Wednesday 21 February 2018

Blooming lovely: the art of garden shows

The man behind the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, Tom Harfleet, has been on both sides of the awards fence. He dishes the dirt with Katy McGuinness.

A spiral of copper forms the centre of Nick Bailey’s 2016 entry, The Winton Capital Beauty of Mathematics. Photo: RHS
A spiral of copper forms the centre of Nick Bailey’s 2016 entry, The Winton Capital Beauty of Mathematics. Photo: RHS

In 2015, when Tom Harfleet was appointed the Show Manager of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show - 'a living Pinterest board of garden trends and inspiration' - there were probably few people as well-qualified as him to take on the role.

"I first visited at the age of 14 when I rather arrogantly said that one day I would come back with a garden of my own and win a gold medal," recalls Tom, who is also the head of show development for all the RHS shows around the UK, including Cardiff, Chatsworth and Hampton Court Palace. He did just that in 2013, at the age of 28, with the Fresh garden that he co-designed with his older brother, Paul. A collaboration with the University of Lincoln, the garden featured a series of panels that moved in response to tweets with the hashtags #RHSChelsea and #garden, to revel the secret planting concealed behind.

Imaginative ways to say it with flowers - A model visits the Hillier Crossing Continents display at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London. Photo: RHS
Imaginative ways to say it with flowers - A model visits the Hillier Crossing Continents display at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London. Photo: RHS

"The garden was about the impact of social media, so we designed one that responded physically to the people tweeting about it," he says. "The viewers could change what they were seeing by what they tweeted."

In 2010, the Harfleet brothers won their first Gold Medal at The RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show with their Pansy Project garden.

"My brother Paul is an artist, and he had been working on a project where he planted a pansy in the piece of soil nearest to every place in which he had been the victim of homophobic abuse. Then he would go back and take a photograph of the pansy and tag it with the location and the nature of the abuse, so that it might say 'Sloane Square: Faggot' for instance.

"I went to him and suggested that we could use The Pansy Project as the basis of a garden. The central focus was a large broken concrete slab that had been ripped apart, representing the violent nature of hate crime, and we planted pansies in the fissure - the idea being that they could heal the cracks in society. It won Best Conceptual Garden too."

Sculptural curvaceous seating, a circular water feature and jewel-coloured planting give Matthew Wilson’s 2015 entry the look of an alien world. Photo: RHS
Sculptural curvaceous seating, a circular water feature and jewel-coloured planting give Matthew Wilson’s 2015 entry the look of an alien world. Photo: RHS

Gardening is in Tom Harfleet's genes: his mother is Barbara Harfleet, a horticulturalist who is herself no slouch when it comes to winning medals. Her Rare Chromosome Disorder garden collaboration with Tom's fiancee, garden designer Catherine Chenery at the Hampton Court show in 2015 netted the pair a silver medal to add to the family trophy cabinet.

"Horticulture is incestuous," admits Tom. "Everyone knows everyone. I suppose it's because when people are passionate about something, they seek each other out in the wider world."

Total immersion in the world of horticulture is, of course, a huge advantage when it comes to his role as show manager at Chelsea, not least because he can count many of the garden designers and exhibitors as personal friends.

"Because I have been in their shoes, I have a real understanding of what it takes to exhibit and I think that is key. On the operations side, the job is basically running a small town in a field. We are focused on delivering what is arguably the world's best horticultural show in a temporary environment.

"The gardeners and exhibitors who make gardens and show their plants here are passionate people and they want to deliver their vision at the highest possible level at Chelsea. They are very invested in that, tempers can flare, and I can relate to that. Trying to manage 20-odd gardens, when each one is its own construction site, all next door to one other... it's as if every neighbour on one long street was doing their garden at the same time, so you can imagine what a logistical nightmare that is..."

With Chelsea now less than a month away (May 23-27), Tom says that there probably couldn't be a worse time for him to be away, speaking at the Best in Fest ICON event in Dublin.

"At the moment, it's absolute chaos," he says. "And out of the cohort of events professionals who are speaking, I am probably the least organised. My to-do list is a mess and my emails are a disaster, but somehow it all comes right in the end.

'Right now, it's hard to envisage accurately what this year's gardens will be like. We've had a mild winter and plants are being held back now so a garden that is envisaged as a sea of irises might have changed by the time of the show, depending on the weather."

Although Tom describes himself as a conceptual garden designer, and his work as 'challenging, forward-thinking and message-driven', he grew up in a traditional English country garden.

"Diarmuid Gavin was my childhood hero. He's probably the reason that I got into gardening. I grew up watching Homefront in the Garden and it was massively influential, like horticultural theatre. And I like how Diarmuid comes to Chelsea and challenges us with something that hasn't been done before, both operationally and in terms of what a garden is and how it can be used.

"Currently I don't have a garden myself, but I do have lots of house plants. We are back living with my parents along with our 18-month-old daughter [called, what else? Ivy]. I've been allowed to take over one single bed and I've planted it with vegetables, actually just beetroot.

"Catherine and I spend a lot of time discussing what our garden will be like, when we do get one of our own. We've come to the conclusion that it will be incredibly boring and suburban with a traditional lawn down the middle and a vegetable bed near the house and two flower beds running down the sides. Catherine will have a studio down at the end. We go backwards and forwards, but with an 18-month-old who spends all her time outdoors digging holes and running around, that's what works, and it works for a reason. I mean at home, does Gordon Ramsay cook the kind of food that you get in his restaurants, or does he have beans on toast?"

Sunday Independent

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