I caught up with award-winning garden designer and horticulturalist, Chris Beardshaw, at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show, to find out more about his design and the concept behind his Gold Medal winning, Morgan Stanley Healthy Cities Garden, which was designed by Chris, for the community in Poplar, South East London and exhibited at the 2015 RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
PB: What’s the most important message that you’d like to come from The Morgan Stanley Healthy Cities garden, at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show?
CB: Well I think that the important thing really is the importance of quality green space in communities, and that’s very much what this garden represents. The initiative that this is a part of, the Morgan Stanley Healthy Cities initiative, is really all about trying to find out what’s working in a community and what’s lacking in a community. In this particular instance, with Poplar in East London, what became apparent was that was lacking was a quality designed green space that had elements of beauty, and floral beauty, and elements of opportunity for people to interact, to grow their own fruits and vegetables, to play, roll around on the meadows, and interact with one another and with nature.
This particular garden, is a small part of a much larger project; immediately after the show is finished, this garden will be taken to pieces, shipped over to Poplar in East London, where it will be recreated, surrounded by a much larger series of gardens, which includes meadows, soft play areas, mounds of grass that children can roll down and make dens in, terraces for adults to sit, seating zones, plenty of raised beds with pergolas for growing fruits and vegetables and flowers up, and over, and in. So it becomes the hub of the community really, as a total project, and as I say, this is the floral tile that really is the centrepiece, it’s the attraction. The four paths are a cross-axial version of paths; each of the paths leads off into a different area of the ultimate large-scale garden that we’ll create over in Poplar.
We also want to try and reflect Poplar itself and the history of Poplar; as the name suggests, Poplar is derived from Poplar trees. The Poplar community is on the bend in the river Thames, just North of Canary Wharf, it was traditionally a wetland, and on that wetland there were Poplar trees growing: Poplar, willows, alders, and Acer campestre, which were coppiced. That’s the reason we’ve used these rather grand coppiced Acer campestres in the garden; it’s a reference to Poplar as it was before it was inhabited. The trees were coppiced, the coppiced wood was used in charcoal, and the charcoal was then used in industry, in the growing city of London.
The box hedging is a kind of version of a knot garden really; we selected that for two reasons: the first is that many of the people who lived originally in and around Poplar worked in and around the docks in the East End of London. This is a project about binding communities together – and of course the obvious reference is, well, how do sailors bind ropes together? So we looked at how they bound ropes of different styles together – so two different sizes – they used a knot, which one of the names was ‘Friendship knot’. This is a stylised version of the knot that we created in the edges here. They bind it together and it unites the two with ultimate strength. The second reason is that the community that we’ve been working with and talking to, who are the recipients of this garden, were very clear that one of the things that is most emboldening about communities is to create a space which is identifiably theirs – a sort of boundary, if you like, some sort of frame into which the community sits. And so the hedges also perform that function, restraining, binding and defining the community space.
Then of course you’ve got the herbaceous perennials, which are dancing around in the spaces created by the hedges. We selected deliberately a very eclectic mix of flowers, in terms of colours, textures, forms and geographic origins, to reflect the make up of our communities – the fact that our communities, particularly inner city communities, are incredibly diverse. There’s a sense that because of that diversity, you can get clashes, you can get points of friction. What we wanted to demonstrate with these sorts of vibrant colours, different shapes and the assemblage of it, we want to demonstrate that the diversity can bring robustness, if you have the right framework – the infrastructure in which that diversity sits.
PB: I love that!
CB: So there’s plenty of, sort of, messaging going on within the garden. We’ve got these twelve fountains, foaming fountains there which define a space, and part of that is about play, because there will be children in this garden, and in the spaces around it; so some of it is to do with the interaction of children with the water, but of course also it’s to do with the fact that the river Thames water itself, defined Poplar as a community. So we wanted to stylise that – so the central space in the garden, is defined by the foaming jets, representing the way that a community is identified.
