After two years of frustrating cancellations and disruptions caused by the global pandemic, the annual RHS Chelsea Flower Show returned with a bang this week to the hallowed grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London, much to the delight of gardeners everywhere.
For the world of Irish horticulture there was yet another reason to celebrate when it was announced on Tuesday that a gold medal, and the prestigious Best in Show award, had been given to the Cork and Somerset-based firm Urquhart & Hunt for its show garden A Rewilding Britain Landscape.
Inspired by the role that beavers, a species once native to Britain but extinct for several hundred years, play as “ecosystem engineers” in regenerating and restoring the natural landscape, it was widely praised for its sensitive, exquisitely-executed, nature-led design.
As garden and landscape designers look for ways to integrate a more sustainable, environmentally-sensitive approach into their work, the glitzy excesses and giant budgets of many of the Chelsea show gardens of previous decades have been firmly consigned to the past. Instead Urquhart and Hunt’s winning design represents a contemporary aesthetic that’s reflective of how the issues of sustainability and biodiversity have become core values of its organisers, the Royal Horticultural Society as well, increasingly, of gardeners worldwide.
Known for its ecological restoration and rewilding work, Urquhart & Hunt’s principal designers, Adam Hunt and Somerset-based Lulu Urquhart, are two of the founders of Trees for London, now Trees for Cities, the UK charity working to improve lives by planting trees. Hunt and his partner, the firm’s associate garden designer Valerie Keating Bond, are part of the small tight-knit team who together worked on the design, construction and planting of the firm’s award-winning Chelsea show garden.
Representing a rewilding beaver habitat in the southwest of England and created in collaboration with the charity Rewilding Britain, it features a beaver lodge (the beavers’ home) and a beaver dam by a native woodland’s edge through which a small river runs. Approximately 3,600 native and naturalising British plants were grown especially for the garden, many of them painstakingly propagated from seed and all in peat-free compost. To amplify the experience of visitors to the show, Urquhart and Hunt also made what they describe as a “soundscape”, which features the songs, calls and mating sounds of corncrakes, cuckoos, longtail tits, kingfishers, great spotted woodpeckers, vixens and muntjac deer, the buzz of dragonflies, bumblebees and the sounds of beavers “playing, fighting, chewing and crashing their tails”.
“One of the staggering experiences of a rewilding area is the sound, so we’ve collaborated on the creation of a soundscape that features noises long lost, but possible to recover with ecological restoration and the reintroduction of keystone species. The aim is to show melodies of a future landscape alive.”
As recipient of the Best in Show award and front-runner at the time of writing for the public-voted ‘RHS Chelsea People’s Choice’ award, Urquhart & Hunt’s achievement catapults the firm into an elite group of previous winners. Previous Irish RHS Chelsea gold medal winners include the designers Paul Martin (2016), Diarmuid Gavin (2011) and Mary Reynolds (2002). This year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show continues until Saturday, May 28th.
For details, see rhs.org.uk