Chelsea isn't just about its football club, it's also about a grand flower show, a British royal favorite | Milaap

Chelsea isn't just about its football club, it's also about a grand flower show, a British royal favorite

I couldn’t believe my ears, especially after what I had just heard from Miriam, the British Council correspondent, who had been in touch with me ever since the day I had been shortlisted for the coveted interview with the then Director of British Council and the celebrated British landscape designer, Sarah Eberle. That I, an ordinary girl, a Horticulture researcher with mediocre results all along, had cracked the said interview and was about to make her mark in one of the most awaited annual events of London, the globally acclaimed Chelsea Flower Show, was perhaps a bigger news for my family than a fellow Indian winning a Nobel or an Oscar. Yes people, Chelsea is much more than its elite football club. It is also very much about a grand flower show, an annual event held in the city of London, an event that the Royals as well as commoners of London look forward to.
To visit a foreign land for tours or academic purposes was no longer a novel concept or a "mission impossible" target for commoners, but to be part of a big cultural exchange between two big nations, and thereby representing one’s motherland was something that I had never expected I would be doing someday. Clearly, my happiness knew no bound, but with greater happiness (intentionally replacing "freedom" with "happiness") came greater responsibility. I had to mentally as well as physically prepare myself for the challenges that kept waiting for me in the ensuing days. To be working in arduous conditions for hours at a stretch, towards creating the first ever India Garden on the Royal Hospital Grounds of Chelsea, to be keeping the various native plants of India fresh and alive in the unpredictable London weather, and to be installing them and the other hardscape materials in place right in accordance to the conceptualized design of Sarah’s was more than a challenge in itself. Yet, our excitement was at its peak, mine and Anuprarthna’s, another fellow Horticulturist from Coimbatore selected for the same journey that I was to be taking. Our eyes gleamed with the anticipation of learning things unknown and seeing things unseen.

The Central Pavilion at the Chelsea Flower Show

The Royal Horticultural Society, UK organizes a number of flower shows throughout the year, including the RHS Chatsworth, RHS Chelsea, RHS Hampton Court, RHS Tatton Park, etc., which are attended by who’s who of London’s elite. Widely televised over BBC and covered by the likes of The Times and The Telegraph, these shows are not just about the celebration of love for flowers and gardens, it’s also very much about the appreciation and acknowledgement of the dexterity of artists partaking from all over the world with the intricacies of landscape designing.

The Sloane Square metro station, the gateway to Chelsea, decks up, to mark the most happening event of the year

And, none other than Her Highness Queen Elizabeth II does the honour of awarding the winners of different segments. Eminent personalities from all over, including celebrated film stars, decorated politicians, notable sportspersons, and hotshot business tycoons grace the functions with their presence and participation. Some of them display their love for nature by actively sponsoring the various exhibited segments of the shows, while some pursue their hidden talent and passion for gardening on such platforms. Just like the Duchess of Cambridge, Princess Kate did at the Chelsea Flower Show in the year 2019 by unveiling a garden named Back to Nature, which was designed by her.

I was a participant, rather assistant to the participant (Sarah Eberle) in the show, in year 2018. My selection was a part of British Council India’s benevolent approach of recognizing the talent of India’s youth. 2018 was a special year in the calendars of both India’s as well as the UK’s, as it was the UK-India Year of Culture, as was decided and agreed upon by the two great countries. Also, it marked the 70th anniversary of British Council’s service and operations in Indian subcontinent. Although there are a number of things that define the relationship between the UK and India, nothing seals the bond as tight and as strong as a gentleman’s game of Cricket. And though the game of Cricket was birthed by the English, India has been enjoying a stronghold over the top position in world cricket ranking for quite some time. So, naturally the India Garden that was to be made at Chelsea by Sarah Eberle to celebrate the two nations’ shared cultural heritage, had to have some cricket elements in it. As it turned out, the garden layout was entirely cricket themed, and the garden was dedicated to the living Indian legend of Cricket, Sachin Tendulkar. It was indeed an exceedingly proud moment for Anuprarthna and me to work on something on the land of the British that was so Indian on every aspect.

People we met, made friends with and learned immensely from

The cricket-themed garden comprised of giant wickets, taller than trees, huge sized cricket balls, and a properly made cricket pitch. The Italian crema marble walls had arrived from a small village near Jaipur in Rajasthan, proudly displaying the magnificent Pietra Dura handiwork of the local artisans of Rajasthan all over it. Embedded semiprecious stones and a multitude of beautiful colours adorned the walls that upheld the magnitude of talent Indian artists bear. Three life-sized photographs of young Indian female cricketers giving away some amazing cricketing shots, decorated the cemented walls at the back of the garden, spreading a significant message to all about how women aren’t inferior, not in a game of cricket, and definitely not in the race of life.

A wall made of the rich Italian Crema Marble, exhibiting the traditional form of Pietra Dura of Rajasthan, India

The giant wicket stumps in the finished garden

Plants of various genera and various species formed the basis of the garden, maximum of them having been originated in India, at the foothills of the Himalayas. Himalayan Blue Poppies or Meconopsis as they are known botanically, constituted the focal point of the garden. Their distinctly soft and soothing blue hue symbolized the blue jersey of the Indian Cricket Team, lovingly called the Team Blue, which was indeed a brilliant way to pay respect to the National Cricket Team of India. The “Belderbos Landscaping Team” and the “Water Artisans”, in association with Sarah did the hardscaping and waterscaping respectively for the India Garden.

