The Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show is the most prestigious horticultural show in the world. It is often regarded as the Olympics of Horticulture, where the best garden designers in the world all compete for highly prized medals.
All the garden designers are pre-qualified at other RHS shows before even being considered for space at Chelsea. The designers not only have to impress the judges, but they also have to think about their own sponsors, which are always demanding a good return for their investments. The cost for many gardens runs into the region of a few hundred thousand pounds.
The show garden plans are submitted around 10 to 12 months in advance for the approval of the RHS. These plans include an artist’s impression of the finished garden with a detailed planting list. Then, five months or so before the show, the lucky few are allocated their space.
Then the real hard work begins. The designers and nursery staff have to start running around sourcing the materials for the garden. Keep in mind that this is normally in the middle of winter, which is not the best time for most nursery staff to start preparing top-quality plants! The question is, “Do they need to control Mother Nature? Do the plants need to be forced on or held back?” To most people attending the show, this black magic is unseen.
Winning a Medal
Everything about the feature must be within the original brief and as described. The plants have to be the correct size, shape and in the right locations (for example, dry plants are not to be mixed in or even next to the moisture-lovers). The planting must be to the highest of standards, and every element has to be faultless and pristine. Also, the garden must be looking good for the whole of the week at Chelsea.
In short, being awarded an RHS medal is judged mainly on how well the designers fulfilled their own brief.
My Road to Chelsea
In the beginning, when I first started my own aquatic landscaping business in 2003, I built a few small show gardens to mainly showcase my aquatic plants. But these shows never covered my costs, even with free labor from friends and family. It’s tough to make any money from a show garden in the U.K., as weather plays a big part in the ticket sales for open-air events.
I always found myself putting up barriers to stop myself from failing on the big RHS stage. “It’s too expensive and it will be a waste of my time,” I kept saying to myself. But all along, I was just letting my dreams fall through the net.
A couple weeks later, I was going through my emails and came across this exciting sentence in the subject headings: “We need help with a show garden at Chelsea.” The email was mainly looking for local businesses to sponsor part of the garden. I phoned the designer to see how I could help. When she said, “I am putting together a candelabra water feature,” I thought, “Wow, this water feature sounds crazy! I have got to see this!”
The designer asked if I could help by supplying a water feature pump. I agreed, in return for a couple of evening tickets to the show. After chatting with her on the phone I wanted to know more about the brief that she had submitted, so she sent me an artist’s impression of the water feature.
When I phoned her back to discuss the image and express my surprise, she confirmed that yes, she did indeed “want water to jet out of the tops of the candles.”
“Yes, I can see that from your drawing,” I replied. “What is the size of the pipework?”
“No pipework or candles have been sourced yet,” she told me. “And one more thing: it has to be easy to install at the show.”
Calculations and Orders
After doing a quick calculation to get the right head pressure, I discovered we would have to go for a pump capable of around 4,000 litres per hour. The outlet pipe would then be reduced down to five lengths of 4 millimeters (3/16 inch) to feed each of the five candles.
A couple of weeks went by, and by that point the designer had sourced the candelabra, the water feature base plates had been made and the table was ready. So I set up a meeting to supply the pump and install the pipework.
Some lessons were quickly learned.
At the meeting I was handed the candelabra, which was an “off-the-shelf item.” The candelabra arms were solid and too thin to run any pipework through. With the short timeframe we had before the show, it was unfeasible to completely remake the whole candelabra from scratch.
The designer had not thought about how the water would feed the candles. She was presuming the pipework would be very clear so it could run around the outside of the metal frame without being seen. I suggested that we could install a simple fountain that would simply spray water out of the main stem.
“OK,” she replied, as long as it’s not just a dribble; we are looking for something bold.” I reassured her that it could be as bold as she liked, and we agreed that the center stem would be replaced to hold a 15-millimeter (9/16 inch) pipe with a threaded fountain attachment on the top.
Another couple of curveballs were fired at me once the candelabra was assembled. “OK, now how do we take this apart so we can add the floral tablecloth?” the designer asked.
“What floral tablecloth?” I thought.
