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Chelsea countdown: how to create a Chelsea garden

We like to do what we can to help nurture fresh talent in garden design. When designers Joe and Laura Carey got in touch about their garden at RHS Chelsea this year, we were happy to support them with tools for their planting team. We caught up with them as they make the final preparations for their Talitha Arts Garden.
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Chelsea countdown: how to create a Chelsea garden
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Chelsea countdown: how to create a Chelsea garden

If you’ve been reading our Journal for a while, you’ll likely know that it’s important to us to help nurture fresh talent in garden design. Over the years we’ve supported numerous designers with tools to create and decorate their show gardens. Designers we’ve worked with have included Andy Smith-Williams at RHS ChelseaKristian Reay at RHS Tatton Park and Stephanie Hafferty at RHS Hampton Court.

So when earlier this year we were contacted by Joe and Laura Carey who were planning their first Chelsea garden, we were all ears! We were happy to help out with some tools for their planting team, and we were keen to hear more about their Chelsea dream, and the garden they’re creating.

It’s been a non-stop few years for Joe and Laura, a husband-and-wife design team based in Norfolk. Already keen gardeners while pursuing other careers, they entered their plot into the Gardeners’ World Garden of the Year competition in 2020. After being named finalists and featured on the magazine’s front cover, they decided to take the plunge, started a garden design business – and now they’re at Chelsea! They’re creating the Talitha Arts Garden, one of the gardens in the All About Plants area in the Great Marquee.

We caught up with Joe and Laura as they were preparing to decamp to London for the build and show. To create the garden, they’re working with Talitha Arts, a charity which uses the integrative arts to bring about transformation in the lives of those who have experienced trauma. The garden is also funded by Project Giving Back, a philanthropic fund with the aim of promoting charitable causes through Chelsea Flower Show gardens.

Joe, when you and Laura decided to apply to create a garden at Chelsea, how long was the process?

It started back in 2021, so it’s been quite a long but exciting journey. We had to create an initial concept to apply for funding, along with hundreds of other applicants. Once we had that, we had to apply to the RHS with the backing of Project Giving Back, and further refining the concept. By Chelsea 2022, we were cautiously confident we’d made it through, and at the show we volunteered on other gardens in order to get as much experience as possible. By the summer of 2022, we had been formally accepted - and then the real work began! It has all been a huge learning curve, especially as we’ve been planning for Chelsea while keeping up with the day job of client design work, and also juggling life with our young family.

Butterfly by artist Naoko Tagai

Which themes do you highlight in your garden?

The garden is a creative response to Talitha Arts’ narrative of transformation. Sculpture and performance are nestled within a planted canvas to celebrate creation and creativity’s power to transform. Visitors will see a large sculpted chrysalis and hundreds of handmade porcelain butterflies, which represent the journey of transformation. A minimalist palette of two main colours conveys the delicate moment between darkness/trauma and light/transformation.

We’ve tried to carry aspects of Talitha’s work through the build. For example, we’ve had the waste stone from the chrysalis sculpture crushed, and we’re using it as gravel in the garden. On one level, this reduces waste and lends continuity through the garden. On a different level, it highlights that there is purpose in loss, and that what feels like a traumatic process can help create what comes after.

What are your influences in terms of planting?

In our garden, the darker toned planting will be evocative and sombre in places, referencing the bruises of the past. This gives way to light airy swathes and bursts of colour, representing freedom and joy.

We’ve been very inspired by the landscapes of Norfolk, which is very different from the areas we’ve known before. We often go to Sheringham Park, our local National Trust coastal woodland, and we’re always struck by the variation from woodland to salt marshes. It has really opened our eyes to new planting combinations, and we’ve used some of the plants we see there in our design.

In terms of plants, we have a lot of plants that are particularly suited to dappled shade or a more woodland environment like Digitalis, Aquilegia and Lamium. Our feature shrubs are also suited to a more dappled shade environment and more acidic soil. Our choices are Enkianthus campanulatus, a really pretty shrub with dainty bell-shaped flowers in spring and fiery autumn colours, and Acer Palmatum. We also love the grasses of the salt marshes, which add the elements of sound and movement, and we’ve featured those too, with varieties including Deschampsia, Melica and Luzula.

Enkianthus image: @iras_kleinegruenewelt, Instagram

Timing can be a huge challenge at Chelsea, getting plants to their peak at the right time.

Yes, we’ve had some drama sourcing plants. The feature shrubs give structure to the garden, so those have to be perfect. The Enkianthus in particular is key, as it features both colours in our colour palette. However, we’ve had real trouble finding specimens that are large enough. What’s more, due to a changing climate, these shrubs tend to flower earlier now. We searched everywhere for the right specimen, even exploring options in Germany – which presented its own challenges, as plants for show need to have been in the UK for a certain amount of time for disease control reasons.

However, at the eleventh hour, and almost by chance, we found four massive specimens grown in a nursery in Bedfordshire. So in recent weeks, the question has been – will they flower at the right time? If people visit the garden, they’ll have to spot the Enkianthus to see if Nature has worked with us on this on this one!


Our thanks go to Joe Carey for talking to us at a very busy time. After Joe and Laura’s long road to Chelsea, we can’t wait to see the fruits of their labours at the show next week. We wish all the team the best of luck as they work against the clock to put the finishing touches to the garden in the final few days.

See you at the show!


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