Chelsea Flower Show, England, 2006

For any horticulturist, the Chelsea Flower Show is a privilege to attend, due to its position at the heart of England’s remarkable horticultural heritage. The opportunity for Philip to become involved in the 2006 Chelsea Flower Show came out of his work with Xanthe White and Fiona Henderson on the 2005 Ellerslie Flower Show Grand Marquee. During the preparation of this project, Xanthe expressed her intention to apply for the second garden that Tourism New Zealand were looking to present in the following year (following the success of their Gold medal-winning 2004 garden). Philip’s involvement with the project began in the competitive selection process carried out by Tourism New Zealand (with the provision of expertise on planting design and ecology), and continued through to the final execution of the garden in London in May 2006.

Following the selection process, a team was formed to gain specialist expertise in various areas, such as artistic direction, horticulture and construction. The team was guided at all stages by Tourism New Zealand, who were a very impressive organisation to deal with; not just for providing the opportunity and resources to carry out the garden, but also playing a vital support role.

Preparing plants for Chelsea Flower Show

Early planning stages within the project required the recommendation of suitable plant species for the garden, and research to be made on their availability within England and New Zealand. One of the most critical aspects of organising a garden consisting entirely of our native plants was to be able to source New Zealand plants from within Britain or adjoining countries (because of stringent importation regulations). If plants that were imported from New Zealand failed or were denied entry for any reason, then one would be entirely dependent on British and European material.

James Fraser’s remarkable (and remarkably well-grown) collection of New Zealand natives formed the backbone of the plant material from within England. James has grown on large specimens of New Zealand trees and shrubs (with a special interest in Pseudopanax spp.) within his central London nursery for many years. His plants enabled the garden to have an impressive scale, which was especially important, as the garden occupied a large plot on the Main Avenue.

Other than James’ nursery, the main British source of plants was from a number of nurseries in Cornwall, in the southwest of England (most notably Trevena Cross, in the vicinity of Penzance). Cornwall has a mild, maritime climate, and is regularly buffeted by strong coastal winds. Its similarity to areas of New Zealand’s southern and offshore island coastlines means that coastal New Zealand natives are considered to be very useful, as shelter and as ornamentals (especially members of the genus, Olearia). It was surprising to find such a wide range of New Zealand natives in the southwest of England, with several species that we found in nurseries here still being relatively uncommon within horticulture in New Zealand.

As part of the sourcing process, Philip spent a week in Penzance at the beginning of 2006, dealing with nurseries, and arranging plants for shipment from Cornwall to their growing-on situation at the Royal Horticultural Society’s gardens at Wisley. James Fraser transported the plants to London, with his Alsatian, Tui, as travelling companion.

Following the purchase and transport of British-sourced plants to RHS Wisley, the New Zealand-sourced plants arrived in England. The process of getting these plants to arrival within England, let alone Chelsea Flower Show grade, was difficult – due to environmental authority regulations (similar to the kinds of controls upon importing foreign material in to New Zealand). It began well before any British-sourced plants were purchased. The first stage was to visit nurseries throughout the North and South Islands, and ascertain which plants were suitable, and more importantly which plants could survive the somewhat violent procedures that must be applied in order to be able to export live plants (as opposed to seeds).

After procurement, the plants needed to be grown on within a nursery which had the specialised export/quarantine processes in place. The major criterion that needed to be applied to all plants to be exported was that they had to be shaken loose from their existing potting mix and washed until the roots were thoroughly bare, and then repotted in fumigated potting mix. This amounts to beating the living daylights out of mature plants, and then attempting to raise them to Chelsea Flower Show standard within 8 months (however, there is no other way of importing plants to England). They were then required to be grown on within the export nursery for a period in excess of two months, during which time they would be monitored.

