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How childhood memories of woodland inspired a Chelsea garden

Childhood memories of
forest glades inspired a
dramatic garden at this
year’s show, explains
creator Andy Sturgeon
Pictured: M&G garden design

This is the most exhilarating time of the year for me. Our landscapes and gardens are exploding into life with the rush of spring. Everything is that special shade of green; bright, fresh, optimistic. The epitome of life. My childhood was filled with family walks in the local woodlands, playing in the bracken, building camps with fallen branches, exploring ancient beech forests and clambering through the overgrown rhododendrons of a long-neglected historic ­garden. Being immersed in nature, I found woodlands magical. They had a profound impact on me and to this day the sights and sounds and smells are ­incredibly evocative. Fundamentally, it’s why I became a gardener.

And so, in the M&G garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year, I’m drawing on those deep-rooted memories and ­making a woodland garden. This isn’t about mimicking nature, but trying to capture a sense of the magic and some of that uplifting atmosphere; the way that dappled light tumbles through the leafy canopy on to the ferns below and the drama of bulbs erupting from the leaf litter.

Inspired by the ability of plants to colonise and regenerate habitats in what is known as “ecological succession”, my design for the garden is dominated by huge burnt-oak sculptures made in ­collaboration with the sculptor Johnny Woodford, which represent stratified rock formations.

Typically, pioneer species such as algae and lichen are the first to colonise harsh barren environments such as newly quarried rock faces and sand dunes. When rock breaks down and soils form, grasses, ferns, herbs and ­ultimately shrubs grow. In the Chelsea garden, the use of primitive plants, ­including mosses, restios, ferns and ­equisetum, is intended to acknowledge these early arrivals and to lend the garden an ancient quality.

“Secondary succession” is then caused by a subsequent event, perhaps a tree falling or something more devastating, such as a forest fire. This is also acknowledged in my design by the woodland clearings and the intentional ambiguity of the burnt-timber “rock” formations, which combine the concepts of both primary and secondary succession. These disruptive events create an opportunity that plants seize upon, and should be seen as positive occurrences. You can witness this in a forest, for example, where increased light levels caused by the loss of a tree stimulate mass germination of foxgloves from the previously dormant seed bank in the soil.

Andy Sturgeon Credit:  DANIEL LEWIS

Fire can also have powerful regenerative effects, making seeds such as rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium) germinate, hence it became known as fireweed, owing to the way it rapidly ­colonised wartime bomb sites. I am ­using this at Chelsea but, due to its ­rampant ability to self-seed, I wouldn’t recommend it for a “real” garden.

Importantly, I haven’t based this garden on any one place, this is not pastiche and, just like any garden, it is populated by a host of plants hailing from different parts of the world. There are nearly 20 Nothofagus antarctica, southern beech trees with a gnarled, other-worldly quality that reminds me of New Zealand and The Lord of the Rings. Importantly, their tiny leaves ensure they cast only delicate shadows and dappled light.

Three stately hornbeams are from those childhood walks in Surrey and the charred timber sculptures are my interpretation of some stratified rock formations I once saw in Australia. I travel a lot and I find inspiration all around me, sometimes in the most ­unlikely of places. It could be by a roadside or a mountain top.

Even the way I have planted this ­garden with mosses, ferns and grasses creeping into the gravel paths is something I’ve observed on the beaches near my home on the south coast where an entirely different palette of plants endeavours to colonise the shingle.

Eco meets garden

The way that plants grow together in the wild is both fascinating and informative. You can learn so much just by looking at natural plant communities and mimicking them in your own garden. In fact, there is a general trend in planting design to imagine new ­habitats and ecosystems that learn the lessons of actual plant communities. This ensures that the chosen plants can rub along happily with their neighbours rather than competing against each other. A happy community can lead to less maintenance – and that’s got to be a good thing.

Mahonia oiwakensis (subspecies lomariifolia) Credit: Alastair James

The Chelsea plant palette is predominantly green and is primarily about form and texture, but there are also many colourful jewels: blue, orange, yellow, white and deep purple flowers will be “displayed” against the charred timber, giving a nod to the auricula theatres regularly displayed inside the main ­pavilion.

In a true woodland garden, you need to embrace the idea that it will peak in spring with most of the flower colour and will then settle down into a green tapestry as summer rolls on. This is because, until the trees unfurl their leaves, there is more light and more moisture available for the plants to get on and do their thing while they can.

Winter might start with snowdrops and hellebores and lead on to countless other bulbs, such as dodecatheon and uvularia. And then the perennials come.

To avoid bare ground, you must employ succession planting, allowing one plant to fill the gap left by an earlier performer. So, as the snowdrop foliage withers, the space can be filled by a dryopteris fern stretching out its fronds as if yawning and awakening from its slumber.

And now you can have fun with all the greens, placing different textures and leaf shapes next to each other for contrast. Grasses, including hakonechloa, can rub shoulders with large-leaved hostas and mat-
forming epimediums can spread at a pleasing rate to close gaps. This reliance on green rather than flowers is a good thing. It is the colour of nature and, being at the centre of the spectrum, our brains find it easy to perceive and that is why we find it so relaxing. But a few white flowers can bring everything to life as they will gleam even in the daytime gloom on a cloudy day and are spectacular in twilight.

Woodland planting must be structured in ­layers – and between the woodland floor and the tree canopy above there is opportunity for some­ ­interesting small trees and shrubs. ­Camellia and rhododendron are good choices, but they should be used sparingly as they smother and exclude most plants from growing near their skirts and too many dark evergreen leaves can sometimes turn an atmosphere sombre.

If there is enough light, I prefer to use plenty of deciduous candidates, including the fragrant Japanese snowbell Styrax japonicus and its relative Halesia monticola. The many flowering dogwoods are excellent, too, and then there are the magnolias.

Cuckoo flower (Cardamine quinquefolia) tolerates shade Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

The evergreen department also offers some interesting choices. I’ve always favoured Mahonia lomariifolia as it is so much more elegant and stately than ‘Charity’ and at Chelsea I am using Drimys lanceolata. This spring-flowering shrub has red stems and glossy green leaves and should be much more widely known. Admittedly, it is not hardy in the colder parts of Britain, but the protection of a woodland will give plants in many borderline areas a fighting chance.

However, the real advantage of all these woody plants is their longevity. As long as the tree canopy doesn’t close in and block out too much light, you will have them for a lifetime. I remember clearly in the Eighties (before gardening was fashionable) when the RHS garden at Wisley was short of money and desperately short on gardeners.

What was then known as the “Wild Garden” and one of Wisley’s oldest collections, was seriously neglected. Beneath a canopy of oaks the ground cover was left to get on with it and was doing a terribly good job of returning to nature. Meanwhile, the shrubs and small trees just got on with it themselves and that’s why they are invaluable to a woodland garden; once established, they can be bullet-proof.

For further information about the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and tickets, visit rhs.org.uk