A Tatton show garden in the making: ‘Sleep Well’ a garden for wellbeing

The budget and shopping.

Breaking news! The garden is now live on the RHS website [RHS Tatton Park 2018] . It now seems very real and I am pleased with the beautiful illustration by Stephen Jacobson and Janet Haigh [Janet Haigh, Stephen Jacobson], it looks quite different in its simplicity and so it stands out. The other seven B2B gardens look amazing and I cannot wait to meet the other designers and builders. My garden design business ‘Trug Garden Design’ website is also live! [ Trug Garden Design ]. The other news is that I was asked to give a talk about the garden for the Friday of Wellbeing Week at the University of Liverpool [Wellbeing Week talk].

I thought I would talk a little about budget and sourcing – when I decided the garden was for wellbeing (sleep) it was always the intention to rebuild it where it would be used for just that. I therefore decided to fund the garden myself, since the NHS/charitable organizations are desperately cash poor and I would be happy to donate the garden. My budget was set at £3k with the hope most of the bills would paid from my monthly salary as they arose, I have an understanding husband who can pay the mortgage! The cost of higher ticket items such as the lily bowl were spread over 2-3 pay packets and £3k was to be everything down to travel to the show and accommodation during the build – we live one hour’s drive away.

January sales!

Once I knew my design had been accepted I allowed myself to shop online for the key plants I needed. Mature specimens are necessary for instant effect so were a good place to start, I found Paramount Plants [Paramount Plants]. ‘There’s 70% off quite a few mature trees at Paramount’ I shout, barely able to contain my excitement. ‘That’s good, so how much are the things you want?’ comes the distracted reply. ‘Not sure which I want, but about £60’. ‘That’s good-is that for a few?’ ‘No, each’. Now focused: ‘so something you’re not sure about costs £60 per plant?’ ‘These are full standard fig trees as high as a door, they’re so good’. ‘Mmmm- what’s the point of the garden again?’ I concentrate on the trees -figs or silver birch? I dither for two weeks, it is now February but the sale continues. I decide on three figs and log on to buy them- only two left!!Things are better in threes or fives, what to do? Ho hum, I click pay – two bargain trees secured. I’m sure a pair will work well!

paramount buys
Some magnificent fig trees and an example of the Santolinas I have 36 of- only 20cm tall!

Boomerang orders

One of the key plants in my design was Santolina ‘Edward Bowles’, to make the ‘cushions’ in the front of the show garden. I needed pale yellow button flowers, not bright yellow. No joy anywhere, only 1 litre plants available. After 4-5 weeks of searching/calling nurseries in the UK (and France) I plump for the common Santolina (I can cut the flowers off) and Santolina Lemon Fizz, a rather interesting variety with lime green foliage and cream flowers. I order and pay for £300 worth of the two types. Pleased to secure them I received an email to say they would be delivered soon. The next week they tell me the plants will be delivered the following day, I book a last minute day’s leave from work to be at home when they come. We live up a very narrow unadopted road that on some days even a mini driver from the Italian Job would struggle with! When I return from work there is an answerphone message telling me the plants are not available and the money has been refunded. I phone up the next day and the manager apologizes and assures me that some Santolinas can be found and ‘leave it with me’. After a further 1-2 weeks I call them to check progress. They call back- sorry the plants are not available in those numbers! And so goes the rollercoaster of obtaining plants-more ups and downs will come I am sure of it. I am pleased to report that Paramount came up trumps with 36 x 3 litre Santolinas, which are now in our tiny back garden. To try and create large (10 litre sized) ‘cushions’ I have forced 3 x 3litre plants into 10 litre pots, with plants facing slightly inwards with the aim to avoid gaps in the foliage. We shall see how they turn out!

two santolinas
Santolina chamaecyparissus with bright yellow flowers and Santolina ‘Edward Bowles’ with cream flowers

Unexpected windfalls

‘That ironworker has stopped corresponding’, I am exasperated. Trying to find an arch wide enough to span the daybed to serve as a canopy had been impossible and so I had been planning to get one made. ‘Look at these-they do an extra wide arch’ my husband sensing the proximity to meltdown had found a 2m wide gothic arch from Agriframes [Agriframes]. ‘Good I say, struggling to hide the annoyance that I had missed this when I was searching. ‘I’ll order one at the weekend’. Friday evening I look to check they are really the right thing, there is a 50% sale- and the arch is there with 50% off! I click buy- kerching, the little beauty (or not so little!) is in the basket.

Another lovely surprise arrived in my email box after ordering the lily bowl from Urbis Design [Urbis Design]. They were going to give me a discount- I open the pdf of the invoice-wow! A very generous discount has been applied. I thank them sincerely. The biggest ‘tale of the unexpected’ happened a couple of weeks ago with an email from University of Liverpool Ness gardens [Ness Gardens] to say they would like to hear more about the show garden, could I meet them for coffee? I had contacted them in January to tell them about the garden and wondering whether they would like to contribute something since I have been an employee of the university for >20 years and wanted the name to be part of the show garden. I went along and ‘pitched’ to the director and the head of plant collections, and last week they offered a generous contribution towards the plant costs! For me, the exciting thing was that they must have liked the design and the whole wellbeing theme. I have ‘lecture captured’ my talk for them so they can play it at Ness – hope they still think I’m a good investment after that.

