Nick Sneller, director or Wild Hart, shares his experiences at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, creating the RHS Back to Nature Garden co-designed by HRH The Duchess of Cambridge and landscape architects Davies White.
Today started with a drive from our hotel across leafy London to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. What should have been 20 minutes took an hour and a half – plenty of time to enjoy the views! Why drive? It’s hardly getting back to nature but we had a delivery of specially selected sticks for use in the RHS Back to Nature show garden.
Having spent several months on the build-up we were excited to see the items we already had delivered to the show, which included a large hollow log. Placed to look as if it has naturally fallen and been left lying amongst dense woodland planting, it is covered in moss and plants. It adds an amazing play value, which was at the heart of the brief for the garden, and children can explore the tunnel and see inside a tree. The root ball is a star-like shape exploding from one end; once stuck in the ground it is now exposed but still clings to some stones.
The garden also features four log armchairs (or thrones!) carved from Monterey Cypress using a chainsaw, a massive durable tree felled near Chard in Somerset that has a distinct scent. Four log stools placed around two large stump tables, all carved from the branches, give a place for people to sit beside the woodland outside the RHS Hub and Shop at the show.
We collected a load of sticks to create the woodland dens from a local woodland on the Devon/Dorset border, in conjunction with a woodland co-operative that I’m a member of (Axewoods Co-op). As part of a woodland thinning program we were able to collect a number of sticks perfect for building kids’ dens, often seen in woodland and a key part of the Forest School initiative.
So many gardens are created at Chelsea that the logistics of getting a vehicle on site are not simple. Once access is given we quickly unload our materials and remove the van. Our mission this morning is to create two woodland dens.
The amount of work put into creating a show garden is staggering. Many people are involved, working around the clock building infrastructure and planting 1,000s of plants. Our input is only part of the whole, however collaboration is crucial.
Excited with the buzz of activity and directed by Outdoor Rooms, contracted to install the garden, we quickly get swept up in planting, moving pots into position to create the dense undergrowth found in a woodland setting. The area had been set aside to create the dens but we aren’t ready to build. More sticks, moss and bits are arriving to create the den area, handpicked by the garden’s co-designers, HRH The Duchess of Cambridge and landscape architects Andrée Davies and Adam White of Davies White. Organising a bank of materials ready for construction would be integral to the smooth building later. In the meantime there are another 1,000 plants to deal with!
The perfect log
Our efforts in producing the garden had started months before, initially with sourcing materials for the chainsaw carved features. Local provenance is something we pride ourselves on at Wild Hart, and finding the perfect log to fit the brief was a challenge. We finally found a naturally fallen tree only a mile from the workshop having scoured the county. It had its roots intact and was covered in moss and other flora, something the designers of the garden were adamant about. With only a few weeks left to the show we had our work cut out. And ‘cut out’ was exactly what we had to do, the big log (measuring 1m in diameter and 4m long) had to be hollowed. Using a few techniques developed personally, and a very big chainsaw, a team of us set to – a show deadline is a fixed affair! After all the efforts of everyone involved it is a real pleasure to see the finished log in-situ.
‘Green Fingered George’ arrives to see the garden, the RHS ambassador for promoting gardening to children. George is here to assist in building the dens and is excited by the prospect. I show him the garden and encourage him to crawl through the hollow log. Getting down to earth, getting your fingers dirty and grounding yourself is vital. Forest bathing (or ‘Shinrin-yoku’ in Japanese) is to immerse yourself into a forest, taking the opportunity to breathe deeply, de-stress and enjoy the wonders it offers. This is one of the inspirations behind the garden and part of our ethos at Wild Hart.
It’s the early afternoon and the Duchess arrives to help with the dens. As co-designer and inspired by childhood memories, she not only directs the den constructions with George and myself, but is very hands-on, choosing the right sticks, cutting them to length and arranging them into position.
The BBC interrupts the work to film an interview between the Duchess and Monty Don, a vital part of getting the Back to Nature message out. Half an hour we were told; one and a half hours later… can we get back to the garden? We have jobs to do and deadlines to meet!
We work solidly through to gone 8pm to finish the details on the dens, adding moss, fir cones and broken sticks to decorate and give authenticity, a four hour drive home ahead.
There is always so much to do in creating a show garden but breaks are essential. It’s important to step back, look from a different angle, walk away to be able to come back and see afresh what has been created. It can be too easy to become ‘plant blind’, putting in plants without thinking about the location, whether it’s shady, sunny, damp or dry. Authenticity is vital. Daily watering will take place throughout the week along with a little attention to the plants unable to withstand the sheer numbers passing through.
From a very early age I was lucky enough to be out playing in the countryside, paddling in rivers, building dens, running through the woods or just observing nature. At the end of the day I am so happy to have helped create a garden that represents those memories and feelings. There is so much that our natural environment has to offer, getting ‘Back to Nature’ is vital and I hope that this important message is not just heard but understood, especially at a time when noticing the environmental issues we face is critical to our survival. Our company ethos is embedded in our personal experiences of the natural environment and we strive to put this first in all we do. Sourcing timber locally not only enables us to help sustainably manage the countryside around us but helps add economic value too.
I’m lucky enough to not only physically enjoy what I do but it pleases me that I can make a difference for others too. There is nothing better than when I make a playground or cabin, or even a piece of furniture, and I see the pleasure it brings people. Seeing the Royal Family run barefoot through a woodland garden is heart-melting.
Nick Sneller and his partner Colette Hudson are the founders of Wild Hart, designing and building unique spaces including cabins, pods, treehouses, gardens, playspaces and furniture. Wild Hart was part of the team delivering the Zoflora and Caudwell Children’s Wild Garden at the 2017 RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, which won an RHS Gold Medal, the highly coveted RHS Best in Show and the popular RHS People’s Choice Award.
Nick is experienced in planning and running creative workshops from den building to bird box making for schools and communities. With 25 years’ woodworking experience and a love of the outdoors, he creates spaces from which to experience nature. As a team of highly skilled craftsmen and landscapers, Wild Hart enjoys co-designing with clients to offer the best solutions.
Wild Hart’s ethos is to use sustainably sourced timber and to work collaboratively with local business. 07971 869058 / www.wild-hart.co.uk
ABOUT THE GARDEN
The RHS Back to Nature Garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show was co-created by landscape architects Andrée Davies and Adam White, of Davies White, and HRH The Duchess of Cambridge.
Inspired by memories of time outdoors in nature, the garden is part of the RHS’s partnership with NHS England, which promotes the physical and emotional wellbeing that access to green spaces and gardening provides. After Chelsea, some of the planting will go to an NHS Mental Health Trust, as part of a national competition run by the RHS.