Working closely with conservation partners in over 40 countries, saving nature and boosting awareness, Fauna and Flora focuses on protecting and restoring habitats, saving species from extinction, and developing sustainable livelihoods for those living closest to nature.
Cornish-based Garden designer, Jilayne Rickards approached Fauna & Flora to design a garden to best portray their work and messages. It was hard to encapsulate all of its work in just one garden since it does so many wonderful projects, says Rickards, so they “decided to focus in on the gorilla project, because of the link to their vice president, Sir David Attenborough. We thought it would really resonate with the public as they’re likely already are aware of it due to the publicity from Attenborough.”
However, Rickards “needed to go and research for myself and therefore this garden is a representation of all of the things I found.” Wanting to make the design authentic and true to the landscape she discovered, “I wanted to make it believable, and take people on a bit of a journey, a voyage, taking people outside of what they would normally see at Chelsea, and take them into central Africa,” which is exactly what she did.
“It was like nothing else,” commented Catherine Cutler, Eden’s head of horticulture; “it really was different from the norm.”
Since Fauna and Flora is a conservation charity, it was important to both Rickards and Cutler to replicate environmental awareness, making this project as sustainable as possible. Rickards had experience in this way of working, trying to practice sustainability in her own work, and she picked a landscaper who very much had all that at heart too, constructing the whole garden cement and concrete free.
“Normally you say that to a landscaper, they sort of runaway screaming, thinking she’s insane. But luckily, working with Tecwyn Evans, director of Living Landscapes, was so great, and they responded with ‘I’m up for that, let’s see how we can do it.’ So, we worked very much together on the whole construction side of it, ensuring that there’s a great raft of green credentials to this garden.”
Rickards really wanted to show a garden at Chelsea that proved how you can build these gardens sustainably. “Chelsea can never be sustainable, as these show gardens are temporary; however, the messages given out and materials used can be.”
“I wanted to show how you can create something inspiring and beautiful, without doing so much damage.” – Jilayne Rickards
Rickards had previously worked on another Chelsea garden in 2019, showcasing a garden for CAMFED (Campaign for Female Education) using their flagship branch in Zimbabwe, who tackle gender inequality and the poverty cycle, how girls, if supported through education often become leaders themselves, and also have their own businesses, typically in farming and agriculture. Rickards chose to demonstrate how girls at school are taught to grow vegetables to support their families and their villages.
“In the UK we will think of gardens as a pretty nice place for us to go sit in or relax, and that’s our thing, but in Africa, it’s much more about how I am going to feed myself. That was the concept, but how were we going to grow plants native to Africa?”
Based in Cornwall, the Eden Project was only a stone’s throw away and presented a supportive and eager working environment, researching and growing the necessary plants together before showcasing them at Chelsea and inevitably returning them to their home in Eden, where these Zimbabwean species were replanted in the Mediterranean Biome for all to see along with the rest of the garden.
“It was great, because they were on loan to us in a way; we just borrowed them for the show garden for one week, and then they came back home to where they belong.”
Following such a successful relationship, Rickards approached the team once more, where she joined forces with Catherine Cutler once again.
“The garden maps the journey of an ecotourist on a gorilla trek, tracing a rough track through a succession of lush and changing landscapes on either side of the Protected Forest Area boundary wall. Along the way is a medicinal garden shaded by eucalyptus and banana trees, a typical tourist kiosk selling local crafts, a true-to-life gorilla nest set among bamboo and other typical gorilla food plants, as well as a waterfall and viewing rock surrounded by plants commonly found at high altitude.
“The garden aims to demonstrate the critical importance of protecting nature and how this can be best achieved by putting people and collaboration at the heart of conservation efforts. With sustainability a guiding theme throughout the garden, after the show it was relocated to the world-famous Biomes of the Eden Project in Cornwall, which have also supplied the majority of the garden’s plants.”