Lily bowl
Lily bowl in ‘rust’ finish by Urbis Design

Evolution of the budget spreadsheet

My Excel sheet for the garden budget evolved weekly, with sums added on and discounts applied. This week I have added a timber bill, paint, screws and two nights in a Travelodge (for the last night of the build and the night before judging day- my nerves will be shot!).

Anyway, at the moment I feel tremendously lucky. Janet Haigh and Steven Jacobson are providing illustrations and a wonderful quilt, Kaffe Fasset [Kaffe Fassett] is donating some of his stunning fabrics, and I have a great landscaper [Richard Gordon] who is doing the build. Let’s hope for a splendid outcome as a big thanks to them for their generosity!

Thank you for reading!

Next time: site visit plus the team

Garden breakdown and rebuild, Bearded Villains, and yet more publicity!

The garden breakdown

The breakdown began on the Sunday evening once the show had closed. Most of the other B2B gardens had a sell off, with crowds of eager buyers waiting at the show garden perimeters with £10 notes in outstretched hands waiting for the claxon to sound to signify the start of the selloff. It reminded me of a time we had done a car boot sale and the horde of bargain hunters that appeared from nowhere to get their hands in our barely opened car boot! Countless people asked about my plants (whether they were being sold off) and we could have sold the fig trees ten times over. We stuck to our plan, which was to rebuild the garden at Wirral Autism Together Bromborough Pool Garden Centre [Wirral Autism Together Bromborough Pool] , and turned away many disappointed buyers.

‘Moving garden’

All of the plants needed to be re-potted for transport to their destination, where they would be stored for at least a month until the garden centre manager Joan was back from her holiday. We had planted our plants into the ground, unlike some other show gardens who had left them potted (presumably for a quick sell off). Consequently some very ‘happy’ plants had developed quite a root system and needed much larger pots. It took us more than ten hours in total to repot them! We also had to bag up the gravel from the path and under the bed, take turf to the compost heap on the showground and remove any speck of material that was not there when we moved in. Deer and other wildlife inhabit the park and it was important to make it safe- besides which, a hefty deposit would be forfeited should the site clearance not pass inspection by the show manager.

So a couple of days later, and after an emergency van hire (thanks to husband for saving the day!), we took our first load to the autism centre. Several trollies of plants were transferred from the van to a temporary holding place out at the back of the garden centre. The weather was still ‘scorchio’ and I worried whether the plants would survive. We managed with two trips using a large box van stuffed with plants – the fig trees had to be tied to roof bars inside! I left the plants with assurance they would get watered and tried not to worry about them.

The garden rebuild at Wirral Autism Together Bromborough Pool Garden Centre

It was September by the time Joan and I met again, and we arranged a date in October for replanting the garden. However, the site was turfed over and there would be lot of preparation to be done before planting would be possible. I work full time at Liverpool University and time was short, so we decided we would each try to get some volunteers to help prepare the site. Joan came up trumps with a volunteer group called ‘The Bearded Villains’ who promised to dig the plot over. She then secured more help from a group of ladies who worked at the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), who came for a day to dig. The Bearded Villains ended up stripping the turf back, and the RBS ladies did digging. All fabulous and very kind- but I hadn’t got to meet either of these groups. I especially wanted to make sure the villains were all bearded!

Joan and I spent a glorious Saturday planting the show garden. Joan was the fastest planter I have ever seen! She is a true plants woman and it was great to work with her. We left some plants in position for the service users to plant-it was going to be their garden after all. As luck would have it the Bearded Villains were back to erect a polytunnel the Saturday after we planted and we persuaded them to do a little photo shoot!


Ssssh- me in the bed with three bearded villains!

Once the garden was installed in its new home I had always envisaged a visit from the local press, which would raise the profile of Wirral Autism Together and their brilliant garden centre. Nothing transpired for a few weeks, then out of the blue Joan asked me if I could take some time to get there for a photo call with the Autism Together press officer and some of the service users. This was on a Weds afternoon and I took a half day off work to go and dress the bed and take part in the overall excitement. Joan even brought her lippy with her for the photos! Once the bed was dressed a few of the service users were brought around for the photos. It was a hoot! Quite few of us piled onto the bed-some even launched themselves on! Good job my husband had made a bespoke and especially strong base for the bed! I didn’t see any photos for a few weeks and concluded that was it. Then: an email arrived to say we had made it into the local press-the Wirral Globe! [Wirral Globe article]

More fame! Feature in Medical Research Council (MRC) Life publication

I’ll bet that this is probably the one and only article the MRC will publish about gardens!! The following blurb along with two photos were featured in the article in MRC Life October/November 2018

“RHS Silver Medal for MRC-funded scientist”
“Julie Dunn, of the MRC-funded Centre for Drug Safety Science (CDSS)
has been awarded a Royal Horticultural Society Silver Medal for her
Sleep Well Garden at the RHS Flower Show at Tatton Park.
It is the first garden designed by Julie, a research scientist at the
University of Liverpool. It has minimal landscaping and can easily be
recreated by other gardeners with minimal cost.
The idea for a garden in which to sleep and revitalise originates from
Julie’s interest in current scientific research around the health benefits
of both sleep and being outdoors in green spaces”.

What a great end to the whole thing!

Thank you so much for reading the blog, and well done to anyone that has lasted to the bitter end. If anyone is considering making a show garden-DO IT! I am already hoping for an approach from a prospective sponsor who wants to get a message (preferably health/medical) across using the medium of ‘garden’! Actually I have just been approached by Bethan at the Mental Health Institute London, to go down and record a podcast (podcast for the Mental health Institute ) about sleep/health and gardens-so watch that space in February 2019….

