Photograph: courtesy Darren Hawkes
May 2015: Beneath a canopy of mature elms, foxgloves and campions sprawl among monolithic stones. This looks like a garden dating back decades, which has been left to go wild in a post-industrial landscape — yet it only began to take shape at the beginning of 2015, in a shed on a Cornish farm. The garden will come to fruition this month, in a very different location: the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
This is the second time that Fowey-based garden designer Darren Hawkes has been selected to design a show garden for Chelsea, and he is relishing the challenge. “It doesn’t feel like a garden yet,” he says with a smile, as he gazes around the concrete building in Golant where he and a team from his company, Wheelbarrow, have been working since January. A major task has been cutting more than 40,000 pieces of roof slate by hand to create raised platforms which will give show visitors a panoramic view of the garden.
Photograph: Charles Francis
The concept came to Darren shortly after the 2013 show, when his sensory garden for sight loss charity SeeAbility was awarded a silver gilt medal. “It was the idea of strong horizontal and vertical planes dividing up a wild space that grabbed me,” he says. “I didn’t sit down with a blank sheet of paper. I started with some books and a couple of cereal boxes. I knew that the planting would be very loose and unkempt. It should look like a space that’s been forgotten and gone to seed.”
He pitched the plan to sponsor Brewin Dolphin, as he felt it was a good match for the wealth management company’s brief for a garden which reflected both the firm’s long history — it was founded in 1762 — and its forward-looking approach to business.
Many elements of the garden have been inspired by the Cornish landscape, including dry stone walls, and the wildflowers which make their home in and around them. The strong stone structures contrast with the fragility of these plants, and the garden has other dramatic features — a magnificent magnolia and two 4-tonne boulders from Bodmin Moor.
“One of the inspirations for the garden is industrial history, and the reclaimed stone and slate will make the garden look as though it has a past,” says Darren. If the midday sun decides to put in an appearance at Chelsea — as he fervently hopes it will — it will send a beam through a hole in one of the vertical structures and illuminate a pool at the far end of a tunnel running through the garden.
The industrial influence gives the front of the garden an angular appearance — but on the other side, there is a curving, sinuous path and romantic, cottage garden planting. Special floral features include ten Aquilegia ‘Tower Light Blue’ plants, an exquisite pale blue variety which Darren has only been able to find in his own garden, and the miniature larkspur, Delphinium consolida regalis, with its clouds of violet blue flowers, which will be used to create a ribbon effect throughout the garden.
This larkspur is among 6,500 herbaceous perennials sourced from Kelways Plants in Somerset, a company which has been involved with the show for 75 years. “Supplying plants for Chelsea is a major commitment for a nursery,” Darren explains. “The plants have to be moved constantly to speed them up or slow them down so they they’re ready at exactly the right time.”
He and his team will have 19 days to put the garden together once it arrives in kit form at Chelsea. “The earlier you can get the plants on site, the more they can relax into place. When I did my first Chelsea garden, I was learning as I went along — and I learned a huge amount. But the scale of this garden is so much bigger. There could be as many as 15 to 20 people involved at various stages in the build, and there have also been an awful lot of people in Cornwall who have been involved at every stage, from high-spec engineers to a local stonewaller.”
He adds: “When you arrive at Chelsea and see all the diggers and tractors, and the show gardens taking shape, you can’t help but get excited. It’s like a festival for garden-makers, and there are people there from all over the world.” Results day is always nerve-wracking for everyone competing at Chelsea. Naturally, Darren would love to be awarded a gold medal, but he says: “It’s just as important that the garden looks great, and that it excites people”.
After the show, elements of the Brewin Dolphin Garden will be transported to two different locations at opposite ends of Britain. The trees and boulders are being donated to a cancer charity in Stirling, which is creating a garden for a respite holiday home. Meanwhile, the stone structures are to have a new home at Tremenheere Sculpture Garden at Gulval, near Penzance, where they will join a growing collection of contemporary artworks.
Many show gardens disappear after their days in the Chelsea sun – but Darren hopes that the monumental stones and plants of a garden inspired by the past will continue to give pleasure well into the future.