Kamelia Bin Zaal’s journey to the Chelsea Flower Show

Kamelia Bin Zaal, the first Emirati garden designer to be a part of the Chelsea Flower Show later this year, talks about how she prepared for her landmark entry with a plant-buying trip to Southern Spain.

Kamelia Bin Zaal was involved in every aspect of the process, including, the tagging of tress considered worthy of inclusion in her Chelsea entry. Antonio Garcia for The National
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When Kamelia Bin Zaal recently flew to Alicante, Spain, for her second European plant-hunting trip in as many months, she embarked on a very specific mission.

Bin Zaal’s goal was not only to find the trees that would provide the wow-factor for The Beauty of Islam, her entry for the forthcoming 2015 Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Chelsea Flower Show, but also to unearth the plants that might even help her win the competition’s ultimate prize.

Bin Zaal will celebrate a triple debut when she unveils her garden to the RHS judges on May 19. Not only will it be the first time that Bin Zaal and her sponsor, Dubai’s Al Barari Firm Management, have submitted a garden to the world’s most prestigious horticultural event, but The Beauty of Islam will also be the first Chelsea show garden to have been designed by an Emirati. It’s a prospect that Bin Zaal looks forward to with a mixture of nerves and excitement.

“This is the gardening equivalent of the Oscars,” the Dubai- based designer explains.

Following an earlier trip to the Netherlands, where she ­went shopping for palms, Bin Zaal’s most recent trip allowed just four days to visit the finest nurseries in southern Spain to locate citrus, pomegranate and olive trees that will provide the living “structure” for her design.

It was a process, Bin Zaal admits, that initially made her feel like “a kid in a candy store”, but ended up feeling like a particularly intense session of last-minute Christmas shopping. “For me, plants are always an inspiration, and I can start seeing a garden just by looking at a single plant. We went to six or seven different nurseries [in the Netherlands] looking for palms and specimen trees. They were in these incredible greenhouses that were about 27 metres high, with enormous 20 metre-high palms inside them. It was amazing.

“I actually had visions of other gardens going through my mind, because I could see all these palms that I wasn’t using and I thought: ‘Oh my God, who else wants to sponsor me for Chelsea next year?’”

Unfortunately, even extraordinary plants fail to make the grade at the world’s most prestigious gardening competition – for those who are serious about passing muster, only the rarest specimens will do.

“Normally, in most gardens, there are one or two trees that really stand out. We call them ‘hero trees’ and they’re the pivot around which the whole garden revolves,” explains the ­appropriately named Dave Root, the man responsible for finding and growing all of the plants for The Beauty of Islam.

The owner of Kelways, one of the United Kingdom’s oldest nurseries and one of only four firms to have exhibited continuously at Chelsea since the first flower show in 1913, Root has been growing and sourcing plants for Chelsea show gardens since 2008. “‘Hero trees’ are not off-the-peg, so we basically scour the UK and Northern and Southern Europe to find specimens that meet our client’s specification,” the British nurseryman explains.

Root is providing the plants for seven Chelsea gardens this year, but his record for any one competition year stands at 10. “We’ve become particularly known at Chelsea for dealing with plants with a particular provenance, that come from a particular country or region, and for very difficult plant-sourcing jobs. My skill is knowing where to find those plants in the first place and I then do the legwork to narrow down the search. One of my main roles is to manage the designer’s expectations and to make them aware of just what’s achievable.”

When it comes to plants at the Chelsea Flower Show, however, Root admits that definitions of achievable and acceptable tend to become a little warped. In 2012, Root sourced the plants for a Corsican-themed show garden sponsored by the French perfumer L’Occitane en Provence. “We managed to find a small grower of native Corsican plants in Corsica who was literally growing the plants in egg boxes in his backyard. We got a load of plants from him and we shipped them, via Holland, to the very tip of southern Spain.

“They grew in the Spanish sunshine for five months and then we shipped them from Southern Spain to my nursery about a week before the Chelsea Flower Show,” Root remembers. “That way, we not only had native plants from Corsica, but because they had been growing in the Spanish sunshine, they were in flower about two months earlier than they would have been if I’d grown them. The plants should have probably cost £5 [Dh28; but actually] cost about £20 each to grow [because of the associated costs], which is crazy, but it was something that had to be done.”

