“Why I’m addicted to Chelsea” – Chris Beardshaw

Chris Beardshaw interview layout 2018 Garden Answers magazine

It’s 25 years since Chris Beardshaw won his first gold medal at Chelsea. Here he shares the plans for this year’s A Life Worth Living garden

With no fewer than 14 RHS gold medals for his show gardens, and six times winner of Best in Show at Chelsea, Chris Beardshaw has a rare design talent unmatched by his peers. Thanks to his voluptuous, romantic plant combinations he’s a regular recipient of the coveted People’s Choice award too. Despite his many accomplishments, Chris remains one of the most charming, modest and popular TV gardeners you could ever hope to meet.

You’ve been designing show gardens for 25 years. What drives you? Undoubtedly it’s addiction. You get the chance to create the perfect picture, immediately. As gardeners we’re all fabulously impatient, and with a show garden, once you’re on site, you have the ability to produce your vision really quickly. You’re instantly able to recognise what does and doesn’t work and then refine it, so it’s a really good learning exercise. You might go in with a preferred list of plants, but once you get to the show the whole thing changes and everything becomes amplified. The plants do things and have conversations with other plants you wouldn’t expect them to have. That’s the fun side of it.

How would you describe your planting style? I did an article for a German magazine recently and they described it as ‘painterly’. They said that I use stabs of colour for an effect that’s almost pixelated. But it’s not a conscious thing.

Is it difficult to focus on the detail at Chelsea? Yes. There’s a great glee when the lorry-load of plants arrives and there’s this constant sense of urgency with which everyone seems to operate. What I try and do with my planting team [Nick and Dave] is deliberately go into our own space and ignore everything that’s going on around us. There are moments when I’ve created gardens on Main Avenue that I’ve been so absorbed in thinking through every possible planting permutation that after 20 minutes or so I’ve looked up and suddenly surprised myself that I’m in the middle of Chelsea Flower Show.

How has Chelsea changed in the past 25 years? No doubt expectations are much higher now in terms of the quality of the design and planting schemes, and the ambition of the designers is much greater. Also I think it’s only in the last few years there’s been a return to a mix of different garden styles. Eight to ten years ago everyone was taking plants from the same suppliers and getting all their ideas from the same design book.

Can you remember your first gold-medal-winning show garden? It was a fun Dig For Victory garden, put together really frugally. I was lecturing at Pershore college in 1998, and they gave me the opportunity to create a show garden with students in the Marquee. We had no experience and a grand budget of £500. We had no transport, no plant material, so we begged and borrowed everything!
The idea was to use an Anderson air raid shelter, festooned in brambles and nettles with a traditional veg patch next to it. We had hedges of raspberries and paths lined with strawberries and all the heritage varieties – which in those days was quite unusual.

How was it received? We didn’t have very great expectations, and the other students thought we were all a bit mad, but we won a gold medal for it. We got a visit from the Royal Family: they were very taken with our raspberries. We’d just finished doing the last primping and preening when I turned round and there was this Chelsea Pensioner with several of his friends – all in tears. You know you’ve got the garden right when it moves people in that way.

Are you as excited by Chelsea as you were back then? In a way, the addiction is exactly the same. It’s exciting, it’s challenging. One of the things that’s most rewarding is that from a concept in a notebook to the finished garden, it’s very rapid – in some cases less than 12 months. I also love the fact you always start with a completely blank canvas.
Part of the joy is in engaging with a charity and getting under the skin of the people involved. You have to understand who they are and how they connect, then translate that into a garden narrative. Sometimes it’s really difficult. For instance, this year’s Myeloma garden is about a condition that has no cure, so there’s no happy ending. But the more challenging the brief, the deeper you have to dig as a designer.   

Tell us about the garden for Myeloma UK (Chelsea 2023). The charity is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It assists patients and raises awareness of this incurable, but treatable, blood cancer, for which the charity’s ultimate goal is to find a cure. The concept is inspired by a patient who said of their diagnosis ‘the structure and formality you have in your life suddenly all changes’. To reflect this, the garden opens with a richly planted formal border set against a structural backdrop of clipped yew, with a woodland paradise hidden beyond. You slip through the border on a ‘tiptoe’ path, not knowing where it’s going to take you.

