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Sustainable Gardening: Lessons from Chelsea Flower Show’s First Organic Garden

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Sustainable Gardening: Lessons from Chelsea Flower Show’s First Organic Garden

September 21, 2021

For the first time in its history, the Chelsea Flower Show opened its flower-strewn gates in a one-off autumn slot this week, after the pandemic halted the previous two shows in spring 2020 and 2021. And amongst the pristine plots there was another first—in the form of the show’s first organic garden created by designer Tom Massey.

While the push for a Chelsea Flower Show with a lighter carbon footprint and more thoughtful approach to waste and sustainability saunters on, Massey’s beautiful gold medal winning design for the organic 600 acre Somerset dairy farm, Yeo Valley, leads the way—with true beauty and an entirely thoughtful and common sense approach to gardening and biodiversity that we can all learn from.

Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer.

1. Borrow from the landscape.

These crooked walkways acts in other ways too: slowing down the journey through the garden and adding a frisson of danger as visitors step tentatively from rock to rock.
Above: These crooked walkways acts in other ways too: slowing down the journey through the garden and adding a frisson of danger as visitors step tentatively from rock to rock.

A lighter carbon footprint means repurposing and reusing, and that was evident from the ground up. “There’s not really any hard landscaping,” says Tom who created stepping stone paths from hulks of stone found around the farm. And while other gardens are edged in pristine green turf, the borders of this garden have long grass lifted from the farm’s grazing meadows—and will be returned after the show.

2. Prioritize “hard-grown” plants.

In the mix is Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Herbstonne’, Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ and ‘El Dorado’ along with red hot pokers, Kniphofia ‘Percy’s Pride’ and ‘Tawny King’. Showier dahlias were deemed by Tom to be too garish for the final selection and instead a delicate lilac species flower, Dahlia merckii, that was brought straight from the farm, fit the bill. All of which floated above grasses including the breezy Calamagrostis brachytricha and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Kleine Silberspinne’.
Above: In the mix is Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Herbstonne’, Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ and ‘El Dorado’ along with red hot pokers, Kniphofia ‘Percy’s Pride’ and ‘Tawny King’. Showier dahlias were deemed by Tom to be too garish for the final selection and instead a delicate lilac species flower, Dahlia merckii, that was brought straight from the farm, fit the bill. All of which floated above grasses including the breezy Calamagrostis brachytricha and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Kleine Silberspinne’.

Like many growers who raise plants more sustainably, Tom chose plants that are ‘grown hard’—that means that they are not cosseted or protected or over-fertilized to create lush growth. But as a result they are resilient and adaptable but no less beautiful.

3. Consider biochar.

One of the most exquisitely beautiful details on the garden are the charred logs that are used vertically throughout to create mini walls of extreme beauty, each one an intricate map of deep black fissures.
Above: One of the most exquisitely beautiful details on the garden are the charred logs that are used vertically throughout to create mini walls of extreme beauty, each one an intricate map of deep black fissures.

Like everything else here, the charred logs have their roots on the farm and were created using fallen ash trees that had been struck with ash dieback. Each one will be transformed into biochar after the show. And beyond its material splendor, there’s a serious message of replenishing soils with these supercharged blocks of carbon which hold moisture in the soil, increase the mycorrhizal funghi, absorb and trap pollutants and bring beneficial minerals too. Yeo Valley’s owner Sarah Mead, who worked closely with Tom on the garden, is a longtime devotee to this soil booster and added that the benefits were also noted at the nursery Hortus Loci, where most of the plants for the garden were organically grown. (To learn more, see The Garden Decoder: What Is ‘Biochar’?)

4. Pick trees that feed wildlife.

Alongside silver birch, field maples and willow there are fruiting trees including medlar, hawthorn, spindle and juicy rose hips.
Above: Alongside silver birch, field maples and willow there are fruiting trees including medlar, hawthorn, spindle and juicy rose hips.

Perimeter trees were chosen not just for their beauty but their benefits to wildlife too.

5. Let there be water.

A stream runs through the garden.
Above: A stream runs through the garden.

The farm’s feeding troughs inspired the stunning rusted water feature that feeds the pool and stream that runs through the whole garden, creating a soothing audio backdrop to the garden but also providing a water source for visiting insects and wildlife.

6. Don’t forget the fun.

Tom Raffield created the pod. To see another of his beautiful products, see Object of Desire: Bentwood Hanging Planters from UK Designer Tom Raffield.)
Above: Tom Raffield created the pod. To see another of his beautiful products, see Object of Desire: Bentwood Hanging Planters from UK Designer Tom Raffield.)

In the center of the garden, a whimsical centerpiece comes in the form of a steambent wooden pod that can be raised via a pulley system. Like the garden, it illustrates how creating something beautiful and organic can also be magical and fun too.

For more on the 2021 Chelsea Flower Show, see:

For more on sustainable and organic gardening, see:

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