For the first time, I’ve (almost) had an insider’s view of what it’s like to design and build a show garden. Garden designers Sid Stratton (from London) and Bridget Robinson (based in Folkestone), both just one year out from their graduation as professional garden designers, had their ‘Slow Burn’ design chosen as one of four winners of the Metamorphosis show garden competition for the BBC Gardeners’ World Live exhibition held in Birmingham on 11-14 June 2015. The winners received part-funding from the RHS and Bradstone to build their gardens, as well as mentoring from designer Roger Platts, winner of many a Gold medal at Chelsea.
As one of the crowd-funders who helped Sid and Bridget on the way to their funding target for the garden, I was rewarded with two complimentary tickets to the show and an insight, through Sid’s entertaining blog, into the thrills and spills of the show garden experience, from their selection as finalists in February, through the planning and on-site construction phases, to the final countdown to judging day. And what a thrill that day was: an RHS Gold Medal for a garden that the judges said was “masterful”, “restrained” and “very confident”!
The Slow Burn garden, inspired by the tessellated prints of Karl Escher and interpreting the theme of ‘Metamorphosis’, aimed to show how a suburban garden built to a modest budget could achieve interest throughout the year, from the lushness of newly emerging perennials and bulbs in the spring, through the vibrant, frothy growth of summer, to a climax of “scorching colour” in the autumn and the drama of strong structure from paving, seating and walls in winter. Obviously not all of this could be displayed in a garden to be viewed on just four days in June, but the potential was certainly evident, and Bridget and Sid were on hand to talk about additional planting that would achieve the full “slow-burn” result in a permanent garden.
Sid explained to me that the RHS brief for the Metamorphosis gardens contained a list of elements that had to be incorporated in the design, including specific hard landscaping materials, exterior gloss paint (yellow, orange or brown), pond materials, and specimen plants Acer platanoides ‘Royal Red’, multi-stemmed Acer fremanii ‘Autumn Blaze’, hedging forms of Portuguese laurel (Prunus lusitanica) and hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), and Phormium ‘Bronze Baby’.
For reasons best known to the RHS, the specified materials and plants aren’t made clear to those visiting the show, leaving the viewer who isn’t “in the know” wondering how all the designers had managed to choose some of the same things – something in the water, perhaps? Fashion? I think it makes it all the more interesting to know what the designers had to work with, and to appreciate the very different ways in which they had incorporated those elements.
The basic design of the Slow Burn garden, with hard landscaping executed with consummate professionalism by BigFish Landscapes, was a paved courtyard with corner timber bench seating balanced by a shallow rill and pool. Five carefully-sited gabions – chosen by Bridget and Sid from a ‘wild card’ list in the brief – added further notes of strength and permanence.
The beautiful charred-black sheen of the benches, achieved by a Japanese technique called ‘shou sugi ban’, was matched by fencing panels on two sides of the garden that formed the backdrop for an Escher- (or maybe even Mondrian?) inspired wall sculpture – a brilliant use of the yellow and orange paint! – and the Acer fremanii ‘Autumn Blaze’, which in autumn would steal the limelight from the taller, Acer platanoides ‘Royal Red’ placed on the opposite side of the courtyard. Rectangular beds incorporating the specified hornbeam and Portuguese laurel hedging, and partially enclosing the courtyard, echoed the blocky, rectangular elements of the hard landscaping and anchored the planting of smaller shrubs, grasses, perennials and summer-flowering bulbs.
Thwarted by an exceptionally cold spring, many of the plants Sid and Bridget had carefully grown from seed were still many weeks away from flowering, but you’d never have guessed that the final planting scheme was not the designers’ original one. Stunning Iris chrysographes ‘Black Forms’ lined the paved entrance to the courtyard. The deep purples of Phormium ‘Bronze Baby’, Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’ and Heuchera ‘Obsidian’ were the perfect foil for punctuation marks of bright orange and vivid cerise pink from Pilosella aurantiaca (orange hawkweed), and Dianthus cruentus, with the softer apricots of Eremurus x Isabellinus ‘Cleopatra’ and Digitalis parviflora ‘Milk Chocolate’ completing the colour scheme. Feathery heads of grasses Stipa gigantea, Stipa tenuissima and Deschampsia cespitosa, together with the flowering spikes of the Eremurus, Digitalis, and Allium ‘Miami’, added height and movement to the perennial planting.
I know I don’t have it in me to be a professional garden designer, but it was the next best thing to experience the agony and the ecstasy from a safe distance and to see the initial concept and sketches turn into a real garden. A fantastic achievement for Sid and Bridget, and a worthy winner of RHS Gold.
[Read more about the garden design and build at Sid Stratton’s blog]