How does the design work? A circuitous charred oak path encourages you to walk slowly, considering every step and observing all the intricate details. You emerge into a garden space where two neo-Palladian classical temples act as architectural punctuation points.
The first temple is halfway up the garden – a place to pause that celebrates the inner garden as an artwork, the elegance and beauty of all its components. There’s a 3D paper leaf sculpture set into the temple wall. When the light strikes it, beautiful shadows form.
From the temple you look down onto a reflective pool where you can see the tree canopy layers and sunlight, blue skies and parakeets flying over Chelsea. If a single droplet of dew falls on it, the image is broken and we’re reminded of the fragility of that ephemeral space.
Underfoot is a fragmented moss labyrinth, reminiscent of Japanese Kintsugi: in Japan when something is broken, you glue it back together, the bond making the object more beautiful than the original.
The second temple is slightly elevated, more opulent and colourful than the first, with a technicolour mural on the rear wall. Here you can sit and enjoy the garden while a bright copper font gently overflows with water, reminding us of constant renewal, rebirth and cleansing of the mind.

What plants will you use? The front border is an early summer, mixed herbaceous border with bulbs and shrubs, choreographed in a ‘scallop’ format – lower at the front, taller at the back. The tree canopy comprises Acer tartaricum ginnala and Cornus kousa, and if the weather is very kind, Cercidiphyllum and Ginkgo.  
The woodland area is more about intricate detail, using ‘modest’ plants in subtle colours such as Pratias, Salangenellas and Iris sibirica, cream Ranunculus acris ‘Flore Pleno’, Zantadeschia ‘Crowborough’ and swaths of woodland Geranium nodosum. There are no big shouty blooms to demand your attention. It’s only when you start to notice the details, the ebb and flow of the canopies, that you really start to read the garden in the way we are intending.

How do you want visitors to respond? I want people to feel the joy of the space but also to appreciate its delicate fragility, and by extension the delicate fragility of our own lives. It’s important to enjoy the moment we’re in. It’s very definitely a garden to be appreciated slowly.
Gardens at their best are emotional rollercoasters. The theatricality you can create when you allow yourself to be immersed in a garden is just breath taking. That’s the joy of doing them. The challenge of the design and the execution, then the reward of seeing if other people have understood what you were trying to say. Sometimes they read it in a way you’d never envisaged, and for me that discovery is so exciting.

Who’s on your Chelsea planting team? I plant with two guys, Nick and Dave. I’ve known them for many years and we absolutely trust one another. So, I might be putting a combination together and get so absorbed in it… Then I’ll stand up, turn round and look at either Nick or Dave and they’ll be frowning at me. And suddenly I realise it doesn’t work; they’ve seen something I haven’t. It’s a real delight to work like that.

How did your relationship with Morgan Stanley come about? They’d been involved with Chelsea for a few years on the corporate hospitality side and then decided to upscale and produce a garden. My wife Frances and I went to talk to them and what appealed to me was that they had a very real reason for being there – every project was genuine. The first garden we did was the Healthy Cities garden (2015), which was transferred into an East End community project in Poplar. The primary school benefitted from the plants and some of the structural pieces from our National Youth Orchestra garden (2016). With the Great Ormond Street Hospital garden (2015) they wanted to create a permanent legacy and made a commitment to help maintain it. It also triggered staff interest in a gardening club; I love the fact these gardens can act as a catalyst to create something more.

What’s your design process? Scattergun, I suppose. The whole project starts off as a series of scribbles and sketches – an opportunity to explore and take key words from discussions with the partner or client. Then I try to graphically represent them. I keep a small sketchbook where I’ll draw a quick rectangle and then a squiggle that becomes a path and then a shape over here that becomes planting. These little thumbnail sketches are so quick; 90% of them might be absolute garbage but somewhere, buried, will be perhaps something you can extract.

