This article appeared in the Daily Telegraph last Saturday
Off to Crocus nursery again. Another grey, damp, cold day. It seems an age ago that I was trudging round the muddy fields of England, Belgium, Holland and Germany looking for the plants that would form the structure of the Chelsea garden. Those early visits in June, August and September were intense, focused and time-consuming but they were also calm, and the atmosphere creative. I was looking for exactly the right plants (hazel, yew, box, beech and hornbeam) that would encapsulate the bones of the English landscape on the confines of a Chelsea plot. The opportunities seemed endless and the task was to find the perfect plants from a wide choice. Everything seemed possible and there would be time to make corrections if necessary.How times change. The New Year, for me, has always marked a transition point in the Chelsea programme. Up until Christmas it feels as though there is plenty of time, with the show a long way off. In January the whole process suddenly speeds up alarmingly and you count the time left until you start on site in weeks rather than months. Now we count the days.
The colonnade which runs around two sides of the garden and sets the background and geometry of the design is a worry. We had originally intended to make a mock-up of it in December but it didn’t get made until the end of January. Typical of Chelsea. That first mock-up (a section three metres high by four metres long) encapsulates the mixed emotions in one bite. I am excited by seeing the structure for the first time; the height and proportions of the columns seem just right, and the darkness of the charred oak back wall provides the perfect contrast with the blond oak columns. But there are problems too. The back wall is lacking the quality we need; instead of being a reminder of the traditional houses of Kyoto it has the feel of a creosoted softwood domestic fence.Something needs to change dramatically. After much discussion, we change to wider oak boards (from 150mm to 250mm), construct certain details with much more precision and increase the level of charring so that the surface texture is broken on some boards.
At the end of February, the wider boards on the revised mock-up make a huge difference. We give the green light to the felling of oak woodland that Peter Clay (co- director of Crocus) has very generously agreed to let us use from his land in beautiful Herefordshire. Another observation from the mock-up concerns the width of the colonnade. It should feel narrow and dramatic, emphasising the height and length of the space but, as constructed, it is too tight – so we widen it by 150mm. That change affects everything else in the garden: the position of every column (there are 41), the position and size of the pools, the stone margins, the setting-out of all the structural planting. Stone orders have to be changed, wood orders have to be changed and pools redesigned with far-reaching consequences.And there is another change. The mock-up has shown that there was too much movement in the fresh oak panels, so now we have to change to oak with a lower moisture content.
Now we are in the middle of April and stone (for the pools) is on its way from two quarries – but the shipments are way behind schedule. We have just heard that, instead of arriving in Southampton docks on April 29, the stone will now arrive on May 6 – and will not get to site until at least one week after it is needed. Disastrous. Worse still, the last shipment of stone from this particular quarry was held in the docks for nine days awaiting special inspections for longhorn beetle by officials from Defra.
It will be too late to get replacement stone cut to size. Only glass fibre or steel could be possible substitutes, but they would devastate the design. For the first time I feel very low. This would be a hammer blow to the integrity of the garden. At Crocus, Mark Fane (co-director) has paid £2.99 for an app for his iPad which can track shipments. He checks it obsessively. Our vessel seems to be stuck in Kuala Lumpur.I have called in to Crocus to inspect a bag of quarried flints which have been sent up from Chichester by specialist Mark Middleton. There are fewer than we need for the niche that runs along the charred oak wall but Mark Fane and I manage to select some good examples. I think the white bloom and knapped black interior of the flints will look intriguing against the charred oak. Fixing them will not be easy but Tom Sims (the joinery contractor) thinks he can glue them to steel rods cantilevered from the back wall. I just hope we can find more of the right flints in time.
Christopher Bradley-Hole’s design for this year’s Telegraph garden
I look around the plants in the polytunnels at Crocus with Peter Clay and Karen Sowden, who is growing on the plants so that they are perfect for Chelsea. This is one of many visits I have made to see how the plants are progressing. In November, when I first saw them all laid out in polytunnels, there was a feeling of great excitement. It is completely thrilling to know that I will have such a wonderful selection available to use at the show and Crocus have an unparalleled record for achieving spectacular results. But each subsequent visit has revealed more and more worries about timing, thanks to the unrelentingly cold and overcast spring. Today we look at the plants, then at each other. There is mutual recognition that the plants are way behind where they should be. Amsonia, which I had felt confident would be fine and in flower for Chelsea (and which is a key plant in my stylised grass meadow), has not even emerged from the compost and looks a lost cause. Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’, which I saw in flower in Graham Gough’s Sussex garden at Chelsea time last year, is in the same plight, as are Digitalis parviflora and D. ferruginea and pretty much all the umbellifers.As a designer, you work so intensely to create a design for the show and finding the right plant combinations is key to that, but this weather brings home how tenuous a hold you have on the process. You really are in the lap of the gods. Peter and Karen are forever optimistic and cheerful and thinking of new ideas. They are moving some plants into a special greenhouse with heated overhead lights. But there is limited space so only a few plants at a time can be given intensive care.As I leave, Mark Fane hands me a form from the RHS. “You need to fill this in; it’s the technical brief. They have added another question — what is the function of the garden?”“What?” I splutter. “Are they trying to unravel my concept for a contemplative space at this late stage?” I can feel a kind of paranoia starting to creep in.“It’s not only you who has to complete the form; it applies to all the gardens,” soothes Mark, managerially.
Glimmers of hope
Two days later I am back at Crocus. They have set out the garden on an area of grass. All the features are marked out to the millimetre in different coloured paint. It is really strange to see it this way, but it looks good. Andrew Ewing, who is designing the pools, is there too. He and Peter Harket (the meticulous project manager from Crocus), discuss options for retro-fitting the stone from inside the pools without holding up the adjacent planting.They bring over one of the spreading hazel trees and sit it in the space. It makes us all smile. The sun is shining for the first time since anyone can remember.Two days later and Peter Clay calls me to say that the amsonias are starting to respond and there is just a possibility they might be available for the show. One of the few upsides to the bad weather is that species tulips might be possible as well. Mark Fane emails me to say that the ship carrying our stone has just left the Suez Canal. Progress, of a sort.