“Part of the design is to have flowers sitting on the tabletop, which needs to be installed last thing before judging,” the designer explained. “The candelabra will sit on a perspex tray to stop the flowers from getting wet.”
I started to scratch my head. Once the center of the candelabra had been machined, I wanted to run a wet test to make sure this was OK with everyone involved. So I put my rain jacket on to be able to show them the flow rates and how simple the design was. Everyone agreed it looked great. I really loved the raindrop effect on top of the shallow water sitting on the perspex tray.
It was very clear nobody had installed a unique water feature before, so I offered to help with the build itself at Chelsea to ensure that it was completely level and safe. “How hard could this be,” I thought! I also loved the idea of getting an insight to working down at Chelsea.
When the big day finally arrived, nobody had carried out a wet test at all. Of course, the water feature reservoir did not hold water! I ended up having to seal the base with EPDM and cover tape. By midday we finally had water in the base and were pleased with the whole feature, which stood about 180 centimeters (nearly 6 feet) high.
We stopped quickly for a bite to eat, and then I had my first chance to see what was being built around me. Lots of plants and flowers were coming in and being nurtured into place. While I was looking at the rest of the garden design, I started to talk about how I would have loved to have designed this garden … of course with a waterfall and a bigger water feature with lots of lovely water plants in and around the base of the table.
A Heart-Sinking Moment
The next job for me was to run the electrical supply out of the reservoir into the timber surround where the outlets were located.
I turned it on and it looked lovely, but it quickly became very clear we couldn’t have any splash at all (even with the pump on the lowest setting). Cardboard had been put down on top of the timber blocks around the reservoir, which was of course getting wet with the splashing on top of the table. I had thought that the cardboard was going to be under the splash curtain which would collect the water, but the garden designer said that area couldn’t get wet, as her plants were going to be there. The surrounding garden plants were only 20 centimeters away from the edge of the table, as this was the edge of the reservoir. Sadly, no splash curtain had been included.
An important note to garden designers: When you pump water six feet into the air, it has to come back down somewhere.
What a mistake I had made! I had presumed the designer understood the physics of water. As I quickly talked about, even a light breeze would blow the water around, out the top of the candles and onto the area that needed to be splash-free. The whole garden is now without any form of flowing water?
“It’s all my fault,” I started to think. “What a failure!” I started to feel very sick and my heart sank. I also realized that I had good clients coming to the show … they, of course, would be asking where the water feature was.
Why did I not look into the whole of the garden design? Why did I not take charge of the whole water feature, as my skin was in the game?
I started to fall into my own little world of despair. People were talking to me, so I had to block the noise out and ask myself the question: What could I do to sort this mess out? I was in the middle of the capital at the most prestigious flower show on the planet, and the show gates opened in a few days’ time. To make matters worse, I had other work booked in, as I only had booked one day for this project in my busy spring timetable.
In a sudden burst of inspiration, I realized I now had to take charge. It was simple: I needed to get water back into the
base with no splashing at all. Nothing could spray onto the surrounding area or even the flowers on top of the table. The only way I could do this was to get the feature back to Northamptonshire, so I loaded up my kit and dismantled the feature. I left the base full of water so at least I could now carry out a wet test of my repair work when I returned.
That night I could not sleep as my mind was racing around. It was too late to contact my clients that were booked for the next day. I could not stop thinking, “How can I finish this nightmare? Should I tell the project manager it’s impossible, so they can start to think of something else they can have instead of a water feature?” But as I started playing with a few ideas, I had to keep reminding myself that I could turn this around!
The next day, after talking to my clients, all of whom gave me moral support, I started playing with a number of metal fittings and plastic pipes. By the end of the day I was able to fabricate a system allowing water to flow out of the main stem. The flowing water hugged the polished metalwork, but only if it was truly level. The arms caused a bit of splashing, but nothing a small piece of black filter foam would not fix. (This foam was disguised by the florist.) I even was able to turn the pump right up to the max and install a candle to look like it was floating.
We installed the feature and had it running in time for the opening of the show. I had done it and the team won a silver medal.