The Sir Simon Milton Foundation Urban Connections Garden was sponsored by the Victoria Business Improvement District. This Fresh Garden was designed by Lee Bestall & Paul Robinson, and built by Jon Housley from JPH Landscapes. The RHS judges awarded The Sir Simon Milton Foundation Urban Connections Garden a Silver Medal, at The RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2016.
Isolation and loneliness is a problem for our society. Many older people, particularly in urban environments, can feel lonely and isolated. The Urban Connections Garden demonstrates how the power of love and friendship can remove these feelings of melancholy, gloom and loneliness, by bringing people together in high quality communal gardens that bring about a sense of belonging, a feeling of happiness, and the opportunity to make new friends and rejoice in the feeling of companionship.
Garden designer, Lee Bestall, has carefully chosen the plants for The Sir Simon Milton Foundation Urban Connections Garden, choosing a selection of symbiotic plants, that are known to grow better together, to further re-enforce the message of the garden – that people are better together. The silver birch trees that feature in this garden are designed to act like beacons, drawing people in and guiding visitors to the oak seating, where they can relax, enjoy the garden and meet new friends.
A new hardy, hybrid orchid – Dactylorhiza ‘Sir Simon Milton’ is featured in this garden. This new orchid has been named after the late Sir Simon Milton, the conservative politician, who died in April 2011, aged 49. Sir Simon Milton’s legacy and beliefs of providing training and jobs to young people, and including the older generation within a community that values and appreciates their contribution, and encourages their involvement, inspires The Sir Simon Milton Foundation and its charitable work.
I caught up with Lee Bestall at The RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2016, to find out more about the Urban Connections Gardens he designed for the Sir Simon Milton Foundation.
B: Hello Lee, I just love the message of your garden. We’ve seen so many gardens with messages, themes and stories at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show – I love your garden’s message about ‘the power of love and friendship’.
B: Why have you painted the bark of your trees orange? I know they are designed to act like beacons……
LB: So, the idea is that in the same way that flowers are brightly coloured to attract insects, the trees are brightly coloured to attract humans. Statistically, if you’re on your own, you’re more likely to die younger, than if you’re with other people. The garden is sponsored by the Victoria Business Improvement District, who are committed to providing premium quality green space, in public areas, and so when it’s finished at the show, it gets reconfigured and made much more open, so that it’s kind of a place where people can meet and share conversations.
B: I love that you have chosen plants that are symbiotic and actually grow better together, to feature in your Fresh Garden, to further reinforce your message that people thrive when they’re with others. Can you elaborate on this? Which plants that feature in your garden have a good relationship together?
LB: So, these are the cool things: Silver birch have this way of helping other silver birch. So say for example, you’ve got a silver birch outside the garden, and one inside the garden. If that silver birch was distressed or in the shade, this silver birch – which is healthier – can send, through mycorrhizal fungi, carbon and nutrients to the ones which are not doing as well, so that’s quite sweet.
You know when you smell grass that’s freshly cut? That’s a volatile organic compound that grass releases to warn other grass plants that it’s being attached, so they can kind of prepare themselves, so they don’t put on as much growth, so they’re like “Argh! Quick, hold onto you’re resources!”
And finally there are plants that have the ability to help protect others. So for example if a plant is getting eaten by aphids, it can send out a hormone which other plants can detect, so they send out scents which attract ladybirds. So for example, if you’ve got a stressed plant which is full of aphids, it communicates to the other plants around it, they send out a signal to ladybirds to say “Hey guys, we need your help” – the ladybirds fly in to the plants, and go “What’s going on, there’s no aphids to eat?”, but then the ladybirds find the plant with the aphids on nearby, and the ladybirds eat the aphids. So they’re helping each other out.
We’ve got some clover, can you see it there, next to the salvia, and obviously they have the ability to fix nitrogen from the soil and so on, so there’s a lot of activity going on under the ground which you don’t see, there’s a lot of clover in here.
B: Have you got any four leaf clovers?
LB: The box balls are kind of representing peoples’ heads, so it’s like lots of people gathering around.
B: Who grew the plants for your garden?
LB: Our plant supplier from Holland – Nederhoff-plant. We had to get them from Holland because we were just so late with everything, and they’re two weeks in front of us.
Dactylorhiza ‘Simon Milton’
B: Can you tell me about the new orchid that features in your garden?
LB: The new orchid is a hardy orchid, it’s called Dactylorhiza ‘Simon Milton’. It has been specially bred, it’s a new cultivar, never been seen before. We’re giving three of the orchids to the Queen later.
B: How lovely! And how long ago did you first see Dactylorhiza ‘Simon Milton’?
LB: Erm, Tuesday! Haha! We’ve had a botanical print of it drawn, which they’re going to auction off for the charity. It’s brand new. Literally only came into the country on Tuesday. It’s been bred by an orchid specialist.
