Diarmuid Gavin to ditch "contemporary" style for Chelsea garden

Garden designer Diarmuid Gavin intends to let go of his contemporary, architectural style of planting and go "more British" in his RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden.

Diarmuid Gavin's Harrods Eccentric British garden. Image: Supplied
Diarmuid Gavin's Harrods Eccentric British garden. Image: Supplied

His Harrods British Eccentrics garden will be "more British, full of colour, fun and stylish". It will forgo Gavin's usual pared-back colour palette of greens and russet tones, instead aiming for a "pastiche of a quintessential British garden from days gone by". It will be inspired by British illustrator Heath Robinson and will feature "surprises" including twisted, topiaried bay trees which rotate in real life. 

Carpinus betulus is the main tree species in this garden, with the use of topiary is key. Gavin has been watching them take shape in Belgium over a five-year period and, for Chelsea, they will be in full, light-green leaf.

The central "performing" plants in the garden are bay trees, sourced from Belgium where there has been a tradition of bay cultivation since the 16th century. Through generations of nurserymen, it's not only the technical expertise that has been passed down but also some outstanding genetic material. Five hundred years later, the bay is still a luxury product in Belgium and since 2015, it has had the status of a European 'protected geographic indication'.

Since the bay is grown in the cool Flanders climate, it is much more winter hardy than its southern counterparts. Gavin has chosen a nursery in Bruges to source the conical and dome-shaped trees.

To get the perfect conical or domed shape, the bay trees are rotated as they receive their haircuts from an automatic machine invented for the job by Belgian nursery Lauretum. Gavin's mechanical engineers who are making the Heath Robinson-inspired trimming and clipping gadgets required precise measurements of each tree, including width, height, weight, girth and pot size to ensure that the machines would be fit for purpose.

Flowering plants, ferns, grasses and a few shrubs are being grown in the UK and Italy at nurseries such as Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants, Crug Farm, British Wildflowers and Valfredda. Seven buxus spheres will be embedded in each flowering border, along with the 3 x 4m high conical bay trees. The flowering perennials, ferns, grasses and bulbs will play host to the topiary shrubs and trees, acting as foils and blending in with them before they begin their "performance".

The borders on either side of the sunken pool will have different colour schemes. One border contains a yellow and white colour scheme and is filled with a beautiful selection of flowering herbaceous perennials and roses. The colour scheme is pure white, sulphur yellow and green and will feature elegant spires of white foxglove and Eremurus White Beauty contrasting with the acidic yellow-greens of frothy Alchemilla and Euphorbia.

Creamy white roses intermingle with pale lemon flowers of the stately Verbascum 'Gainsborough' and jade-green umbels of Mathiasella 'Green Dreams'. Pure white Paeonia 'Duchess de Nemours' complete the picture with white astrantias, white poppies and sulphur yellow Achillea 'Moonshine'.

The opposite border offers a scheme with harmonious planting blending through a kaleidoscope of blues, purples and soft pinks. Blue cranesbills will include Geranium himalayense, G. 'Mrs. Kendall Clarke' and G. 'Rozanne' with lots of Nepeta 'Summer Magic'. Purple sages, Salvia 'Caradonna' and S. 'Mainacht', will form a background for pink roses such as Rosa 'Ballerina' , 'Comte de Chambord' 'St Ethelburga' and 'Louise Odier' along with Antirrhinum 'Pretty in Pink', Chinese foxglove Rehmannia 'Magic Dragon', and stronger shades of crimson – Astrantia 'Ruby Wedding' and old school favourite Cirsium rivulare 'Atropurpureum'.

Deeper tones of purple are provided by Aquilegia 'William Guinness' and Iris 'Dusky Challenger', which contrast with the softer pinks of Achillea 'Lilac Beauty' and Digitalis 'Sutton Apricot'. Giant Black Parsley, Melanoselinum and some rogue oranges and reds including Geum 'Totally Tangerine' and Verbascum 'Firedance'.

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