“Everyone can grow their own garden – just follow nature’s lead” says Carol Klein

Interview with Carol Klein in RHS The Garden July 2023

Carol Klein is the RHS Iconic Horticultural Hero for 2023, and will celebrate with an exciting new show garden at Hampton Court in July. She spoke to Liz Potter about her plans for the garden

How do you feel about being an ‘Iconic Horticultural Hero’?

It makes me giggle – I’m a bit embarrassed. I’m not sure about the ‘Iconic’ part but I won’t disagree with the ‘horticultural’ bit! The same thing happened when I got the VMH in 2018 – it’s a very nice feeling, very flattering.

It means you get to create a show garden at Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival this July… Have you made one before?

Although I’ve created a couple of hundred exhibits at RHS flower shows over the years (1990-2006) and won six gold medals at Chelsea, I’ve only ever made one show garden. That was back in 1999, on Main Avenue, for Channel 4. It was called 21 Century Street: a celebration of gardens and plants, showing that everyone can grow their own garden. We wanted to convey that gardening is a process rather than an end product, and it was full of attainable, sustainable ideas for a small garden in the new millennium.

What was that garden like?

It tied in with my six-part Channel 4 series, Wild About the Garden, and we created a programme about making it, called Wild About Chelsea. The show garden was surrounded by a native hedge and its powerhouse was a greenhouse. There were compost bins under the staging, giving off carbon dioxide to help the seedlings grow. It had white dianthus at nose level planted in land drains, and there was a table and raised beds made from recycled London stock bricks with a curved oak edge to sit on, and a table with a herb bed planted in the middle.

That was almost 25 years ago but those sustainability ideas are just as relevant today – perhaps even more so.

Was it a success?

We got a silver medal and I was really happy with that. The main thing for me was that the public loved it and could relate to it. It was what they wanted to see. I also liked the fact it was re-sited after Chelsea to a location in Penge for the NSPCC; I’m hoping to have this year’s Hampton Court garden re-sited too.

The ‘grow your own plants’ ethos will be behind this year’s garden too, although on a much bigger scale, about double the size, on a site near Ditton Gate, with the water and the Palace in the background.

What are the key messages you want to get across at Hampton Court this year?

I want to encourage everyone to grow their own plants. It’ll be inspirational rather than aspirational, and packed with ideas people can put into practice whether they’ve got a garden, a balcony or part of a community garden. It’s vital that it appeals to and helps everybody.

I want visitors to ask themselves ‘which of these plants could I grow in my own garden?’ And, ‘could I propagate them myself?’ There’ll be a greenhouse just outside the garden, where I’ll be talking to people about how to propagate plants. I want to be on site as much as I can during the show, so I can talk to all the visitors. Gardening can be a very solitary activity, so one of the nice things about flower shows is the chance to meet fellow gardeners and discuss our shared love of plants.

What will the garden look like?

It’s going to reflect my own style of gardening by following nature’s rules, taking inspiration from what works in the wild. It’s all about going with the flow – looking at what you’ve got in terms of site and soil and asking yourself what’s going to enjoy living there? I love the idea of looking to nature; whatever else you plan to do in a garden, you can’t break nature’s rules. I also hope the garden is aesthetically really beautiful.

How will you organise the space?

The garden will be divided into six main habitats: wetland, woodland, hedgerow, meadow, exposed mountain and seaside, plus a large vegetable patch. My first challenge will be to try and make all these very different spaces look like one cohesive whole. It’s got to flow from one area to the next.

The garden itself will be a long oval, with a curving path that leads from one end to the other. Entering from the left you’ll come to a sunken boggy wetland, then a slightly raised woodland bit with birch and Italian alder trees and a native hedgerow boundary. In real life, it would be a properly laid hedge, bending the stems near ground level, which encourages them to produce new growth from the base. Anyone can do it, even in a very small space, using bareroot whips of, say, 10 different native species – and it costs about the same as a couple of fence panels.

Will there be waves of perennials too?

From the hedge to the exit there’ll be a meadow, using a mix of herbaceous perennials and grasses that I would typically use in my own garden at Glebe Cottage. There’ll be three deep borders and a path leading to an oval seating area, surrounded by taller plants for a sense of intimacy, and a table with an inset herb planter.

