The Crazy World of the Chelsea Build

The garden when I leftI have spent the last two days in the crazy surreal world of build-up week at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.  I was thrilled to get the opportunity to help Ann-Marie Powell with the planting on her garden for the British Heart Foundation.  It was even more fun as I was doing it with several friends I had met through blogging and tweeting.

Trying out the chairs - no we dont like these!

Trying out the chairs - no we dont like these!

I arrived mid morning on Friday after a 3 hour train trip, oh to live closer. You walk along the Chelsea Embankment and in through the Bullring Gates and suddenly you are in another world.  A world of high-viz jackets, lorries, construction vehicles, plants, noise, dust and highly creative people.

Diarmund Gavin's flying garden room

Diarmund Gavin's flying garden room

You look around you but there is just so much to see it if impossible to take it all in.  Suddenly I’m at the garden and thrown straight in at the deep end.  What are we doing? How are we doing it? I have no idea.  I’m told we are planting the borders. These are the plants to use, these are the plants not to use, place them and then ask Ann-Marie is she likes it.  So tentatively I set to, it is difficult to be confident in your own abilities in this environment but as the two days progress I felt more and more ‘in the zone’ so to speak.  It was great to feel that you were contributing to the garden personally rather than following a strict planting plan.

Everywhere people are busy

Everywhere people are busy

It was not straight forward though.  The pool had developed a leak the day before and had been drained and an afternoon’s worth of plant placing lost as all the pond plants had to be removed.  Finally Friday late afternoon they started refilling the pool and we could start replacing the plants.

Work starting in the Plant Marque

Work starting in the Plant Marque

One of the more amazing exhibit - all made of flowers

One of the more amazing exhibit - all made of flowers

The other theme that ran through the two days was when to remove the protective hats from the Peonies.  These, apart from some white Foxgloves and Aquilegas, were the only flowers in the garden and were a key feature intended to give a jewel like effect. But they are delicate flowers and it was getting warmer and warmer and whilst we were keen to see what they looked like we were also worried they would be damaged or go over too quickly.

Posing for the camera - Aussie style

Posing for the camera - Aussie style!

By Friday evening there were four of us left planting away and we were getting more and more tired to the point that hysteria was setting in and we were creased up laughing about things that weren’t really that funny – time to go home and anyway they close the ground at 8pm so you have to leave.

Interflora exhibit mid build (see my last post)

Interflora exhibit mid build (see my last post)

Back the next morning and Ann-Marie had arrived early and was well  into finishing off.  The pool leak seemed to be resolved, the peonies were more or less placed and we were in to gap filling and tweaking.  All morning there were photographers taking pictures, film crews walking past, people stopping to say hi and ask questions.  A brief respite for lunch, to clear our heads and then back to work.

Deciding what to do next - Ann-Marie & Simon

Deciding what to do next - Ann-Marie & Simon

There is a huge level of  anxiety and insecurity about how ‘your’ garden compares to others, how far they are from finishing, are we behind etc.  On top of this the BBC were coming to film the garden at 9am on Sunday so we had to have it finished.  Ann-Marie decided we would aim to finish it by the end of Saturday.

Rob planting up front of garden

Rob planting up front of garden

I spent the afternoon helping her with the pool planting.  Which actually wasn’t as hard physical work as the filling in the gaps in the borders others were doing.  It really involved me pointing out gaps and where the liner showed, passing things to Ann-Marie who was glamorously attired in waders.  I also spent what seemed a lifetime  trying to untangling some Carex with spiky seed heads (not sure of the name forgot to ask) from its unruly mess.  I think it looked better when I finished but it was like untangling knitting – I had to employ all my patience and all the time the sun was beating down.

Sorting out the pesky pool

Sorting out the pesky pool

By this time the site was starting to be cleared and the lorries and van going past, just inches from us, were increasing. We repeatedly had to stop and move out of their way and rescue plants from disappearing under the wheels – although one hosta wasn’t that lucky and was squished!

