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Memories of Rex - A Chelsea Courtyard Garden (part 2)


By AndrewR


Back in 2001, the RHS were still inviting amateurs to exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show. This is the second of two blogs covering the construction of our courtyard garden and the show itself.

On 9th May, after four months of planning, hard work and worrying, we started to build our courtyard garden at Chelsea.

We had visited the site of our plot back in March but now, with the whole of the show looking more like a building site than a garden, our space looked much smaller than we had anticipated but still large enough to require a huge number of plants. Would we get it finished in time?

The RHS had promised woven hurdle fencing around the back and sides of the garden but when we arrived, we found bright orange wood panels. It was explained that the previous day, a JCB had run over their entire stock of hurdles, rendering every one useless, and we would have to ‘make do’ with the fencing instead. I persuaded them to paint it dark brown during the next twenty-four hours so it was more sympathetic to our garden.

When you see all the gardens at Chelsea, they all appear to be planted but this is not the case. With a very few exceptions, no excavations are permitted. A membrane is laid to protect the grass and the RHS spread soil on top (to a maximum depth of nine inches). RHS soil is not what you would expect – I think it comes from the nearest building site! It contains broken bricks, stone, plastic bags, bits of paper and other rubbish. We spent the first hour or so forking it over to get the worst of the debris out of it. D (the Club vice-chairman) is helping me today and we dig out the area where the paving is to be laid as well as a hole for the silver birch. This is going to be tricky as we only have nine inches of soil and the pot containing the tree is twelve inches deep; heavy planting and mounding the soil slightly masks the pot but is one of the ‘fiddles’ of a Show Garden the public never gets to see.

On advice from the landscaping firm, we have opened a trade account with one of the DIY companies. This means their delivery is made from the nearest store which minimises the transport costs. The Chelsea site is actually quite small so there is a one-way system in place for site traffic. This means if a large vehicle is off-loading, it may not be possible for anything to get past and all traffic must wait until the road is clear again. We were right at the end of the traffic loop and it took our lorry driver two hours from entering the grounds to reach us. Later, the Council truck arrived with the bricks, the birch tree plus two shrubs from G’s garden (sadly, one of them has been damaged in transit and we cannot use it).

The following day, the landscaping team arrives and lays the bricks; it only takes them four hours. Already the garden is taking shape.

We have ten days to complete the garden and I have drawn up a schedule (including some contingency in case of bad weather or other delays). The landscaping team would not come into London on a Friday or a Monday but with the bricks already down, we have a few days in hand before the planting starts. We now move all the plants to the Council nursery (ready to be shipped to London) and then have to check them on a daily basis as the weather suddenly turns very warm. We also buy a couple of dwarf rhodos – these have purposely been left until the last minute because there is a very short time between their buds starting to open and their being in full flower. This is stark contrast with some yellow foxgloves I had been nurturing which were in bud by early May but refused to flower until the week AFTER Chelsea.

The next job is taking the trellis on-site and erecting it. As well as trellis at the front of the garden, we have included some at the rear as well. E and D make last minute adjustments and erect it all while I touch up any paint damaged in the process. It looks very professional and E has done us proud.

The following day, all the plants are loaded into a lorry and moved to Chelsea. The gazebo is also brought up and erected so all the plants can stand inside until they are needed. We have some ivy plants and I spend four hours tying them to the trellis at the back of the garden (you can’t make ivy stick to anything in a couple of days so it all has to be tied in).

I have arranged to stay with a friend in London during the build-up process which means I can be on-site at 8am each morning; the others are travelling up by car or train each day and arrive later. There are five of us in the team but the RHS only supply four entry passes during the build period. Each day, three of the others arrive at which point I go to the perimeter fence and give my pass to the last member of the team so we can all get in. Overnight, the weather has changed; it is now much colder with heavy rain and a strong wind. When the others arrive, we hold a conference over hot tea in the catering tent and decide to have the day off. The plants are all protected in the gazebo and we have some time to recharge our batteries.

We spend twelve hours planting on each of the next two days. G has done a mock-up back in Bracknell so we have a rough idea of where everything is going to go. The plot is small and there is not room for us all to be on it at once so we sort out roles. One person has the ‘plan’ and calls out what is needed, number two fetches it from the gazebo, number three ‘dresses’ the plant (removing any spent flowers or dead leaves), number four places them in the garden and number five follows behind, mulching with the Council compost. After every half hour, we change roles so everyone gets a turn at planting. By the end of the second day, the garden is planted and we all return to Bracknell. I type up a list of all the plants we have used; this will be copied and put inside our publicity leaflets.

As I have been in London every day so far, the rest of the team persuade me to have a day off on the last day of the build-up. They are doing the finishing touches before the judging on Monday morning. The glass sculpture is put in place but the table and chair look completely wrong. What can we do instead? We had also borrowed an old-fashioned milk crate from the garden artefacts firm (the sort that milkman used to use when carrying six bottles of milk). L has already made friends with the security guys on-site and one of them comes up trumps, supplying us with six flowerpots. We borrow some moss from another exhibitor (there is a great camaraderie between all the show people on-site), plant the pots with some left-over plants, put the pots in the milk crate and decorate it with moss. L, who has long fingernails, also presses moss between all the bricks in our paving – now it looks as if they have been there for ten years rather than ten days. It is these sorts of finishing touches that make all the difference.

