This week Chelsea happened, and what a ripper! The lupin flowers towered; the sweet peas knocked us out with their fragrance; the clematis dazzled and roses and alliums were all insanely good. But there, amongst the maelstrom of international nurseries, flower factories and UK identities, was a knockabout bloke from the central coast of NSW with a sentimental story to tell.
Most of us know Charlie Albone from his role on Selling Houses Australia, on Foxtel’s Lifestyle Channel. Renowned for his practical approach to transforming drab gardens into appealing beauties, many would be surprised to know that Charlie had a lifelong-dream to create a garden at Chelsea. But dream he did, and now his time had come.
Charlie and his family
It all started 18 months ago, when Charlie approached the sponsorship teams at Husqvarna and Gardena with a very grand, yet personal, garden concept for the world’s greatest horticultural show. They were in, but if it was going to work, they were going to need someone on the ground in the UK – that was for sure.
Enter stage right …Mick Conway of Conway Landscaping. Mick is a great friend of Graham Ross’s, a veteran show garden construction manager and all round great guy, as soon as Mick heard about Charlie’s garden, he knew he had to be part of the team. Mick is a long-time supporter of the Australian landscape industry, showcasing our local talents to millions on a global stage. This was his 26th show garden and 4th time at Chelsea! Mick pulled together a dream team – 12 experienced members from Australia with a further 8 joining the fold on site in the grounds at Chelsea.
Building show gardens is not for the feint-hearted, and when asked what he loves about show gardens, Mick without hesitation stated…
“The experience provides a freedom to design and build a garden with a clean slate. It is the exhilaration of successfully bringing a garden to life from a concept on paper, to reality within a couple of weeks. The Chelsea experience is particularly intense for Australians due to the complexity of building a garden on the other side of the world.”
Fast forward to May 2015, and Charlie’s Chelsea vision has come to life with the help of Mick and major sponsors <link>Husqvarna and <link>Gardena and thousands of people has come along for the ride via his blog www.charlieatchelsea.com
Titled ‘The Time in Between’, Charlie’s garden is a personal homage to his father, who passed away when he was 17. Over the years, Charlie has wanted to tell his father about his life, having conversations with his Dad in his mind. Now he has created a real life garden to tell parts of the story.
Charlie’s garden plan titled ‘The Time in Between’
The garden features a beginning, middle and an end, which together tell Charlie’s tale. The first section, according to Charlie, is a celebration of life, featuring a sandstone path wide enough for him to walk hand in hand with his father and two wee little children. Surrounded by soft, elegant plantings of iris, arum lily, alliums, columbines, protea and polygala, this path leads gently toward a water feature.
We enter along the wide stone pathway
The water feature centres the design, an area designed for calm and serenity; a place for reflection.
The stone water feature fills with water and drains – ebbs and flows like Charlie’s emotions. The bespoke sculptural ‘ring of life’ feature on the back wall draws attention and pulls you through his garden journey.
The last section, towards the rear of the garden, offers an intimate space to sit, connect and communicate with loved ones by the warmth of a circular fire pit. Charlie explains that this area of the garden is representative of his wife, Juliet Love, who he describes as ‘the centre and the fire” of his life. Each stone pillar represents someone special in Charlie’s life while the lush tropical planting with tree ferns, philodendron and gingers reminds him of the Sydney gardens back home.
The circular fire pit mid construction last week
We can just see ourselves here with the open fire, chatting with friends and family at dusk. Gosh – that curved stone bench is pretty special – how it levitates out of the wall.
Understandably, being at Chelsea brings with it a world of emotions: from the super charge of adrenalin to bring it all together, to the stress from the self-induced pressure in making sure every detail is considered. During the charge to the finish line, the team were happy, keeping it focused but light-hearted on site with many laughs. After nearly three weeks of hard labour, we asked Charlie how they were feeling.
“We have set sail on HMAS Fatigue, but we, and the whole show, are all in the same boat,” he replied.
