The UNHCR: ‘Border Control’ Garden was designed by Tom Massey and John Ward. This Conceptual Garden was built by Landform Consultants and sponsored by UNHCR. The RHS judges presented the UNHCR: ‘Border Control’ Garden with a Gold Medal, and the prestigious title of Best Conceptual Garden, at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2016.
The Border Control Garden was designed to draw attention to the plight of refugees. To raise awareness of the risks refugees are prepared to take to find shelter and safety, as well as alerting visitors to the intense suffering and anguish that refugees have experienced, and are still enduring.
I caught up with Tom Massey and John Ward, the designers of the UNHCR: ‘Border Control’ Garden, at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2016, to find out more about this thought provoking and deeply emotive garden.
PB: So what has been the best thing about creating the UNHCR: ‘Border Control’ Garden for you?
Tom: I think seeing it come together from our initial concept visuals – which actually look very similar to the final garden – just seeing it come to life.
John Ward: Also, it’s been great just getting the response from people.
PB: Yes – the timing has been perfect.
John: It’s made it more timely.
PB: How long ago did you come up with the concept for The Border Control Garden?
John: In fact, we came up with this concept about a year ago, and because it was all over the headlines at the time we did wonder whether the story would have died down, and it would have been page 28 news – and in some respects I wish it had have been, because it would have meant that the problem would have been solved, but sadly it’s just got worse. But there’s a lot of positivity in the message of the garden. So what you see, some of the flowers on the outside are echoed in here, so you’ve got things like Eryngiums, Salvias, non-native plants, growing up in what is a traditional English wildflower meadow. So it’s all about integration and the positives of integration, and when you provide shelter to people that are in need, the positive outcome that can be created, which is what this area inside is trying to represent. But then the outer rim is a serious message of the destruction that they’re fleeing; and some of those items that you see dotted around there – lifejackets and things – they’ve actually been collected from beaches in Greece and brought over. So it brings a sense of realism to what is a concept. It was quite poignant, opening those boxes up.
PB: It must have been awful – I felt sad looking at the lifejacket and the other items scattered about the outside of your garden when I thought they were just props. Knowing they are genuine items that have been collected from beaches where refugees have been risking, and in some cases losing their lives, really brings home the sadness of the message of your garden.
John: Yes, it is very sad.
PB: Who supplied your plants?
John: We got them from various nurseries, actually. For a lot of the plants in here we used a company called Wildflower Turf, and then we plugged it with about 500 perennials that are from Jackson’s Nursery and Hortus Loci. That was a job and a half! The perennials are in 3 litre pots, so we had to lean over and cut into the turf without damaging it, dig the hole, fill it in – it took a lot longer than we anticipated!
PB: What about the plants outside?
The plants on the outer rim? We’re not allowed to tell you where they came from! Everyone said, “Don’t tell them that’s from us!” We basically just scoured scrapyards and the backs of nurseries, polytunnels etc where people hadn’t been for years, and pulled out stuff that was not looking healthy from all over the place!
PB: Can you tell me more about the plants and the planting on the outer edges of your garden? They aren’t plants that you would usually find together in a planting scheme.
John: All the planting on the outer rim is deliberately horticulturally incorrect – so it’s all plants that wouldn’t normally go together – all out of their natural habitat and environment. It’s a representation of people being displaced. It’s funny because we had a guy from Kew as one of our volunteers – he was a horticulturist – and he was going around saying “This just feels so wrong! This shouldn’t go here!” And of course, that’s just the point.
PB: How hard was the build, with the weather conditions you’ve experienced over the last couple of weeks?
John: Yes, that was against us, but we had Landform do the construction, and they’re brilliant – they’ve done hundreds of show gardens, so they knew what they were doing. They were doing quite a few gardens on the show, and so if anyone was falling behind they pulled people off just to catch up. So we knew were were in good hands.
John: The last two weeks there’s just been no sunshine at all. It’s amazing how quickly it pops back up though, as it has been battered by the rain over the last two weeks.
There were quite a lot of unknowns when we started, and just being able to get the garden into a position where it was actually as we envisaged it – in fact, it’s a bit better than we’d envisaged – even the wildflower meadow, it was difficult to know exactly how it was going to look when it was going to be delivered, and how much plugging we were going to have to do. Just seeing it all come together, it’s pretty satisfying.
PB: Are the public going to be able to come through the garden?
John: Yes, they will be. There’s a wristband we’re going to be giving out. People are going to have to register: so they have to register their details, they get given a wristband, and that gets them entry, and that’s the same process that people go through when they arrive at refugee camps – so it’s a representation of that. They’re genuine UNHCR wristbands that they actually give out.
PB: How did the design and concept for your garden come about?
John: We kind of brainstormed. We both studied at college together – the London College of Garden design – and when we qualified from there, we said it would be great to do a show garden together, and we were thinking that the Conceptual Category at Hampton Court gives you a little bit more freedom to do something a bit different, so we got together on a weekend and just brainstormed through a whole heap of ideas, and we came up with this, as one of about six or seven ideas – and it was by far the strongest.
John: We put together a presentation for the RHS, and they liked it, and we got accepted, and then we actually approached UNHCR to see if they wanted to get involved with it. We did a couple of presentations to UNHCR, and they loved the concept, and it really fitted in with their campaign – the wording on the stone ‘Nobody Left Outside’ is actually the campaign they’re running, which is all about providing protection for all, both from a physical sense, and also psychological. Bringing people through the psychological trauma of fleeing a war zone – and providing them with the shelter and the protection they need to get their lives back on track, give them hope and a positive outlook. A lot of people will come to safe countries, but it’s not where they want to be – they would prefer to be back in a stable Syria, for example, and that’s their ultimate goal, and Syria and other countries like them are going to need those people back to rebuild the country when the war stops. So it’s about making sure they’re in a position to see that future. They do a huge amount of good work.
PB: That’s so good. It’s great to work with people who do good things.
John: Yes, they’ve been a great team to work with on the project, they’ve been fantastic. Our volunteers were fantastic too.
PB: Is there anyone who has contributed, or worked on the garden, that you would like to thank?
John: There’s quite a few volunteers we would like to thank and mention: David, Justin, Anna, Sarah, Vicky and Lindsey. I hope I haven’t missed anyone!
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