Closer to show time: Kamelia Bin Zaal’s historic Chelsea Flower Show garden

With final preparations for the Chelsea Flower Show now under way, Kamelia Bin Zaal and her team talk about the challenges of building a medal-winning garden in just 20 days.

Kamelia Bin Zaal checks on some of the plants that are being grown for her Chelsea Flower Show garden, The Beauty of Islam, at the Kelways nursery in Somerset, England. Stephen Lock for The National
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When it comes to preparations for the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show, which starts on May 19, Dave Root readily admits that he gets more than a little obsessed.

“It’s difficult to convey just how much Chelsea totally dominates our lives here in the period leading up to the show,” says the ­appropriately named owner of Kelways nursery in Somerset.

“My life at the moment is basically Chelsea, 20 hours a day. We think and worry about our plants every second of every day: is it going to be hot, is it going to be cold, is there going to be a frost? We have actually had snow here before, even in May.”

Root has every reason to be concerned. This year, he’s supplying 25,000 plants for seven gardens at the world’s most prestigious horticultural event, as well as for two of Kelways’ own exhibits, one of peonies and irises, and the other of tree ferns, both of which will compete for medals in the show’s much-venerated floral marquee.

“Some nurseries might be wholesale nurseries, growing for the landscape trade, and they might grow some extra plants for Chelsea, but for us it’s our main business,” says Root. “It’s not like supplying plants for a landscape job. At Chelsea, every plant counts, so we have to treat every one as an individual, because every single plant has to be at its best. It’s what we do.”

The effort required to produce Chelsea-grade plants can be seen in Root’s treatment of the five-metre-tall fig trees that will feature in The Beauty of Islam, Kamelia Bin Zaal’s entry for this year’s show, the first Chelsea garden to be designed by an Emirati. “The figs came over from Spain in April. They had to start off growing there because they wouldn’t have leafed up in time if we’d just had them in the United Kingdom, but if we’d left them in Spain for too long, the leaves would have been so big that they wouldn’t have been able to be transported without being damaged in transit,” Root explains.

“There’s quite a temperature difference between England and Spain at the moment, so we had to acclimatise them when they ­arrived. At night, we lay them down and put fleece on them, and every morning we take the fleece off and stand them up again,” the nurseryman says. “If there’s a frost then we’ll probably be panicking a bit, but we’ll worry about that when it happens.”

Root maintains 15 different environments in his nursery, including a cold store, where the growth of plants can be held back in complete darkness, and a warm polytunnel, maintained at a constant 20°C, where plants can be “encouraged” to make sure they arrive at the show in the very peak of condition.

It will take 300 separate consignments for Root to deliver all of the plants he has grown for this year’s show. “The idea is that we provide the team with the plants the day before they are needed, but it’s critical that the big trees go in at an early stage, because a lot of the hard landscape has to be constructed around them.

“The biggest palm, for example, is in a pot that is more than two metres in diameter so that has to go in, literally, on day one.”

Root is part of a team that includes landscapers, specialist metalworkers, water-feature designers and a dedicated on-site planting team, many of whom have been working since November to turn Bin Zaal’s design into a prize-winning reality. The construction of the garden started on April 28, allowing the team just 20 days to transform a 220-square-metre patch of bare earth in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea into a show garden that will be subjected to the scrutiny of the RHS judging panel on the morning of May 18.

A veteran of more than 25 Chelsea show gardens, David Dodd is the master landscaper responsible for planning the whole of the coordination, construction and delivery process, something he schedules to the nearest half-hour when it comes to the final 20 days on site.

“In many ways, a show garden is one of the easiest things to price. We know the garden has to be finished by Sunday, May 17 and we know we have a fixed starting date. We also know we have fixed hours, so that determines the number of people we need to make the garden achievable,” he says.

“We can still be building and planting on [May] 17, but that’s when the judges come on to the garden for the first time for prejudging and that’s when they’ll speak to Kamelia about the ­garden.

