Inside ‘The Oscars’ of Gardening

“Can you take us to the Chelsea Flower Show?” we asked our London taxi driver earlier this week. “Do you know where that is?” There was a long pause from the front of the car. “Of course, mate,” he shot back, “it’s only been there since 1913.” And so we arrived at one of the world’s oldest and biggest expositions of botany and horticulture. The day we visited—the week of the show’s 100th anniversary—one woman described the show to us as the Oscars of gardening, where many months, even years, go into designing a small garden plot, and where the awards to specific landscape architects can literally define a career.

It’s not quite gardening just for the sake of looking pretty, although appearance is certainly a top priority. Plants are chosen and spaced strategically to peak the very morning of judging. The gardens are meant to convey a message, or to serve as a blueprint. Selecting plants and urban materials can be strategic to maximize green cover on the roof of a building, or to minimize water use in a parched region.

To find out what that meant, we stopped by several gardens to talk with their architects (don’t call them gardeners, we were warned). A garden by Darren Hawkes was designed to create a natural space for people with vision impairments: A central focus of plants and a reflective water pool eliminates the need for peripheral vision. Designer Anna Piussi built a garden with a soundscape. Poles 20 feet in the air emit natural sounds like the rustling of leaves, meant to add sensory depth to the outdoor experience.

One of the more striking gardens—indeed, it won first place, the apparent equivalent of a horticultural “Best Picture”—was designed by Nigel Dunnett, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Sheffield. Created as a potential model for the rooftops of urban buildings, Dunnett’s garden used plants and a water system designed to filter a building’s gray water. Intricate wood designs were created to offer haven for insects. All components of the plot were meant to work as one system, focused on the most efficient use of water—a top goal of the Royal Bank of Canada, which funded Dunnett’s project. We should mention that RBC is also a sponsor of Change Reaction, but our interest in its garden was organic. And it wasn’t only us. Judges awarded the garden a gold medal, one of show’s top honors.

Lest one think the event was just attracted gardening enthusiasts, the flower show is a big draw throughout the entire UK. The Daily Telegraph, one of London’s biggest newspapers, published a 12-page preview of the show’s highlights. We caught whispers that Rod Stewart was expected to attend. When we ran into actress Helen Mirren, she politely denied our request for an interview. A few hours after reporters were asked to leave the show, Her Majesty pulled up with a few members of the royal family.

Perhaps the most memorable part, however, wasn’t the celebrities of the professional gardeners—er, landscape architects—with the money and time to craft a masterpiece. Not long before we left, we ran into Milly Smith and Erin Mullins, two young students (age 13 and 12 respectively) at London’s Correlli College school. Gardening for them, they said, was about learning to live sustainably and to harness the land they had, rather than land they could spend a year making perfect. After we spoke, they offered us strawberries they had grown in their school’s garden. They were some of the sweetest ones you could imagine.

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