Walking back the opposite way you’ll see the exposed ‘mountain’ zone, which merges into the seaside garden, where I’ll be planting into gravel, rather than sand.

In the middle there’s a large vegetable garden, with an example of ‘three sisters’ planting, using sweetcorn ‘Swift’, climbing bean ‘Blauhilde’ and a ‘Uchiki Kuri’ squash.

Sounds like a big garden to build from scratch!

It’s an incredibly short time to produce a garden of this size and scale. Normally show garden designers have a whole year and a half – so I’ve got to pull my finger out! Obviously I’m going to need help. I’m talking to Cleve West and Mark Gregory and his team, and I’m hoping to involve some young aspiring gardeners from RHS Gardens Rosemoor and Bridgewater, and perhaps the Alpine Garden Society too. I want to grow as many of the plants as I can myself and use homegrown specimens from good British nurseries.

Have you always grown your own plants?

I’ve always loved nature, plants and gardening, watching birds and growing flowers. At school I had to choose between studying art or biology, which I found frustrating. 

Later, after training to be an art teacher I moved to London, where I had access to a bit of a garden at my landlord’s house in Ladbrook Grove. I applied for a teaching job in North Devon and we moved there, then started a family. I didn’t go back to teaching and instead began growing lots of plants for my garden. Part of our mortgage was designated to replace the house windows, but I bought a greenhouse instead!

It was a friend, a local cheese maker, who suggested that I start selling some of the plants I was propagating, which is how Glebe Cottage Plants came about. I started out selling plants from a market stall in Barnstaple and managed to get a stand at Chelsea Flower Show soon after.

How have the RHS Shows changed in the time you’ve been attending them?

When I first started exhibiting in 1990, people would buy a plant just because they liked the look of it, without worrying about whether it would grow in their own garden or not. Nowadays, they’re much better informed and more inquisitive – wanting to know the provenance of each plant and what conditions it needs to thrive. 

People flock to see your talks at RHS shows. Why do you think you connect so well with gardeners?

I don’t really know. My ideas about gardening with nature just seem to reflect the way most people like to garden. And perhaps they want to listen to me because I’m good at talking?! I can put an idea across and I hope that I enthuse people: for me, there’s no point otherwise. I’m hoping that this Hampton Court show garden will do just that.

Illustration of Horticultural Hero Carol Klein's hampton Court Show Garden July 2023
Illustration of Iconic Horticultural Hero Carol Klein’s Hampton Court Show Garden July 2023

Garden parts:

  1. Boggy wetland: in these damp conditions, leafy gunnera, rodgersia and royal fern Osmunda regalis will provide a foil for flowers of Iris pseudacorus, astilbe ‘Professor Van der Weilen’, geums and Primula florindae
  2. Woodland shade: Italian alder (Alnus cordata), silver birch and Styrax japonicus trees will likely feature. Underplanting will include shade-loving Geranium nodosum ‘Dark Heart’, Amsonia, Hosta ‘Halcyon’ and white foxgloves
  3. Hedgerow: This serves as a wildlife-friendly boundary between woodland and meadow areas, incorporating multiple native species such as hazel, hawthorn, oak, guelder rose, holly and beech side by side  
  4. Meadow: Perennials and grasses create waves of movement and colour. Look out for Astrantia major ‘Glebe Cottage Crimson’ among geraniums, campanulas, salvias and phlox, with Miscanthus ‘Pink Flamingo’ and pennisetums
  5. Moor and mountain: plants for exposed spaces include fragrant dianthus spp, Erigeron karvinskianus daisies, gypsophila, saxifrage and Verbascum for height
  6. Seaside: drought plants feature here, including Agapanthus, erysimums ‘Bowles’s Mauve’ and ‘Jacob’s Jacket’, as well as silver-leaved stachys, artemisias, santolina and Lavandula angustifolia
  7. Veg patch: Obelisks of sweet pea ‘Cupani’ will create a cut flower element, alongside carrots and cabbages, plus the three sisters – squash ‘Uchiki Kiri’, sweetcorn ‘Swift’ and climbing bean ‘Blauhilde’

This feature originally apeared in The Garden April 2023

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