“She will already have submitted a written brief, which she can change at any time almost up to the last minute, but on the Sunday, she has to explain that brief so the judges can come back on the Monday morning for the final judging without her.”

Dodd’s preparation includes overseeing the whole build, providing the correct working drawings and making sure all the materials arrive on site at the right time, as well as looking after the welfare of team members who may work for at least 240 hours each during the build. “You know you have to put in unrealistic hours to make it happen and that’s one of the reasons why we have to do so much preparation.”

Dodd has to book the accommodation for his team, schedule meals and provide the hundreds of pounds worth of snacks and drinks they will need to fuel them up for the 20-day marathon.

When The Beauty of Islam site is at its busiest, there will be 15 people working to create the garden to the required standard and on time, five of whom will belong to a specialist planting team led by Caroline de Lane Lea and Fiona Cummins of the garden-­design consultancy Garden Makers. The pair first worked at Chelsea in 2005 when they volunteered to help with the planting for a show garden by the leading landscape designer Andy Sturgeon, and in 2007 they designed and built their own Chelsea exhibit, The Suber Garden, which won a silver medal in the show’s Chic Garden category.

“We came on board in November,” Cummins says. “Looking at Kamelia’s plans was very exciting, because the plant material and shapes that she’s using are not the kind of things that you would normally see at Chelsea.”

Dodd introduced Bin Zaal to Cummins and De Lane Lea ­because of the pair’s experience in executing planting schemes in a way that’s peculiar to Chelsea.

“I think the best way of explaining it is that we try to make a plant look like it is fully grown and it’s about grouping plants to try to make them look as natural as possible,” says Cummins.

“It’s a combination of planting and arrangement. It’s an installation, as much as anything, that’s designed to demonstrate how beautiful a garden can look, but it’s not something you can do quickly,” she says.

“Time stands still in the show ground, and the planting is a matter of precision, not speed. Typically, a day is 8am until 8pm, and you typically don’t finish until you are satisfied that you’ve done enough for the day, but the Thursday before the show is normally always a bad day. That’s when the pizzas get called in.”

Of all the members of the team, Cummins and De Lane Lea are set to work most closely with Bin Zaal on site. “Caroline and I are going to go in on Saturday [tomorrow] to talk through things with Kamelia so that she can set some plants out and go through how she would like the planting,” Cummins says. “Between the three of us we can then work out how each of the beds will work. Obviously it’s already been drawn out in detail, but there’s nothing like the reality of the show ground. Ideally, we’ll then finish the planting by the Saturday before the judging. It will be nice and calm then because all of the machinery will be off site, and we’ll have all of Sunday just to get through and tweak things.”

Despite the fact that he will aim to have most of the smaller plants delivered by tomorrow, Root ­admits that the planting period is ­liable to constant coordination and readjustment. “If we get to the site and somebody says ‘the plants aren’t big enough’ or ‘they’re not flowering enough’, then we sort it out somehow,” he says.

“If plants have gone up to the site early or if the site is cold, then we’ll bring them back for three days and stick them in a really warm greenhouse and then take them back to the show again.”

That sense of joint responsibility and camaraderie, the feeling generated by literally putting on a show, is one of the factors that draws the Garden Makers, Dodd and Root back to Chelsea year ­after year.

“There is a great camaraderie about everybody putting on the best show they possibly can,” Cummins says. “There’s a great sense of community between everybody working there that’s great fun.”

“We all take full responsibility for everything in the garden and we all help each other out to make sure that the whole thing works,” says Root. “We’re all responsible for the whole garden until the point at which it’s judged. If one element is wrong, then the whole thing is wrong.”

While Dodd, Root and the rest of the team may be well versed in the unique nature of the Chelsea Flower Show, the whole experience will be a first for one member of the Beauty of Islam team.

“It’s my first Chelsea garden, so I’m really intrigued to be there all the way through the build and to be involved as much as possible,” says an excited but relaxed Bin Zaal. “We’ve been so thorough and we’ve done so much pre-planning that I don’t think I’ve ever felt so well prepared. Now it’s really about getting on site and getting the job done.”

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