Going behind the scenes at RHS Chelsea with Hortus Loci

The team from specialist plant and tree nursery Hortus Loci are no strangers to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and 2018 looks like being their busiest to date. Sandy Felton talks to Mark Straver, CEO at the nursery, about this year’s show.

With more than 30 years in the horticultural business, Mark Straver knows better than anyone how to locate and grow the best plants possible. Since the company’s launch in 2011, Hortus Loci has linked with the finest growers in the UK, Europe and beyond – just one of the reasons that so many designers go to Mark and his team for their show plants.

There are over 30 top European landscape architects who regularly use the nursery which is rapidly edging towards having the largest available range of trees, perennials, shrubs and plants, most of which are grown on their 17 acres site in Hampshire. (pictured left:Trollius-x-Cultorum ‘Alabaster’)

This year, Hortus Loci will be supplying plants for Chelsea Flower Show stalwarts as well as new talent to supply more than 20,000 plants, which in itself is rather eye-watering. Among the Chelsea regulars, Jo Thompson, Dr Catherine MacDonald and Matthew Keightley will be using the nursery while young designers, Tom Massey and Stuart Towner have also gone to Hortus Loci for their show gardens. The variety of the plants they will supply is awesome – just check out the list at the bottom of this feature to see the gardens they will be working with.

Mark explains that the longer the run up to Chelsea in planning terms, for the nursery, the better and if they are lucky discussions will start with designers once a Chelsea garden is mooted: “Most people get confirmation in October the previous year and there will be discussions before then where we get a heads up from the designers with their plans and wish lists,” he says. However, one thing remains the same – the pressure is always on to maintain the supremely high plant quality that will ensure Gold medals year after year.

Designers will come up with a wish list for what they think they would like and then there is a big meeting at the beginning to discuss the actual list where they will go through it together line by line.(pictured right: Angelica Archangelica).

Mark’s vast experience on whether the chosen plants will be ready and in perfect condition by the opening day of Chelsea is crucial here: “We also go through as many extra options as possible, coming up with plans B, C, D, E and F. Very often, the plants requested are not general stock anywhere, so we find seed anywhere in the world to grow on specifically for that garden. For instance, when we supplied Hugo Bugg’s Jordanian garden three years ago and every plant had to be a Jordanian or regional native, every single plant for this garden was grown from seed,” explains Mark.

There is a blog on the Hortus Loci website giving an insight into how they tackled this garden and it makes fascinating reading. You can read it here.

After that initial meeting the next task is to come up with a list to plan the growing process: “Depending on each plant and how reliable or not it might be, we grow between 2-10x more plants than we need. These plants are then safely tucked up in the Chelsea tunnel before Christmas. After Christmas, we walk the stock every week which then gets to every day, deciding what plants to trim, what plants to pot on, what plants to move inside/outside or hot/cold tunnels,” said Mark.

Mark (pictured above) has been associated with Chelsea for the last 25 years and when he first started he remembers that the main complaint was always that all plants that were shown on television tended to be ‘one-offs’ that wouldn’t be available on the general market for a year or two: “We have now solved this problem,” he says. “As we will have between 2,000-4,000 surplus perennials per garden, we can offer these for sale to the general public in our plant centre on the day the show opens.” That’s particularly good news, especially if you spot a plant you really like, and is certainly appreciated by the gardening public who won’t have to wait to source a plant.

Clearly, for a nursery such as Hortus Loci, tasked with supplying multiple show gardens, there are challenges. Mark explains that the biggest fear is the regularity of weather extremes: “In the last few years, we have experienced the wettest, the coldest, the hottest Spring’s ever recorded, and this trend seems to be getting worse and worse, which is terrifying when you are growing plants to a specific date for the greatest flower show on earth. Add in a sprinkle of giant hail stones, the beast from the east, and storm Emma and that makes our job very challenging,” he said.

Then there is the challenge of working with several garden designers at the same time: “All the gardens are dealt with individually as well as all tagging trips and meetings,” says Mark. This method enables Mark and his team to give each designer their full attention at all times. Also important for Mark is encouraging new talent who rely on his expertise to get designers to the show with the best possible plants giving them a real chance of medal success, and when you are on a tight budget, with a smaller space and often little or no sponsorship, that’s a big help.

Ask Mark what he thinks will be hot at Chelsea this year and he will point out that with gardens from Yorkshire to Cornwall, Syria to The Mediterranean, diversity will be the name of the game: “Looking at all 12 gardens sitting there together, there are very few common denominators apart from vegetables, which appear in most of the gardens,” he said.(pictured above: Stipa tenuissima)

So, if you see a plant you like on one of the following Chelsea gardens, you know where to go to purchase it. The nursery and plant centre is situated on the same site – Hortus Loci, Hound Green, Hook, Hampshire, RG27 8LQ – and it is here that you can buy into ‘the Chelsea look‘, with virtually everything that is featured on the television being available.

Look out for plants on the following gardens:

Main Show gardens: Lemon Tree Trust by Tom Massey, Wedgwood Garden by Jo Thompson, VTB Capital Garden by Stuart Towner, Welcome to Yorkshire Garden by Mark Gregory, The RHS Garden by Matthew Keightley, plus part supply for the Morgan Stanley Garden by Chris Beardshaw.

Artisan gardens: Laced with Hope Garden by Laura Anstiss and Frost Landscapes.

Space to Grow gardens: Cherub HIV Trust Garden by Naomi Ferrett-Cohen, Thames Water Garden by Tony Woods and Seedlip Garden by Catherine MacDonald.

Visit the Hortus Loci website for further information: www.hortusloci.co.uk

Good luck to everyone in the run-up to RHS Chelsea and thanks to Mark for his time to give us this insider view of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Photo credits: All photographs are ©Hortus Loci – banner above Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’