As this year’s horticultural hullaballoo dies down for another year, our landscape design guru Barry Burrows reflects on his baptism of fire…
It seems an age ago when we were asked by Stoke-on-Trent City Council to bring our expertise to bear on first foray into the toughest competition in the horticultural calendar, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. The ambitious design, tortuous logistics and pressure of Chelsea itself led Stoke to our door, and after overcoming a vast number of hurdles in all aspects of the project, we started construction on site at the Royal Chelsea Hospital at the beginning of May.
One of the main obstacles we came up against were the expectations of a private business being challenged by the delivery of a public body. This reared its head in all aspects of the build-up to the show, with problems occurring with suppliers, PR, scheduling and organisation. A classic conundrum I know, but nevertheless, in the white hot cauldron of Chelsea, the gap between the two was huge both on a practical and political level.
The build schedule of seventeen days was prescriptive to say the least and we faced the daunting task of having to alter or “mould’”virtually all of the items that arrived on site to fit the design. The problems we faced were primarily caused by suppliers being sponsors, and hence they had no financial imperative to produce the accuracy and quality that is demanded by the judges at Chelsea. Once we had the water feature corrected, the pergola put right and prevailed over innumerable small issues, time was running out. We were then left with the dilemma of the vast majority of plants – the heartbeat of a garden, still lying on trolleys on the Saturday morning, with only two days left until judging. I cannot tell you how proud I am of my team who, after conquering all the setbacks of the previous fortnight, excelled themselves and created horticultural magic from such a low point in the build process.
Assessment took place at 4.00pm on the Sunday and, as the sun came out, the real achievement of the garden was obvious. That it existed at all in the grounds of the Royal Chelsea Hospital was phenomenal. That it bonded and generated emotion within a group of people that included everyone from managing director to apprentice with a common aim of producing a garden as close to perfection as we could was something we had not expected. The planting ran smoothly in the end, with at least four people creating planting combinations and instructing others who were wielding a mighty spade to get everything planted. It was testament to the lack of ego on site that all this was accomplished with hardly a cross word and created a result which was seamless. After seventeen days working fourteen hours a day, this was something to be acknowledged and savoured.
The hullabaloo of press day was exhausting, with a huge number of media personalities being shown round the garden, all of whom were charming and full of admiration for what we had achieved. Of particular interest to PrimeResi readers would be the appearance of Kirstie Allsop in the garden. She was utterly charming and very gracious in her comments. Davina McCall, Dame Helen Mirren and Jamie Oliver visited our garden and all day, people expressed nothing but praise and enthusiasm for the garden.
The next day we were awarded an RHS Silver Medal for our effort. As everyone who enters the Chelsea Flower Show wishes for a Gold Medal, I have to admit a sense of disappointment, not for myself, but for everyone who worked tirelessly and went way beyond expectations to deliver this garden for Stoke-on-Trent. The thing of which I am most proud of is our team. Their dedication, resourcefulness and personal effort has overwhelmed me, and has demonstrated that no matter what the obstacle, we have the team here to fulfil any expectation set before us. The morale of that team is full to bursting, the unity created within the company is fabulous to behold and the effect on all who participated is priceless.
Alongside all of this, was a chance to contribute to the regeneration of a proud city. The incredible positivity that has come out of this garden has been a reward in itself, and if the attitude of the visitors from the city of Stoke-on-Trent is anything to go by, then the city can be justifiably have pride in this accomplishment.
The response from the RHS members and public during the week was very moving. So many people took the trouble to tell us (whilst standing in pouring rain) that it was their favourite garden and that the Chelsea judges had missed something special. We know where things went awry, and I advise anyone contemplating a venture such as this to ensure one thing. Make sure you have control over all the aspects that you can. Reliance on goodwill, however well intentioned, and trust in a system used to delivering publicly funded projects has little or no place in this rarefied atmosphere.
One thing is certain, we will be back at Chelsea next year. We have a point to prove to ourselves, and a promise to fulfil to the many friends, followers and supporters that we have collected on this journey, to transform this year’s silver to next year’s gold.
Barry Burrows is Managing Director of Bartholomew Landscaping
this article first appeared in Prime Resi June 3, 2013