Chelsea Flower Show 2014: promise of peace in war-inspired gardens

April 25th, 2014

“I had the idea in October 2012 at the Imperial War Museum,” Rowe says. “Standing in front of John Nash’s painting Over the Top, I had a eureka moment to do a garden to mark the centenary.”

The idea had a personal resonance for Rowe. Her paternal grandfather went over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme and was wounded. He returned to the fighting, and also saw action in the Second World War, landing in Normandy on D-Day. On the other side, her maternal grandmother left a box of papers in which she revealed that she had served as a nurse behind the front line, and been awarded a Military Medal for gallantry.

“Those were the inspirations,” she says. “They took me to Flanders and the Somme a couple of months later, in early December 2012. I thought it was amazing that you could still see traces of the trenches, mines and bomb craters that had been created over the course of the war. The lines hardly moved, and the landscape was completely destroyed. The topsoil was removed, trees were stumps and there were crevasses in some areas.

“The tie-in with the ABF charity is this whole idea of no-man’s-land – what today’s soldiers should not have to come back to. I’m trying to bring together ideas of the landscape recovering with the human spirit and body recovering – it’s quite conceptual, really.”

Rowe: ‘I’m trying to bring together ideas of the landscape recovering with the human spirit and body recovering’

This concept will take form in three stages. The front of the garden, inspired by mine craters, has a large water basin as its focal point. This will be surrounded mostly by moisture-loving and waterside plants, such as reeds and irises, and a group of three river birches (Betula nigra).

“They are majestic, and also they are pioneer trees, the kind that come in when an area is disturbed,” Rowe says.

The central part of the garden is a “lost” area, inspired by the village gardens that became overgrown when their populations fled or were killed. There will be peonies, euphorbia and a field maple, among other ornamental plants. Finally, the end of the garden aims to evoke the chalky downland of the Somme, with the kind of woodland that inspired the war poets. Three wild cherries will provide structure, while Wildflower Turf, the firm that made the mound for the Olympic opening ceremony, is providing the mix of flower and grass for the hillocks. Unifying the garden is “quite a long, slightly Brutalist, gently sloping wall” – a reminder of trenches, tunnels and pillboxes. Other details will be made from Portland stone, the material used for many of the First World War headstones.

In contrast to all this period inspiration, Matthew Keightley of landscaping firm Farr & Roberts has designed a garden for the Help the Heroes charity, “Hope on the Horizon”, which addresses the war in Afghanistan. Keightley, 29, has a brother serving in the RAF Regiment who has been deployed for his fifth tour. Last time he was fighting as a helicopter gunner, covering medical evacuations.

Matthew Keightley’s garden for Help the Heroes

“Talking to him got me thinking about how all we hear about is the tragic wounding and then, much later, the soldier who has recovered heroically,” Keightley says. “I wanted to represent the recovery process through a garden.”

Keightley is unusual in never having designed a show garden before. He is more of a hands-on, practical landscape designer. Another unusual aspect of this project, sponsored by The David Brownlow charitable foundation, is that rather than being broken up or sold off, as is often the case with Chelsea show gardens, “Hope on the Horizon” will form part of a larger landscape at the Help for Heroes facility Chavasse, near Colchester.

“The challenge is to adapt it so it doesn’t look like a 15m?x?10m plot plonked in a landscape. The whole thought process has to be positive,” he says. “Not just for people looking at the garden but for the soldiers using it to help with their recovery.”

The garden is arranged along two axes, in the shape of the Military Cross. At one end is a sculpture by the Scottish artist Mary Bourne, depicting the horizon. The hard landscaping is in granite, which becomes more refined as you move through the garden, to represent soldiers growing physically stronger.

The planting, meanwhile, is intended to represent psychological well-being. It becomes more deliberate as you progress through the plot.

It will also be a tactile space, he says. “I am using herbs that will release a scent when the soldiers brush past, and plenty of grasses that can be touched. There is an avenue of large hornbeam trees, to frame the view.” Other plants include acanthus, agapanthus, geraniums and poppies.

Keightley: ‘I am using herbs that will release a scent when the soldiers brush past, and plenty of grasses that can be touched’

Battling this symbolism, of course, are the usual weather issues that affect every Chelsea designer.

“It has been a mild spring, so I have had to make some amendments – some of the digitalis, for example, flowered too early, and I will replace them. But I staggered most of the planting to give myself options,” says Keightley.

He hopes that the garden won’t be seen as gloomy. “It’s obviously poignant that this is the anniversary of the First World War. But the garden is a celebration of the soldiers who have fought in Afghanistan, rather than dwelling too much on the past.”

*Exclusive offer for Telegraph readers: enjoy tickets to Chelsea Flower Show, a Q?&? A with Helen Yemm and one night’s b?&? b, for only £290pp.

World War Two

Comments are closed.