Joe Swift’s Chelsea Flower Show Diary

The former presenter of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show is on the other side of the fence this year

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As the RHS Chelsea Flower Show gets underway, its former host Joe Swift reveals a year’s worth of planning and preparation for his own show garden.

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June 2011

The Chelsea Flower Show has only been over for a few days, but my mind is made up. Next year, I’m going to design my own garden. I’ve seen what it’s like from the other side of the fence while reporting; now I’m going to have a go myself.

Already, I’ve got ideas. But if you want to be accepted for Chelsea, you have to line up a sponsor. Luckily, I hear Homebase is looking for someone new, after using the same designer for the past three years. I show them my ideas, we make a strong connection, and they agree to take me on, to build a garden themed around their charity, the Teenage Cancer Trust.

But that’s not the end of it. You also have to find a contractor with experience of Chelsea. Fortunately, I find one who has done loads of Chelsea gardens before.

Next stop, a landscape design computer programme; it gives you an idea of the look of your garden from different heights and angles. I’m aiming for something inspiring and uplifting that celebrates the positive benefits of gardening. Here goes!

July 2011

It’s the deadline for submissions, so I hand in my preliminary design to the Royal Horticultural Society. I’m told it won’t be till the end of August that I find out whether I’ve got the go-ahead.
The concept for the garden is that it should be a contemporary urban-cum-suburban space, in which to explore and connect with plants.

September 2011

I’ve got the green light from the RHS. What’s more, they’ve only got a couple of queries. I’m delighted – apparently, some designs come back with lots of questions and objections.

Time now to start collecting the various elements. I know I want to use lots of warm stone, with plenty of zingy plants and lovely wood. A place with a bit of a “wow!” factor, but at the same time, somewhere in which to connect with nature. I don’t want the garden to be all enclosed, but to have key views right through it, helped by huge frames made out of sections of sleekly finished cedarwood (1,900 pieces in all). These are going to be fashioned into open, rectangular shapes, which will have the same sort of effect as window or photo frames.

October 2011

Off on a day trip to Germany to choose my trees. Arrive at Stansted around 5am, fly to Baden- Baden and spend most of the day going through field after field of trees, looking for just the right ones, the ones that speak to me! In the end, I decide on a five-metre-tall plane tree, with marvellous, camouflage-pattern bark, and three Cornus mas trees about 4.5 metres tall, each with this peeling, Mediterranean bark, revealing an orangey tone underneath. When the time comes to transplant them into containers, and bring them over on a lorry to the UK, a giant digger will take each one out of the earth in a single go, scooping up roots and all.

Back in the UK, it’s time to pot up all the perennials I’m hoping to use in the garden; lots of Verbascum “Petra”, Geum “Werner Arends” (orange flowers), Potentilla tonguei (yellow blooms). You need to make sure they can root well throughout the winter, so that they will emerge looking their best. Not that they all will; of the 25 types I’ve chosen, some will make it into the finished garden, and some won’t.

December 2011

Another away day – this time a trip to Yorkshire, and a quarry on the edge of Leeds, to choose my stone. I’ve had a guy driving round various quarries and emailing me pictures of various boulders, along with his assessment of each quarry’s cutting ability. Again, the brief I’ve given him is that I’m looking for stone that’s (a) golden-yellow York, and (b) talks to me!

No sooner have I got back from Yorkshire than I’m off to southern Spain, to make my shrub selection (the garden will feature Pittosporum tobira, Myrtus tarentina, Pistacia lentiscus and Grevillea). Yes, you can get UK shrubs, but if they’ve overwintered here, they tend to sulk a bit, and not be ready until July, which is too late (21 May is judging day at Chelsea).

January 2012

My timber frames are looking great. Their job is to divide the garden up, but also to allow the eye to carry on through. That’s why they’re open, wooden frames, not solid, filled-in pieces.

February 2012

Plummeting temperatures, snow and ice; Britain is frozen solid! I keep phoning the nursery in Hampshire to check on my perennials. Has the frost got to them? It doesn’t bear think- ing about. It’s reassuring to hear they’re tucked up nice and warm.

March 2012

Back to the quarry. I’ve marked the three boulders I want (one of which weighs 17 tons), and have decided I’ll slice them like loaves of bread. Water has to keep being pumped onto the rock to prevent overheating. By the end, I’ve roughly 20 slices of stone per boulder.

April 2012

I’m in need of two wooden sculptures, plus a sculptor. I’ve had tree surgeons emailing me various photos of lumps of wood, but I’ve decided to get a sculptor I know called Johnny Woodford. He’s going to make me a low-slung elmwood piece with reflective water in it plus another taller, vase-shaped piece to go at the back.

This is also the point where you have to put in your final brief to the RHS. At the show, I will get two minutes to explain how and why I’ve deviated from my original brief.

9 May 2012

The trees and the cedar frames were all lifted into place by crane today and at last I can see the garden taking shape. It really is a big day because suddenly the garden goes from being 10 per cent to 45 per cent complete. The rain isn’t a problem at the moment, but hopefully it will have eased by the time we start planting.

May – the third and final week

May 15 is the day when my garden gets handed over to me, and I start frantically filling it with plants and shrubs. 

In an ideal world, you want to get all your flowers and plants in at least three or four days before the judging, so that they don’t look all upright and proud. Basically, the aim is to get them looking relaxed and as if they’ve been there for ever, rather than just a week! If necessary, the RHS lets you work all day and all night on your garden. Basically, I’ll do what it takes.

Things are going to be a lot different for me this year at Chelsea because I’m not allowed to do any TV presenting: the BBC and RHS rules have tightened up, and don’t allow anyone to have a foot in both sides of the camp, so to speak.

Am I nervous about what people are going to think? Definitely. This is a project that has taken up a lot of time and a lot of money; the average spend on a Chelsea garden design last year, for example, was £190,000.

Then again, I’m a garden critic and commentator myself, so I’ve got to expect people to pass judgement on my garden, haven’t I? And, after all this work, the most important thing to me is actually that I should like it!

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is on BBC1 and BBC2 every day from Sunday

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This article was first published in the Radio Times, edition 19-25 May