Throughout the two days we would go for wanders to stretch our legs, to see what others were doing and trade plants – there is a lot of trading!! Also practical jokes – giving inappropriate plants to different gardens  which was fun.  We were given some Kangaroo Paw for our woodland shady garden by one of the Australian gardens, we returned the favour with Foxgloves and Hosta!!

Finished - well almost!

Finished - well almost!

Sadly I had to leave late afternoon but by  then there was only one large plant to go in the close off the back to the public and the dye to go in the pool.  I went for a last wander, took some photos and when I returned the hats had come off the peonies  and the garden just sang.

I am so pleased to have been involved.  It was hard  work but it was an amazing experience which I would love to repeat again – if any future garden designers are reading?!

20 Comments on “The Crazy World of the Chelsea Build

  1. a lovely read must of been hectic but a pleasure in beening involed as well in such a lovely show garden

  2. Helen, we did a garden a couple away from Ann-Marie last year, and you’ve summed up exactly how we felt being there. Currently trying to get funding for another one next year. Will keep you posted!

  3. The garden is looking really good, looking forward to seeing it in reality on Tuesday. It must have been great to have behind the scenes access to the show. Very envious.

  4. I am off to Chelsea on Wednesday so will make a special effort to view the garden. It’s lways interesting to get a glimpse of the creating stage of these gardens. Must have been an interesting experience.
    I did wonder how the warm weather would affect the plants. I am sure some must have gone over – perhaps we will see some early summer plants instead!

  5. A great experience for you. Just watched the first of countless programmes on BBC following Chelsea. I’m not sure what really fascinates us about this show as so much of it is forced, wildly extravagant and unrealistic. Is it that we can all take something from the designs as, for sure, we won’t be able to replicate them totally? For me, l love what is being called ‘Artisan Gardens’ this year, the small gardens that are so characterful. Would love to be given a chance to display in this category. One day perhaps!

  6. Hi,
    Glad you had such an amazing experience, it sounds like a lot of fun and so interesting to see how things work and what goes on behund the scenes.

  7. Saw the garden tonight on the Chelsea preview show. It looked fantastic. You must be so proud to have been a part of it. Will keep fingers crossed for a gold!
    The BBC did a documentary, last year I think, on the build of the show. Absolutely fascinating to watch but exhausting as well.

  8. Oh what an amazing experience Helen – one that you will never forget I imagine. Will keep my fingers crossed that you get the opportunity to be involved again in the future. I shall be glued to the Chelsea coverage on television this week.

  9. Absolutely thrilling! Love those red structures and your pix and descriptions behind the scenes.

  10. What an interesting post, I must say I have wondered how they manage to create what looks like a finished garden so quickly. It must be stressful and hard work but how satisfying. If I was a garden designer I’d ask you …

  11. Glad you enjoyed show gardening! I love that sense of imagining the whole garden in my head months before, then starting with a bare plot of ground and trying to bring the whole thing to life in a few days.

    If you fancy coming up for a day or two to help with my Tatton build you’d be very welcome. More spacious than Chelsea and no lorries driving over your hostas. Wellies almost always essential though…

  12. I’ve helped on a Chelsea build or breakdown a few times, and it’s a great experience. They should use it for corporate bonding exercises – you really establish a very special team spirit, even if you’ve never met the other people before. Trouble is, you never want to go back to being a ticket-buying visitor, so every Chelsea becomes a mixture of total excitement and extreme fatigue. The price I paid for a press pass today was to rush home early and write a news story for tomorrow’s paper. Worth it, though, to have that privileged view.

  13. You lucky, lucky, lucky girl! I can’t stand crowds and walking around any show completely wears me out but THAT is how I would love to experience Chelsea … in fact, that is the only way I would enjoy Chelsea (well, perhaps press day …)

    Anyone need a very hard-working horticultural Hobbit to help out next year?

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