Despite his frequent experiences of pushing the boundaries of what’s horticulturally sensible, Root insists that his other main responsibility is keeping his client’s feet on the ground. “The designer might be looking to see whether the tree is the same as the one they have imagined, but I’m looking at the technical details and practicalities. You have to have mutual respect, really, and I have to trust the designer and the designer has to trust me.

“In Spain, Kamelia was looking at some ficus with a nursery owner and she was getting quite excited, but I knew they weren’t good enough for the show. I left her talking and when she looked over, I drew my hands across my throat.”

That very practical approach is something that Root shares with David Dodd, Bin Zaal’s other plant-hunting partner – the man charged with turning the designer’s vision into an award-winning reality. The founder and managing director of the landscape construction company The Outdoor Room, Dodd has been building Chelsea show gardens for 25 years and has secured 11 medals, including five golds. He also serves on the Chelsea Flower Show garden selection panel.

“I’m the one who pulls the whole thing together and I’m the one who takes responsibility if it all collapses,” the landscaper explains. “Kamelia’s garden requires so much attention. On plan, it looks very straightforward, but it’s technically one of the most challenging gardens we’ll have built.”

The need to understand the potential challenges involved in any garden’s construction is the reason why Dodd needs to accompany Bin Zaal and Root from the very outset. “We’ve got to get the trees in very early on because we can’t build the garden and then have huge cranes swinging in the trees. I have to check the trees’ trunks and root balls to make sure we have the right equipment on site to handle them.”

Another challenge, Dodd admits, is the exotic nature of the plant material that Bin Zaal is using for The Beauty of Islam. “With this garden we’re using plants that might not normally survive in the UK, so I’m particularly interested in how we can protect the trees until they are unveiled, when everything has been built.”

Dodd’s challenge is a pleasure for Root. “For us, all the plants in this garden are quite exotic and that’s one of the things that excites me about the project. There’s going to be nothing else like this at the Chelsea Flower Show and it’s exciting to be involved with a garden like that.”

Root also admits that he has enjoyed Bin Zaal’s involvement in the plant-finding process. “Normally, I might go to 10 nurseries, narrow that down and then take the client to the final three. I offered that service to Kamelia, but she refused. I said: ‘Look, you’ve got a long way to come to do this. Do you want me to do the legwork and you then come to make the final choice?’ But she said no, because she wanted to do the whole trip.”

For Bin Zaal, it was essential that she accompanied Root at every stage of his search. “Because I’m very plant-orientated, I wanted to be involved at every step,” she explains. “I found that it made me more comfortable, because I’m very visual when it comes to planting. I know what I want and how I want it and I can visualise that, so I only really do planting plans for quantities, but in this case, even quantities go out of the window, because it’s a show garden.”

During the course of her plant-hunting, Bin Zaal’s thinking about her plant palette has also been influenced by the discussions she’s had with her planting team. Louise Cummins and Caroline De Lane Lea are the women behind Garden Makers, a London-based landscape company that also specialises in planting show gardens. “After Holland, I went back to have a meeting with the Garden Makers, and we sat down and went through the plant list,” Bin Zaal explains. “That was really good, because they gave me such good feedback. ‘We love this,’ they said. ‘Can you get double the amount?’ and ‘Look, we’re going to need more of this for ground cover.’ You really need to cover the soil at Chelsea, and also, if something doesn’t work when you’re actually there planting, you need alternatives. It’s been a real partnership and they understand what I want, which is great.”

One of the changes Bin Zaal has made is to expand her use of Carex flacca, a glaucous-leaved sedge. “Now, I’m probably going to use two different species, and rather than using it as a filler, I’m going to use it to give my garden rhythm and consistency. Something I originally numbered at 200, I’m now numbering at 400. I’ve had to double my thinking.”

A final visit to Spain, in March, will enable Bin Zaal to see how some of her smaller plants are progressing, but the time for choosing “hero plants” has now well and truly passed. “I’ve had to do instant gardens for our show villas at Al Barari [in Dubai], so I’m aware of what’s needed to fill a garden and to put in the extra plants, but it starts to get very serious when you’ve really got to finalise,” she explains.

“This is my first show garden ­anywhere and it’s more delicate at Chelsea, so having access to this kind of expertise has been enormously helpful.”