Designer Jo Thompson on creating a garden for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2012

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2012 kicks off this week and after months of preparation, this year’s show is as spectacular as ever. Today, we’ve been checking out the gorgeous blooms at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show (and can’t wait to see which gorgeous celebs will be there this week too!). Have you ever wondered about all that behind the scenes work and what it’s like to design and build a garden for the Chelsea Flower Show? To find out, we asked gold-medal-winning designer, Jo Thompson, how she coped with a celebrity vintage caravan, puddles flowing over the tops of her wellies, and huge trees delivered in pouring rain on forklift trucks. Here she explains all…

Tell us a more about your show garden and the now famous caravan Doris…

“My ‘Celebration of Caravanning’ garden is sponsored by The Caravan Club and I’ve designed it to highlight the joys of touring around the beautiful British countryside. The garden also features a beautiful 1950s caravan called Doris, which I’ve used as a sunroom, ideal for afternoon tea or to take shelter from the rain. She’s on loan to us from Vintage Vacations and I came across her while holidaying last year in the Isle of Wight. Her diminutive size and sheer force of personality made her stand out in a field of much larger airstream trailers. As for styling, Helen at Vintage Vacations has helped me create a look for her that is in keeping with her age and the garden, and Laura Ashley provided a cake stand and cover, doormat, teatowels and chopping board.”

When did you start building the garden at Chelsea?

“We were allowed into the Show Ground on May 4, just under three weeks before judging day and the show opening on 22nd. From then on, it was manic, and this year was worse than previous shows because the weather has been so awful.”

How do you get all the plants ready on time?

“I’ve had my eye on the trees for three years! I went to Hillier Nurseries and spotted the majestic Chinese birches I’m using, which have glorious creamy-white bark with a hint of pink. I loved them so much that I persuaded the nursery to tag them for me with a view to using them in a Chelsea Garden in the future, and here we are with them. They each weigh half a tonne and had to be lifted into place with a big forklift truck. The other planting is from Roger Platts Nurseries in Kent , while the irises came from Iris of Sissinghurst and the beautiful pink and cream roses were grown by Peter Beales.  The nurseries all worked their magic and on May 11 all the plants arrived on site. My team then spent days selecting the best ones and planting them up according to my plan.”

How did the atrocious weather affect your plans?

“The rain and cold has certainly provided some planting challenges and site build conditions. Generally speaking, the plants are not as blowsy or wanton as I would have liked, but this wouldn’t be Chelsea without some pressure to perform, and although the look is slightly different to the one I had in mind I’m still really pleased with it.”

Were there any surprises during the build?

“On my list of surprises I would have to include something about Doris. She has become quite a personality and I continue to be amazed by how everyone at the show warms to her. When I greeted her as she came on site it was quite an emotional moment. So much of this garden not only physically sits around her but is informed by her and amidst all the mud and noise she continued to look shiny and chic.”

Have you had a sneaky peek at other people’s gardens, and whose do you like?

“One aspect of Chelsea that I really like is that it provides an environment unlike anywhere else. Here, I can easily learn from and observe what my talented neighbours and peers are doing. I think Sarah Price’s Daily Telegraph garden is nature unleashed, with lots of grasses and meadow flowers, whilst Arne Maynard’s topiary in his Laurent-Perrier garden is nature tamed.”

What have been the highs and lows of your Chelsea experience?

‘The highs are Doris, the Chelsea camaraderie, and my volunteers, some of whom have come all the way from Japan to help me here. This picture is of my helper Nina Baxter, who has been brilliant. She’s been here for eight days, 12 hours a day, just for the love of it. Here, she’s cleaning the leaves just before the judges arrive.  The contractors, The Outdoor Room, who built the garden were also brilliant, and I would definitely use them again.

The lows have been the weather – Sunday was freezing, and I had my winter coat on all day!”

How do you feel now you have finally finished the garden?

“Relieved and really pleased. I can’t quite believe that it’s all come together so well, especially when two weeks ago I was standing in a sea of mud. I think the curved benches, which I designed and commissioned Auspicious Furniture to make, have worked well and from certain angles they look like they’re floating on water, which was the idea I had in my mind when I drew up the design. The hammock by Carmel Meade is simply exquisite and one of my favourite features. The detailing is beautiful – there are flowers, tiny stamps, and all sorts of surprising elements sown into it when you look closely. The planting looks lush and blowsy, as intended, and I’m hoping it will inspire people as it’s really easy to look after, too.”

See more of Jo’s work at Jo Thompson Garden Design

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Zia Allaway, Garden Expert

View all posts by Zia Allaway, Garden Expert