Hampton Court Flower Show 2018 – RNIB Community Garden
I’d done a small garden at the show in 2016 and won the best City Garden award, and since then I’d had a hankering to do a bigger garden that the public could walk through. I was just looking for the right idea, which came about during a conversation with my wife whilst sitting on a sun lounger getting some winter sunshine – she asked what I was frightened of as a child. My reply was the only thing I could remember was burning my eyes in a firework accident and not knowing for a week whether I would see again. This gave me the idea for a sensory garden and wondered whether the RNIB had an anniversary this year – fortunately they do and are 150 years old in 2018, which presented a fantastic opportunity to celebrate their special anniversary and promote them as the wonderful Charity that they are.
The Next Steps
When we got back from holiday I called in at Swail House, the RNIB residential home near me in Epsom, to have a chat and see how this idea might come to life. Fortunately, things started to fall into place straight away. Swail House had a large grass area ideal for a rebuild – more about that elsewhere – and more importantly, Jayne the manager thought it was a brilliant idea and would really give the place a lift. She put me in touch with Alex at RNIB head office, where luck was on my side again – Alex had previously worked at the NSPCC and been involved with show gardens for them, so knew the value of them in terms of promoting the charity. And so on to the design…
From my previous experience with a small garden I knew one thing I needed for a big garden was some help, so I enlisted Paula as co-designer, who I’d been to college with and who’d helped with the planting on the City Garden. In designing a garden for the blind and partially sighted we naturally considered what we could put in it that would appeal to the other senses of smell, sound, touch and to a lesser extent taste. We wanted to create a garden that was a bit different, in that we would actively encourage people to feel the different textures of the plants, rather than the usual ‘Do Not Touch’ scenario and also provide wonderfully aromatic plants that were naturally fragrant or that released their scent when rubbed.
There would also be herbs to allow visitors to have a taste and water features to provide that gentle trickling sound that is so relaxing. Following chats with the RNIB we all felt that the garden should provide some sort of educational aspect and try and make the public more aware of the main eye conditions that lead to sight loss. The result of this were the 4 corten steel screens in the raised beds – these included windows with filters that allow the public to see what it’s like to have these eye conditions. We also handed out Simspecs, so people could put them on and get the same effect.
Construction was carried out by my friendly family team of landscapers with myself and Paula and a few friends and relatives as helpers. The first thing we realised was it wasn’t going to be easy to dig anything, as the ground was baked like concrete from all that glorious summer sun we’d had. Fortunately, the mini-digger we had made light work of a lot of it but even that struggled in some places, however, we cracked on building walls, laying paving and planting trees and soon we could see a garden taking shape out of the building site we’d got used to. The plants all arrived on their due date, but the build was a couple of days behind schedule, which gave us a bit of a problem in that it was about 30 degrees every day and we had to have somebody wandering around all day with a hosepipe in their hand trying to keep all the plants alive. The trees, in particular, were suffering a bit in the heat, but a top tip we were given was give them a sugar water drink, which all sounded a bit dodgy, but worked a treat and they perked up wonderfully.
The rest of the plants also fared much better once they were in the soil, rather than sitting on the grass in their pots baking in the heat. We’d ordered around 2000 plants, but by the time we were finishing on the Sunday before the judges were due to arrive, we realised we were still a few short and were rushing round the nursery stands buying extra plants to fill in the gaps we had. Finally everything was finished and we wandered off for a well-earned cuppa and cake whilst the judges did their thing.
Everybody loved the garden – the public, the RNIB, the sponsors, the press, the BBC – everybody except the judges that is! They managed to find things they didn’t like that nobody else could understand, so sadly we only got a silver medal for our efforts. Fortunately for us the great British public have a more discerning taste than RHS judges and kindly voted us Peoples’ Choice Award winners, which meant a huge amount to us all. The garden was alive with wildlife, bees, butterflies and damsel flies everywhere and the feedback we got throughout the week was brilliant, people were especially grateful to be able to look through the window filters or Simspecs and understand how their friends or relatives with those eye diseases actually viewed things. So all in all a fantastic week roasting in the sun chatting about plants!
As with all good things, they must come to an end, and although it’s sad to see something so wonderful being taken apart we knew that, at least part of it, would be rebuilt and live on in its permanent home in the RNIBs residential home in Epsom. Taking it apart was an awful lot quicker and easier than putting it together and within 4 days it had all disappeared, leaving just a brown patch of dirt as a reminder of what had once been a beautiful garden.