One of the main challenges that Rickards and Cutler faced was compiling a planting list for the garden. “If you were to Google plants in Rwanda or gorillas’ food, then all you get is a local information about gorillas, so it’s very, very difficult.” Thanks to Rickards’ assistant Caroline, they came across what was then referred to as their Bible – a PDF about plants that was specific to that area which quickly became the go-to guide for planting.
“I saw in Rwanda that they have a boundary wall, which you can see here in the garden in Eden, as it was at Chelsea.” It denotes the start of the protective wall from what was called the impenetrable forests and is the start of the protected conservation area. “The boundary wall was literally like that – although it was much bigger than my recreation; it’s quite significant to the people and really respected by the local communities.” Since gorillas don’t understand the boundary wall, there would be plants planted alongside the boarder as a deterrent to discourage the gorillas from entering. “They found that tea (Camellia sinensis) acts as a natural barrier for gorillas because they’re just not particularly interested in tea and therefore don’t bother going over the wall.” Local rural communities still rely heavily of medicine from plants and villages usually contain a medicinal garden, and this was replicated within the show garden.
If only finding suitable plants was the only bump in the road, but much like the dense, thick, muddy tracks in Rwanda, the Fauna and Flora show garden did not have a smooth ride to Chelsea.
“We had ordered some large banana trees that stood three meters tall, but when they arrived with us, they were all ripped to shreds and not one survived.” Rickards explained how there were several flaws to her design now working within London temperatures with African species.
Having researched the differences in temperatures, both Rickards and Cutler were confident that the average weather from the past five to 10 years would be at worst 12° throughout the day and drop down to maybe eight degrees at night.
But unfortunately, they were without luck.
“We had a nasty experience actually because the nighttime temperatures had gone down to about five sometimes six degrees and because of that had to store the plants inside. It was awful.”
Rickards was allowed access to the grand pavilion at Chelsea for storage to protect the plants from the cold; however, this inevitably meant that they didn’t get the light levels that they were used to or needed.
“We had these wonderful African tulip trees, which had been lovingly nurtured by the Eden Project and were okay when they got to the site and were quickly added to the garden… Then this wind whipped up from nowhere, shredding them, and that was that – my main structure was gone.”
Although Rickards spoke of how the garden was really starting to come together, the loss of these trees was really disappointing, and it could have done with an extra bit of something to really see it thriving.
“There was also the difficulty of construction because we were doing it all cement and concrete free, sending nothing to landfills and using recycled product materials as much as possible.”
Trying to construct a concrete-free waterfall, five metres in the air, the team chose support boulders, a byproduct of waste products of agricultural farming in Scotland. “In total they weighed approx. 14 ton, the easiest solution of course would have been to support the load with pre-formed concrete structures but that is not a sustainable approach. We worked extremely hard to find a better solution.”
We used a soft engineered solution – the Geogrow Rootlok system which is effectively bags filled with soil. These retained the soil level up to 2m in height and the boulders were then supported on this compacted soil. ”When it comes to relocation, we were very, grateful to Project Giving Back for giving us that extra little bit of cash so that we can install the waterfall back into the garden here at the Eden Project. It meant that we could build up the raised bed and increase our planting pocket hugely. They have been the most wonderful sponsor, really understanding of what we are trying to do, and they’ve been very supportive of it being such a sustainable garden as well.”
With sustainability at the heart of their garden, Cutler spoke of how there’s been a lot of conversation around the word sustainability, compared to five years ago. “Working towards new policies and procedures, and that’s what this is about, not just talking about it but proving that it can be done.”
Despite only receiving a silver medal at Chelsea 2023, the public was raving about the garden. “A lot of people said it’s the best thing they’ve seen at Chelsea,” says Rickards. And now settled in its forever home at the Eden Project, where the plants are thriving, with new species to be added and those that couldn’t withstand the London climate have been reintroduced.
The Fauna and Flora Garden can be found in the Rainforest Biome by following the walkway through and up the forest towards the rope bridges, where you’ll spot the little yellow shack.
Rickards and Cutler overcame all challenges to complete a successful and sustainable garden, making this a project to be well and truly proud of.