Last month the Sparsholt College team who created the garden: ‘Behind the Genes’ took it to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2019. Here’s what happened during the build, the show and after they brought it home . . .
The team was over the moon! Winning a gold medal for the 9th time with their garden ‘Behind the Genes’, as well as ‘Best Discovery Exhibit’ in the Great Pavilion.
Sponsors Thompson & Morgan achieved 3rd place in RHS Plant of the Year Competition with Agapanthus ‘Fireworks’
During ‘build’ week, in the run up to the show, the team would meet at Sparsholt College at 8.30am for the eventful journey to London. Some travelled in style – in the lorry with the plants. That meant plotting a careful route into London, taking into account the congestion charges and avoiding roads with low bridges. As the lorry approached Chelsea, they were directed to wait in Battersea Park for 2 hours. The reason? Security: The Duchess of Cambridge made an unscheduled visit to her co-designed ‘Back to Nature’ garden.
Others travelled with Chris Bird, lecturer in horticulture at Sparsholt College. Aiming to arrive at the Royal Hospital grounds at 1 o’clock, their journey took a different turn –
There were a few disasters that day, as the minibus broke down and shut a lane on the M3. Chris didn’t arrive at Chelsea until 6pm.
The shape of the days for the ‘Chelsea’ Team:
When the show opened they’d meet at Sparsholt at 5.30am and drive to London.
The latest time for them to arrive home from Chelsea was 11.30pm on the day they finished building and arranging the garden.
Watering and deadheading was done after the show closed. The team would head home around 9pm.
Fleet service station became the place to eat on the way home along the M3.
The team could take advantage of the quietest time at the show. One member arrived at 7.15 am, strolling around the show gardens – before the grounds were opened to the public.
When everything was in place the team realised that the DNA helix was backwards. They swiftly resolved the problem. Using mirrors to reverse the image of the spiral, it then appeared intentional. It was always supposed to be displayed like that!
On the last day of the show many of the plants were sold to whoever could carry them away. The remaining plants were kept for a ‘rebuild’ back at Sparsholt College in Hampshire. In mid-June the team rebuilt the garden to attract future horticulture students from local secondary schools.
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The RHS Chelsea Flower Show opens to the public on 21st May, but the team at Sparsholt College are ready well over a week in advance.
Chris Bird, lecturer in horticulture at Sparsholt College, along with his dynamic team of past and current students are putting in all the hours. Every element of their garden is about to be transported to the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London, where it will be constructed within The Great Pavilion.
Not only are they under pressure to produce a garden filled with exceptional plants, including eight new cultivars, for the 157,000 visitors who come to the show, but equally they aim to keep up the medal-winning success regularly achieved by Sparsholt College in Hampshire.
It’s early May and I find the team in the ‘Chelsea tunnel’ all wearing sunglasses against the glare, along with a smell of sawdust and paint in the air. They’re preparing the hard landscaping for a trial build. They’re the shapes that will give their Behind the Genes garden form and structure and in this design includes a shed, some fencing, a sculpture and paving. As well as providing a base for the softer elements – the plants and flowers – each item has a function.
The shed will display a T.V. screen and an iPad – possibly sounding like the perfect shed to some.
The fence panels will create divisions and a foil for the plants, as well as exhibiting information boards.
The sculpture gives visitors a clue about the theme of the garden, as well as height and visual impact.
The paving, laid in a chevron pattern, will have potted plants placed on it.
Alex and Jess painting panels for the display
Helen painting the sculpture. This task alone took 12 hours
The DNA spiral ladder, known as a double helix, is represented here as a metal sculpture. A different colour depicts the unique bonds that form among each of the four nucleotides or bases. DNA is the genetic code that determines all the characteristics of a living thing. Plants use DNA to pass on traits like colour and height.
Chris, Helen and Liz discuss hanging baskets, beside the painted DNA helix. An Agapanthus ‘Fireworks’ is placed in position at the base of the sculpture
As promised, here it is: the plant that’s been trained strictly anti-clockwise – practically since it was a seedling!
RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year 2019 entrant
Clematis ‘Kokonoe’ (above) has a magical quality: flowers that change shape. At first, rich purple blooms emerge with a single layer of petals, but as the season goes on it produces a wonderful pompom centre; a flower within a flower. It has a double-flower trait and its beauty is a sign of the success of genetics and plant breeding.
Peas, sweet-peas and mangetout behind a mouse-guard fence: Built by Chris with Liz’s help, it involved a fair bit of clambering over pipes and winding string all over the place. When it was finished, Chris thanked Liz for the limbo dancing tutorial!
Techniques used to improve plant species are also valuable in edible crops. Various peas grown for the Sparsholt garden, with wonderful names like ‘Jumbo’, ‘Shiraz’ and ‘Bikini’, have been developed with attractive attributes. Amongst the heavy croppers and dwarf varieties there’s a leafless pea; it’s been developed to improve harvesting, as the leaves tend to block up the threshing mechanism. How can it photosynthesise? Luckily Chris is nearby to explain: in the absence of leaves the plant uses stipules, a leaflike appendage borne in pairs at the base of the stalk.
