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Garden Design

Build up to my first Chelsea show garden

Kamelia Zaal

Kamelia Zaal

March 29, 2015

Moments of nerves, moments of panic and moments of sheer excitement is how I would describe the build up to my first Chelsea Flower Show garden. I recently got back from my last trip to Spain before Chelsea to check on my plants. I can tell you right now trying to find a plant that fits within the design aesthetically – blues, whites, lilacs, green and silver green; fits my planting scheme ethos – the plants’ origins need to come from a part of the world touched by Islam or Arab culture through trade; and can be grown in the UAE, is tough. I love a challenge and clearly never make things simple for myself. Chelsea 2015 is my biggest challenge yet; climbing Kilimanjaro was easier.

'The Beauty of Islam' garden for the Chelsea Flower Show 2015. Design Kamelia bin Zaal

The Beauty of Islam‘ garden for the Chelsea Flower Show 2015. Design Kamelia bin Zaal

The Beauty of Islam‘ is my first ever show garden and as you may be able to tell I like to aim high. I just had to get over my initial self-doubt and believe in my ability to design and build beautiful gardens. It’s what I have been doing for the last 11 years. The Chelsea Flower Show to me has always been where all my mentors showcased their amazing talent; it wasn’t even on my radar other than in my dreams.

But now my dream has come true and just to be participating is incredible. Getting through the door was the easy part; that was in August. Now we are in March with 2 months to go and we have been in full swing since November last year.

David Dodd from The Outdoor Room

David Dodd from The Outdoor Room

I am entirely in the gratitude of another mentor, and now someone I can call a friend, David Dodd from The Outdoor Room, who for some reason mentioned that he would be happy to build my garden if I tried for Chelsea. He stood by his word.

The Outdoor Room has been building award-winning gardens, and in particular has won Gold and Silver medals at Chelsea for the last 11 years, working with the likes of Andy Sturgeon, Jo Thompson and Andrew Wilson, to name a few.

David and I work well together and in between the serious discussions there is a lot of laughter. Since November we have been working through the drawings, and speaking with the suppliers – his water feature specialist and stainless steel specialist who are helping me realise my masterpiece. I say we work well together because we are both straight talking so we frankly discuss any issues and move on, finding the best solutions that fit both practically and aesthetically. Nothing but teamwork will make this garden a success.

Citrus for 'The Beauty of Islam' garden

In November I also made my first trip to Holland with Kelways and wow, did I tree hug. I also came back with so many ideas for another show garden and I haven’t even finished this one! The plants were inspiring and wonderful to see. Holland is where my hero palm is coming from and is the structure and wow factor in my garden… so no I won’t be telling you right now what it is, it’s a surprise. But to see such amazingly mature trees and palms growing in 15-20 meter high greenhouses was pretty impressive. Organised by Kelways, this trip was the start of the Chelsea journey for me.

Kelways, if you don’t already know, was established in 1851 and was famous for growing peonies and irises. Now the plant nursery is at the forefront of plant sourcing, especially at the Chelsea Flower Show. The man in charge of finding, sourcing, growing and preparing all my plants for the show is Dave Root.

Dave has been my go-to guy and has been invaluable in the whole process needed for a Chelsea show garden. His knowledge of plants and experience is incredible. I can bounce ideas off him and feed off his knowledge; he has great energy. My learning curve has been pretty steep.

Nursery in Spain

Nursery in Spain

Earlier this month I returned to Spain for a second time to check on my selected plants to see how they were doing. All I can do is pray, keep my fingers crossed and make sure that I have backups for my more sensitive plants. My pomegranate trees are leafing up nicely and my Ficus carica was bare and ready to move to the UK before it starts to leaf.

The trip was an amazing opportunity to meet one of the most experienced women in the world of garden design and an esteemed RHS medal winner at Chelsea and Hampton Court, Sarah Eberli. I honestly was pretty in awe of her when we met. A wonderful personality, Sarah had me in stitches quite a lot in between all the serious plant sourcing she was doing for her own garden, The Breast Cancer Haven Artisan Garden. I was also very grateful for the invaluable tips and insights Sarah shared with me on creating a garden at Chelsea. I am a very lucky girl.

One of the water features for 'The Beauty if Islam' garden. Design Kamelia bin Zaal

One of the water features for ‘The Beauty if Islam’ garden. Design Kamelia bin Zaal

Once back in the UK it was time to catch up with David, go through our build schedule and also check on my water features. The build schedule is pretty impressive and I can only imagine the sheer organisational skills needed to get this garden built. That’s not even taking into consideration where the garden is, surrounded by other gardens all being built at the same time, and contractors trying to maneuver machinery, offload trees and plants, co-ordinate sub-contractors, and deal with precious designers and RHS Health and Safety inspectors. What a job!

With my fabulous team

With my fabulous team

So however glam Chelsea seems on the day, there has been a lot of hard work for at least 6 months by an entire team of people without whom each garden at Chelsea wouldn’t happen; I think they deserve the medal.

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8 years ago

It’s very interesting to hear the stories behind Chelsea gardens, so thanks for sharing despite the time pressures you must be under. I will be at Chelsea and will make sure to come and say hello and see your lovely garden. Best of luck in the judging.