Listening Garden for RHS Chelsea

The Samaritans’ Listening Garden at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show (23rd to 27th May 2023) will depict the challenging journey many people take when they reach out to Samaritans and the comfort and sanctuary they find when speaking to a listening volunteer.

Celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Samaritans, The Samaritans’ Listening Garden, designed by Darren Hawkes, will conjure up a wide range of emotions. The garden will be a representation of fear, anxiety and helplessness juxtaposed with relief, support and hope.

At the entrance to the garden, the design incorporates huge curtains of reinforced concrete, supported by thin cables that will hover above delicate foliage. Above this will be the giant, architectural form of Aralia chapaensis making the entrance to the garden feel brutal and foreboding. The pathway into the garden will appear cracked with deep fissures leading down into the darkness, where the sound of gushing water can be heard.

Beyond this, the garden will open out into a welcoming sanctuary as you walk down into a sunken area where a sculptural Oak bench sits under the canopy of a stunning small-leaved Elm (Ulmus minor ‘Jaqueline Hillier’) providing a space that will encourage visitors to talk, be heard and gain a perspective on their struggles.

Looking back at the garden from this point, the path trodden can be viewed from a different perspective and some of the obstacles that seemed overwhelming as you entered the garden, will now appear exquisitely crafted, even beautiful.

Darren (pictured left) has chosen many of the 2,000 plants in the garden for their architectural form and varied colour and texture. Included will be a collection of very rare Aralia chapaensis which together with the Elms (Ulmus minor ‘Jacqueline Hillier’) provides a strong silhouette throughout the garden.

At the front of the garden, the planting will create an inhospitable atmosphere, at odds with the invitation to enter the garden. As you move through the space, planting becomes softer and less confrontational.

Darren points out that the conceptual garden is inspired by the stories of people who found the courage to reach out to the Samaritans in their darkest times: “I wanted the garden to feel real and raw and to provoke curiosity as it explores the journey towards good mental health and illustrates that the path towards recovery isn’t always straight forward. Ultimately, it is a garden of hope with an important, powerful message,” he said.

The garden includes two thought-provoking sculptures – the first a swirling vortex of over 3,000 recycled nails and the second a bronze figurative sculpture called Listening, that has specially created for the garden by Andrew Litton.

Four Oak benches, sculptured by craftsman Thomas Rosler, will be positioned throughout the garden to remind us that finding the strength to talk can change your perspective on the challenges you are facing.

Darren is using concrete, steel and oak as key components of the garden, 95% of which are reclaimed from demolition sites or salvaged from scrap yards to limit the haulage and reliance on new resources. This simple palette of familiar materials will be manipulated and honed by Darren and skilled craftsmen who will transform the crude salvage into something precious and valuable to tell the story of crisis to hope.

Samaritans CEO, Julia Bentley points out that having a Show Garden at RHS Chelsea is very special and a wonderful occasion to help mark the 70th anniversary of the charity: “Darren Hawkes’ hugely imaginative Samaritans’ Listening Garden perfectly captures the vital role Samaritans volunteers play in helping people during difficult times. I especially love that the garden celebrates and champions the power of listening, which is at the core of every call we take. An often overlooked way to support our friends, family and those around us, we know listening can help change and even save lives. We are grateful to Darren and Project Giving Back for giving us this wonderful opportunity.

Darren has over 20 years experience working in landscaping and has won a number of Gold Medals at RHS Chelsea. He is based in Cornwall and works on domestic gardens, public realm spaces and country estates throughout the UK.

Photo credits: All images are © Darren Hawkes.