Live radio and the show

Thoroughly exhausted following two weeks of digging, planting, painting and fretting in the blistering high thirties temperatures, it’s now show time, entailing five days of smiling and answering questions about the plants, quilt and bed. Annoyingly the temperature has now dropped 10 degrees and there are intermittent showers- still, at least the plants are happier! There seems to be a time warp between 8.30 and 10AM, as each morning that short window of time in which to water, tidy and grab a quick cuppa disappears! “Welcome to RHS Tatton Park Flower Show 2018, we hope you have a pleasant day. The show is now open” announces a male voice in what feels like five minutes after we arrive every day.

The public are very complimentary, especially about the planting. This is both encouraging and surprising to me since I have deliberately used very common plants, and it gives me a confidence boost. So I AM a good designer! Less flattering comments included “What happens when it rains-the bed will get soaked!” “I suppose she’ll cover it or pack it away” comes the common response. In reality, the bed remains out in the elements and the raindrops run off the shower-proofed bedding, which retains its breath-taking beauty throughout the show.

The top five most frequently asked questions/comments from the public were:

“Is that normal purple sage?” people seemed surprised this culinary herb looks so good in a mixed border as an ornamental.
“What’s the tall pink flower at the back?” “Eupatorium, number ten on the plant list” comes the answer. My husband is well versed by the end of day one.
“Which plants make you sleep?”
“Which plants are good for autism?”
“Why didn’t you get gold?”

The purple sage at the edge of the show garden

That last question further enhanced my confidence and I really must hold that thought when I am doubting my designing skills!

Wednesday is ‘press day’ and BBC cameras spend a long time within the show garden. Tina comes rushing over “I’ve just spoken to the radio Merseyside man and told him you’re from Merseyside, so he’s coming to talk to you!” she tells me “It’ll be great publicity!” Tina is of course quite right and when he comes over we chat about the garden and the autism centre where it will be rebuilt. “Would you be happy to do a live interview tomorrow morning at 10-ish?”He asks “Yes, brilliant!” I enthuse, immediately regretting it!

“After this record finishes we are on air” ‘Perfect’ by Fairground Attraction is playing and he asks me if I know the record-I do and I immediately feel safer in the knowledge that my brain is at least engaged! “I’ll interview you first about your garden, and then Lauren about the show if that’s ok?” Lauren Hall the deputy show manager stands by my side, also terrified about her first live interview
[19/07/2018, Sean Styles – BBC Radio Merseyside]

It’s all over in a trice and Marion gives me a thumbs up. Marion is a work colleague at Liverpool University, and has come to help man the garden for the day. The interview is available on BBC iPlayer and I am forced to listen to it later at home at dinner. The interview had ended with a question about the bee, which had slept overnight in my hat under the bed and had stung me on my forehead during the build. The radio show presenter was thus fed the best line and chortled “That Julie Dunn seems like a nice lady, but I think she had a bit of a bee in her bonnet!” Hilarious!!

“My cheeks ache from smiling” I groan at the end of the first show day. Briony had informed me there was a fine payable to the RHS should there ever be fewer than two people manning a show garden at any time during the show. My husband helped on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, and Val and Marion (work colleagues) on Thursday and Jane (a fellow garden designer) on the Friday. My garden was usually manned by one person who had to stand up the whole time. One of my legs became swollen after two days and I couldn’t bend it for three weeks after the show ended! I would recommend 3-4 helpers per day if possible, although I felt as if I couldn’t leave the garden for long as I didn’t want to miss any future garden design opportunities!

“I’ll be bored off my chump by the end of Wednesday!” exclaims my husband “and to add insult to injury you can’t even have an ale!” Jane, by contrast, was seemingly delighted to take on the manning of the garden and consequently Friday turned out to be very enjoyable since I was able to peruse the show. I tested free oils, cheeses, back to the oils (dipping lovely fresh bread into lemon oil is recommended!), sausages and finally, yes, oils again (fig and balsamic?)(I was going to provide the link for the oils company but cannot find them) “It’s a good job alcohol was not allowed, or the Manchester Gin stall could’ve been dangerous!” I reflected.

The weekend brought a couple of possible design commissions, one of which is now underway! The first prospective client was interested in recreating the garden within the grounds of the Georgian manor ‘Shooter’s Hill’ in Shrewsbury, which is used for wedding photo shoots [Shooters Hill] . This would be an amazing job and I really should make contact with the lovely lady who lives there, who spoke with me at length. The second prospective client appeared on the Sunday in the form of Paula and Tony, a lovely couple from Parkgate (where I live) who had fallen in love with my planting. It turns out we ‘half know’ each other as parents of children attending the local primary school. Consequently I took their plea to help design their huge garden with a pinch of salt, since we had chatted at length about our children and having teenagers! However, Paula texted me the same evening and within the following week we struck up a very exciting garden designer/client relationship. I firmly believe their garden could be the turning point in my new career!

Other interesting prospects came via individuals who had worked at/been involved in/ helped to set up what I describe as Garden/Wellbeing projects [knowledgebase] , [Grozone]. Hearing about these projects made me want to give up my current job in science to take part in a remarkably rewarding and forward-thinking area. It occurs to me that I need time to put out some feelers and see what comes back.

