Building a Show Garden

Building a Show Garden

Dan Riddleston from contractors Bowles & Wyer describes the complexities of building gardens like those at Chelsea Flower Show.

My first ever Chelsea garden, built over 20 years ago, was a lovely Mediterranean garden for the Sunday Times with Randle Siddeley.  It was a very tight budget of £25,000 – a fraction of the budgets nowadays.  Everything in that garden was begged, borrowed or stolen. At that time there weren’t that many large show gardens, ours was 10m x 10m and the stars of the show were the gardens on the rock bank with their rock water features and brightly coloured rhododendrons.

I was then fortunate enough to have worked alongside Waterers Landscape and subsequently Crocus on some of their gold medal winning gardens before Bowles and Wyer Contracts built our first garden in 2011. 

We worked for Tom Hoblyn on his Memories of Cornwall garden for Homebase for which we won a Silver Gilt medal. I was pleased with this result for our first garden, but really thought we’d done just enough to get gold.  The judges may not have quite interpreted it in the way it was intended but we all know they have to work to a set criteria and that’s just the way it is. This garden continues to live and now has a permanent residence at The Eden Project. 

The following year we worked for Tom again on his Italian Renaissance garden with a contemporary twist for Arthritis UK. This was perhaps the most challenging garden I have built at Chelsea with its many layers of water, just like its classical inspiration, Villa d'Este. There was a lot of construction with travertine stone with each stone numbered and the planting of some seriously large Italian Cyprus.  This was awarded another silver gilt medal, but with the added prize of being voted the ‘People’s Choice’ garden.

Working at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show can take its toll and can be disruptive to the running of a company if not managed well, so with a full order book we took time off in 2013.

In 2014 we started our relationship with Brewin Dolphin and their chosen designer for that year, Matthew Childs. This was Matthew’s first main avenue garden at Chelsea and like Tom Hoblyn’s Italian Renaissance garden technically very challenging. The garden was well received by the public and was awarded a silver gilt medal.

The following year brought another fresh face to Chelsea in the form of Brewin Dolphin garden designer Darren Hawkes.  It is always exciting to work with new and emerging talent and in Darren, we had someone who is extremely practical. We were given the challenge of building on the rock bank, something I had never done before and brought its own unique set of challenges. 

Construction was a much bigger excavation job than on the flats of Main Ave or Royal Hospital Way, the logistics are much greater as access is trickier and storage is extremely limited.  That said, Darren’s design for sponsor Brewin Dolphin was perfectly suited to such a situation. 

Darren’s inspiration came from Neolithic dolmens and the work of artist James Turrell.  Floating platforms and naturalistic planting were above an underground stream which flows into a pool. Woodland style planting comprised of ferns, aquilegia, and bleeding heart.  Elms were used for the first time in many years and were to represent those trees that continue to thrive in Cornwall despite Dutch elm disease.  

A larger than normal garden, with 22m frontage, this was too big a project to just turn up and start building. The floating platforms had in excess of 40,000 pieces of hand cut slate forming stepping stones over the stream and garden.  Building off site started in Cornwall in January, with a full size mock-up in timber and hardboard, and the painstaking cutting and gluing of slate. The garden was a great success and gained a gold medal, our first as Bowles and Wyer.
This year we worked with the wonderful Rosy Hardy. As in previous years we had been planning the build of the garden from as soon as we were approached in November 2015. The raised walkway was built off site by our engineers in Trowbridge and the Coccosphere by our model makers/sculptors in Teddington. We mocked up the gabion walls and spent hours in meetings working out the best way to build the garden. The end product was spectacular.