Paul Hervey-Brookes at Chelsea 2022

Paul Hervey-Brookes on his last Chelsea Main Avenue garden in 2014.

Paul Hervey-Brookes on his last Chelsea Main Avenue garden in 2014 - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

Cotswold designer Paul Hervey-Brookes is making a show garden at next month’s Chelsea Flower Show. Mandy Bradshaw finds out more

After an eight-year absence from the main stage at Chelsea, Cotswold designer Paul Hervey-Brookes would have been forgiven for playing it safe and relying on the style that has won him multiple awards. 

Instead, his design on the world-famous show’s Main Avenue challenges the very idea of what makes a garden. 

His trademark clipped box and pastel perennials are gone, replaced with plants chosen for their ability to capture CO2 or clean up polluted soil, and all set within a former industrial site. 

‘The idea is to show that you can have a garden anywhere,’ he says, ‘and to challenge some of the preconceived ideas of what gardening should be or what we’re used to seeing as good gardening.’ 

It’s something that is exercising many designers. At last year’s show, Hugo Bugg and Charlotte Harris created an urban ‘pocket park’ with an industrial past, winning gold. 

Paul has taken this a stage further with a private garden that is carved out of an old brownfield site. It addresses what he sees as common problems: lack of space and lack of money to create a traditional garden. 

Pastel perennials on the 2018 Artisan Garden at Chelsea which won gold.

Pastel perennials on the 2018 Artisan Garden at Chelsea which won gold - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

Paul is known for his use of perennials in planting schemes. This was on the 2017 RHS Hampton Court

Paul is known for his use of perennials in planting schemes. This was on the 2017 RHS Hampton Court garden - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

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‘Lots of people don’t live in their ideal situation but they still want to garden.’ 

The design of The Brewin Dolphin Garden stems from the idea of a couple who have converted a former factory into a house and how they then make a garden using the fabric of that building. 

‘There’s very little being added in terms of build,’ explains Paul. ‘People seeing the garden need to imagine it’s a former industrial site that’s been renovated and restored without being massively changed.’ 

Paul with Mika Misawa who designed one of the 2021 Container Gardens that Paul mentored.

Paul with Mika Misawa, who designed one of the 2021 Container Gardens that Paul mentored - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

Key to this illusion will be a series of walls ranging from 30 centimetres high to four metres that at times partially block the view through the space. 

‘It’s a site that would have been an old industrial unit with a series of walls from past use and what the owners have decided to do is to just renovate those walls and preserve them, and build a garden within the fabric of a pre-existing space. 

Large ceramics are often a feature of Paul's designs. This was on the gold medal-winning garden for

Large ceramics are often a feature of Paul's designs. This was on the gold medal-winning garden for Viking Cruises at RHS Hampton Court in 2017 - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

‘It means the visitor has to spend more time engaging with the garden and walk around it to fully appreciate what’s happening,’ says Paul who divides his time between Tetbury and France. 

The materials range from reclaimed brick, Dutch brick and cast concrete to eco-straw and metal, while one boundary where the house would be is a hedge of hornbeam. All this will be set on a floor made from slate that’s been sliced into paving slabs, and mixed, recycled aggregates, such as road chippings, that have been repurposed. 

There will be a seating area for relaxing, a water feature designed to capture rainwater and a ‘ground fridge’ – a modern version of an icehouse that uses no electricity – set into a wooded area.

Perennials in soft shades on the Institute of Quarrying Garden at RHS Chatsworth in 2017.

Perennials in soft shades on the Institute of Quarrying Garden at RHS Chatsworth in 2017 - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

The trees will be mainly betula or Ostrya carpinifolia, which absorb CO2 at a faster rate than other trees. 

The ability of plants to combat climate change is something that Paul has been thinking about over the past year. He’s worked on a large project in France to replant a village with things that improve air quality, and with London estate agents Chestertons on pollution-beating plants suitable for a balcony. He also created an installation at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show that showcased plants that were good at capturing CO2. 

The 2017 Viking Cruises garden at RHS Hampton Court won gold.

The 2017 Viking Cruises garden at RHS Hampton Court won gold - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

‘I think these decisions are equally as important as colour, texture, form, the traditional definitions of garden design particularly when you’re dealing with planting in an urban environment, which is where most people live.’ 

It does mean a change from the aquilegia, alliums and box that have characterised many of his award-winning gardens. Instead, things not normally seen at Chelsea, such as Buddleja specialissima, Cymbalaria muralis, and wild teasel will feature, and the main area of planting will not be what he describes as ‘pretty, pretty’. 

‘It will be an interesting challenge to not rely on some of the plants that I always fall back on because I know what they look like,’ comments Paul, ‘but that said I think it’s a really important message.’ 

 The 2018 Chelsea Artisan Garden was inspired by the spa and the idea of living well.

The 2018 Chelsea Artisan Garden was inspired by the spa and the idea of living well - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

Soft planting contrasting with hard landscaping on the 2018 Viking Cruises Artisan Garden at RHS Che

Soft planting contrasting with hard landscaping on the 2018 Viking Cruises Artisan Garden at RHS Chelsea - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

In particular, he believes box is ‘inappropriate for most people now’ given the blight and caterpillar that are devastating plants throughout Britain. 

A small productive area will concentrate on things, such as soft fruit, that are labour intensive or resource intensive to grow on a commercial scale but are easy to cultivate at home. These will be in raised beds that use the no dig system of growing. 

Paul's Viking Cruises garden at Chelsea in 2019 won gold in the Space to Grow category.

Paul's Viking Cruises garden at Chelsea in 2019 won gold in the Space to Grow category - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

While Paul may not have made a Main Avenue garden since 2014, he has been at every Chelsea since then both as a judge and creating gold medal-winning smaller gardens.  

Last year, he also mentored the new container gardens category and will again guide designers on their Chelsea debut in both this and the balcony garden section. 

The balcony contest has been re-thought to make the designs ‘walk around’ so that visitors can experience them as though they were stood inside the house. Both the balcony and container sections have been given a more prominent location at the show on the triangle area of Main Avenue. 

‘We really believe these are among the most important categories at the show because it’s realistic to what a lot of people have as a garden space.’ 

The 2017 garden at RHS Chatsworth for the Institute of Quarrying won gold, Best in Show and Best Con

The 2017 garden at RHS Chatsworth for the Institute of Quarrying won gold, Best in Show and Best Construction - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

Paul’s excited about the return of the show to a May date, after first the cancellation in 2020 and then the September show last year. 

‘September had such a buzz, but May is its traditional home, and it really is the start of the gardening year. It doesn’t matter where you go, people know Chelsea and I feel extraordinarily privileged to be a part of that.’ 

His last Main Avenue garden was awarded a disappointing bronze, but he believes he’s better prepared this time for what will be his 26th show garden after his first at the Malvern Autumn Show back in 2008. 

‘I’m nervous to do a good job,’ he says, ‘but when I made that Chelsea garden, I had two gold medals. Now I have 12 so I feel I know what I’m doing and I’m also a judge, so I know what the standard is. I shall do as I have done since then: work for gold but assume nothing.’ 

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show runs from May 24-28. More details on the website: rhs.org.uk

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