Talking to the Dundalk-born garden designer Paul Martin about his upcoming garden at this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show, I was reminded of that scene in Terry Gilliam's movie Fisher King in which New York's Grand Central Station and its horde of bustling commuters suddenly transforms into a graceful ballroom filled with waltzing couples, each one perfectly in step.
It is a brief moment in time, a charmed couple of seconds, where beauty and a sort of serene order appear suddenly out of nowhere, as if by magic.
Which is just how it is with Chelsea every year. In Martin’s case, those “waltzing couples” will be the many suppliers, contractors, growers and willing helpers (most of them Irish) whose contributions he’ll have to choreograph carefully over the coming weeks, while always working within the painfully strict timetable and set of rules that the RHS enforces on every designer who exhibits along its prestigious main avenue.
In a proud "first" for Irish horticulture, this year the society has bestowed that particular honour upon two Irish men; designer Diarmuid Gavin will also be building a main avenue show garden.
Interestingly, both men studied at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, graduating only a year apart. “I was lucky to be part of a group that included some really talented young gardeners,” says Martin.
Intriguingly, Martin’s involvement in this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show might never have happened; he originally submitted his lovely, leafy design for a mindfulness garden to the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show, before the RHS invited him to submit it to Chelsea instead. While the designer has exhibited there before, this will be his first time on Chelsea’s main avenue.
Does he feel in any way intimidated? “To be honest, no. Obviously I appreciate that it’s a big compliment, but I’ve got a lot of experience, and know how to avoid the pitfalls.
“It’s a little bit like showing a pedigree dog at Crufts; you have to understand the rules if you want to win a medal. The only difference to any of the other show gardens that I’ve done in the past is the level of organisation required: it’s massive.”
Martin’s “Garden of Mindful Living” design will be one of the first that visitors see as they enter Chelsea’s main avenue, occupying a prominent spot next to the showground’s famous floral marquee.
Measuring 10m by 15m, his elegantly contemporary design will feature an airy garden studio that sits in the dappled shade of tall, flowering multi-stemmed trees (Osmanthus fragrans), above a series of shallow terraces.
The hard landscaping of rusty Corten steel walls and grey Portuguese limestone will be softened by a profusion of wonderful foliage plants – lots of different ferns, including Matteuccia struthiopteris, Blechnum tabulare, Asplenium scolopendrium and Dicksonia antarctica, various grasses including Luzula ‘Tauernpass’, Deschampsia cespitosa and Melica ‘Alba’ as well as many other dappled shade lovers including hostas, epimediums, saxifrages and Rodgersia ‘Irish Bronze’.
Pops of vivid colour will come from herbaceous perennials such as the tangerine-flowered Geum ‘Cooky’ and the globeflower, Trollius ‘Golden Queen’. There will be some glimmers of white too, in the shape of the tall starry flower spikes of Camassia ‘Alba’ and Digitalis ‘Dalmatian White’.
But the planting’s Irish theme (green, white and gold) isn’t solely confined to the colours. “Bob Sweet, the former RHS head of judging, has said in the past that Irish designers have a distinctly different sensibility when it comes to the planting style of our show gardens. There’s a softer, lusher, gentler quality that singles them out as being Irish; that’s definitely going to be the case with mine.”
Made in Ireland
Many Irish hands will be involved in the creation of his Chelsea show garden: two Irish nurseries – Schram Plants in Co Kildare and Kells Bay in Co Kerry – will be supplying most of the 4,000 plants (UK nursery Hortus Loci will supply the remainder), grown in a special mix provided by Bord na Móna.
Dublin-based Hannon Transport is being entrusted with the challenging task of getting the plants to London so that they arrive in box-fresh condition in the showgrounds for the final days of the build. “After the rough time that Irish horticulture has had in the last few years, as a result of the economy, it’s great to be in a position to showcase the industry on an international platform like Chelsea,” says Martin.
Much of the hard landscaping details will also be provided by Irish suppliers, including the Corten steel (from Dublin-based North Side Steel), the studio’s sliding shutters (from MJM), while the Portuguese limestone is being sourced from Donegal-based McMonagle Stone. Even the company sponsoring the garden, Vestra Wealth, will have an Irish connection through its owner, Fermanagh-born David Scott, while the CAD drawing of the finished garden has also been sourced from an Irish firm, 3D Architects.
When the build begins, on May 4th, Martin and his trusty team will be joined by a host of fellow Irish garden designers and horticulturists only too happy to lend a hand, including Deirdre Pender, Bernie Torpey, Una Mullen and Conor Gallinagh. Chelsea show garden builds are notoriously challenging, given the tight timescale as well as the confines and limitations of the cramped site. But you can be sure, come opening day, that Martin will have succeeded in fashioning a beautiful show garden, almost as if it appeared out of thin air.
The RHS Chelsea Flower Show takes place from May 24th-28th. See iti.ms/23gg00A
This week in the garden
If your lawn has bare patches as a result of heavy wear, pets, lawnmower damage or accidental spillages, then now is a good time to repair the damage. Start by forking the soil lightly to a depth of 5cm, before adding a thin layer of compost/ top soil and levelling with a rake. Water lightly and then sow fresh lawn seed (30g/ square metre). Always temporarily fence-off newly sown areas from children and pets until the seed has had a chance to germinate and establish itself.
Vine weevil infestation can be a serious problem at this time of year, especially for containerised plants grown in a peat-based compost. Signs include notched foliage and poor growth to the point where plants suddenly wilt- a result of the larvae eating the roots. If you suspect infestation, tip container-grown plants out of their pots and search for/ kill the small white grubs, which are distinctively toffee-coloured at one end. Bin the contaminated compost, hose the root system down and repot immediately with fresh compost. The adult beetle (dull black), which hatches out at this time of yea, is nocturnal in its eating habits, so nighttime is the best time to catch and kill it. An excellent biological control, SuperNemos, is also available from most good garden centres. See supernemos.com
Dates for your diary
Wednesday, April 13th (8pm)
National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Through the Seasons at Kilmacurragh, a lecture by Kilmacurragh's head gardener, Seamus O' Brien on behalf of the RHSI in celebration of its bicentenary year. See rhsi.ie
Sunday, April 17th (11-4pm)
Fota House Plant & Garden Fair, Fota House (car park), Co Waterford, admission €8. For further details contact Margaret Martin at 021 4815543 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Saturday, April 30th (6pm)
Lismore Castle Arts, Lismore, Co Waterford. The award-winning landscape designer and garden writer Dan Pearson will give a talk about the creation of his Best in Show show garden at last year's Chelsea Flower Show as well as some of his other recent design work, Admission €15 per person, booking essential. See lismorecastlearts.ie