A California Vineyard Garden at the Chelsea Garden Show

By: Kate Frey
kate-frey

Kate Frey is a noted garden designer and eloquent advocate for pollinators. She designed and managed the famous organic public…

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Rows of California poppies, crimson clover, ox-eye daisy, and oil-seed rape march up a bank in the Bonterra Organic Wine Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. Author’s photographs

Rows of California poppies, crimson clover, ox-eye daisy, and oil-seed rape march up a bank in the Bonterra Organic Wine Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. Author’s photographs

. . . The Bonterra Organic Wine Garden with its twisted dark-trunked vines among wild plantings of rape, Californian poppies, crimson clover and buttercups was so reminiscent of the real thing in California (which it sought to recreate) that this garden had a free spirit and real life.

Dan Pearson, The Sunday Times, May 25, 2003

In May of 2002, Simon Legge, the canny marketing director of Fetzer and Bonterra wines in Europe, approached me about designing a garden at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show in London to promote Bonterra wines. He had in mind a garden that would reflect the springtime character of the organic Bonterra vineyards in Mendocino County, California, to illustrate the basic principles of organic agriculture: healthy soil means healthy plants, cover crops and compost improve the soil, and flowering cover crops attract beneficial insects. Chelsea, as he showed me in the show statistics, had great potential, with 150,000 visitors over five days, and has media coverage as intense as our superbowl. It had the added attraction of visits by the royal family and other celebrities. How could one turn down such an opportunity?

For fifteen years, I’ve managed the vineyard’s organic public garden in Hopland, where the results of organic practices are revealed through the presence of hummingbirds and hoards of native bees, riotous flower borders, an exuberance of herbs, milkweeds, dangling gourds, resinous natives, grape stem mulch, and the exquisite union of lemon basil, ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes, and Chardonnay. I thought a Chelsea garden could be just a smaller configuration of what we already did. How challenging, I naively thought, could a mere thirty-three-feet by thirty-nine-foot plot be compared to our five acres of propagation, planting, and maintenance?

A hazel wood and grape vine gazebo shelters a sitting area of distinctive hazel chairs; all were crafted by Baz Scampian. Roses, meadowfoam (Limnanthes douglasii), and Shirley poppies (Papaver rhoeas) flank the entrance to the sitting area

A hazel wood and grape vine gazebo shelters a sitting area of distinctive hazel chairs; all were crafted by Baz Scampian. Roses, meadowfoam (Limnanthes douglasii), and Shirley poppies (Papaver rhoeas) flank the entrance to the sitting area

Our design became a microcosm of the gardens, vineyards, and wildflowers at Bonterra and Fetzer and the surrounding hills. The front of the garden would offer startling lines of flowering covercrops and grasses, like oil-seed rape, crimson clover, California and Shirley poppies, campion, barley, trefoil, and corn chamomile. A willow hut would stand to the left, and on the right, a willow compost bin, with an apple tree next to it. The garden’s focal point would be a seating area, furnished in willow furniture and large floral pots, with a path flowing through. There would be a small, natural pond opposite the hut. In back of the path and seating area, the garden would gain elevation, with grapevines halfway up the slope, cover crops under the vines following the contour of the slope. Behind the vines would be a wildflower meadow, such as you might find in the hills and valleys of California in spring. A mixed hedgerow would form the backdrop and left margin of the garden, with cork oak, elderberry, and hawthorn interspersed for wildlife value. It would be colorful, exuberant, and profuse-expressing the vitality of the organic vineyards. Though the RHS thought it looked too overstuffed with plants, they accepted our design in September, 2002.

Mature grape vines punctuate a flowery slope of cover crops

Mature grape vines punctuate a flowery slope of cover crops

A Garden Grows in Chelsea

My flat, in nearby Chelsea, seemed to mock me. It was half a block from Oscar Wilde’s home, four blocks from Vita Sackville-West’s home and that of Mozart. It was beautifully decorated on a street of delightful houses. It seemed like something to be rewarded with after a conquest, rather then before the now obvious attempt at Everest in beach clothes, which was the reality of creating a Chelsea garden-revealed to me after only a couple days in residence. The contractor’s crew helping me were Indian Sikhs who spoke little English; sometimes, the simple exchange of “wider, not deeper” was a crevasse in human communication. They had primitive tools that made the going slow, and were working on a number of other projects at the same time. Despite the other jobs and an hour commute each way, the contractor, supervisors, and workers were solicitous to an extreme, with sincere daily queries of “Are you happy?” The same trust a mountaineer places in the hand of his partner, attached by a thin rope, was ours.

There was a lot going on as the show gardens were installed. Around me, in curtain-sided trucks, shrouded forms stepped forth: espaliered hawthorns, manicured hornbeam hedges, ancient quince, pyramidal beech trees correct to a mathematician’s standard. As they waited like couture models lounging by the runway, fantastic stonework rose around them-distinctive theaters to display each plant’s most intimate charms. I learned the life stories of the rounded reddish Cheshire stone, grim gray stone from North Wales and the Lake District, pitted limestone from Yorkshire, and yellow sandstone from Herefordshire. Conservatories went up, thatch or mossed roofs appeared on storybook huts, fountains spouted, rills ran, and sculpture descended like the marines. The sun even came out and the workman turned pink. I could not see how our garden of sticks, weeds, wildflowers, and agricultural plants could compete with all this glory.

