RHS show garden builds – the challenge for their creators

RHS Show garden builds

As the RHS garden shows and festivals reopen in 2021, Greg Rhodes discovers the challenges an RHS show garden build creates for their designers and constructors.  Here he speaks with an award-winning contractor and an RHS show first-timer, both bidding for the ultimate accolade

Dan Riddleston, award winning contractor of Bowles & Wyer, is already deep into preparations for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2021.

A September show (21st to 26th) is a first for the event and will present challenges to designers because of the autumnal timing. A victim of pandemic lockdowns last year, like other major garden events, Chelsea is good to go as designers and contractors plan their journey to opening day.

With in-house landscaping capability, Bowles & Wyer have a strong track record at previous Chelsea shows, Dan notes, but he doesn’t dare reveal a ‘been there done that’ stance on the 2021 event. Innovation beckons as the company prepares to introduce biobased building materials in a garden celebrating modern nursing. Created by designer Robert Myers, The Florence Nightingale Garden – A Celebration of Modern Nursing, will display an imagined hospital garden, inspired by her pioneering  views on how hospital environments could aid patient recovery.

Sponsored by The Burdett Trust for Nursing, the garden was was to have commemorated Florence Nightingale’s birth bicentenary in 2020, but still resonates powerfully, given the creation of namesake hospitals to provide Covid ventilation units and the major focus on nursing care during the pandemic.

Picking up on the importance of materials in the hospital setting, the garden centres on a 60ft pergola, built using cross-laminated timber (CLT) stretching the length of the garden and enclosing it on three sides to form the central feature.

“The low-impact, non-toxic timber made from honey- coloured Douglas fir, has been built in modular parts,” Dan reports, “ready for shipment to the showground in September. Using CLT allows us to erect the pergola quickly – it requires minimal transport and creates very little waste.

RHS garden builds
Artist Impression: The Florence Nightingale Garden – A celebration of Modern Nursing designed by Rober Myers. Build by Bowles & Wyer. Garden at RHS Chelsea 2021

RHS show designer 

“We usually begin working with a show garden designer at least 12 months before the event,” Dan reports, “following RHS assessment and approval of the concept they submit up to a year earlier. The 2021 garden was conceived and designed before the pandemic therefore.”

Work for RHS Chelsea starts at the end of August. “Creating a garden requires an awful lot of preparation, constantly working with the designer, as our aim is always to make the perfect garden for them,” explains Dan.

Most elements are mocked up beforehand to check everything’s just right before scaling up, Dan adds. “That included a model of the pergola to show Robert.”

Debut at RHS Chelsea 

Dan debuted at Chelsea in 1994, before crossing over to Bowles & Wyer in 2006. “Most years we are in the main avenue,” he says, “but Chelsea always throws up challenges.

“We’d been working with Darren Hawkes on a show garden that included a handrail incorporating twisting. On paper it certainly should have worked but on site a week before opening day, it was wobbling like the Millennium Bridge. Together we found a solution.”

For soft elements such as plants, it’s a case of “just see how it goes. We have substitutes ready if the first plantings fail – that’s why we tend to choose trees as things need to perform but there’s always an expectation that some may not.” Given the autumn date, the perennial planting pallet is somewhat different, Dan adds, “but it’ll will be interesting for the public to see a difference. Trees will be far more mature and designers have an opportunity to use plants visitors would not otherwise see, though anything spring-like will certainly not be there.”

The Queen at RHS Chelsea 

As a Chelsea ‘old-hand’, Dan must feel confident that everything will be proceed to plan. “Well, The Queen tours the show on Monday so we need to be done and dusted by then for sure.

“Chelsea’s on-site clerk of works is pretty sharp-eyed about any exhibitors falling behind schedule,” Dan stresses.

“The RHS will spot if the contractors are not performing and can bring in others to rally round to help. This a team effort event, all work for the good of Chelsea. It’s a great show and gardens and landscapes cannot be achieved without collaboration.”

He adds: “The RHS like people who are experienced at what they do as everyone is under pressure, with a tight, 17-day, build time.

“The first 10 days of that are taken with us completing as much construction as we can, then days 11 to 17 is planting up. We try to finish by Friday so that we can sweep and tidy up on Saturday.”

Autumnal planting 

No fewer than 3,700 plants will populate the garden under a revised, autumn, palette. Dan and designer Robert Myers travelled to Bedforshire grower Deepdale Trees nursery to reserve trees, hedges and shrubs for the 2020 show (“Robert is a designer who sticks his head above the parapet,” Dan notes) while Hampshire-based Hortus Loci sourced other plants including perennials. “Although everything’s been tagged and overseen during the last year, we’ll have to select an alternative later this month [June] to the river birch we’d originally wanted.”

RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival 2021

RHS Show garden builds
Artist impression of The Communication Garden in Support of Mental Health. Build by Urban Meadows, Designed by Amelia Bouquet

From old hands to first timers – Kingston based Urban Meadows have constructed their first RHS show garden at the Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival (6 to 11 July).

