Bowles & Wyer

Behind the scenes at RHS Chelsea 2021

Written by Rosa Hinton

As the RHS Chelsea Flower Show approaches this September, we’re taking a look behind the scenes as we construct a Main Avenue show garden…

Whilst we’re well versed in constructing Chelsea show gardens, this year will be a little different – with the show taking place in Autumn for the first time in its 108 year history. Originally planned for 2020 to mark the bicentenary of Florence Nightingale’s birth – we’ll be building ‘The Florence Nightingale Garden – A Celebration of Modern Nursing’, which has been designed by the talented Robert Myers and is sponsored by The Burdett Trust for Nursing. The irony that a worldwide pandemic should be the reason a garden celebrating the founder of modern-day nursing was cancelled in 2020 is not lost on us!

The design celebrates some of Florence Nightingale’s pioneering ideas – with a courtyard garden concept designed for a hospital. The space features a reflecting pool, planting inspired by Nightingale’s own pressed flower collection and a large pergola structure which stretches the length of the garden. The 60ft pergola is built from cross-laminated timber (CLT), which is an eco-friendly alternative to traditional building materials and will look truly impactful on site.

We catch up with Dan Riddleston, Managing Director of Bowles & Wyer, who is leading the big build at Chelsea this year…

Where are you at with the preparations for the Chelsea build this year?

We’re in pre-construction panic mode! Have we done enough? Are we feeling confident? The big things are all falling into place – the trees are looking beautiful at Deepdale Trees and the plants are being grown on at Hortus Loci, they are the real heroes of the show. Vande Moortel are making a generous contribution by kindly providing the paving for the show garden – so we’re getting ready for them to arrive in the country before being delivered to site.

The pergola is still in construction and has another few weeks before it’s ready to be transported – it has been a long process to get this element ready. We’re creating the structures as big as we possibly can to make them still transportable to Chelsea and yet minimising construction time whilst there. Even with this plan, we’ll still have 5 days of pergola construction once we get there!

How has the scheme changed now that the show is taking place in September rather than May?

Well the hard landscape has hardly changed at all – as we had already placed orders for these elements by the time it was cancelled last year. But the soft landscaping has changed quite a lot. We’re using similar plants but needed to select those that were going to be flowering in Autumn, rather than Spring. There are advantages to this too – we’ve been able to use plants that we wouldn’t normally include and all the plants will be slightly larger than they would be in May – thanks to a longer growing season.

For example, some plants have been chosen for their long summer flower period – such as cranesbill geraniums, that would have been seen at Chelsea in May too. These plants do particularly well if they’ve had their ‘Chelsea chop’! But there are plenty of plants in the garden that wouldn’t have been seen in May – such as Tricyrtis formosana and New England asters. 

Of course, the other factor that is going to be different is the daylight hours – in May it gets dark at around 9pm, but in September it will be more like 7pm. Those two hours will make a big difference for visitors – so we might need to factor in some sort of lighting scheme in the garden.

What’s it like behind the scenes during the build-up at Chelsea?

People are always surprised by the length of the working day. We start at 7am and are rarely finished until 6.30pm every day. They are long, tough days and it’s important to take plenty of breaks; sitting back and looking at what you’ve done.

The quality of what we’re doing is of absolute importance – so if something needs adjusting or planting needs tweaking, then we’ll make those last-minute decisions with the designer there and then. It could be changing the planting around, adjusting the colour of a rendered wall, or even moving a boulder to a new position – it all counts! Generally, the first 10 days are when we get as much of the construction done as possible, followed by the planting which goes on until completion.


What are you most looking forward to at Chelsea this year?

Behind the scenes, Chelsea is a friendly environment and there’s a real sense of camaraderie. Of course, there’s healthy competition but it’s also the sort of place where we’ll always give spare items to other contractors if they need them. I’m looking forward to seeing friends and colleagues who I’ve known at Chelsea for many years now – and working alongside other contractors. The place is a real showcase for fantastic workmanship – somewhere to get new ideas and meet interesting people.


We’re looking forward to seeing this garden in the flesh before too long – RHS Chelsea Flower Show begins on 21st September this year, so do remember to look out for our Florence Nightingale garden then!

July 22, 2021