting an amazing variety into the garden. Unfortunately, 15 bird feeders led to another, less welcome, visiting fraternity. We’re now temporarily in a feeder free zone and waging mechanical and chemical warfare on the impressive local rat population. As to my own great enthusiasms further down the food chain there are a few butterflies about; I’ve seen meadow browns, woods, small tortoiseshells and skippers. I’ve come across no bats and remarkably few bees and hoverflies; I’ve seen Bombus lapidarius and B. hortorum, but hardly any solitary bees. I yearn for all the fauna and flora around our old pond too; the site desperately misses water. It will be fascinating to see how quickly we can bring up insect numbers over the next few years.

There are honey bees about, and, happy day, I’ve managed to collect a late swarm. It will need a lot of TLC to get it through the winter, but fingers crossed. I’ll collect my own colonies after their holiday with my beekeeping friend John.

As far as the house is concerned we’ve had some exciting meetings with the architects – about which, gentle reader, more anon. For the time being here’s a quick video of the views from the back garden.

Understanding Show Gardens

I had a lovely time at the Gardener’s World Show at the NEC Birmingham yesterday, at a Press preview hosted by the RHS. It was extra useful because we had the chance to talk to the designers of several of the show gardens and other exhibits, which this year were apparently particularly good, and I’m just thinking about starting a new garden myself (about which much, much more anon). What better way to get some inspiration?

I’m a total doofus when it comes to design; gardens are dreamt up and planned in an incomprehensible language. To my untutored mind Diarmuid Gavin’s Irish Sky Garden at Chelsea didn’t so much say Capability Brown, Charles Jencks and the Italian Renaissance gardens as shout “GREEN!” and have a bit of a laugh. I seem to spend most of my time at shows in the floral marquee bit, pondering on how amazing the nurseries we have are. Anyway, in true naive blogger style I thought I could try to categorize the gardens I’ve seen over the last couple of years to try and better understand what sort of garden I want, which seems to be none of them:

1. Designer

This is what Chelsea seems to do best; Cleve West’s garden this year was a fab example of aspirational chique. Like that kitchen out of House and Garden, the kind of thing you yearn for but know would be disastrous in real life outside SW3. Amazing planting, tasteful and wildly expensive hard landscaping. Even I could tell it was destined for stardom.



2. Eco friendly

People seem to get confused about “eco friendly”. It doesn’t necessarily mean sitting in its own zone of the show like a naughty child (as happened at Hampton Court last year), looking like a more or less coiffured and largely green bio-hazard, or generating enough power to warm a house. Why can’t it be something like this that looks like… well…. a rather beautiful garden?


3. Idyll

I’m not sure what the point is of recreating sylvan scenes like this, but the judges seem to like it like we do Vaughan Williams. There’s usually a charming back story too, so the whole thing feels like a bucolic diorama out of which you expect Rumpelstiltskin to spring. Last year at Hampton Court we had “Shakespeare’s Comedies Gardens”, which was as good as it gets for enthusiasts of the style.


4. Conceptual/wacky

These gardens sit like a Damien Hirst in the National Gallery. Once you’ve appreciated the message I’m not sure what their merit is. There were a couple of classics at Birmingham, including “Grass”, where Tony Smith made a succinct point about monoculture – I think – by creating an exhibit out of it. And got a Gold.


5. Uncle Vern

These are close to the idylls; the kind of garden you remember as a child through the rose tinted glasses of memory. Like my Uncle Vern’s; he grew dahlias and begonias, lupins and delphiniums, giant tomatoes and potatoes. There’s good potential for jokey elements in this type of exhibit too, like the giant pink tap at last year’s Hampton Court show.

I’m not necessarily dissing any of these approaches, but as a mug punter I find it curious that they are so distinct. Was it ever thus? Interesting things seem to start to happen when, occasionally, these gardens stray into more than one genre, which I suppose is of course what real gardens do. It’s certainly going to be a right old potage at our place, which I hope will have small meadow/woodland/pond/orchard/veg areas with a modest formal garden too, which I guess will be principally “eco” and “designer” – though re-engineer “expensive” with “sustainable” when it comes to the hard landscaping element! I’d like to use native as well as helpful non-native plants in a relatively formal, contemporary look which will (of course!) encourage biodiversity. No prizes as to which of the gardens above it will most resemble! All I need to do now is to come up with a name for the style… any ideas, oh better informed and gentle reader? In the meantime it’s time to have a chat about it over a beer with my local landscape designer friend Phil.