“At the core of our approach is to create harmony between urban and natural environments,” says founder and managing director Barry Thomas, who set up the company in 2006, “constructing, cultivating and caring for London’s gardens, from intimate private ones to open public spaces.”

When speaking to The Landscaper, Barry had just arrived on site to begin the build under a two-week timeline that he admits was “tight”. “Hampton Court is a great opportunity to showcase our skills and to promote young, up-and-coming designer Amelia Bouquet,” he states.

A “labour of love”, The Communication Garden in Support of Mental Health UK being built by the team highlights the importance of face-to-face communication in a fast-evolving era. “The theme is key to the time we are living in,” Barry explains, “and is all about having connection without us resorting to computer screens.

“We’re building a space within nature, occupied by all native plants – a place for people to meet face to face.”

For a show garden first, Barry is surprisingly calm about the task ahead for him and his small team. “The first day on site was a dream,” he enthuses, “no access issues or hold-ups gaining our passes and it’s really easy to move around, with so much space to work within. The organisers certainly seem super-organised too.”

Under the build programme for the 8m2 creation, Urban Meadows will be tackling the hardscaping features first. “We should take just over a week to complete it, plus the trees, hedging and grouting, before moving on to the shrubs and perennials planting, which includes hawthorns, beech, native hedging, hazel and viburnum.”

Melbourne Flower show medalist 

Amelia followed the company on Instagram for more than year, then called Barry to commission them for a Kensington garden, followed by Hampton Court.

“We design as well as build many of our schemes so have plenty of experience with the design process, which allows us to share skills and knowledge when we transition to working with an external designer,” says Barry, who recruited brother Ryan, himself a Melbourne flower show medallist, to lead in-house design. “Amelia is very easy to work with and we’ve developed a strong working partnership,” adds Barry, whose 15 years in landscaping bring the necessary know-how to the build. “The main challenge is to ensure we communicate what Amelia wants, so our design expertise makes it far easier for us to visualise and understand the garden.”

Garden water feature 

How can Urban Meadows guarantee they will meet the tight timeline on site? “We have to be really organised before we land and get everything ready before the show,” says Barry, “then it comes down to simply completing a 3D jigsaw on site.”

The garden includes a water feature, an element Barry was anxious to ensure was bang on when they assembled it. Making samples to show a designer before the real thing goes in is a good way to iron out any possible hiccups, he explains.

”We made 50cm sections of the feature so Amelia could view the unusual, bespoke concrete finish she wants and that helped us because, with the limited time we have on site, we know it will be just right.

Hampton Court presents a huge setting, unfettered by houses crowding in around it. That said, the RHS does not allow constructors free rein during the build-up. “We cannot start work before 7.30am and must finish by 7.30pm. There’s to be no noise before or after that,” Barry states.

Helping Barry complete the build to time is his six- strong team, with three or four eager volunteers to add more hands to pump. “They’re young designers keen to see how a garden is constructed,” Barry confirms. Another aid for what he says is “a well thought out

event”, is the army of extra machinery on hand to hire if landscapers need a little extra help.

Reuse and repurpose

Under its aim to be “a sustainable company”, Urban Meadows strives to ensure that as many aspects of the `Communication Garden` an be reused or repurposed – a strategy that helps Barry streamline the build-up and the strip down, which the RHS has decreed should be three days.

“We’ve made a metal trough for the water feature so that we can remove it quickly after the show for use in another garden,” he explains. “The hedging is in sections and contained in troughs too.

“The organisers have already come round to ask if anything can be recycled and we are already reusing material where we can. We’ll lift the paving for laying at another site if we can. The plants are on loan, for return to the nursery afterwards. Another designer has already bought the trees, subject to them being monitored for disease,” Barry adds.

An RHS grant is helping fund the project, with Urban Meadows reimbursed for cost of materials, Barry explains.

Judge for yourself

The RHS judging criteria embrace not only design and plant quality but build prowess too. Will there be any honours for our mentioned builders this year?

Says Dan, “We have won a ‘best contractor on site’ award but our aim always is to achieve the best possible medal for the designer and client as much as for ourselves.”

While ‘Best in show’ can prove “controversial”, Dan favours the ‘People’s Choice’, “as it’s always interesting to learn what visitors like and hear their comments as they pass by your garden” – clearly Bowles & Wyer creations gain the popular vote as the company won a silver gilt at a past show.

And for Urban Meadows it is an honour to be there. “Such a high-profile show as Hampton Court gives us such a big opportunity to reveal our gardening and landscaping skills, who knows what future work it will lead to,” enthuses Barry.

Show garden entries may be fewer this year, reflecting Covid setbacks perhaps, and fewer visitors a day will walk the famous avenues, it’s anticipated, but Dan’s view of Bowles & Wyer’s presence remains constant.

“We are not selling a product,” he states, “but a show garden is a way to maintain our profile and tell the world we are producing great gardens.”