Two of the show garden plants at home in my own garden: Calamagrostis Karl Foerster and Verbena bonariensis. Top: my Cercis canadiensis Forest Pansy tree showing off its fabulous late summer/autumn coat.

TIME! Since I have returned to full time lab-work I have spent each lunch hour at the computer trying to build up my new career. The thought of giving up a permanent salary and pension is very scary, thus Part-time could be viable option. I’m not sure what the family think about that!

Next: garden breakdown and full report of the rebuild at Wirral Autism Together!

Final touches and judging!

“Monday is assessment day so the garden has to be ready on Sunday evening” I keep telling myself. Very heavy rain is forecast on Sunday night and I cover the dressed bed with a tarpaulin to avoid a pool of water forming on the middle of the bed. All the bedding has been sprayed with weatherproofing chemicals but the weight of a lot of water could cause problems should someone sit on the bed. “We’ll be back well before 9.30AM to take the tarpaulin off” I say to my husband. My time for assessment is 10.30AM-I am the first B2B garden to be scrutinized. The plan was to have an hour to do some ‘plant tickling’ as it’s referred to in the show garden circles.

The finished show garden looks like a fairytale setting!

We have booked 2 nights in the Bucklow Hill Premier Inn, the Sunday and Monday, and get to the show site at 9AM. There is a kerfuffle at the B2B cluster and Tina (who has been helping Briony with her planting) rushes up to me. “I hope it’s ok but we have been on your garden to remove the tarpaulin-we’ve been told assessment is now at 9.30AM. OMG we didn’t know what to do and Andy said we have to take the cover off because the judges cannot see it!” Andy has designed the Manchester garden and is my other B2B neighbour Andy Walker. Andy has been the best build neighbour one could hope for! “We’ll leave you to sort out your gravel shouts Tina who is disappearing into the ferns next-door!”

I step onto my garden to start plant tickling and 5 judges appear around the corner. I am politely asked to disappear from earshot while my garden is assessed. “Let’s hope there were no broken grasses!” I say to my husband, who is probably thinking about the lie-in that could have been. “It would be funny if one of the judges got a big wet arse” he says to me as we sit in the exhibitors catering tent over a cup of tea. Mmm-I’ll hold that thought.

We spend the rest of the day feeling mildly redundant. My daughters arrive mid-afternoon and we are now a complete team in the pending doom. I have a time slot at 1.30PM on Tuesday during which I must present my garden to the judging panel, or “do the big sell” as Carol put it. Carol works for NACRO and has employed Andy to make their show garden, she is terrified of giving their presentation and we go through each other’s speeches whilst watering. After the presentation the other judging panel further assess the garden.

We all enjoy a lovely meal that evening and I forget about tomorrow’s speech. The feeling of dread returns the next day as we sit on camping chairs awaiting my assessment. Finally the judges arrive and I am called over to my garden where they tell me what’s going to happen. I get my first sentence out but the rest of my speech gets lost in my throat. “I’m sorry I just can’t remember what I was going to say” I blurt. “Take some time- you were just telling us about sleep” offers one of the judges calmly. I finally spit it all out and it’s all over!

The judges looking under the bed

EXCEPT- as we de-camp to let them assess the garden there is a terrible sight to behold! Both terrible and fabulous…ALL five judges are on the bed- a bed made for 2 people……..

“It’s a good sign -they are having fun on your garden” says Janet. All I can think about is the terrible prospect of wet bottomed, or even worse, injured angry judges!

“We should be told at 2.30PM what medals we have got” says Carol, then I’m off back home. Andy has gone to London and she is left to receive and convey the results to the team by phone. They said 3.30PM at the gate I said, thinking the later the better. We sit around for more than 2 hours chatting and picnicking. One of the judges appears with white envelopes. We each get our envelope (I am pleased just to get one) and the judge hurries away after telling us we will get feedback later on that afternoon. “I am going to the loo, I can’t open it” I thrust the envelope into my husband’s hand. When I return 10 minutes later he has looked, as have my daughters. “Will I be happy?” I ask. ”Very” he says. I was and still am delighted with my silver medal! Janet is also very happy, and we are all suddenly exhausted. “Just the show to do now” I say as my daughter places the medal certificate into its placeholder on the garden sign.

Me with the medal certicate

The feedback comes with 2 of the judges, one of whom I recognize from my Gardens Illustrated magazines. It is both written and further clarified verbally. I agree with it all and they point out that a couple of simple things would have pushed it up to a silver-gilt. I really am pleased with my silver and note down the faults for next time!

Janet Haigh has posted her blog about the quilt and the show garden from her perspective Janet Haigh!

Next time: the show



Show garden build: Days 5 and 6

The garden is now looking like a garden with lots of the larger plants in. My husband has excelled at planting and I am wondering whether he enjoys it? I find out at the end his final day (Day 6) that he doesn’t. Perhaps it’s the temperature in the high thirties every day that’s marred the experience?

Day 5: the taller planting is in, and at least we won’t be tripping over it now! The waste soil in pots will need to be taken away unless one of my neighbors needs it for raised beds.
Day 6: the daybed and arch are in place! The arch seemed to have grown by 18cm in width and no longer fitted the legs at 2m apart! Husband did a kind of ‘Iron Man’ squeezing of the top of the arch and got it back to 2m. I am fretting about the flowers and whether they will last in this scorching weather- we erect our gazebo each day to give them some shade while we are there.


