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Behind the Fauna & Flora Garden

Designer Jilayne Rickards and landscaper Tecwyn Evans went above and beyond to create a sustainable show garden and spread the word of an impressive charity at RHS Chelsea 2023

The Fauna & Flora Garden at this year’s Chelsea has been four years in the making. Garden designer Jilyane Rickards was fresh from winning a Gold medal and the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 show when she started designing the next one – one which would have as much gravitas as the last. 

Whilst her show garden four years ago highlighted the work CAMFED does to support females in rural or poor communities in Africa to receive an education, Rickards’ latest garden – showcased this week at the Royal Hospital Chelsea – will raise awareness of a mountain gorilla conservation project by Fauna & Flora to save these endangered species and their habitats.  

“I could only design a garden for something that I was truly passionate about,” says Rickards. “There’s no point doing it otherwise. It’s really stressful, and that’s only worth it to me if it’s something that I believe in passionately. Both gardens have been to raise public awareness of both of the charities and to make a different; for me as a designer, making a difference makes it all worthwhile.” 

It’s not just the concept of The Fauna & Flora Garden that draws your attention, though; it’s the efforts of Rickards and Tecwyn Evans – managing director of Living Landscapes, which built the garden – to make the show garden as sustainable as possible. Combined, these make the The Fauna & Flora Garden worth the wait.

Project Giving Back 

Credit: Neil Hepworth

It took Project Giving Back to secure the necessary funding to bring it to life. Two private individuals set up the scheme after seeing charities suffering from the Covid-19 pandemic. Project Giving Back enables charities to apply for a fully funded garden at Chelsea and have the opportunity to bring their message to a global stage. Fauna & Flora is one of this year’s fortunate recipients. 

With funding secured, Rickards got the green light to bring the garden to life. Whilst she interviewed a few contractors, it was Evans – whose company has built numerous award-winning show gardens – who felt most aligned with her vision. “I designed the garden with sustainability at the core and the heart of every decision that I made; everything had to have the most sustainable outcome that I could possibly imagine or get hold of. So, I said to Tec, ‘This is a sustainable garden. I want to do this cement free – how do you feel about that?’ Most landscapers would go, ‘I don’t know,’ but he went, ‘Great! How can we do it?’ And that was that.” 

It was important to Rickards that Evans join her on a trip to central Africa to see the landscape and experience the community and the conservation project. “You can’t do that with photographs,” says Rickards. “I needed to have him there, and he was totally on board with it.” 

The relationship between designer and contractor is so strong because they are coming from the same baseline, she adds – the baseline being that “everything has got to be as sustainable as possible.” In fact, everyone involved in the project has been coming from this baseline, including Fauna and Flora and the Eden Project, where the show garden will be relocated once Chelsea closes its doors at the end of the week.  

Working with the Eden Project

This isn’t the first time Rickards has worked with the Eden Project, which grew the plants for the CAMFED garden and is doing the same for the Fauna & Flora Garden. We meet there just over a month before Chelsea week, not long before the team will have to be on site to start the build. They’re filming promotional videos for the garden in the Rainforest Biome when I arrive – a humid environment which is perfect for the garden’s plants to thrive when it is rehomed there after the show. 

Filming promotional videos at the Eden Project

Considering how close Chelsea is at this point, both Rickards and Evans are remarkably calm, with just the finishing touches remaining. Everything that could be pre-built was completed before Christmas, leaving no doubt as to why Rickards calls Evans “an absolute dream” because of his organisation. From January to April, Evans focused on the details. “We’re creating a natural environment which is supposed to have been there for ages, so we have to get all the weathering and the textures and the sun wear on the kiosk” – a key feature of the show garden – “and bash up the sign to make it look rusty,” explains Evans.

He was also up in Scotland in January confirming the boulders – a waste product from farming – which are being donated temporarily by CED Stone Group. These were positioned and stacked, then numbered in accordance with the order they will need to be placed. “The whole thing is like a military operation, it is planned to that degree,” he says. 

Building without cement

That’s not to say there haven’t been “meltdowns” along the way. Finding a haulage company to deliver the plants from the Eden Project in Cornwall to the showground on the two necessary dates proved difficult, to say the least. And whilst Evans was more than happy to oblige to the ‘cement free’ brief, finding an alternative had its challenges.  

“Because we have no cement in the construction of the garden, we have an issue where we’re lifting the soil levels up by two metres at the back, and that needs to be retained. We can’t use what would be a standard cement L-shaped frame because it’s contrary to what we’re doing; so, we looked at gabions. But suppliers could not get their heads around what we were trying to do in terms of placing boulders on top of it; it was structurally too much for them. Finally, two months ago, we decided that gabions weren’t the way forward. We had nothing.” 

The Fauna & Flora Garden. Credit: Neil Hepworth

Fortunately, after a lengthy Google search, Evans came across Rootlok. “It’s a really cool system, from a landscaping point of view. It’s basically structural sandbags that you can grow in. The sandbags are placed on a frame which goes into the compacted area behind to become a retaining wall. It looks a bit like a World War I trench on the outside, but it has the structural integrity because of the recycled plastic structure that goes inwards and is compacted, holding it all in place.” 

The lengths Rickards and Evans have gone to create a sustainable garden – with zero cement, zero waste, borrowed boulders and the majority being relocated to the Eden Project – has been worth their while. The garden stands tall at the event, with a pathway up to a waterfall cascading from the carefully placed boulders – one of which took three hours to position, says Evans. But whilst there were a few snags, such as one of the bags for the Rootlok system being pierced by a telehandler fork, the build went mostly as Evans had hoped, and he says it would have been “lovely to be recognised” by the Best Construction Award. 

Unfortunately, the accolade went elsewhere, and the Fauna & Flora Garden received a Silver medal, leaving Rickards to question whether Chelsea is the right platform for her and whether the RHS “understands” such a garden. Evans says he would return to the show, but only if he was offered “the right garden that doesn’t have concrete in it – no concrete, no cement, no waste.” 

Without the research, the preparation and the effort to find sustainable alternatives being recognised, though, you could argue this approach would rarely receive a Gold medal. The success then, perhaps, is in raising awareness of a charity such as Fauna & Flora and its remarkable conservation work, and of that there is no doubt. 

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