Andy Sturgeon's Diary of a Chelsea Flower Show Garden
17th May 2000
I receive a letter from The Royal Horticultural Society inviting me to exhibit a show garden at Chelsea Flower Show. Designing a Chelsea garden is the pinnacle of many garden designers careers, Iíd love to do it but such a garden costs many thousands of pounds and is impossible without a sponsor which I donít have. I file the letter, ominously addressed ĎDear Alaní, in a drawer marked ĎMaybe one dayí.
6th June 2000
There is a god and he (or she) likes gardening. A PR company gets in touch and theyíre working on a new shampoo brand called Circ which is for men with thinning hair. They want to promote it with a Chelsea show garden and wonder if Iíd be interested. I remain calm, professional and feign only minor excitement. I get the RHS letter out of the file, pin it on the wall and sit staring at it for several days.
5th July 2000
After many telephone conversations and meetings the PR company finally commission me to design a garden. The brief is to design a kind of bathroom with hairy plants, I think itís a rubbish idea but I am forced to go along with it. Most Chelsea gardens take two years to design; the deadline for all applications is in two days.
I design a garden based on rectangles which I describe as contemporary Mexican and I have to admit Iím pretty pleased with it. I bike it over to the RHS and submit it to the PR company.
The PR company come back to me and say they Ďílove the garden, itís beautiful, itís fantasticíí, but errÖÖÖ.they donít like it. Theyíve shown it to the client, Procter and Gamble, and they donít approve of this bathroom idea. They also send me a bottle of Circ which I try. It genuinely works and I temporarily have big hair.
A month after the closing date for applications I finally meet the sponsor. They do a mood board Ė basically cut a lot of pictures out of magazines Ė and show me the kind of thing they want. Furthermore, there must be no Ďhairyí plants or rounded stones that could represent bald heads.
I go back and tell them what my big ideas are but still havenít been able to actually draw anything. Eventually we hit upon a solid idea. Itís to be a contemporary manís garden, sleek and stylish and appealing to the sort of man who would buy the product. At last something to get my teeth into. On the downside, they want the garden to be based on circles. I see this as a problem because itís hard to make circles work in a long thin plot which I specifically requested in my original application to the RHS. Oops.
The RHS like the design I submitted in July but have some questions. I write back extremely nervously and tell them thereís been a bit of a change of direction and that Iíll be completely redesigning the garden. Space is at a premium and I am terrified that they will be annoyed and tell me to fork off.
The sponsor is really delighted with the final design, I submit the drawings to the RHS and they get approved. Phew.
I sit down to do a planting plan and source the plants. Everything is dying down for winter so all there is to see at nurseries are pots of compost with a few dead sticks in them. All the Chelsea experienced nurseries have been committed elsewhere for months and the sleepless nights begin.
Carol Klein of Glebe Cottage Plants agrees to supply us with most of our herbaceous perennials. I feel that weíve been saved and have my best nights sleep for a month.
The PR company decide to bring in Matthew Williamson to design the furniture. Iíve never heard of him but apparently heís a big noise in the fashion world. They tell me heís famous for designing very pink clothes for women. I wonder how this fits in with the brief. ĎíItís a garden for meníí I remind them. Apparently itís a PR thing. I scratch my head a bit and leave.
The furniture looks fantastic. Itís exciting, vibrant and powerful but not really in keeping with the garden. I am rather scared. This could go extremely well or extremely badly. Either way it will make people look at the garden which is a good thing I tell myself.
An integral part of the design is some huge rusted steel walls. I commission them to be made and ask the engineering works to spray them daily with salt water to speed up the oxidising process. They clearly think I am mad.
Following months of testing a unique water vortex idea for the garden, the builders tell me they canít guarantee it will work. I nearly cry.
We come up with an alternative. The water bloke has sourced an enormous stainless steel dish for the pool and it looks incredible. Iím happy again.
The French quarry tells me they canít provide the limestone I paid for in February. The only option is brown rather than cream and not what I wanted at all. I nearly cry again.
The nursery whoís providing the trees and shrubs tells me that itís all still in Italy. They tell me this after Iíve spent half a day on the M25 to go and visit the plants. I begin to wonder if they really exist. We are meant to start planting the garden in four weeks so I donít anticipate a great deal of sleep tonight.
There are 36 days to go until the judging day on the 21st May. Iíve had sleepless nights and ridiculously long working days, my family barely knows me and Iíve had to resort to yoga and reflexology. This has already been the most stressful few months of my life and itís not even over yet. But would I do it next year? Well, if anybody sees me near a show garden again I want them to shoot me.