M&G Chelsea garden to highlight ‘ecological succession’

A garden inspired by stratified rock formations will highlight the ability and power of plants to colonise habitats in what is known as ‘ecological succession’ on the M&G Garden at the 2019 RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Designed by award-winning designer Andy Sturgeon, the garden will feature huge burnt timber sculptures made from blackened oak, as they slice dramatically through a woodland setting. First and foremost, this is a garden but it is also a sculpture in its own right. From the stunning pre-Chelsea images, there can be no doubt that this garden will be one of the high spots of this year’s Show.

Andy points out that the plant palette is predominantly green and is primarily about form and texture, however, there will also be many colourful jewels – blue, orange, yellow, white and deep purple flowers will be ‘displayed’ against the charred timber in the way of the Auricula theatre seen at Chelsea for many years in the pavilion. Inspiration for the design has been taken from rock formations on a beach in Australia and translated into epic wood sculptures.

The forest will be designed using three huge Carpinus betulus, one of which has five trunks and is a copse in its own right. A forest of 16 Nothofagus antractica have been chosen for their magical twisted trunks – Andy says that these remind him of Lord of the Rings and New Zealand where their cousins grow wild.

Pioneer species like algae and lichen are the first to colonise harsh barren environments such as lava flows, newly quarried rock faces and sand dunes. Rock breaks down with wind and water and soils form as the habitats are normalised allowing grasses, ferns, herbs and eventually shrubs to grow. Within the garden primitive plants like mosses, restios, ferns and equisetum are intended to acknowledge these early arrivals to lend the garden an ancient quality.

The secondary succession is then caused by a subsequent event – this could be a tree falling or something more devastating such as a forest fire – this will be illustrated by the woodland clearings and the intentional ambiguity of the burnt timber ‘rock’ formations which combine the concepts of both primary and secondary succession.

Sculptor, Johnny Woodford has bolted together and carved 50 tonnes of plantation grown oak and Andy explains that each week they have worked together on the shapes and marks that make the garden a unique installation: “In the ancient Japanese architectural technique of Shou-sugi-ban the timber will be preserved long after Chelsea as the sap is drawn out of the timber and forms a protective layer. This burning technique is not new to Chelsea but it has never been done like this before,” he added.

Andy (pictured right) admits he has an obsession for giant crazy paving and he will be using Great Tew Ironstone platforms – an English limestone stone – which is unusual as it has a rich brown colour with bluish grey veining and has not been used at Chelsea before. A woodland stream will trickle alongside the stonework occasionally being captured by intricate metal chutes before reaching a pool in a woodland glade.

Fire can also have a powerful regenerative effect causing seeds to germinate such as Epilboium which is known as ‘fireweed’ due to the way it rapidly colonised bomb sites in WWII. Many of the plants to be used on the garden will be new to Chelsea and will originate from all over the world, yet are capable of being grown in the British climate. Crocus will be supplying the plants for the garden.

Andy Sturgeon has twice been voted one of the top 10 garden designers in the UK and is winner of numerous awards including seven Gold Medals and twice Best in Show at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. The M&G Garden will mark his 9th appearance at the prestigious show.

RHS Chelsea Flower Show (sponsored by M&G Investments) runs from 21st to 25th May 2019.

Picture credits: all images strictly ©Andy Sturgeon/M&G Investments. Headshot of Andy: credit: Chaz Oldham.