Despite the obvious difficulties inherent in the process, we had good success with imported material, which meant that several forms of plants that had either never or seldom been seen in England were displayed within the garden. A former employee of O2 Landscapes, Paul Duffy, was important in overseeing their growth at early stages (when Philip was required to be in England). Conspicuous amongst these were the large specimens of pohutukawa and Coprosma propinqua (although many of the latter suffered, those that came through contributed well to the garden), a special form of tauhinu (Ozothamnus leptophylla) from Farewell Spit, Euphorbia glauca, and Atriplex cinerea (a silver-leaved sprawling shrub which occurs in Nelson).

Once all the plants had arrived at RHS Wisley, the final stretch of growing-on and plant grooming took place in the weeks leading up to the Show. Amongst the array of people helping out and working on the preparation of the plants, Terry Hatch and Cindy Barnes were particularly useful members of the team. They had volunteered to come to England, to work as plant specialists within the team. The level of care and presentation required of the plants was reflective of the status of Chelsea as the pre-eminent horticultural event in the world.

The plants

The garden was an interesting departure from the kind of gardens normally displayed on the Main Avenue at Chelsea, especially on account of its somewhat dark, brooding nature. Flowers did not feature heavily (for practical more than aesthetic reasons), and the planting had a subtle overall character. The areas of the garden were treated as distinct ecological zones (with a special focus on ecologies of Auckland’s West Coast), moving from the beach and sub-littoral zone, through coastal scrub, to coastal forest. During planning/design stages, Philip produced research and recommendations on ecological and aesthetic considerations in relation to each zone, and the garden as a whole.

Due to the quality and size of James Fraser’s nursery stock, Pseudopanax spp. played an important role in the makeup of the garden, most importantly in the forest area. The two lancewood species, P. crassifolius and P. ferox, were a source of fascination to Flower Show visitors, due to their striking , sculptural form. Large specimens of pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa), that we transported from New Zealand, established valuable scale in the coastal scrub and beach zones. A very large specimen of rata (Metrosideros robusta) was kindly donated by Tresco Abbey, a famous garden from the Scilly Isles (off the southern Cornwall coast) which has an unusual sub-tropical climate (thanks to the Gulf Stream) and a comprehensive collection of New Zealand plants.

Large tree ferns (Dicksonia spp.) and cabbage trees (Cordyline australis) introduced differing leaf forms to the canopy of larger specimens. In addition, the tree ferns related well to Virginia King’s beautiful silver fern leaf sculpture (one of a series of three of her works that featured in the garden, the other two reprsenting a hoheria leaf and a limpet, respectively).

A plant that we were surprised to find grown in very good grades within Cornwall was the reed-leaved species, Apodasmia similis (commonly known as oioi). This restiad is an important component of brackish coastal waters in New Zealand (and, more specifically, at Karekare). Interesting threatened species that were almost unknown within England included the vibrant bluish-grey sea spurge, Euphorbia glauca, and the grey saltbush, Atriplex cinerea (the latter is known from only one site within New Zealand, although it also occurs in Australia).

Several shrubby divaricate species featured in the garden, including Coprosma acerosa, Muehlenbeckia astonii, Coprosma propinqua and the nationally threatened, columnar small tree, Pittosporum obcordatum. These unusual plants represent a very different mindset to traditional English gardens, as they do not possess single outstanding features. Their appeal lies more in their shadowy, textural form, and the way in which they play against the form of other plant species.

Some floral interest was provided by spectacular specimens of Celmisia (native mountain daisies that also occur on the coast in places), from the emergent buds of the Marlborough Rock Daisy (Pachystegia insignis), and from the beautiful buff cream-flowered hanging flower heads of Chionochloa flavicans. The tumbling groundcover, Pratia angulata, raised starry white flowers from its bright green foliage, whilst the bright blue flowers of Chatham Island Forget-me-not (Myositidium hortensia) were an unexpected addition (these were sourced late in preparation by Fiona Henderson).

Ferns were present throughout, especially as groundcover in the forest area. Many other species of shrub, tree, herb and grass were utilised within the garden (too many to recount herein); all of which contributed to a display which was not only beautifully subtle, but a botanically interesting representation of our coastal flora.