Chelsea Flower Show 2014: Young gardeners take centre stage but are they bold enough?


“You should definitely go and check out Hugo Bugg and the Rich brothers,” sounds like a recommendation for a couple of obscure bands at a music festival. But this advice is not being dispensed by two teenagers in a muddy field - they are part of a host of young up-and-coming acts being chattered about by guests wandering among the perfectly clipped foliage, burbling artificial streams and corporate displays of the Chelsea Flower Show.

At today’s preview of the Royal Horticultural Society’s 101st annual jamboree, which opens to the public today, all the talk was of the young designers displacing the older generations. It is something that organisers have positively encouraged: half of the 16 Show Gardens are the work of first-time designers, including some in their 20s.

The Rich brothers are Welsh siblings Harry, 26, and David, 23. They won gold at Chelsea last year in the Artisan Gardens section but this time have a Show Garden occupying an envious position in the centre of the complex. When The Independent arrives to speak to them they are busy giving fellow Welshman Rob Brydon a tour of their Night Sky Garden, a two-level creation complete with brass telescope staring skywards.

From left: David Rich, Hugo Bugg, Matthew Keightley and Harry Rich From left: David Rich, Hugo Bugg, Matthew Keightley and Harry Rich (Rex)

“It’s nice to see new people on there as well as some with more experience,” says Harry of the new generation of garden designers competing this year, adding that he hopes they can set an example for other young people. “It’s just like art really, and that inspires millions of people, so why can’t something that’s like 3D art inspire just as many?”

His brother David – who with his stubble, waistcoat and flat cap could have stepped straight out of a trendy bar in Shoreditch – adds that getting “young faces on TV” could “draw in a younger generation”.

Also there to admire the brothers’ work is Irish garden designer and broadcaster Diarmuid Gavin, himself a Chelsea veteran. Although pleased to see a new generation coming though, he says many of them are at risk of playing it safe for the judges.

“I think it’s great that there’s new blood and maybe not the same old faces,” he says. “It’s encouraging that the RHS are placing their faith in a younger generation – and why wouldn’t they, when the work is as accomplished as this? But I also think that there should also be a few more radical ideas from young folk, to really complete the mix.”

One contestant who could hardly be accused of being conservative is Sophie Walker, 28, the youngest woman in history to design a garden at Chelsea. Her Cave Pavilion in the Fresh Gardens section looks like a rainforest inside a giant Perspex box, with a viewing window at one end allowing curious visitors to peer inside.

She says she was inspired to study horticulture while travelling in Bolivia and seeing the rainforest close up. Her entry contains entirely new species and a new genus – another first for a Chelsea garden – which were discovered by expert plant hunters Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones.

“It’s quite difficult being a young woman in a world like horticulture, where it’s sort of male-dominated, but I’ve been pushing the boundaries as hard as I can,” Walker says. “I love being controversial – I think garden design does need a shake up, it seems to me that it’s pretty dead in ideas.”

She adds that many designers are guilty of “making obvious things that people might want in their gardens at home” rather than experimenting with new concepts, concluding: “I think we’ve all got to be a bit more adventurous.”

Another Chelsea first-timer is 26-year-old Hugo Bugg, who is being tipped for a medal after being voted RHS Young Designer of the Year in 2010. His Waterscape Garden makes use of industrial-looking steel walkways and streams flowing at different speeds beneath sedge and wood rush.

“There’s definitely more young people at Chelsea this year, which is fantastic,” he says. “Hopefully, when you start seeing more young people at the shows doing things it will attract more.”

The future sounds bright – but it wasn’t always that way. According to Matthew Keightley, 29, the designer of the calm and reflective Help for Heroes charity garden entitled Hope on the Horizon, young gardeners have faced a struggle in the past.

“There’s a bit of stigma, especially around Chelsea – the fact that it’s experienced designers, the same sponsors each year,” he says. “That wasn’t really giving any of us a chance to come through and improve. I think it needs new guys coming through in order to refresh the industry, to be honest.”

The RHS has taken a risk by leaving out many familiar designers and creators of ever-popular cottage gardens in order to showcase the work of the next generation. When the gates open to the paying public – probably already grumbling at forking out £68 for an all-day ticket – they will be watching nervously to find out if it is a gamble that has paid off.

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