Forever Freefolk

In a departure from the norm on this blog, I’m publishing a post about a garden I’ve yet to visit. In this case, there’s an excellent reason – it hasn’t been built yet. Work on Rosy Hardy’s first show garden at Chelsea began last week, and I’m delighted to be part of the team who will be planting it up once the contractors have completed the heavy construction work. Until then, I’m taking the opportunity to find out as much as possible about the design concept, and to hear Rosy’s thoughts on moving out of the Great Pavillion and onto Main Avenue.
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Rosy didn’t have to look far when it came to deciding upon a concept for Forever Freefolk, her show garden for Brewin Dolphin at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Inspiration lies all around the award winning nursery which she and husband Rob have been running since first setting it up in their back garden 25 years ago. Located in the heart of the Hampshire countryside and within walking distance of the River Test, today Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants occupies a 13-acre portion of that chalk landscape that stretches from Dorset, across South East England, beneath the Channel to France, and northward into Norfolk. 

The inspiration

This is Watership Down country – the local pub in the village of Freefolk has been renamed in honour of the much-loved book by local author Richard Adams – renowned for its rolling green hills, close cropped pastures and crystal clear streams. These chalk streams provide a unique environment, home to iconic species such as otters, water voles, salmon and brown trout, and it's this biodiversity, coupled with the vulnerability of fragile habitats in the most populous region of the country, that has led WWF to a declare that Britain's chalk streams “are our rainforests”, with all the incumbent responsibility that confers upon us for their conservation.

 Rosy presents her design for Brewin Dolphin’s sixth RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden to the gardening media

Rosy presents her design for Brewin Dolphin’s sixth RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden to the gardening media

The design

Rosy’s design for the show garden on main avenue references one of the starkest possible outcomes: dried up stream as a result of excessive water extraction represented by an area of gravel planting traversed by stepping stones constructed from flint-filled gabions. There’s certainly an element of cautionary tale, but the garden overall is more a celebration of both the natural landscape and the manner in which we interact with it. 

“While the main concept informing the design is the chalk stream, the garden also draws upon the flora of the chalk downlands, our local industrial heritage and its effects on the area,” says Rosy, pointing out how the silver path that meanders through the space represents the metal security thread to be found in the banknotes made from locally milled paper. From one local industry, set up by Huguenot refugee workers in the eighteenth century, to another, and a photograph of a fishermen’s hut from which a raised walkway over the river leads to a series of eel traps. 

“This image gave rise not only to the floating aspect of the pathway, but also to the structure that I wanted hovering above the space.” Seeing as this is Chelsea, something a little more high concept than a shed on stilts is called for, so for the design of the structure, Rosy turned again to the chalk bedrock of Hampshire, only this time at a microscopic level. The chalk itself, laid down in the warm, shallow seas over millions of years during the Cretaceous period, is made up of elaborate structures formed from the skeletal remains of microscopic marine plankton, or coccolithophores .

The garden building

The characteristic geometric shape of these tiny fossilised creatures has been used as the basic building block for the frame of the garden building – the ‘Coccosphere’ – an elegant sculpture constructed from cast aluminium.

 The 'Coccosphere', newly erected on site at Chelsea

The 'Coccosphere', newly erected on site at Chelsea

The plants

There are four planting zones in all: shade, dry, damp with part shade and lush damp. Rather than slavishly recreating the planting communities of the calcerous grasslands, Rosy has drawn inspiration from the flora of her local chalk downland landscape, using a palette of soft pastel colours in the dry gravel bed, with deeper, more saturated hues in the wetter zones. Yellow tones will also run through the garden, with plants such as the marsh marigold Caltha palustris and Achillea 'Moonshine' bouncing golden light about.

Of course, this is a perfect opportunity to introduce new hardy perennial cultivars, and four new plants will be making their debut: a compact catmint, Nepeta x faassenii ‘Crystal Cloud’, the white thistle Cirsium rivulare ‘Frosted Magic’, pale blue Veronica ‘Mountain Breeze’ and the appropriately named pink gaura with red foliage, Gaura ‘Rosy Shimmers'.

  Gaura  ‘Rosy Shimmers'

Gaura ‘Rosy Shimmers'

  Veronica  ‘Mountain Breeze’

Veronica ‘Mountain Breeze’

  Cirsium rivulare  ‘Frosted Magic’

Cirsium rivulare ‘Frosted Magic’

  Nepeta  x  faassenii  ‘Crystal Cloud’

Nepeta x faassenii ‘Crystal Cloud’

With such a wealth of information and expertise packed into every element of this garden, it’s hard not to see this project as yet another out working of an impulse to share knowledge and enthusiasm, for both plants the environments in which they thrive. “I love trying to educate people in plants and how they can be used in the garden”, admits Rosy, when I quiz her about this aspect. It’s that passion and generosity of spirit that shines through, and is sure to make this garden one of the highlights of Chelsea 2016.