Show garden build: Days 3 and 4


Day 3: another scorcher and it’s all been too much…..I wonder if he’s dreaming about his desk job?


Day 4: top-Andy’s mural is taking shape next door, bottom-looks the same as Day 3? Ho hum. Lily bowl looks very bright but tones well with Salvia Amistad with its violet flowers. I have had to deadhead most of the Salvia Amistad so am praying it develops more buds- it’s got a week to get its act together… 

Show garden build: Days 1 and 2

‘I’m up here now, is there any chance I can deliver your plants today?’ The delivery driver, Andy, from Paramount Plants is in Cheshire and would dearly like to offload my fig trees and grasses because, as he put it ‘I’ve got a right big load’. I call him to say I can’t access the site until the next day, which was our agreed delivery date, and he enquires about a place to park up for the night. I try to find somewhere but in vain and agree to meet him at 8am at Tatton Park.

Day 1
We leave home at 7am, at 7.20 Andy calls, he is parked at Tatton. I give him my plot number and he is waiting when I arrive at 8.15. The fig trees are unloaded, followed by the Calamagprostis Karl Foerster. ‘Lovely Figs’ says Andy, I agree. The Fig trees have an almost ethereal pale grey trunk and gnarly branches. Andy regales me with tales of deliveries to Monty Don, Joe Swift and Wayne Rooney and I feel like I have picked a decent Nursery to buy from.

Lovely fig trees



Calamagrostis Karl Foerster on the hard dusty ground

The plot stands bare and dusty, having had the turf removed and the RHS have also erected the brushwood screening – double bonus! We open the car boot and begin unloading the Santolinas which have been resident in our garden at home for four months.

Santolinas finally get to Tatton

I can’t get a spade in! I have hacked at the soil but nothing makes an impression on the rock like ground. My husband wields a pick axe as well as an iron bar, which he has borrowed from work colleagues, trying to make a decent sized hole for the first Fig tree. Fifteen minutes later, with divorce imminent and with sweat rolling down his red forehead I spot a digger next door. I walk over to one of the ground crew who is manning the dumper to takes away any scooped soil. ‘I can see you looking at the digger’ he smiles. ‘How would I arrange to have my plot turned over?’ I ask; the kind dumper man says he’ll speak to driver once he’s finished. Fifteen minutes later the whole plot has been dug over and I have two pits for the fig trees – the ground crew are life savers. Seriously without that happening we could not have made any progress – it is exceptional weather at the moment but should I ever do another garden, getting the plot dug over mechanically would be first on my list.

I have caught up with the neighbours and everyone is really friendly as was mentioned to me by people who have done gardens before. Briony, who I met back in May, is next to us and the other side is Andy who I meet the following day. He is a veteran of multiple gardens as is Matt, the fourth of our back to back group. Matt doesn’t have any plants, other than a large tree which has turned up, due to Nursery issues and I’m thankful all is on track for me at the moment.


Day 2
Up at 6am, for another 8am start on site with my plants arriving from Dovecote Nursery today. Peter, the driver, pulls up in his van with all my plants on Danish trollies within. Peter, like a lot of people here, is an old hand and regales me with tales of Chelsea and famous designers he has delivered to – the plants come off the van and look magnificent and within a couple of minutes are being enjoyed by dragonflies and butterflies which appear out of nowhere.

Morning of Day 2

After lunch Richard arrives – he’s a friend we met through the local primary school with a landscaping business. He was happy to help, not having done a show garden previously, and having someone who’s done this stuff before is brilliant. My husband and I labour for him, fetching timber and wheelbarrows full of gravel and compost from his trailer. Four hours later, as if he has waved a magic wand, the plot has edging, defined borders, is level and has a gravel area ready for the bed.


Bottom: Richard and I. Top: lunch in the shade.

‘This email says your plants have been delivered and left in a safe place in the porch’ calls my husbands from his chair. So I now have 55 Vervein plant sat in someone’s porch – they should have been coming to Tatton and we don’t have a porch at home so they could be anywhere! We ask the man at the gate, ‘Good luck with that’ he grins as we head off on a tour of the perimeter. At one entrance the gateman gestures to a house whose occupant is on holiday, so we try there – there are four boxes plied up in front of his front door in a grand pillared porch and they are addressed to me – Hurrah!
At 5.30pm I begin watering the hundreds of plats we now have on site in pots – it is 30C and they are thirsty, as is my husband. I start to panic at 5.55 as we need to be off site in 5 mins, 5 o’clock starts for watering next time! So that is the end of Day 2 – just got to plant the plants now – Days 3 and 4 to follow….



A Tatton show garden in the making: ‘Sleep Well’ a garden for wellbeing



Storm Hector and Joe Pye weed

6AM and I run downstairs to perform Storm Hector plant rescue (not sure the drama outcompetes Bondi Rescue or Seaside Rescue!) – and I find there is an extra 30 minutes work to be done as well as the usual morning chaos today. The bronze fennel were touching their toes and the Deschampsia doing a limbo under an invisible bar. ‘Let’s get you inside’ I soothe as I lug the tall wispy plants up the garden in my pyjamas. They are all at least one metre (1m) tall by now and look stately on the kitchen table. ‘How will I get you to the show in one piece?’ I ask them. I return down the garden to inspect the Nicotiana Sylvestris I grew from seed – ‘not sure you need assistance in a hurricane’ I sigh as I look at the 30cm tall specimens that are meant to be at least 1m tall. The staunch Santolina ‘cushions’ hunker down like giant silvery corals, weather proof and delicately structured all rolled in one.

