In May, a group of gardeners with a learning disability charmed judges at the Chelsea Flower Show to win a gold medal, while raising awareness of the impact of cuts to services
Elbowing my way through the gathering crowds, the buzz around one particular garden at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show was clear. With its sprawling shrubs and bright rhododendrons, which ironically have fallen out of fashion among the horticultural elite in recent years, the garden triumphed at the prestigious event.
The Furzey Garden was designed and created by staff, students and volunteers at Furzey Gardens and its Minstead Training Project, in the New Forest in Hampshire. Furzey Gardens, which is run by the Furzey Gardens Charitable Trust and celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, boasts eight acres of woodland and plants from around the world. Its sister charity, the Minstead Training Project, offers residential care and horticultural training to people with a learning disability.
With the help of celebrity garden designer Chris Beardshaw, the group applied for a show garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. From the start, the students were at the heart of the process. Chris visited the gardens and met the students – together they came up with ideas about what to take to Chelsea.
“The ideas were a distillation of the gardens,” explains Peter White, horticultural instructor at the Minstead Training Project. “We looked at drawings and photographs and made mood boards of what the garden looks like at this time of year. We allowed the students to express what they would like to include in the garden.
“In a way, we had no choice about our plants,” says Peter. “This is what we have at Furzey, this is the type of garden. We’ve also got lots of thatched follies, so they were able to identify those as well.”
Full steam ahead
Last October, despite the apparently outdated foliage, the garden was selected by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) to appear at Chelsea. “Since then, we’ve been busy preparing the plants,” says Peter. “The students have been involved in propagating and lifting the plants from the garden and helping us grow them through the spring.”
But it wasn’t an easy process. The team created the garden on a comparatively tiny budget of £60,000, generated solely by fundraising. And they had to contend with the unpredictable English weather – March’s heatwave led to worries that everything would flower too soon, while the non-stop rain in April held things back. “It’s been quite a rollercoaster,” explains Peter. “We were rushing things in and out of the polytunnels. Eventually, we managed to get everything ready.”
Once the site was deemed safe, the students got involved in the construction of the garden. During the show, students were on hand to talk to visitors about the project.
The result – which was described by admirers as a warm, friendly, inviting garden – perfectly reflected the essence of Furzey Gardens. The highlight is a collage of 147 multi-coloured glass leaves, covering the ceiling of the thatched folly that overlooks the scene. “Every student and staff member made one,” explains Peter, “they represent all of the project.”
Despite its many challenges, the team was awarded a gold medal by the RHS judges and received the recognition it deserves. “We would have been pleased with just having the opportunity to make the garden,” says Peter White. “Getting the gold was completely flabbergasting. The students are very proud and very excited.”
“I am absolutely thrilled for everyone and I am genuinely surprised,” adds Chris Beardshaw.
This project has brought people and plants that are often considered on the fringes of society to Chelsea and shown just what they can achieve.
This awareness raising was the most important aim, and the gold has helped the Furzey Gardens team achieve it. “The object was to raise the profile of learning disability work at a time when cuts are taking place,” explains chairman of the Furzey Gardens Charitable Trust Reverend Tim Selwood. “So people are aware of what’s happening, and how insidious apparently small cuts can be, when you’re taking a day or two off people’s service allocation, they’re left at a loose end for the rest of the time.”
Selwood says that the garden is a celebration of what can be achieved with appropriate funding and support: “Without that, we are already seeing people becoming more isolated and de-skilled – they are losing their self-confidence and becoming more vulnerable. “The gold gives us a voice. And it’s up to us now, and everybody, to build on this experience.”