B: Next year, you should design a garden that’s accessible for disabled people – as many of the Show Gardens aren’t accessible.
LB: So, ours, here at The Chelsea Flower Show the area between the planters and seating, it is too narrow, as we have had to fit it into a smaller space for the show, but when it gets rebuilt in the street it will all face outwards.
B: So the gardens will be more accessible when they are installed at their final destinations?
B: So what street will it go to? Are different parts of the garden going to different places?
LB: So basically, you’ve got three car-parking space there, there, and there. We’ve got planning permission to build it in Victoria in Spensor Street, Gillingham Street, and outside the passport office, but it won’t look the same, all the planters are back-to-back, so it’s all facing outwards.
B: So, how long ago did you design this garden?
LB: We actually designed a garden for further down the site, and their sponsor was on and off, and we were kind of hanging in there to see if we could have that spot. We waited until about Christmas, and they got their sponsor, so the RHS offered us a spot in Fresh, but we had to go through the whole re-applying process again, and we didn’t get final sign-off end of March!
B: Who made the oak seating for your garden?
B: Can you tell me more about the turf you’ve used, and why you’ve used older, uncut turf in this way? Is it to emphasise your point about the symbiotic planting you’ve used, and the way in which plants communicate?
LB: Well, again, this is mature turf, this is three years old. Whereas this is only a few weeks old. This older turf has been grown in a field in a traditional way, this it to represent older people, it’s more mature. This is a less mature; it’s grown on…. It’s interesting actually: when they grow this, they put a big plastic sheet in the field, and then they use a capillary matting that’s made from the waste products from the textile industry, so just little bits of fluff and fur, they compress it into a matt, and they sow grass seed into it. So there’s no soil in that grass at all, it has never seen soil. The guy who grew it said “We once did a celebrity’s house”, and on the Friday night they came in, put a sheet of plastic on the floor, on the cream carpet, they laid that grass down, they had a party – turned it into a garden – and on the Sunday night they took it back out, and it was like it’s never even been there!
B: Amazing! Anyone partying in stilettos would have had fun trying to walk around on the grass!
LB: Well, no, that’s the thing – we were going to have artificial turf here, because I was worried about stilettos. The reason we use it is because it can be laid on hardcore, it’s compacted and whacked down for this show.
B: Now, you’ve gone from building an Artisan Garden in 2015, to a Fresh Garden in 2016, are you going to create a Show Garden next year?
LB: I think we’re going to try and get a Gold in Fresh first in 2018, so I think we’ll come back to try and get a Gold. This is more us than the Artisan Gardens, I’m not the kind of person who can recreate a stage set, but do love integrating Feng Shui into spaces where I can.
B: So you’ve enjoyed creating this year’s Fresh Garden more than creating your Artisan Garden in 2015?
LB: Yes, but time’s been against us.
B: Is this garden created around Feng Shui principles?
LB: No, it hasn’t been. I got into the Feng Shui through designing a client’s garden, and she said “I love your design style, but I want a modern garden, but I live my life by Feng Shui principles”. She said “All the Feng Shui gardens are Japanese and I don’t want a Japanese garden!” So I went and met them, and she asked if I’d go on a journey with her and learn about Feng Shui. I don’t think the client expected me to embrace it as much as I did, I really immersed myself. I had to Feng Shui my own house first, to really understand the principles and to believe in it – because if I don’t believe in it, I can’t really give you a garden, it would feel wrong. And it’s really, really powerful!
B: What would you say is the best thing about your garden?
LB: I think the best thing about it is that when it gets taken down, it’s not the end of its life, it’s really the beginning. And the thing is, here at Chelsea, it’s nice to look at, but the real effect it’s going to have is when it goes to its final location. I mean, only a few select wealthy people can afford to see it here, whereas this is going to be located in the street for everyone to use!
I think the main thing really was about the fact that it had to be re-used. We thought, when they said “Build a garden for the street”, that we were going to be planting in soil, and then when we saw the site and it was all concrete, I was like “Oh, right, we need to do this in planters”. So that’s really why the planters came about, and then I went to San Francisco and saw these car parking parklets, and they’re basically car parking spaces that they’ve turned into gardens. And so each one of those pieces is exactly the same size as a supermarket car park space, and you’ve got three of those, and it kind of evolved from there. I’m really into human psychology, and the fact that if you ever go in a pub and you’ve got those little booths around the edges, people always migrate to the booths, because when we eat we like something behind us, because we feel safe. Often, how comfortable you feel, makes the experience good or bad, and if you feel like you’re in peoples’ way, it’s not nice, is it? But if you watch an animal, often they’ll get their prey and then they’ll retreat to somewhere safer to eat it, and the human thing is about that.
B: What’s your favourite garden at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show?
LB: Probably Chris Beardshaw’s, it’s really lovely. I love the way the planting created a fabulous atmosphere.
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To read my interview with Lee Bestall and find out more about the Show Garden he designed for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2017, please click here.