Constant maintenance is needed:
Training and tying in of peas, sweet-peas and Clematis – anticlockwise
Plant spacing has to be increased as they grow
Monitoring for pests
Plants that are not up to standard are selected for culling
Moving plants to assist with irrigation, to harden them off or to encourage more buds to form
And watering . . .
Of course plants depend on us for all their requirements and Chris refers to the ‘Fine Art of Watering’
Well, watering really is a tricky thing to teach. The answer to how much and how often depends on so many factors. Like: how old the plant is, how hot or cool, windy or not conditions have been. And that’s just the beginning . . .
Watering tips from the team:
Not too early, to avoid the leaves burning in bright sunshine –
By hand: it’s a bit of a hassle having to keep refilling the can, but you’re able to get right in there with the water –
There are so many risks and responsibilities with watering –
Water leaves a chalky residue, which then has to be wiped off every leaf before the show –
‘Neo’ ‘Smokey’ ‘Painted Lady’ and ‘Fireworks’ have been chosen for the garden because they have a jumping gene. Prepare to be dazzled by them!
Each bloom gives the impression of being hand painted, as no two flowers are alike. The gene controlling the colour moves a bit too far or ‘jumps’ causing stripes, drips and flecks of luscious colour in one bloom or a solid colour in another. What an amazing mutation!
And this beauty (below) went up to London for a press engagement a fortnight before this years show. It bears six times more flowers than the average hydrangea and with a long flowering period, it’s a match made in heaven for gardens in need of a hardy shrub. It gained RHS Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Year 2018.
How the foxgloves have changed in a month:
In spite of the unbelievable level of care dispensed to the 2,500 plants being transported to London by Chris’s team, around 1,500 will pass muster and be used in the Behind the Genes garden. We hope to see you there!
Find out how the Sparsholt team get everything to London and how the ‘build’ goes . . .
Will Thompson & Morgan win Plant of the Year 2019?
Will Sparsholt College win a medal?
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Chris Bird has been busy designing, planning and planting for his 22nd year at Britain’s most prestigious flower show, along with an enthusiastic team of past and current horticulture students.
As lecturer in horticulture, Chris has repeatedly led Sparsholt College in Hampshire to medal-winning success, achieving 8 Gold Medals and 5 Best in Category, to name a few.
Take a peek at some of the plants destined for the Sparsholt exhibit at this years show
Discover the garden that will explain the science of plant breeding milestones with Behind the Genes
Understand the techniques used for future plant breeding targets
I meet Chris outside the horticulture shed, aka his office, where he and two of his team discuss ‘potting on and pinching out – down to the lower petioles,’ around a barrow of young sunflower plants. Amongst the seeds supplied by Thompson and Morgan, eight brand new plants are being showcased this year and New Product Development Manager Peter Freeman has come to see how the plants are looking. They’re thriving and growing fast towards their May deadline.
Propagation schedules, that include several cycles of sowing, account for this and other eventualities. Losing batches of plants and planning for some that flower too early, or not soon enough, is the business they’re in. At this time of year the weather can go from sub-tropical to arctic overnight.
I linger long enough to admire rows of students’ projects, which I learn can be another potential hazard for the Chelsea team:
Alex Graham, who’s completing a part-time RHS Certificate in Practical Horticulture, alongside her job as a teacher, says, “A few weeks ago a student was doing a study on weeds – next to the Chelsea bench – which meant aphids and all sorts were keeping us on our toes!”
You’ll find the Sparsholt exhibit in the Discovery Zone within The Great Pavilion, with this giant metal helix at its centre. “The DNA spiral has been made by a local blacksmith,” Chris says. “We like to use local artisans wherever possible.”
Inside the super-cool shade tunnel there’s an emerald carpet at our feet. While the team talk about how to register and submit a plant for DNA testing, I take in the visual feast . . .
The ‘Digitalis Illumination Series’ is a hybrid, so does not set seed. It’s a perennial, unlike most foxgloves, which are biennial. On top of that it’s a semi evergreen with a long flowering period and should last for years. What a gem!
These Scabious ‘Butterfly Blue Beauty’ seem a far cry from Scabiosa the genus name, which comes from the Latin scabere ‘to scratch’. Perhaps in reference to the plant’s rough leaves.
Back at the horticultural practical shed, redolent of garden machinery oil, Chris grabs his jacket from the staff office, to go to his next meeting.
Liz and Alex potting on Helianthus, helped by Toby –
A future student, perhaps?
I’ll be looking at a brand new and rather magical clematis, which has flowers that change shape throughout the season.
We’ll see how the team get to ‘wind-up’ the plants, before the show.
Tips on the fine art of watering.
And did I mention – loads more luscious plants?
Follow me and share in the preparations for one of the most famous international flower shows, attracting guests from all over the world.