“A Game of Contrast” Former Students win Best Festival Garden 2014, RHS Malvern


This is a blog by former student Ana Mari Bull who along with former fellow student Lorenzo Soprani won Best Festival Garden 2014, RHS Malvern.

How many of us dream of creating a show garden as soon as we graduate, but are put off because of the lack of funding or sponsorship? Years can go by and you get more involved in building up your practice, but the dream is still there, tucked away at the back of your brain, behind the planting plans and construction drawings that need to be finished yesterday. As you take on more work, you can feel the dream becoming more and more distant.

This was how I felt last year; I was up to my eyes in work, so I turned to my friend and fellow student Lorenzo Soprani for help. We worked really well together and it made the lonely existence of a freelance designer more bearable. In turn, he would pass work onto me when I was quiet on the work front. We soon found that we were in fact collaborating on every project we did, so in effect had become one practice. Work started to dry up towards the end of last year and the dream started to wiggle its way back to the front of our minds.


Lorenzo picks up the story here, “It was late in January when my colleague and friend Ana and I decided to have a go at designing a show garden. To be honest I was not particularly busy and it is when the mind is at rest that those ideas spring to mind! But with not much income and no name so to speak to bring in financial backing, the chances of us being able to afford to do a show garden was still very much a distant dream. So having looked around for an opportunity I discovered that the RHS was re-launching the Malvern Spring Flower Show as the “RHS Malvern Spring Festival” and to celebrate that, they were giving away £3000 bursaries to help fund first timers in a new category of show gardens called the “Festival Gardens”. I decided fairly quickly to have a go and the design came very easily as having only 15 meter square to play with, the design needed to be simple. Once all the documents were sent off we did not think about it much, there was nothing to do apart from waiting and luckily for us the office phone was starting to ring again! It was on the 14th of March that we had confirmation that our design had been selected along with 3 others by the RHS panel.

Malvern Spring Festival 25 04 2014

At this point panic started to set in, as I feared that we couldn’t afford to do it. It was only at this stage in the process that we learnt the RHS where only giving us half of the bursary, the remainder would be paid at the end of the show once breakdown had been completed and the site was given the all clear by the organisers.”

With our design accepted so late in the day we had very little time to find the extra funding needed to top up the kitty, but it’s amazing how time pressures can make you focus. Having the RHS backing also helped enlist other sponsors.

The plants, hedges and all the hard landscaping materials were sourced, but we couldn’t find the specimen trees which were key to the design. It was now the last week in March, the end of the bare root season, and still we hadn’t found all of our trees. Finally, Lorenzo got a call from a nurseryman who had tracked down the last three trees from a nursery in Germany. It was the last day of lifting when we received an urgent email: are you taking the trees? All we had to go on was a poor quality photo. Without the trees we didn’t want to continue. We took them, hoping that these skinny looking ugly ducklings would turn into the magnificent swans we needed.

As well as having the RHS bursary, the designers of the Four Festival Garden were mentored through the build by the principal of a major design school in the area. The support and advice we got from her and from Nina Acton, the events co-ordinator for the Three Counties Showground was superb. For first timers, having someone on hand to reassure you is invaluable. The build wasn’t all plain sailing; the contractor who we had engaged to build our small wall didn’t turn up. It was at this stage that the fabled camaraderie which exhibitors say exists between those at the ground became apparent. A landscaper from another garden came over between jobs to build our wall, which he then also rendered for us, before being whisked off to finish the garden he was originally working on. Tools appeared when they were needed and disappeared just as quickly. The elves were at work. As we didn’t have a contractor we did all of the hard landscaping ourselves. I can’t take any of the credit for all the heavy jobs, which Lorenzo undertook as if he had been a professional landscaper for years. I can though, take half of the credit for the pebble path. Neither of us had done anything like this before. Having failed to find a video on YouTube on “how to build a show quality pebble path” we just got stuck in. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. The plants arrived on the Wednesday afternoon; it took us all day Thursday to place them and then the Friday to plant them up. We were on schedule. The plants had time to naturally reposition themselves before judging on the Wednesday and we were able to primp and preen to our hearts’ content. We were more than lucky with the weather during the build; the week of the show was quite something else, and judging took place in torrential rain and extremely high winds. Malvern is windy at the best of times, but this was excessive. From eight in the morning until nine at night we waited, wet, cold, and buffeted by the wind, for the medal announcements. Luckily one of the larger show gardens had built a sunken dining area with a pizza oven which had been burning all day, so as the evening drew to a close we all huddled together to keep warm. When the results finally came in, just after 9.00pm we were too tired to take it all in, as all we wanted to do was go home to a hot bath. The wonderful thing about RHS Malvern was that the next day, two of the judges came round to each of the gardens to talk through why we received the medal we did. This was so helpful. They were really engaging and very generous in their comments. We learnt a great deal as to how the panel think!

If anyone is thinking of taking their first steps into the world of show gardens, then RHS Malvern is the place to start. The support is fantastic, the setting is beautiful and the experience is very rewarding… Though now we’re hooked and can’t wait to do another one!

Don't’ forget to pack your thermals!

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