A Beautiful Spring Garden- Lessons From Ascot 2018

Ascot Spring Garden Show 2018 – A Garden For All Seasons

The spring of 2018 was horribly cold and wet.  Not exactly the ideal conditions for building any garden, let alone a show garden where even the tiniest scrap of dirt will manage to adhere itself to every available surface that you absolutely do not want it to touch.  We dug through concrete in heavy rain and sleet, footings filled with water, refusing to drain and although concrete will set under water it is not really an ideal situation, in any reality.  The sun steadfastly refused to show its face but even as fingers and toes got cold and the days were long, we all cracked on.  A show garden has a finite end date; there is no ‘tomorrow’ in this situation.  Unlike Chelsea, which is only a month later in the year and where the evenings are light and often warm it was dark by 7.30pm at Ascot but considering the weather we were rather pleased about this.

Much of this garden was recycled from our Chelsea Flower Show garden in 2017.  Screens, pergola and decking we re-invented and re-used to create separate areas for dining and lounging.  Breaking up these areas made the garden feel much larger than its 10x15m footprint and this process works in clients’ gardens too.  There is very little that has a more shrinking effect on a garden than a large expanse of lawn and nothing else.  We knew we had to be clever with space and were so grateful to be loaned furniture as well as a firepit and barbecue to give the garden life.  These elements always make a show garden feel much more real and it is then easy to see how those elements could be transported back to your own outdoor space.  The magic of seeing the top surface of a show garden belies the work involved in getting it to that point.  This garden (and this was not a complicated space) took nearly 500 hours of blood, sweat and tears.  OK, so there weren’t any tears but there is always blood and sweat!  I was let loose on some decking (something that probably the guys will never let me do again) and although I thoroughly enjoyed myself, apparently being 10mm out is just not acceptable.  I’ll tell that to them the next time they are planting!

As with any show garden, the things that create temporary horrendous bouts of insomnia are the plants.  3am is not the time to start thinking about whether you can push Mother Nature against her wishes.  Thankfully in the morning ‘normal service’ resumes and you realise that of course it would be totally impractical to try and put a tree in your living room and no, the cat would definitely object if her favourite blanket was used to cocoon chilly plants – all in the name of trying to warm things up and push them on.  Whilst trying to stay warm on-site considerable amounts of nervous energy was replaced by hot chocolate and biscuits (a show garden will never make you slim).  Nervous energy is the edited version of ‘fretting wildly’ at the plants who flatly refused to break open their buds.  Hundreds of miles were covered in running about between nurseries to gather a selection of plants that would provide the visitors with something bright and cheerful to view.  Thankfully towards the end of the build the weather improved slightly and the Amelanchier began to bust open, Pieris flushed with colour and the Cherry trees were adorned with abundant confetti-like blossom.  The smaller plants too began to come to life and the orange and blue colour scheme started to shine.  There is always something on a show garden that doesn’t go the way you planned.  At Ascot, the Fagus domes refused to budge but by happy coincidence (or designer know how, take your pick) their warm copper coloured old leaves complimented the orange of the Tulips and the Corten steel of the pergola and screens.  Sometimes, you’ve just got to take the luck when it comes your way.  The intention was that their fresh new leaves added bright green highlights to the planting scheme, but somehow their slightly sombre old leaves created a far more pleasing effect.

With the hard landscaping complete and the planting finished, the furniture was laid out, the bespoke wine rack stocked up and the table dressed beautifully with blue glassware which shone against the Corten steel and powder pink of the Cherries.  The rain stopped and the sun finally came out with a merest glimmer of warmth in it.  Every show garden teaches you something.  These snapshots in time allow a designer to play with materials and plants in a highly focussed and concentrated way.  Usually there is room for interpretation within a planting scheme later in the year, but at Ascot I have never been more thankful that I love plants and that I have gardened for as long as I have, that knowledge and feel for them has never stood me in such good stead.  I am also, as ever madly proud of the team I work with who in the conditions given could have easily downed tools.  Thankfully though it is not any of their natures to do so.  We build gardens, no matter what the weather (that said, a nice dry show garden build is a rarity and one to be rejoiced in).  Little did we know quite how hot the next one at Chelsea that year would be though.

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