Above: Stately Deschampsia and fennel plants shelter from Hector but my garden is still taken over! Below: the Santolinas hunker down in bed.

The Tatton Show awakens

This week I have received half a dozen emails from the RHS, each requiring an action with an accompanied deadline. Consequently almost every evening is taken up with a task and/or a person to chase up for plants, logos, photo IDs or delivery dates. Sounds like a whinge? Not at all – I spend almost all day at work in the lab looking forward to my alternative occupation as garden designer by night! I am loving every minute of it!
The sudden flurry is as a result of RHS Chelsea and RHS Chatsworth finishing- and RHS Tatton is next!
Watching and worrying

‘How can something so perfect get a bronze?’ I declare as I watch Chelsea medal day. ‘I’ll be lucky to get a medal’ I shout. ‘Well that’s Chelsea – the standards are the highest’, my supportive husband yells from the other room, escaping the back to back Chelsea recordings I am playing over and over. I can understand how show gardens get marked down over horticulturally incorrect plant associations, but even so, those gardens on the screen were amazing! Some of the comments made by the presenters give me a little boost – a straw to clutch. ‘Judges are looking for theatre in a garden- it is a show after all’, they’ve got ‘theatre’ in spades with my garden! A double bed with canopy and quilt- as Janet Haigh said ‘It’ll look quite a number’. I’m pretty sure my plant combinations are sound too, but I fret about the quality of it all – the planting, the finish…..
I watch some coverage of the Chatsworth show and the show gardens look awesome too – so it’s not just Chelsea with the highest standards……
Disguising fences, rethinking planting plans, and a possible solution!

The B2B gardens are arranged in grids of four with each garden sharing a boundary with two others, a screen wall divides the gardens. Each screen is 4m wide and 2m high and at the application stage there is an option to have brushwood fencing erected (for £120) by the RHS. I opted for this thinking it would be a job less to do, plus brushwood is very natural looking and in keeping with my plants. Once my design was accepted I was alerted to the fact that the brushwood looks very rough and I would probably want to disguise it. I assured the judging panel that there would be some height in the planting and that I may use a willow trellis to cover the brushwood. Now here I am weeks before the show and the problem has not been ‘magicked’ away.

I have considered climbers such a Passiflora caerulea, and found some beautiful mature specimens, but even they only cover an 80cm width, so they would be a very expensive fix as I would need more than £500 worth of plants. I contacted Sophie at Screen with Envy [link] about their wonderful ornate screening panels. Sophie proposed they provide the screens for the garden and the screens could be given away as a prize in a draw which could be entered by ‘liking’ the garden and the screens at the show. Genius! However, upon reflection (and conferring with Janet Haigh and my husband) we decided the screens would actually draw the eye too much, detracting from the planting and the bed. I will certainly be considering their screens in any future designs. Little did I know there was a solution around the corner- but disguised as a problem!

Plant problems – and solutions

‘Please come and see your plants ASAP – you need to make a decision’ came the instant reply to my email about when I could see my plants at the nursery. Concerned there is a crisis, I immediately phone the nursery. ‘No need to worry – I just need you to decide what to do, the Achilleas are in full flower now. You might need to find an alternative?’ Well I am worried and arrange to have the car the following day so I can visit the nursery after work.

The Achilleas are indeed in full flow and will be burnt out by the show! We walk around the nursery looking at alternatives There is a different Achillea that is about to flower, but it looks like it’s going to have a very bright red flower – even though its name ‘Apricot Dream’ would suggest apricot! The purple Loosestrife has flowers resembling spires so is not ideal but the Eupatorium (AKA Joe Pye weed) is a possible. ‘They would need to be a lot straighter’ says the ace nursery owner as we peruse the specimens in the poly tunnel, ‘You’ll get marked down for plants that aren’t straight’ – ‘But I only want a garden in which to fall asleep in ‘ I say to myself, ‘What have I let myself in for?’.

The best thing is, you’ve guessed it, is Joe Pye weed – already a stately 1m + tall, and will be taller still once it’s standing to attention! A readymade brushwood disguise!
I spend another couple of hours tending my show plants at the Nursery. Strong winds have blown over a lot of them, some have started to bend over a bit too much and some have dead leaves to pick off. I arrange to return Saturday morning to confirm final plant choices, anything I don’t use will be put out for sale.
‘I’ll come a see the plants with you’ husband is not busy visiting his mother this Saturday. We arrive at 11AM – and leave at 2PM! Something tells me he won’t offer to come again! Armed with a list of jobs to do I repot the Salvia ‘Amistad’, which need more space for their roots, we move purple sage and Artemisia into the poly tunnel to grow more, move all the flowering plants into the cooler tunnel to hold them back from flowering too soon, and give everything a good drink in the scorching sun. My husband is instructed to tie the Joe Pye weed to tall canes and offered some insect repellent for his legs, which he declines and regrets two horsefly bites later.
‘I’ve just been asked whether they had any Jasmine’ says my bewildered husband, whose gardening expertise extends to mowing a lawn or using the strimmer on the allotment. He looks a proper nursery expert with his low loader packed with Echinacea plants – I wish I’d had a camera – maybe I do need to succumb and get a smartphone?
‘No pressure, but every time I’ve supplied show plants the gardens have got Gold!’ was the parting comment from the nursery owner. ‘Wait ‘till they see the plants she’s grown at home’ says my husband, ‘mmm, that’ll bring the record down’. He’s had enough, needs his Racing Post and Royal Ascot starts in half an hour! Or are my plants really not good enough?


