In May 2023, we created a garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for Talitha Arts, a charity that uses the creative arts to bring hope and transformation to those who have experienced trauma. The garden was a celebration of the arts, with delicate and vibrant planting bursting onto a sombre canvas of deep purples and a textural backdrop, representing the bruises of the past. Our hard landscaping had been influenced by the shapes of a ‘thrust stage’ to represent the charity’s use of the performing arts as a means of therapy. Our central sculpture, a beautiful limestone chrysalis engulfed by 100s of handmade porcelain butterflies, represented new life and renewal.

Layers of other details were woven into the design to reinforce this message of transformation. However, it was a fine balance of creating a narrative that was easily interpreted, while also leaving part of the story untold for the viewer to have their own response. At the show, we were struck by how many visitors had their own emotive response to simply seeing the garden. It's amazing to think that a garden can be read in this way - and is something that has certainly influenced our practice as garden designers since.

Great British Life: Joe and Laura Carey of Carey Garden Design Studio in their 2023 Chelsea GardenJoe and Laura Carey of Carey Garden Design Studio in their 2023 Chelsea Garden (Image: Alister Thorpe)

Behind the scenes, the journey to creating a show garden is exhausting and exhilarating. A project that spans almost two years before it even reaches the show, it takes a small army of creative minds to achieve such a logistical feat. Show gardens are a living installation. Not only do you need to create the illusion that the garden has existed for many years (when in fact it has been built in 10 days); it also represents the very best in design and horticulture. The highest of standards need to be met across all areas of the project; it needs to be (literally) fit for the King.

We knew this would be a demanding project and so we chose to approach the challenge with a simple ethos:

'Keep it local', 'work with friends' and 'hold everything lightly'.

Great British Life: Carey Garden Design Studio 2023 Chelsea Garden. Carey Garden Design Studio 2023 Chelsea Garden. (Image: Alister Thorpe)

These three seemingly insignificant mantras became our secret recipe for success as we proudly received a Gold medal and were awarded Best in Show for our category. In keeping with the gardens’s own message, we wanted to ensure that we ourselves would be renewed and restored by the creative process.

Keep it local: Once we had cleared the stringent application process and had the backing of our generous funders (Project Giving Back), we immediately set about discussing the vision with local craftspeople and growers. We wanted to keep a close eye on the execution of each element, but also felt strongly that we should champion the best of Norfolk. Our sculpture was expertly created by Teucer Wilson in Aylsham Burgh, our steel works were made by Ken and Bernie from North Norfolk Engineering in Holt and we called upon some incredible expert growers to bring on some of the key plants we needed for the show. Natural Surroundings in Glandford grew our Tellima grandiflora and The Plantsman’s Preference (in Diss) grew a selection of rare and unusual perennials for us. We worked with an excellent nursery, Katie’s Garden, over the border in Woodbridge, who were incredibly skilled at growing on the plants to look their best for May. Norfolk’s own Carrier Company styled us for the press and we even had donations of cakes and sausage rolls from Byfords in Holt who sent us on our way London with supplies (and essential bribery) for the build team. We felt so privileged to be supported by such a skilled network of people local to us, all of whom captured the vision of what we wanted to achieve.

Work With Friends: Many of those who worked on this project with us soon became friends, however we also chose to build a team of people around us who knew us well and would be able to support us in various ways. When it came to putting together our core support team we chose to work with those who make us laugh, know our weaknesses and can generally keep our feet on the ground in times of panic (of which there were a few!). This was crucial and proved to be integral to the atmosphere of the garden itself.

Lastly, holding everything lightly might seem a strange concept when taking on such a significant project with many stakeholders. However, we felt it was important to adopt a ‘slow you down’ approach. Letting go of things when they didn’t go as planned, or being able to navigate changes and surprises without loosing our heads. Almost a year on, we still enjoy reminiscing on what was an incredible project. We have since relocated the garden into its permanent home, in Bethnal Green, and we are currently working on phase two of the development of that as a public space, accessible to all.

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