A Chelsea Flower Show garden can be a way of raising awareness for a cause, it can be a living-and-breathing designer résumé, or it can help to sell product. In which case, it had better have a lot of charm, offering horticultural appeal as well as something less tangible to win over the unsuspecting. Seedlip Drinks has achieved this for two years running at Chelsea, with the same team winning gold each time. This garden is about peas, and nothing else but peas.
Photography by Jim Powell for Gardenista.
Seedlip is a young business, having launched in 2015 as the world’s first nonalcoholic spirit. Its founder is the irrepressible Ben Branson and his enthusiasm for the core ingredient of Seedlip spirits is evident when he mixes a drink; the legend PEAS tattooed across his fingers.
Maybe it’s the roundness of them, or the color, or the unique taste of a pea when eaten in the middle of a pea patch. There’s something about peas, and it’s perfectly described in the design of this garden, which features only one plant family: Fabaceae, family of peas. There is scope within this plant group for considerable variety, from crimson clover to an acacia tree, with sweet peas, broad beans, and six different kinds of lupines along the way. Lupines are rather ubiquitous at this year’s show, but this is one garden where they absolutely belong.
The garden was designed by Catherine Macdonald of Landform Consultants. Gaining her PhD in genetics, she carried out research at the Natural History Museum in London before retraining in landscape design. She is a creative scientist, useful qualities in the field but particularly useful when collaborating with someone like Ben Branson.
Branson descends from a long line of Lincolnshire farmers and, along with an increasing number of his peers, does not drink alcohol. Bored by the sugar-laden alternatives, Ben began to experiment with a small copper still, encouraged by the writings of mainly forgotten alchemists. One book was particularly intriguing: The Art of Distillation by John French, published in 1651. Branson found that it was possible to make a spirit by distilling a vegetable and removing the alcohol at the end of the process. The chosen vegetable in this case was a pea.
The way the nonalcoholic spirit is put together is not unlike a gin and tonic. Seedlip’s Garden 108 is named for the average number of days in a pea’s progression from seed to cocktail; a “seedlip” is a basket or bowl from which seeds are broadcast. The drink itself is not sweet (there is no sugar) and instead tastes like a garden in summer: The second most important ingredient, after all, is distilled hay. Spearmint, rosemary, and thyme also go into the still. When Seedlip deliveries arrive in the shops, they sell out quickly.
The Seedlip garden (or “conceptual installation”) is part of a new section at Chelsea called Space to Grow. The plot is about 30 by 30 feet and height is provided by pea-related trees and shrubs (including Laburnum anagyroides ‘Sunspire’ and Acacia dealbata ‘Gaulois Astier’). At the back, the Pea-vilion, decorated with green circular grillwork, is topped by a green roof. Growing on it are peas.
With the pleasing pea garden for Seedlip, Macdonald has created a space that is easy to read while remaining complex. Like a garden of one color, a curated plant family has infinite variety.