PB: Oh, I really like it. Is that a map of the River Thames in the stone?
CB: Yes, it’s a map. Yes, there’s an etching of the River Thames on two pieces of stone, again uniting the hedges, completing the definition of the community.
PB: Can you tell me more about the meaning behind the sculptures within the garden?
CB: The two sculptures that you see of the figures, the one at the front here is called ‘Let Heaven Go’, and is a rather striking figure. For us, it represents the concept of paradise lost; you know, for those people in the community who are used to having their garden or living in a beautiful landscape, and now find themselves in a space devoid of gardens, and devoid of positive green space. It reflects the real anguish, the sense of loss, as a result of a lack of quality green space.
The second sculpture in the alcove is of an adult with a small child sitting on his shoulders; the hands of the child are covering the eyes of the adult. To me that’s trying to evoke that feeling of the importance of inter-generational communication, and that the child is explaining to the adult the joy of the garden. But also it’s about learning – it’s about the fact that generations, if we’re given the opportunity to live in and around the same space, we learn from one another; children learn from adults, but adults also have much to learn from children.
PB: Oh yes, I totally agree, each of us can learn from and with one another.
PB: The plants in your garden are exquisite, they are so healthy and are of such quality; have you worked with the independent nurseries who supplied the beautiful plants for your garden before?
CB: Yes. I was very keen this time around to go with nurseries who were, quite eclectic and quite small scale, so for instance all of the Camassias you see growing in the garden were grown by one lady, who’s a Camassia enthusiast up in Yorkshire, who is looking to get a nursery together to house a National Collection of Camassias at Hare Spring Cottage Plants. So they were grown up right up in Yorkshire, in really quite hard conditions. We’ve also got a couple of ex-students of mine from Pershore College who now run Todd’s Botanics, Mark and Emma, they grew things like the irises and some of the floral plants like Geums and so on, then I worked with James Chichester down on the south coast, to grow much of the remaining herbaceous perennials, and then Hilliers Nurseries provided much of the foliage planting. So all sorts of sources to bring about this sort of eclectic mix of plant materials.
PB: It’s great that you’ve been able to support and showcase a number of quality independent growers and nurseries in this garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
CB: Yeah, and I think also the nursery industry should be supported; I enjoy working with growers who are really super-enthusiastic about the plants that they grow, so it isn’t just a product, it’s a lifestyle, and I think that should be celebrated. What’s curious, is when people have been walking around in the build-up to the show, other designers, they’ve all been coming along saying, “Where did you get your plants from? They’re not only great quality, but they’re in flower – mine are struggling to get into flower!” And I think it is that attention to detail that a small nurseryman or woman can afford on those plants that to me, makes the big difference.
PB: Can you explain the process by which you came up with the design? Was it a particular planting idea, or was it because of the place Poplar, what idea or concept came to you first?
CB: It was working with the community; for me the design process starts with –
PB: So did you meet and work with the community in Poplar first?
CB: Yeah we were able to sit down with and meet community members and those who are responsible for administering many of the services within the community, and throughout the process we had that connection. So for instance, we worked with the local primary school to not only get ideas about the gardens and about the quality of the spaces, but also more importantly the tiles. In the alcove, inside there, there’s a series of… at the moment we’ve got forty, but ultimately we’re going to have 120 tiles in the finished garden over in Poplar – we just brought a small selection of them here… each child was asked to produce a tile which for them represented the principle of community, and the principle of health that you get from the community. So there’s all sorts of little motifs that are on there, from the food they enjoy to, to the smiling faces of running around and jumping in puddles, and flowers that they particularly like, roses, and lilies and those sorts of things. So the children were very instrumental in the creation of those pieces of artwork, and they will all be decorating the seats, which will be positioned around the garden in Poplar.
