Gardening: Show your colours

With the Chelsea Flower Show fast approaching, Sarah Raven remembers her experience of designing a garden at last year's event: the fear, the excitement, the hope, and ultimately, the tears
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The Independent Culture
IT'S AN extraordinary experience designing a show garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. I was sponsored to do one last year called "The Primitive Garden". It was a great honour to be asked, and a terrifying challenge: I am not a garden designer by profession and although I had very strong ideas, I had no experience of drawing up plans.

As the designer, you are the nerve centre of a sizeable operation. You are controlling an (in my case) astronomical budget, sourcing all your plants and materials, and organising about 15 teams of people all over the country. The same drawings are up on walls in Sussex, Surrey, Norfolk, the West Midlands and Argyll. The individuals involved may never meet, but they have all invested huge amounts of time and energy on this dream, and they are all thinking about one thing: the coveted gold medal that is awarded to a handful of the show gardens.

It is your job, as the designer, to care about all of them. Everyone has to do exactly what they have said they can do. The beautiful lichen- covered wall in Scotland has to be dismantled stone by stone and transported south; the giant fig tree has to be brought into leaf at exactly the right time. The tension mounts steadily over the 12 months that preceed the event. Suppliers let you down; unforeseen hitches occur. But it has to work, so you argue and compromise, charm and chat. All you do in the last month is run around the country checking that your instructions have not been misinterpreted; that everything is, as far as possible, going according to plan.

There are three or four people growing plants. As the date approaches, some of the plants are moved into vast fridges: the spring-flowering euphorbias, the wallflowers, the early-flowering species paeonies and the camassias are being held back from coming into flower at their natural time. You get a call. Should they pinch out the buds, or will the cold spell forecast for this weekend mean that no more will develop in time?

With other plants, you have the opposite problem. They are being coaxed into bud by vast gas burners in insulated polytunnels. These are the bearded and sibirica irises, Oriental poppies and candelabra primulas that you want to flower about a month before they should. Are they going to make it in time? The whole garden is centred on these bright and showy flowers. Will there be none? There is a bud count on every second day in the last 10, but you still don't know what you will have on the key day, when the garden is judged.

It's not just the plants; there is a bank holiday and the stone hauliers are having a problem finding drivers to go to Scotland. Everyone of them will need to be paid triple. There is no budget left, but it's too late to worry about that. If you are out of the office for an hour, your mobile phone rings 10 times. People are too stressed to wait until you get back. Things are becoming fraught. All you want to do is start.

Ten days before the show you arrive at the park in front of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. You walk straight to your plot. In your mind is this fantasy of a beautiful, sensuous, scented garden with water falling down rills either side of weathered, soft stone steps and flowers billowing out from terraces in purples, oranges, magentas and bright acid-greens, but there is nothing there. There is a flat area of ground with a bit of rope around it and your site number sprayed in white paint across the grass.

Gradually, one by one, the various contractors appear and start their bit of the job. Some days, so much happens the place is unrecognisable by the evening. Other days, just one crucial, but almost unnoticeable thing takes place. The arterial system of water pipes is laid and there are no leaks. You have a detailed schedule of what you expect to be finished when, but it is continually changing, with some jobs well ahead and others behind.

A leak springs in our liner, the waterproof layer that is spread over most of the site and holds the water in its stream bed. No one knows where the leak is. The whole team of contractors has to be called back on a Sunday to find the hole. You are vaguely aware of similar crises happening in the 20 or so other gardens around you.

There are three days to go and most of the plants arrive. The structure is complete and now the flesh has to be put on the bones. There are eight of us on-site at this stage, driven by a heady combination of adrenalin and elation. The weather is beautiful and it's all going well. We get up at 4am and leave at 10pm, too wound up and excited to sleep.

On the Monday the garden is judged and opens to the public. The judges walk briskly through the garden with their clipboards, spending only a few minutes looking round. How can they absorb the atmosphere, hear the sounds and get the smells in that short time? We stand around nervously, but are later reassured by the exclamations of wonder and words of praise from the public.

Late that night, enjoying a celebratory dinner, we hear that we have not done as well as we feel we should. I burst into tears. We had such high hopes. It's very sad. So many people need to be phoned and disappointed. There is a crippling sense of anti- climax.

It's not just the judgement. With the garden open, there is nowhere for us to be. When you are working in it, you get to love the soft sound of the moving water and the smell of the mats of honeysuckle late in the evening. But now they are part of a no-man's land. There are thousands of people looking at the garden from behind the ropes and they love it, but it has become an alien place.

We water the plants and dead-head roses and poppies as they go over, but you can't stroll around and it's a relief to leave. On Friday the show closes, the exhausted plants are sold off at a premium, and the garden is destroyed. But it remains for all the people that made it and I know each one of us loves it still.

Chelsea Flower Show runs 25th-28th May. Ticket Hotline: 0171 344 4343

The frosts are over in the South of England and even in the North, half- hardy plants should be safe for planting out in a week or two. If you have been growing annuals under cover and have salvias, penstemons, cannas and dahlias waiting to go out, now is your moment.

Plant single colour blocks in brave panels of five or seven plants rather than a more tentative one or two. Dig generous holes and mix in a trowelful of organic material into the earth in the bottom before you place the bare roots in the ground. Replace the soil in a couple of stages, firming it around the roots both times and remember to water them in.

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RJC/sw-PA

1 The frosts are over in the south of England and even in the north, so half-hardy plants should be safe for planting out in a week or two. If you have been growing annuals under cover and have salvias, penstemons, canna lilies and dahlias waiting to go out, now is your moment

1 Plant single colour blocks in brave panels of five or seven plants rather than a more tentative one or two. Dig generous holes and mix a trowelful of organic material such as mushroom compost into the earth in the bottom before you place the bare roots in the ground. Replace the soil in a couple of stages, firming it around the roots both times, and remember to water them in

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