Thanks for reading – I hope it was fun?


Next time: dress rehearsal for the bed and canopy, and last minute updates before the build begins………



A Tatton show garden in the making: ‘Sleep Well’ a garden for wellbeing

Site visit plus ‘the team’

This week I have been mostly filling in risk assessments and picking aphids off my plants. I am doubtful that any of my home grown efforts will be tall in just six weeks from now, but I must continue to molly coddle them- a small miracle may not be out of the question.

plant takeover
Where did my garden go? My plant efforts at home with under six weeks left until the show. Clockwise from top left: never in a million years, probably not, unlikely, possibly, definitely maybe, definitely, definitely and the arch obviously.

On a brighter note, I visited my plants at Dovecote Nurseries [Dovecote Nurseries], where the owner and ace plants woman Philippa has been sorting them into a group for my show garden. She also has plants for another show garden that will be happening before Tatton. The plants look healthy and I am relieved; one problem is that the Sanguisorba ‘Tanna’ are very very small (even with 6 weeks to go I ‘m not feeling positive about them). It seems that Sanguisorbas are not to be (I have tried and failed to acquire taller varieties s as well as the shorter ‘Tanna’ that are at Dovecote). I worry as they are my ‘pop’ of colour in the show garden. I tell Janet who is currently making the quilt, and she unpicks the fabrics with the particular colour of the Sanguisorbas from the growing quilt. She is not unhappy with removing this magenta pink and happily replaces it with softer pink hues.

Do not panic Captain Mainwaring! I hare off to Gordale nurseries [Goredale] to view some already very tall black hollyhocks. Rob their plant manager had informed me they had a huge delivery of plants for the bank holiday weekend and I should go and see them before the hoards descended over the weekend. The leaves are too similar to the fig leaves and they don’t have an ‘airy’ feel and I not sure, so I don’t buy them. Rob says he is very good at sourcing plants and will try to get Sanguisorbas (or Dierama ‘Blackbird’) for me. ‘You should wait until the week before the show and come and see what looks good’ he offers! I’m not sure I have the nerve for that.

Dierama ‘Blackbird’ and Sanguisorba officinalis

The site visit

‘That must be it over there!’ we screw our eye towards the horizon searching for any indicator of show site beginnings. There is a copse of trees, a couple of cars and less than a dozen humans, who are huddled against the wind. In the far distance (but not that far) are a herd of deer; the near distance offers various brightly coloured triangular nylon flags stuck in the grass. ‘Go and test the ground’ my husband is cautious about getting the car stuck in mud (it’s May 1st and it’s been raining forever). ‘I’ll go and ask if we can drive on the grass’ I say. Nobody in the group wants to commit to a ‘yes it’s ok to drive on the grass’ but the general consensus is ‘carry on’- I wave my husband and Richard, my landscaper who has come to see what the site has to offer, over.

site visit
Richard and I on the edge of the show garden plot

The three of us stand on my plot- it’s surreal. The flags mark out show garden sites and my flags are orange; apart from the few flags all there is only parkland-grass growing on rock hard ground, trees, deer and some unobtrusive fencing delineating the road to the main carpark. When I sent a photograph to friends, one said ‘It’s a f***ing field- you’re building a show garden in a field?’ My husband lies on the grass in the centre of the 6x4m space ‘I’m in the bed!’ Richard has his tape measure out and he and I talk through the layout of the show garden. My heart pounds as U imagine the crowds that will walk past during the show. My garden will be on the corner of two main avenues and will be unmissable (not least due to the fully dressed bed). It’s gonna have to be good I tell myself-all those eyes on my garden! Yikes!

‘You must be the garden with the bed in it?’ a young lady comes over- she is one of my B2B neighbours. ‘I’m Briony’ she shakes my hand. ‘You’re the bee’s garden?’ I remembered seeing her striking design called ‘Penumbra’on the RHS website [Penumbra]. She’s from Oxford and is building her garden in Blenheim, then moving it to Tatton! I hope I’m not the only show garden first timer. ‘What happens to bed if it rains?’ asks Briony’s landscaper………

Once I’ve asked the deputy show manager millions of questions we head home. It’s been really good chatting to Richard, who has tons of experience, and I feel like I got a lot out of the visit.

The team

Myself: wanna be full time garden designer. Have designed half a dozen gardens for clients then returned to science for 12+ years. Plant lover, creative and ‘ever the optimist’.

Husband: long suffering listener to the wanna be garden designer (been there before!). He is very practical, grounded and has a terrific eye for detail. He will be brutally honest, but at the same time keeping spirits high.

Richard: I phoned Richard when I found out I had a show garden because I knew it was something he’d never tried, but would like to do something different. Luckily he offered his services as an experience landscaper in return for taking part in something new and exciting. He has created some lovely gardens and he will have an eye for detail and finish. Importantly he has a pickup truck and will help to transport the disassembled garden to its permanent home after the show.