So the design process is multi-faceted really; sometimes it’s from the site itself, the history of Poplar, sometimes it’s from the client brief – the Healthy Cities Initiative from Morgan Stanley – those three pillars of wellness, play and nutrition, and sometimes it’s from the people of Poplar who just sow the seed of an idea. So for instance the glass and steel at the back is very much a reflection of the modern development that’s taken place in Poplar, but also the steel is representative of the ships that were so instrumental in the development of Poplar and the development of the docklands, and the 7-degree angle of the steel is the same angle as on the gunwales of the ships that used to sail up and down the Thames. So it’s those types of things where every time we wanted to move the design forward, we’ve gone backwards into the history and into the community to see if there’s a permission given from something that’s happened or some development that took place to move our design forward. So the design becomes integral to the community, and the community becomes integral to the design.
PB: Do you have a favourite part of the garden?
CB: Gosh, it’s difficult. I think it depends where the light is coming from because in the mornings, this front left corner here, the sun rises in the opposite corner and you get the sunlight filtered by the Acer campestre and then coming down, backlighting the iris and the lupins, and it’s just a magical spot. Then in the evening you get light coming in from the opposite corner, and the sculpture in the corner of the alcove is just beautiful. So you know, like any garden it depends where the light’s coming from, whether it’s raining or not and how you feel as well. You know there are spaces which are more open and you get broader views, and there are spaces which feel much more enclosed and much more personal, so I think like any garden, it is sort of affected by how you feel when you enter it.
PB: The garden has such a great finish to it, you and your team must have had to work very hard, working long hours to achieve such a superb outcome.
CB: One of the things about building a show garden at Chelsea Flower Show is the speed at which everything has to happen, and the dedication of the team you have to have with you, who are completely supportive of you. We have just the most fantastic team of people; each one is an expert in everything that they do, however, they’re prepared to drop into other things.
Now as an example of just how focused and dedicated they are, the team who were making the metal tiles on the back of the wall there, were from South Wales, lovely guys, they run a business down there and we sent them the drawing. They were commissioned to do the work – we’ve worked with them many times before. They brought the product up, they fitted it themselves, and it got to the point of putting the tiles on the wall – and these tiles are maybe, what, 6ft long, 2ft deep, something like that, series of about 20 of them on the wall there, and they’re integral to the texture of the back of that wall. When they came to put them on, they realised that they’d made them all inside-out, and none of them fitted, and so – and this is at 4 o’clock on Friday – they drove back to South Wales, opened up the factory, worked through the night, re-fabricated all of the tiles, drove straight back here and fitted them back on the walls, so within twelve hours the whole problem was rectified. It’s that type of focus and dedication which demonstrates the importance of the scheme and the jobs to everyone who’s involved, but also the fact that they really enjoy the opportunity to celebrate what they can do, and more importantly they didn’t want to let the community down.
PB: How do you select your team who you’ll work with at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show?
CB: We invite people who we’ve known for many years and who we love working with – it’s like a family coming together, we all swap recipes and talk about families and children, and holidays we’ve been on, and you know, clothes we’ve been buying; it’s more of a social event than a construction site sometimes. You know, we’ve had a friend of mine from Aberdeen who’s an estate manager, we’ve had a garden designer from Edinburgh, we’ve had two of the gardening team from Raymond Blanc’s garden at Le Manoir, we’ve had the curator of Jodrell Bank Arboretum. We’ve had our regular site manager Keith Chapman who runs his own landscape business, along with a couple of his team on-site; who else did we have? We’ve had volunteers from Butterfly World in Oxford, I mean all sorts of people, but each one as you can tell from the places they work, each one an expert in what they do. It’s a team that never work together other than when we do show gardens, and that’s what makes it really special for me. And of course Frances and myself are able to relax as we know we’re absolutely in safe hands; you know, the team understands the quality and the approach we take, and we try and get into a situation where we’ve woven ourselves completely into the project, and we live, breathe and sleep the project, and all the team are exactly the same. There’s never a moment when you have to pick them up on anything, they’re always right there with you, and willing to do anything to make sure the project succeeds.