Monday is judging day. We are allowed back on-site after the judges have left but it will be tomorrow before we know if we have won anything. Our Club president, Matthew Biggs (from Gardener’s Question Time) is on-hand for press photographs.

The MNDA publicity department have been working well – over the next few days our garden appears on both ITV London and Meridian local news (Rex is now in a hospice but is able to see the garden on the TV in his room). We have a huge write-up in both the Times and the New York Times and only the show garden sponsored by the Telegraph winning ‘Best in Show’ prevents us appearing in that paper as well. In the afternoon, the Royal Family visit the Show and we are only allowed one person on-site. We had a ballot and C won the honour but no-one visits the courtyard gardens.

On Tuesday morning, I arrive at 7:30. Chelsea Flower Show is an amazing place to see before it opens to the public. I get to our garden to see if we have won anything – we have a silver medal! We are all ecstatic. Later that day the MNDA patron, the Duchess of York, comes to see our courtyard and stays talking to G for half an hour. The crowds are twelve deep and it takes me four hours to extricate myself at the end of my stint (you are expected to have a presence on-site throughout the show to hand out your leaflets and answer questions from the public).

Most visitors seem to love our garden. There is one shrub, a drimys, from G and Rex’s garden that draws a lot of questions. Before Chelsea, it was only available from a few specialist nurseries; now every other Garden Centre seems to stock it – were we responsible? We like to think so. As 5pm on the last day approaches, the crowds around the garden start to build again as the sell-off approaches. We have already reserved some plants for ourselves and plants donated by other Club members need to go back to their owners. I have a list of what we can sell so nothing goes that shouldn’t. The bell sounds and our lovely garden starts to be pulled apart. There are a few enquiries about the drimys; a small acer from my garden could have been sold twenty times. Foxgloves, primulas and fuchsias disappear.

We have twenty-four hours to clear our plot but we have arranged for the Council guys to come up on the Friday evening. The plants are all in pots, the bricks are just laid on sand. The garden that took over a week to put together is dismantled in just two hours. All that is left are memories and photos. And that silver medal.

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really enjoyed reading this andrew and lovely pics to, nice memories, well done on silver medal to :o)

23 Feb, 2010


wow andrew,didnt realise just how much goes into these shows, you dont really give that side of it a second thought,well done all of you and congratulations on your medal you earned it..:o)

23 Feb, 2010


We paid our first visit to Chelsea on Tuesday 22nd May 2001 and I still remember enjoying the courtyard gardens much more than the larger ones. I do prefer Hampton Court now, not so crowded and more space to walk around. Really enjoyed your blog.

23 Feb, 2010


Andrew..what an accomplishment! I know G had to appreciate everyones closeness and warmth at that time. What a great way to spend time and with so much care.

23 Feb, 2010


Goodness! That was a fascinating look at what goes on behind the scenes, Andrew! I really had no idea about the soil, for example. Well done indeed on that terrific achievement.

23 Feb, 2010


~It seems a really small amount of soil when you see some of the trees these days~do they still stick to that ?~fascinating blog...

23 Feb, 2010


What a well deserved medal - the end result looks wonderful though it is impossible to do it justice with a couple of little photos. Fascinating to read the progress from start to finish.

24 Feb, 2010


Thanks for a really interesting blog and photos, enjoyed reading it very much

24 Feb, 2010


Arlene - as far as I know, that is still the case for the courtyard gardens as in the main, they will not be using huge plants. But I know some of the main Show Gardens have been allowed to excavate (for example there was a sunken garden about three or four years ago). The Show Gardens also have huge budgets and can afford to hire a man with an excavator for a day; we would have had to dig it all out with a spade!

At Hampton Court, you can dig because the first thing you do is strip the turf from your plot and take it to a 'heap'. There, the RHS reseed the affected areas after the Show.

24 Feb, 2010


Andrew, amazing story and lovely blog! I have really enjoyed it! Your show garden is beautiful. And so much hard work has been done...

25 Feb, 2010


It has brought it all back to me lol
What a great blog Andrew and very well done on your medal
It is much harder than people realise
I bet that soil they brought would be recycled as that has glass and alsorts in it!!
They re-use things the RHS now over and over again which is really good.
I dont know if they did then though. We all have to put everything is seperate skips and such we are all very green now 0:-)))(see my halo lol)
It is such a small space as you said.
You would have a problem today getting so many of you in I think, as we now have to wear bands that are going to be put on at the gate and cant be taken off until going out by them I understand also we have passes to were as well.
Last year the bands were made of material and when you deal with plants you get wet well so did the band. So we all letf them slack and took them off when we were dealing with water. Hence they are putting them on tight this year!!!
The paper work alone is hard work like you say, the forms just keep on coming dont they lol
I really enjoyed reading that Andrew it is really nice down in that wooded part too I like the small gardens more that the big gardens.
well done again I hope you had champagne
How lovely too ding it as a large group we have trouble with just the 2 of us.
What a great reason for doing it too
well done!!:)

8 Mar, 2010


OH goodness Andrew, I feel quite exhausted after reading your blog! What hard work...and it must have been awful watching it being pulled apart at the end!! But it was a lovely garden and the silver was well earned. I bet Rex was overjoyed.

8 Mar, 2010


Andrew it has taken me some time to get back to this blog......kept reading ones I had missed along the way!! most enlightening!!
Sad that most of the comments are from people that are no longer on GOY for one reason or another...? so you could well be responsible for Drimys becoming so popular!!BTW well done on getting a silver!!

10 Apr, 2016

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