Hannah Genders visits two Chelsea show gardens with an educational message.
It was another wonderful show at Chelsea this year, with many strong messages behind the gardens – particularly on the theme of well-being and gardening. The garden which got the most press on this was the RHS feature garden called “The Back to Nature Garden” which had been co-designed with The Duchess of Cambridge and gave a clear message of getting children involved in the natural world.
This is a subject close to my heart and having done this with my own children I am now keen to engage my grandchildren with the natural world and a love for wildlife as much as I can. Research now shows us that children who are allowed to play outside and in the natural world grow up with a love for the environment and better mental health.
But for me as a keen vegetable grower there were two gardens that at first glance appeared completely different, but actually at their core had a similar message and it was about our future, and the future of food-growing and education.
The first garden, which was in the “Space to Grow” category, really stood out for me. Designer Jilayne Richards and her team had created a classroom and a vegetable garden from Zimbabwe. It was beautifully executed with a small, simple classroom at the back and an outside play space.
To the front of the garden were all sorts of recycled containers, like brightly-painted oil drums, with vegetables growing in them and the red soil that is so associated with Africa.
The garden was for CAMFED (Campaign for Female Education), this being their 25th year. On the Monday that I was at the show, I spoke with two Zimbabwean ladies, both businesswomen and farmers in their own country. They had benefitted from schooling and were now paying to educate their own children.
This little garden was not a romantic notion of Africa but was very forward-looking. The beans, for example, were biofortified, having extra iron, and the maize was enriched with vitamin A. Often the children are living on one meal a day, so it is recognised that there needs to be as much nutritional content as possible.
The raised bed at the front of the garden, made from recycled bricks, was built with a reservoir underneath, so the water sits below the crops – this means less evaporation and encourages the plant roots to spread downwards and not across the surface, making the plants much more tolerant to drought.
The crop rotation in this bed was similar to what we could do here, encouraging the right nutrient uptake from the plants. I was interested to see a few plants growing that I had not seen before, including sorghum which is a staple of the Zimbabwean diet.
Solar panels powered the water pump, as they are essential to many communities not connected to any grid.
This was a beautiful and practical garden, and the connection to women growing food and educating the next generation of farmers and gardeners was inspirational. The garden won a well-deserved gold medal and the People’s Choice Award in its category. The whole garden will be rebuilt at the Eden Project in Cornwall after the show, so it lives on to tell its story.
Right at the opposite end of the spectrum was the IKEA garden, which was in the Show Garden category and designed by Tom Dixon. It was the first time the RHS had sited a show garden in the floral marquee (actually it took me quite a long time to find it).
The concept of the garden was an underground growing laboratory and a wild area above. I would agree with many other people’s comments that this was more like an educational installation than a show garden, but that aside it had some really interesting things to show us.
For me the “wilderness” area was not really wild enough; it was hard to engage with the planting and have a sense of wilderness as it was all behind a handrail. But the laboratory area, I loved. It showed salad crops, herbs, medicinal plants and fungi growing under artificial LED lighting. It has its own beauty although it was hard to photograph well because of the light conditions and being in the marquee.
Some of the plants were growing hydroponically – this is without soil, where water containing nutrients is pumped into the roots of the plant. With this system the plants crop early and use 20 times less water than traditional growing.
The vertical columns of vegetables on display were growing with aeroponic technology – basically grown in air, with the roots sprayed regularly with nutrient-rich water. This method uses 90 percent less water and 90 percent less land than traditional growing methods.
The whole feature was showing a transformative way of growing these crops that could be used in our cities. It is very sustainable, cutting down on water, land and food miles. Both these systems encourage leaf growth in the plants over root growth and so are perfect for these type of salad crops.
With the future of food growing and sustainability as its core message, this garden was challenging us to look again at how we grow food in our cities. It also had the best title, in my opinion: “Gardening Will Save the World”. I agree – and it won a silver gilt medal.
So, two gardens, which looked so different but had the same message about sustainability and the future of growing our food, were both very inspiring.