PB: Which is your favourite garden of all the gardens you’ve designed here over the years at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show?
CB: Gosh, isn’t that difficult. You know, they’ve all been so, so different, and that’s what’s lovely. I think that, you know, people who come to these gardens and the gardens that I design, the one thing that they all say is the planting, that it’s all about the plants, and I would absolutely agree. I started off in horticulture, and it’s the planting for me that makes the garden; the architecture and sculpture is supported by the planting, and I think that’s slightly different to some of the other gardens at Chelsea Flower Show from other designers where the architecture and the spatial arrangement are key, and the plants kind of decorate the edges. We start off with the plant material, that’s absolutely the key, and so each one is very, very different, because the plant material of course is reflecting the nature of the site, the brief, and the clients you’re working with.
I mean I do love this garden, I think, whether it’s so close at the moment, I think this one is the first one where we’ve had a completely open view from front to back; normally we compartmentalise to deliver a series of stories. The Arthritis garden we did previously was wonderful because it was so powerful and people really understood the progression we were trying to demonstrate from diagnosis through to living with arthritis. The Furzey garden, working with the adult learners form Furzey, you know, those kind of big rampant rhododendrons we had, and that very sweet little thatched cottage we had at the back, that also was very good. But then you know, Boveridge, the recreation of the Gertrude Jekyll and Thomas Mawson garden, for the children with learning disabilities down in Dorset, the garden we were restoring, that was very special too. So you know every one has a very special place in our hearts because you throw yourself into it, you know, you live and breathe everything to do with the project, and to be honest I find it quite difficult to do projects where there isn’t a reason for that project existing other than just advertising. It isn’t about advertising, it isn’t about marketing and it isn’t done for commercial gain, it’s very much done to move the cause forwards, and to raise awareness; to get people talking about issues and to try and demonstrate the role of horticulture within all of that.
PB: Apart from your garden, which is your favourite garden at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show?
CB: My favourite garden apart from mine? Dan’s. Dan Pearson’s. I think Dan is the designer and plantsman of his generation. I think he is extraordinary character, wonderfully talented, fabulously modest about what he does, and he produces some sublime pieces of work, and I think, I haven’t inspected it closely, but I’ve no doubt this one is as good as anything he’s ever done.
A shortened version of this interview was first published in the August 2015 edition of VantagePoint Magazine.
Other articles that may interest you………
To read my interview with Chris Beardshaw and find out about the Morgan Stanley Garden for the NSPCC, which Chris designed for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2018, please click here.
To see the planting list for this garden, together with the details of the specialist growers and nurseries that grew and supplied the plants for The Morgan Stanley Healthy Cities Garden, please click here.
To read my interview with Chris Beardshaw at the 2017 RHS Chelsea Flower Show and find out more about The Morgan Stanley Garden, please click here.
To read my interview with Chris Beardshaw, and find out more about the Morgan Stanley Garden for Great Ormond Street Hospital, which Chris designed for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2016, please click here.
For more details of the people and companies that worked on, or contributed sculpture, seating, or artwork for The Morgan Stanley Healthy Cities Garden, please click here.
To read about The Festival Of Roses at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show and see photographs of some of the new rose introductions, including the 2016 Rose Of The Year, please click here.
To see more of the Gold Medal winning Show Gardens from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2015, please click here.
To see the 20 shortlisted plants, including the finalists and winner of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show Plant Of The Year Award, please click here.
To see some of the Gold Medal winning nurseries from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2015, please click here.
To read about the new lives of some of the 2015 RHS Chelsea Flower Show Gardens, please click here.
To read my interview with James Basson and find out more about the Gold Medal winning garden ‘A Perfumer’s Garden in Grasse by L’Occitane’ that James designed for the 2015 RHS Chelsea Flower Show, please click here.
To see photographs from the 2015 RHS Chelsea Flower Show, please click here.
To see photographs from The 2015 RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, please click here.