Urban gardener, Cleve West: The show garden must go on

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The Independent Online

With gardens coming under increasing scrutiny, as far as their carbon footprint is concerned, it's not surprising to hear that the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) are actively encouraging sponsors of show gardens to think about what will happen to their stage-sets long after the bell tolls at 4pm.

Friends and colleagues might detect just a touch of smugness in this opening paragraph, but I can only give Saga Insurance, sponsors of my show garden at Chelsea in 2006, credit for the fact that the garden was re-located to their offices in Enbrook Park, Folkestone. Amazingly, we found a space exactly the right size outside their canteen, from where the garden could be viewed exactly as it was from the top of Main Avenue. No changes were necessary and views from within the garden have been improved with rolling, tree-covered hills and even a glimpse out to sea.

Finding a new home for a show garden is not as easy as it sounds - no matter how advanced your planning. Gardens that have been salvaged in the past are, more often than not, used in part, not as a whole, or adapted to fit a given space. "What happens to gardens after RHS shows is an important part of the application process," said Bob Sweet, organiser of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. "The Garden Selection Panel Committee takes into consideration the subsequent role of the gardens and the recycling of plants and hard landscaping. We also take a detailed interest in the sourcing of plants and other materials."

Materials such as timber, stone, and concrete slabs are often salvaged as they can be stored without maintenance and re-used when the opportunity suits. However, bricks, blocks, aggregates and anything that can't be cleaned up or preserved in one piece, often end up as hard-core or landfill.

Plants, of course, aren't so difficult to re-home. Many are sold off at the end of the show and those that aren't can usually be re-used. Even with the stress and battering they suffer, there's always someone who will find them a home. Trees, on the other hand, don't have it so easy. Unaccustomed as they are to sitting in pots, they suffer the indignity of being up-ended, winched and shunted about on telescopic forks, often in hot weather when they'd rather be left well alone to establish a new set of fibrous roots. They are then admired for a week or so before the whole process is repeated, by which time we are well into summer. Not everyone has the space for a semi-mature tree, let alone the machinery to plant it and time to keep it well watered during the summer. Nurseries are reluctant to take them as it may take another season for them to look good enough to sell again. When I carefully dismantled my first show garden to re-use 13 years ago, I was horrified to see the neighbouring exhibitor dump a fully grown olive (one tree that can actually withstand a little abuse) in a skip - but was so stony-broke I couldn't afford to hire the transport to save it.

Birds nesting in our trees at Chelsea last year, along with a subsequent heatwave, meant that the trees didn't leave the showground until a chance cool spell in August. They arrived at Enbrook Park looking like they'd spent six weeks in Death Valley. I thought they were doomed but, thanks to some deft handling by our contractors and day-to-day maintenance by the gardeners at Saga, they leafed up beautifully this year and now look well established in their new home.

Five gardens had plans for re-location after this year's Chelsea and Bob Sweet is confident that this will become more popular in future years. "No show will be perfect in terms of carbon footprint," he explained. "But at least we can minimise that and ensure that the show has both an educational role and will serve to provide permanent gardens afterwards. As well as it being important environmentally for gardens to live on, it's wonderful that people can continue to enjoy them long after the shows have ended." I agree. It's great hearing about the pleasure that staff at Saga get from seeing and using the garden everyday. I've even learnt recently that one couple want to be married in the garden. If I'd known this was going to happen, I would have definitely planted a lot more gyp. E

Anna Pavord returns next week

Victoria Summerley's garden opening, as featured in the Magazine of 16 June, takes place tomorrow under the National Garden Scheme from 2-6pm, at 28 Multon Road, London SW18. Admission £2 (children free)