Are you visually minded? I was thrown out of art at school! I desperately wanted to do art but in those days it wasn’t considered sufficiently academic. So I was made to do geology instead. Which, with hindsight, wasn’t a bad thing. But I’ve always scribbled and sketched and looked at things. I think looking is the most important skill for any gardener – the ability to look and understand what you’re looking at and why it has an emotional effect on you.

How has your design style evolved? Inevitably it’s naïve when you start, especially with a show garden. There can be very few people who would ever look at their first piece of work and think God that’s a genius at work! Most of us look at our early gardens with a slight air of embarrassment. And so it becomes a learning process, learning new plants, new combinations, new ways of doing things. I think I’ve become more structural in the way my gardens go together, relying on one or two structural pieces, then making a tapestry of other plants to support that structure. And also the design is crisper I think.

What’s your garden like at home? A disaster, largely! If you miss two or three weeks in early spring, you never catch up. And so for the last four years of doing Chelsea, my own garden really has become somewhat neglected. I mean it’s serviceable, but I’d never open it to the public.

Do you dream of opening your home garden to the public? I can’t think of anything worse! It’s bad enough listening to what people have to say about my Chelsea show gardens! However, I do love standing in the background with a hosepipe watering the plants, just listening. The vast majority of comments are really quite flattering but I never take that praise for granted.

What sparked your interest in garden design? I stumbled into it by accident. I was working as a Saturday boy in a nursery where I would bring the plants up in trays and put them on the sales bench. And then one day the nursery owner asked me to look after the shop while he went off for lunch. I started to take the plants out of their trays and create something a bit more ‘gardeneseque’. To my delight we sold everything on that bench.  

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve ever faced at Chelsea? With our garden for Arthritis Uk (2013) we had a bespoke glass structure being made in Ireland. We’d ordered and paid for it three months earlier but on the day it was supposed to arrive, Frances rang the factory to find the line was dead. It turned out the company had gone bust. That’s when my old friend Nick Knowles from DIY SOS came to the rescue. I think he was on holiday at the time and probably had to put down his pina colada to go through his phone book! But with about five days’ notice, one of his contacts managed to put the whole thing together for us and ship it up to Chelsea.

Are you proud of your medal successes? Certainly in the early days winning a gold medal was our sole focus. But with maturity comes the realisation that what’s more important is the quality of the message you’ve been able to convey and whether you feel comfortable with it. There is an element of vanity I suppose. If someone else likes your garden, whose opinion you respect, it’s really something. In 2017 Peter Seabrook came onto the garden with a tear in his eye: you have to create something pretty good to get Peter Seabrook emotional!

Plant your own Beardshaw border!

Chris’s Chelsea borders have a voluptuous beauty that he creates using plants for ‘visual grammar’, complete with punctuation and vocabulary.

1/ Start with a backdrop against which you can show off your plants. This may be a fence, hedge or wall.

2/ Choose a plant to create an early reward – an uplifting structural plant, positioned just a few paces into the border.

3/ Echo that uplifting structural plant at the far end of the border, using a plant in the same form but larger. This acts as a full stop.

4/ Create a tapestry-like flow between these two punctuation plants using mound-formers such as geraniums, sedums and salvias.

5/ Create a little ‘explosion’ halfway along using something fairly tall and upright such as a stand of delphiniums. These will add a dramatic pause.

6/ Co-ordinate the colours. If you’ve got blue delphiniums in the middle you may want to repeat the blue a little bit further up with perhaps salvia ‘Mainacht’ or ‘Caradonna’, whose spires will mimic the delphinium on a smaller scale. Perhaps add a third splash of blue, with camassias.

7/ Transfer the elevation into plan view, treating the bands of plants like contours on a map. You can trace this to make four seasonal templates.

Typical Chris Beardshaw border diagram

This feature is a composite between interviews in Garden Answers May 2018 and The Garden May 2023

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