Matthew Wilson’s bowlike cedar-wood deck floats over a pool of shallow water
Wilson’s bowlike cedar-wood deck floats over a pool of shallow water

After years of hanging around behind the scenes of the Chelsea Flower Show during a decade of working for the Royal Horticultural Society, the Royal Bank of Canada Garden represents my debut. For the business I manage, however, it’s a welcome return after a break of more than a decade. Clifton Nurseries designed and built gardens at Chelsea for clients such as the Prince of Wales during a run that included five gold medals and a Best in Show award.

This year, my garden aims to raise awareness of Royal Bank of Canada’s Blue Water Project, a C$50m ($41.6m) initiative aimed at preserving freshwater habitats worldwide. As such, this is a low water-use garden with drought-tolerant planting and water harvesting and conservation techniques.

The design is risky, full of complex curves that have proven “challenging” to set out (for “challenging”, read “waking up in a cold sweat at 3am every day”). Aside from the garden boundary, which is a deliberately linear mix of drystone walling and red cedar panels to contrast the curves, there isn’t a straight line to be seen.

The design came about after a conversation with Alan Titchmarsh, for decades the face of the BBC’s coverage at Chelsea. Bemoaning the tendency towards “safe” geometry and linearity in recent show gardens, he sowed a conceptual seed in my brain that resulted in the eventual design; a celebration of the curve in all its voluptuousness.

A raised, bowlike deck, floating over a pool of shallow water, is at the heart of the garden. Each of the deck boards — made from warm, honey-coloured western red cedar — is unique, curved into bladelike shapes that describe the flowing lines that form the garden. The cedar has been lightly sandblasted to give the boards a slightly weathered appearance, and then an enhancer was applied to bring out the depth of colour of this handsome timber.

Matthew Wilson: ‘There isn’t a straight line to be seen’
Matthew Wilson: ‘There isn’t a straight line to be seen’

A sinuous stone “riverbed” flows through the garden, starting on dry land then dipping down into the water pool. The riverbed is the result of an extraordinary piece of craftsmanship. Made from incredibly hard hornfels stone, it has the appearance of a dark grey granite, flecked through with bands of quartzite. The stone originates from Spain and the whole five metre-long feature was cut down and formed from huge blocks using high-speed saws.

Finally, the surface, which undulates like a wave and dips from side to side, allowing water to flow into the low points while the crests stay dry, was shaped by using what I can only describe as a very strong and fast-moving cheese wire.

The purpose of the riverbed, beyond the inherent beauty of the stone and the quality of the workmanship, is to remind us that fresh water is a precious resource; river and stream water is often abstracted during times of high water use, and over-abstraction can result in habitat degradation and the loss of wildlife. The installation of the riverbed has been the source of stress and head scratching; four lumps of irreplaceable stone, each weighing a tonne and requiring a great degree of skill to place correctly in the water pools in which they rest. I’m not ashamed to say that when they were being craned into position, I had to look away.

Being able to work with highly skilled craftspeople is one of the greatest joys of making a Chelsea garden.

Eschscholzia californica (California poppies) in the garden
Eschscholzia californica (California poppies) in the garden

Our “drystone wallers”, Richard and Lewyn Clegg, have turned piles of beautiful silvery grey sandstone, recycled stone that was once part of an old mill, into structural art. Three pillars grace the rear boundary of the garden, boundary walls form the sides, and a three-level tiered water feature is clad with the same stone. The water in this feature falls through three copper “letterboxes” before vanishing underground.

Right at the front of the garden is a feature “macro bonsai” olive tree, which is about 150 years old. This is another recycled item, having been rescued from the usual fate of superannuated olive trees — the chainsaw and bonfire — to take centre stage at Chelsea.

It has huge character in its stem, and a wonderfully wide spread — more than seven metres — to its branches. And it arrived with a stowaway. On the first warm day of the show build a lithe, green-headed lizard appeared. He’s still there — I’ve named him Clifton.

The ‘riverbed’, made from hornfels stone, flows into the pool
The ‘riverbed’, made from hornfels stone, flows into the pool

The remainder of planting ranges from drought-tolerant sun lovers such as Salvia Tanzerin, Stipa gigantea and Cistus Silver Pink, punctuated with towering Eremurus Joanna and spires of iris and verbascum, to shade-tolerant planting beneath a grove of cork oaks.

I’m particularly pleased with a combination of Dryopteris erythrosora, with bronze pink fronds, lime green Euphorbia mellifera and the backdrop of cedar cladding.

And there’s an edible element too, highlighting those plants that can thrive without excessive irrigation: pomegranate trees, sea kale and a mass of herbs, including a new variety of prostrate rosemary — Whitewater Silver.

My experience of making a Chelsea garden has been everything one might imagine; pressure and stress mixed with extreme tiredness and moments of euphoria. And just five days after the show gates open the garden will be gone, along with all the rest. But the best ones will carry on in the memory, often for years afterwards. For those of us who have the privilege of being able to make them, the memories will last for ever.

As I look around at fellow designers and their exhausted construction teams, Chelsea seems like a surreal experience as the gardens emerge from the sports fields to the south of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. In less than a week of work, the empty plots become recognisable gardens; huge feature trees are installed, garden buildings craned into place, water features assembled. By the second week the detailed planting begins, at which time it’s make or break for the gardens, for medals are often won and lost on the quality of the plants and the flair shown in their assembly.

While all of this goes on, relentlessly, 12 hours a day for the first 10 days and then well into the night after that, the British late spring weather remains as unpredictable as ever. Gales have threatened to topple more than one freshly installed tree, and when the wind rattles through the site it whips up a mixture of dust, London plane tree mast (the woolly seed that cascades like toxic confetti from this otherwise admirable tree) and heaven knows what else to create a uniquely unpleasant brew.

The resulting scratchy throat and hoarse voice is almost inescapable, and should be referred to as “the Chelsea rasp”. Rumours circulate the site; gardens frantically redesigned on the hoof, materials failing to arrive, key features broken in transport and anxious faces as irreplaceable trees are lowered into the snuggest of spaces. But, in spite of it all, the cast of hundreds that create this fine old show always seems to deliver.

Matthew Wilson is managing director of Clifton Nurseries

Photographs: Victoria Birkinshaw

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