 Construction work in full swing 

Making of the India Garden

The Star of the Garden, Himalayan Blue Poppy or Meconopsis, representing the "blue" of Indian Cricket Jersey

Coming down to the symbolization of elements, the artful motifs on the marble walls exhibited various shapes, sizes and colours of the flowers installed in the garden, particularly the Rose which is claimed to be a floricultural as well as a national asset to both the countries. The India Garden was built in the Artisan Garden category, which was one of the most popular sections in the show, widely visited by garden lovers. The chief sponsors of this prestigious project were the business conglomerates of Indian subcontinent, the Piramal Group, the JSW Group, the Tata Group, The Godrej, and others.
We had helped Sarah and her team in organizing the exhibits, cleaning the plants, removing the already damaged or decaying plant parts, watering and nourishing them at regular intervals, and planting and re-potting them according to the layout plan. We were entrusted with the most important job of taking care of all the plants, and keeping them fresh, fragrant and beautiful, till the end of the show. In the process, we learnt a great deal about garden designing, about how plants can be used to depict stories when combined with water and hardscape. Coming from tropical climatic zone, it was an added bonus, when we got to handle different exotic plants from the temperate climatic zone, some we had just heard of or read in textbooks, and some whose existence wasn’t known to us, for e.g. Leucospermum. Planting materials were procured from the Hillier Group of Nurseries, which included the Himalayan Blue Poppies, the Blue Vanda Orchids (another crown jewel of the garden, that shares its origin with the blue poppies), Marigolds (the traditional flower of India used in most holy functions), Roses (the National Flower of England is the Tudor Rose, and Rose was popularized in India by the Mughals, which is evident from the predominant use of Rose shape and structures in Mughal motifs and architecture and also the varieties of roses as found in the Mughal gardens in India).
The garden plot was subdivided into three sections, the frontal opening comprised of a series of steps and walls on either sides of the section, made from the Italian crema marble, sourced from Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. Just above the series of marble steps, there was a rectangular patch of brown surface, made from the garden soil of Chelsea grounds that was evenly leveled after much effort. The second segment was prepared to consist of a strip of turf grass, with the sides being thickly planted with different types of plants, which were natives of both India and the U.K. In order to exude the feel of cricket, two gigantic wicket stumps made from metal were installed on either side of the strip of grass. There were giant metallic cricket balls, inside the plantation, some of which were even uniquely customized as planters for flowering plants like geums and marigolds. The media used for planting was a mixture of sand and ground gravel. The third and final segment consisted of a rectangular water tank, with Pietra Dura walls to its right and left, while coloured cemented wall at its back. The inner surfaces of these three walls were covered with three huge framed pictures of young and very talented male and female cricketers of India. The tank was to be filled with water and colourful pebble stones, and two willow trees representing the wood from which cricket bats are built, were placed in customized planters in the water body. Plenty of concrete blocks and boards made from pine wood were brought in to create the framework of the garden.

A glimpse of the Willow trees in customized planters in the artificial water body at the India Garden

The India Garden was hugely appreciated by the visitors and received wide media coverage. It had won the very prestigious Silver Gilt Medal in the Artisan Garden Category. But amidst all the appreciation and accolades, interviews and umpteen photo-sessions, the most heart-touching moment for us was when we got to touch the ICC World Cup (both Men’s and Women’s Cricket), a prize, an award that every cricket playing person longs to hold for at least once in his lifetime and every cricket watching fan wishes his country to win.  
ICC World Cups proudly displaying their sheen at the India Cricket Garden

 Silver Gilt Medal: The honor conferred upon the India Garden

We also had the chance to work at the Hillier Nursery Project, helmed by Sarah, a huge project that was being turned out right at the central point of the Great Pavilion Marquee. The project was named “Stihl Garden”. There, we did extensive pruning on a number of trees and shrubs (Acer palmatum, Koelreuteria paniculata, Cotinus grace, Fatsia japonica, Cotinus coggygria, Photinia fraseri, Fagus asplenifolia, Zelkova spp.), thereby removing the unattractive plant parts, and giving them a good shape.

Beautiful colors lead the way to the water tank in the India Garden

We also watered all the plants in there using motorized can sprayers and piped water dispensers, transferred the plants from the storage location to the site of the project, sorted and selected the best ones for planting, applied smart ground cover mulch and soil media in the planting pits, or boxes, where the different shrubs and trees were planted, applied leaf shiners to brighten the dull leaves. We did the planting with the Hillier Nursery Team, taking in care, the colour contrast and mutual suitability between the plants. This project of Sarah’s earned the very well deserved Gold Medal at the Chelsea Garden Awards ceremony.

Assorted flowers in one of the  projects at the Central Pavilion

Blast of colors and hues in the Central Pavilion

Another beautiful garden project at the Chelsea Show 

This has inarguably been one of the most enriching experiences of my life. Gardening is not just mere planting of attractive flowering and foliage plants; rather it’s a big whole opportunity to recreate the magnanimity of Mother Nature in a much lesser space. Chelsea experience taught me colour coordination, measurement of not just lengths and angles, but also beauty and feasibility, and how to work in a team, and as a team. Taking care of plants, not only beautifies our nature, but also enhances peace of mind and overall health. Also, it was a pleasant revelation to see and learn how competition can be fierce, yet at the same time; relations with the competitors can be amicable. Chelsea granted us the opportunity to interact with other award-winning garden designers and forge friendships with people from all over the world coming from varied cultural backgrounds. The engagement in informative conversations with experienced gardening professionals helped us broaden the frontiers of our knowledge and wisdom.