Janet Haigh and Stephen Jacobson: Janet was the first person I discussed my ideas for a show garden with. I had called her to ask whether she thought I would need Kaffe Fasset’s permission to use his fabrics to make a quilt. She was on board from that moment, volunteering to make the quilt and design it with me using my planting plans. Stephen (her husband) volunteered to create the perspective drawing from my plans; Janet painted all the illustrations for the application. The three of us spent two days last October working out how to create the bed for the garden, and a showerproof canopy. They will come and dress the bed for the show.

Daughters: aged 16 and 19, they will be the chief critics! They have scoffed and chortled at the daybed when we set it up on a practice run in our garden (see previous blog post). Despite their ‘teenageness’ (is that even a word?) they have offered to help with the planting, and I know that I will be seeking their youthful opinions on the design of the leaflets to be handed out at the garden during the show; they will also help me with what to wear during the show!

Thank you for reading- I hope you enjoyed it?

Next time: to be decided!




A Tatton show garden in the making: ‘Sleep Well’ a garden for wellbeing

‘The bed and the quilt’

There has been a very exciting development! The ‘Sleep Well’ garden will be rebuilt at Wirral Autism Together, Bromborough Pool Garden Centre, where it will be enjoyed for years to come [Wirral Autism Together]. I always wanted to donate the garden to a place where people could use it as therapy through sleeping, relaxing and/or light gardening. At Autism Together it will serve exactly that purpose-although Joan (the centre’s manager) is fearful there will be too much temptation to sleep and not get gardening!

Back to the show garden

The full sized bed arrangement that features in the garden includes an extendable daybed covered with a quilt and partially sheltered by a covered arch.

The bed

Lying ‘in state’: the extended daybed, an old quilt and the arch

The bed consists of a metal daybed with an extension (called a trundle) to make it into a double bed size. The daybed is like a very deep sofa with high sides and back, and I have painted the whole thing with black Hammerite to weatherproof it. The daybed (and the arch that will stand over it as a canopy) is ornate and will look elegant even when the bed is undressed during winter months. The width of the daybed is 198cm and easily accommodates a tall person lying down, and the high sides and back give a feeling of enclosure and shelter even though it was snowing in the photo! The wooden slats that form the bed base (or seat) were flimsy and so we are replacing them with stronger slats. I picture the scene as an RHS judge hears and feels sharp snapping sounds as they lower in for the whole relax/sleep experience but end up on the gravel beneath!

The arch

This a wonderful Gothic style arch from Agriframes [Agriframes] that looks very stately and is a beautiful garden feature. It stands at 3m high and I tell myself it WILL look good in the 6 x 4m show garden. Of course I chose the arch for the design, but looking up at its 3m looming towards the sky I feel a little anxious about scale and design rules being broken. The arch has a great outline and it seems a shame to cover it with a canopy, but the effect with the canopy will be opulent and add to the marvellous theatre of the whole ‘set’. One will feel less ‘person lying in state’ and more the ‘Mata Hari’!

I can also imagine the arch overgrown with glossy dark green ivy and its globular midnight coloured berries providing interest in the garden in the winter, as well as providing a refuge for wildlife. Plantlife may be ‘allowed’ to take over the daybed too, creating a scene I have in mind from my ‘Giant Book of Fairytales’ where Sleeping Beauty lies in a deep sleep amidst undergrowth of brambles, which the prince has to cut through. I wonder if Kate Moss is free?

The quilt

The quilt is bespoke and will be designed and made by textile artist Janet Haigh [Janet Haigh][Kaffe Fassett quilt]. We used the plant pictures to select a minimal number of fabrics taken from an extensive collection of floral prints designed by Kaffe Fassett and Brandon Mably.


quilt illo
Illustration showing ideas for the  day bed quilt, canopy, cushions and fabrics

This was almost impossible since I wanted all the fabrics!! Janet asked me to choose my favourite print (a brassica head in a green/purple colourway) and showed me how to ‘fussy cut’ it to make the central square for the quilt, from which the rest of the quilt ‘grows’. The whole process was started by attaching fabric squares to a grid on the wall to facilitate arranging the fabrics to the desired effect. She demonstrated the use of colour and pattern in the design, and how different the fabrics looked from a distance and when placed next to different neighbouring squares. As my colour scheme is quite cool and restful, Janet suggested using warm colours for the fabric inside the quilt, where one will be asleep. The size of the quilt will be large for a sumptuous effect, and all the bedding (quilt, pillows, mattress roll) will fit into a weatherproof pack that will sit within the folded trundle under the daybed when not in use.

From my initial ideas to the current design

Originally I had pictured a wooden four poster bed set in an overgrown meadow made from reclaimed timber. The issues with this idea included: looking a bit rustic/clumsy in a show garden setting, not much winter appeal, and the fact that it’s always a double bed size. The day bed and arch should provide the same impact but will mean it can provide structure and interest to the garden even during winter months or inclement weather.

Will it rain? Probably. If it does shall I stow the quilt away or cover it with thin plastic? If I stow it away and later, when the rain stops, dress the bed, it will show off the versatility of the arrangement. Lord Leverhulme slept outside most of his life despite the weather!

Lord Leverhulmes Bed
Carl Walker’s atmospheric photograph of Lord Leverhulme’s bed outside on the balcony [Carl Walker]
On a more positive note- will somebody famous lie in my bed? Dan Pearson, Monty Don, or just me- exhausted and making full use of the ‘Sleep Well’ garden!

Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it!

Next time: the budget