A gazebo of hazel and a woven willow edging give structure to the  garden; all were crafted by Baz Scampian,  proprietor of  Burnham Willow

A gazebo of hazel and a woven willow edging give structure to the garden; all were crafted by Baz Scampian, proprietor of Burnham Willow

Our crew finished their work late on the appointed day. In almost total darkness, I gave a heartfelt thanks to the workers, who resembled a series of levitating diagonal and horizontal stripes in their reflective safety vests. The retaining wall in the back held up the soil to produce the effect of grapevines on a contoured hill. The rather sparse cork oak, elderberry, apple and hedgerow filled in the back edge of the garden. Baz, from Norfolk, a specialist in willow and hazel fences, appeared and began building a hazel gazebo over our seating area (the focal point of the garden), and woven willow edging along our paths and the perimeter of the garden. Both materials were harvested from stumps that had been coppiced since medieval times. Baz showed me photos of the willow and hazel woods and the fences he made from the shoots, which were in a startling array of colors and textures, as muscular and flowing as a stream over boulders. Tall and loose in movement, Baz was an ornithologist by training but had turned his hand to willow work six years previously. The humble twigs now became supernovas or surging tides of remarkable action and texture through the hands of this former birdman.

Nine Thousand Plants

The garden now entered its second phase, that of detailed planting. Colin Walton-Smith and Scotsman John Cunningham arrived on May 10 to plant sixty-nine species of wildflowers into a replication of a flowering meadow, and to plant the charging lines of agricultural cover crops. Colin was the nurseryman who grew our 9,000 plants (twenty percent more than needed) and, with John, was an expert in planting wildflower meadows; both were professional gardeners who planted for international garden shows. Colin was thin, with worry lines on his face and a huge laugh, but exhaustion was already present from deadheading, worrying, and moving all of the weeds, wildflowers, and crops in and out of the greenhouse between September and May, to force flowering for the crucial five days of the show. Colin had started a number of them at different dates to catch the right degree of maturity for the show. The plants were to arrive in diplomatic groups as communicated by him to his delightful wife Ginny, who was holding down the fort at home.

Andy, the truck driver and a former army man, brought down a daily load of plants, which John and Colin wove into a magical carpet of wildflowers around the back of the garden and down to the two front sides. The carpet changed with aspect; if it was in the shade, it was a softness of pale yellows, mauves, and white with a little timothy grass mixed in; in lower areas, it had plants that grow in boggy conditions like dock, buttercups, and meadow foam. Around the compost bin were escapees from the garden-lupine, violas, foxgloves, mullein, scarlet adonis-as well as plants that make themselves at home around compost such as ox-eye daisy, nettles, and campion. Around the willow hut and beehives were shorter areas of worn grass with English daisies, violas, fescue, primula, and hedge nettle. John and Colin knew nature intimately-each turned leaf, each flower reclining gracefully, each interloper and invitee. To look at the fairyland they created was to leave the cares of life behind.

The arresting area of the garden was the front. In startling, conflicting, and contrasting color-breaking every rule of good taste-the agricultural cover crops reared their heads. The idea was to simulate the vineyards in springtime with lines of flowering cover crops such as mustard, barley, California poppies, cornflowers, crimson clover, trefoil, and corn poppies. In the vineyard, they are in broad rows or mixes. Here, however, I wanted strong stripes about a foot wide. We placed them one in front of another according to height and color. It was a shocking scene against the bastions of taste in all the other show gardens.

Wildflowers and mature grape vines provide the backdrop for the hazel chair and a painted terra cotta container of herbs, reminiscent of those at the Fetzer Winery

Wildflowers and mature grape vines provide the backdrop for the hazel chair and a painted terra cotta container of herbs, reminiscent of those at the Fetzer Winery

Plants were rolling in throughout the show grounds, and roads were clogged with delivery trucks. Prim, mauve, round-headed alliums, scarlet and yellow fritillaries, deep crimson old-fashioned roses, pale yellow mulleins, purple salvias, deep brown carexes, blue iris, and countless more-all the plants had stature, distinction, celebrity, and pedigrees. Our plants were species-uninhibited, unpretentious, ready to drop seed, escape, and contaminate the nearby realms of studied design.

By now our crew consisted of John and Colin, Veronica, a professional gardener with a goodness to match the flowers and a worldly humor, two students, and my husband. As the pressure built, and the rain, cold wind, and choking pollen from London plane trees (Platanus x acerifolius) caused coughing fits, we had more and more fun, even though the planting was slow; the weaving of so many plants into a cohesive whole took time. We tediously plucked any offensive yellowed or damaged leaves. John, in particular knew everyone at the show grounds and had to make each person who came by feel at home. Our lighthearted mood was matched by the cover crops in the front of the garden; their brightness, departure from tradition, and novelty for Chelsea were clearly causing some talk.

Worry became a thing of the past. I recognized that our magical wildflower meadows-our sticks, weeds, wildflowers, and agricultural cover crops-created something both old and new, combining exuberance and meaning, pleasure and work, lack of restraint and purpose. Our garden was not afraid to express its values or happiness. The life, the diversity, the vitality, and the brilliant, unrestrained color were evident. I knew we had created something good, and we had done it well. Even in an advanced state of exhaustion and dehydration, we liked each other more each day. We had reached a balance in the world, just as our plants were designed to do for the grapevines in the fields.

We finished the garden on time-Sunday, May 18-having started on May 1. Our volunteer crew left, and the television cameras and crowds immediately descended. On the next day, we were inundated by the media, and by celebrities such as Ringo Starr, Jerry Hall, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Princess Michael of Kent, and others. We won a silver/ gilt medal (just below a gold). But the important thing was the multitude of compliments from visitors who loved the departure from tradition, the wildness, the exuberance, the happy effect, and the fact that all plants were “working” plants and that the garden was friendly to birds and insects. The natural world of plants clearly marched with as much grace and conviction as the coiffed and pedigreed beauties that made up the other, more typical show gardens.

“This was a garden where the personality of the designer, Californian Kate Frey, really came through; the garden was fun, committed, and slightly mad,” wrote The Daily Telegraph, May 24, 2003.