Garden designer reveals why she ‘totally intended to shock’ people with her plane wreckage display at Hampton Court

Felicity O’Rourke, who has put a 48ft-long plane at the centre of her RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival entry, talks to Hannah Stephenson.

Felicity O'Rourke's Extinction Garden at RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Festival (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Felicity O'Rourke's Extinction Garden at RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Festival (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

Ex-easyJet pilot Felicity O’Rourke has sparked controversy with her shocking garden design of a crashed aircraft in a field of wheat, at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival.

While traditionalists who love attractive planting schemes may not appreciate the carnage, scattered suitcases and even charcoal on the ground to depict burning, all surrounded by police crime scene tape, there’s little doubt that her disturbing vision has sharpened focus on the issue of global warming.

The 45-year-old garden designer and mother-of-three was a passenger pilot for 10 years, a job she loved, but after a while she felt it just wasn’t as creative as she wanted to be.

She took some time off while she had her children and then suffered breast cancer six years ago.

Speaking with us at the show, which runs until Sunday July 11, she says: “My parents, and my mum particularly, are really into gardening and that exposure, from being a child surrounded by it, just came to me.

“I found being in the garden quite nurturing. Between operations, I was designing flower beds and planting schemes for our garden and it dawned on me later on that that’s what I enjoyed.”

She enrolled at the KLC School of Design in 2020 to do a garden diploma course, completing it during lockdown and graduating in December. One of the projects was to design a show garden for the Hampton Court show.

Entering the Global Impact category, her garden, called Extinction features a 48-ft long plane wreck, designed to address the sixth mass extinction threat to our planet and the dangers we face. The RHS has awarded her a silver medal.

She explains: “We all know that the major issue is climate change but how to portray that is the challenge. For me, the Global Impact theme was all about aeroplanes hitting the ground.

“With all my training from the past – we spent years talking about seconds to impact, terrain awareness and ground proximity warning systems – actually it just came to me. I thought, that would really get people to take notice.”

Purists may feel it doesn’t resemble a garden at all, but O’Rourke always meant this work to shock.

The back of the plane in Felicity O'Rourke's Extinction garden (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

“I totally intended to shock because I think, when there’s something so difficult and traumatic and insurmountable as climate change, we all feel a bit helpless or we’ve heard it so many times it’s like compassion fade, where you go, ‘Oh, yes, I know about climate change but I just can’t deal with that right now’.

“Some people are in denial about it. I wanted to really connect with people and for them to have an emotional shock, to realise it’s not just that it’s going to get hotter and some of our plants are going to die in our gardens, or that we won’t get orangutans in the Asian rainforests or polar bears. We need to understand that our species is at risk here as well.”

Pointing to the crashed aircraft, she says: “If people understand that, it’s more likely to hit home.”

In response to those who criticise the garden, she notes: “The people who think it’s bad taste don’t fully understand the message it’s trying to say – or maybe it’s just because it isn’t a garden as such, it’s a conceptual garden.”

She points out that Covid forced everyone to change their lifestyles and behaviours rapidly because they felt an imminent threat to their lives, and wants people to realise that global warming is also an imminent threat that we need to tackle now.

The plane, a decommissioned aircraft, was craned in from Air Salvage International at Cotswold Airport and is being returned after the show to be used as a ‘glamping pod’.

The wheat in which it is laid represents a modern agricultural wheat field.

O’Rourke argues: “It isn’t environmentally friendly at all. The irony is that 95% of the world’s global production of wheat is a single species, which seems ridiculous. All you need is a Xylella (a plant disease for which there is no known cure) or a Covid equivalent and you’ll be wiping out loads of people’s food source.”

After the show is over, she hopes to spend more time in her own garden, which is around 10m by 10m, in Wimbledon, south west London.

Gardening has really helped my wellbeing,” she reflects. “It’s a great way to zone out of your worries, almost like a mindfulness practice. We are always looking inwards and it just forces you to look outwards.”

As for the future, she’d love to do more shows and hopes at least some of her horticultural projects may be a bit prettier.

“I can actually make things look beautiful too,” she says, smiling.

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