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Cornucopia - The Chelsea Experience

The Chelsea Experience
Julie Harvey

Cathy Rollinson and I were part of the small team which brought The SeeAbility Garden to the 2013 RHS Chelsea Flower Show. SeeAbility, formerly the Royal School for the Blind, supports individuals with sight loss and complex needs. This was the first ever show garden for the charity, our designer Darren Hawkes and supporter Coutts Bank. And what a thrilling and amazing experience it all was.

To have a show garden at Chelsea, the first challenge is to be selected from many applications. For its centenary-year show, the RHS wanted something more original than another sensory garden. So The SeeAbility Garden set out to show a range of eye conditions artistically and conceptually through its hard landscaping. An opaque glass screen between benches, for example, showed how an individual with cataracts would view the planting beyond. Visitors quickly grasped and enjoyed the messages.

If you have felt envious of the lush gardens at Chelsea, be reassured, designers use huge quantities of plants and, in our 15 m x 15 m garden, there were some 1600 plants. Darren used easily available varieties to great effect. People with limited vision may not be able to distinguish detail so planting was in contrasting and bold blocks of purples and lime greens which they could enjoy. I thought the impact was terrific and subsequently planted two large, low containers in my front garden with heucheras: H. 'Obsidian', H. 'Plum Pudding', H. 'Fire Chief', H. 'Electric Lime' and H. 'Lime Marmalade'.

Star of the whole show was the Mahonia 'Soft Caress'. This was its first showing at Chelsea and so we entered it for RHS Plant of the Year – to our delight, it won! The plants are due to be released in September and Wisley has placed a large order, but some are already available elsewhere so keep your eyes open if you want one.

Because of the poor spring, plants had not grown as hoped, despite careful tending at the nurseries, and caused great headaches. Final decisions on which were going to be included were not made until the day before judging. This created quite a challenge in producing material for journalists for press day; for our blog; for visitors to our website and the show; and for briefing the team of 26 who manned the garden in shifts over 6 days. Major casualties were the trees. Chosen for their shape - some in Italy - and nurtured in greenhouses first in Cornwall and then Kent, the Ginkgo biloba and Robinia pseudoacacia trees just did not have the effect we were after. In probably the most stressful part of the whole venture, two days after being planted, they were taken out. Miraculously there was no damage to the handcrafted, intricate Cornish slate path, and rapidly sourced Carpinus betulus 'Fastigiata' and Sorbus 'Schouten' went in. These looked great. Phew!

After some eight months of intense work, it was incredible to see the garden finally come to life and to experience it both peacefully in the early mornings and later in the day on the other side of the rope talking to huge crowds of enthusiastic visitors eagerly straining to see.

Excitingly, The SeeAbility Garden won a prestigious Silver Gilt medal. If you voted for the garden in ‘The People’s Choice’, thank you so much. If you missed the garden, it is still being featured on the RHS and SeeAbility websites. If you saw it, we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!

First published in the Southern Counties Group Newsletter September 2013
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 35.
© Copyright for this article: Julie Harvey

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2015. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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