New approach at Chelsea in 2016

Nick Bailey aims to avoid 'standard Chelsea palette'.

Bailey: head gardener from Chelsea Physic Garden set to make his debut at RHS Chelsea Flower Show later this year
Bailey: head gardener from Chelsea Physic Garden set to make his debut at RHS Chelsea Flower Show later this year

Coaxing foreign plants into thriving in the British climate is "one of the great things about horticulture" and should be encouraged in garden design.

That's the view of Chelsea Physic Garden head gardener Nick Bailey, who will take his philosophy with him when he moves 300m down the road to make his debut at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show later this year.

The plantsman and designer has spent 20 years on the periphery of Chelsea, writing about it, supplying plants and building mini show gardens for nurseries. But he had never designed at the show before, being approached by Winton Capital in March 2015, with an eye to creating its show garden for 2016.

To get a feel for the show's logistics, he helped Jo Thompson plant her garden at Chelsea 2015. His conclusion: "It's a living nightmare ... It is extraordinary that people work together so well given that it's incredibly tight, there's no space and there are constant vehicles everywhere."

Show garden selection panel chair Andrew Fisher-Tomlin admonished garden designers last year for their fear of doing new things, saying many are instead copying established designers. Bailey hopes he can say he hasn't fallen into that trap, and is aiming to avoid the "standard Chelsea palette".

"At the end of May there's a set of plants that are long-flowering and are reasonably reliable, and they appear again and again. Of course I will be using some of those but I wanted to get some real wows in there."

Named the Winton Beauty of Mathematics Garden, Bailey's creation will celebrate the mathematical algorithms that dictate the development of all life. The theme is "essentially this idea that no matter how wild or apparently random something may look as an organism, it's always underpinned by these algorithms that drive all of its growth processes", he explained.

Multiple viewpoints

Bailey wants to achieve five striking viewpoints of his courtyard-style garden, with the long view the most prominent. Providing a visual link between the garden's elements will be a flowing copper band rising out of the ground like an emerging seedling, becoming pathway, bench, banister and eventually a planter 3.5m in the air. It will be etched through with plant growth algorithms, many of which will be visible in the plants themselves.

One of the most often noted mathematical rules of growth is the Fibonacci sequence, where each number is the sum of the two numbers before it. It will be clear to the viewer in the spirals of Aloe polyphylla, and in Echium wildprettii, whose 1m flower spike emerges from the silvery basal rosette to reveal terracotta-red flowers that open in a helical pattern. Divaricating plants including Euphorbia acanthothamnos and Corokia virgata have been chosen for their geometric branching patterns.

Purple and violet tones will be complemented by chartreuse, muddy reds, silver and white. The copper of the sculpture will be echoed in the planting, from the sheaths on the stems of restio Elegia capensis to the cinnamon-and-white serpentine trunk of Chilean myrtle Luma apiculata.

Bailey had his heart set on using Geum 'Totally Tangerine' but after it turned up everywhere at Chelsea 2015, he has replaced it with an old favourite, coppery Geum 'Mai Tai', which will be planted with the tussock grass Carex testacea. Silver tones will also feature strongly, including the endangered South African silver tree, Leucadendron argenteum.

Nurseries have been trawled for rare and unusual plants, working with Coblands and Alan Young from Gavin Jones.

One of the judging criteria is whether a plant would truly grow in the Chelsea environment. Bailey anticipates he will have to argue the case for some of his plants, which have been chosen to grow in a warm London courtyard. But having worked in the riverside microclimate of the Chelsea Physic Garden, pushing the ticket is "my natural instinct", Bailey said.


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