The construction of the fire pit, stone columns and you can just see the water feature to the left
The routine at Chelsea can be gruelling when working on a show garden. A typical day for Charlie and the team would begin with a 5:30am wake up call, with everyone madly scoffing breakfast before a hasty departure to arrive at the gates at 7am. After a day of hard work on site until around 7pm (“but no later than 8pm”), the team stumbles home to finally collapse in bed at around 10.30pm. Repeat for 22 days.
Installing the fire pit
As is often the case with landscaping builds, the first sight of greenery is a very welcomed sight. Instantly, it softens the hard materials and the garden begins to take shape. With the help of some enormous machinery, the largest of the trees is successfully placed within the garden. They are thrilled.
So what came next?
“Planting, planting and more planting. A bit of paving, a dry rock wall and laying some over sized bespoke sandstone stepping stones. After that, it’s the final touches to really make this garden shine.”
Unfamiliar surrounds can make it hard to source supplies of odds and ends required during the build. – “When are Bunnings moving to the UK?”
The biggest problem on site was caused by the complete failure of a delivery of concrete, “but we quickly fixed that dilemma thanks to alternate concrete company being on site at the show.”
Surprisingly, the London weather has been kind, allowing the build to progress without delay. However, working on such a huge challenge and the enormity of what is the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, the “goal post for the day’s achievements are always shifting.”
Mid construction we asked Charlie if he’d had time to check out the competition. His response: “Sad to say it’s been heads down. At days end, we do wander past the other sites, but we are all still in the midst of construction, so it’s a case of the unknown. In saying that, in the next 2-3 days, all the gardens will start to take shape.”
Even in its unfinished state, the garden looks incredible. We are in awe of the planting, the stone and the incredible workmanship that is already evident and attention to details, every stone washed, every leaf wiped, every flower staked. Methodical. Meticulous.
Charlie says the progress of the build was seamless, thanks to exemplary planning, execution, and thankfully, good weather. The only day of rain did however test everyone’s strength after being on the job for two solid weeks.
“Last Thursday was mentally exhausting, it was our toughest day. The sheer cold and constant drizzle tested us but we dealt with it and soldiered on.”
Three days out from judging, and the floor within the fire pit area has been laid, and the majority of planting is complete, with only a few areas to finesse. The garden is literally brimming with plant life after the placement of thousands upon thousands of plants. A stunning selection of species, all chosen for their varying degrees of texture, contrast and colour. Some of the standout specimens include a 45 year old Ficus and 5 metre tall Japanese Zelkova.
According to Mick, the quality of stock is superb – “Our suppliers have produce plants of impeccable quality, the best we have ever seen.” The growers are under just as much pressure as the team, if not more. The foresight and skill required to deliver specific flowering plants to not just one, but many show gardens is an incredible feat.
Seeing his garden come to life was a powerful moment for Charlie, describing it as “intimate, emotional, beautiful and very personal.”
This year’s show is “full of class and stiff competition” according to Mick. Not one to snub the competition, Mick has been admiring designer Adam Frost’s show garden ‘The Homebase Garden – Urban Retreat’ (more on this one later!).
“It has rich landscaping, an intriguing design, a touch of old versus new, formal versus informal in the planting scheme and it looks like time is on their side to polish and detail the garden to Chelsea standards,” said Mick.
Judgement Day – the show gardens were judged last Sunday 17th May by three separate bodies, the ‘Preliminary Suggestion Judges’, the ‘Judges’ and the ‘Adjudicators’ who review the results of the Judges to ensure all is correct and in order.
After deliberation, the Awards were personally delivered to each show garden early Tuesday morning. It’s a standing ovation for Charlie and the Aussie team who collected a Silver Gilt Medal for their efforts. This year there were 7 gold medals, 7 silver gilt, 1 silver and no bronze. Congratulations Aussies, wonderful work Charlie (and the beautiful Mick Conway!) – you did us proud. We’re not sure what on earth made you think you could take materials halfway around the world and built a garden from nothing. But we are so very glad you did.
Images by Kuva Photography, Royal Horticultural Society and Graham Ross
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