How we created the Fauna & Flora garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2023
The story of our RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden starts back in 2019, when we first began discussions with our garden designer, Jilayne Rickards, about the possibility of Fauna & Flora creating a show garden. More and more charities have become involved with Chelsea over the years to raise awareness of their cause, and we saw this as a new but exciting opportunity for us to highlight our charity’s conservation work, while showcasing the importance of protecting nature around the world.
But, beyond the difficult decision of which project to profile in the garden, the biggest hurdle – and one that seemed impossible to overcome – was how we could fund the garden.
Fast forward two years – and one global pandemic later – enter Project Giving Back (PGB), a charity established in 2021 to help UK-based good causes recover from the unprecedented effects of the pandemic by giving them an opportunity to raise awareness of their work at the high-profile RHS Chelsea Flower Show. After a competitive application process, we were delighted to be offered funding to cover the costs of our garden from PGB.
It was finally happening, all systems go! With Jilayne, we enlisted the help of our expert landscaper, Tecwyn Evans, of Living Landscapes, and our garden team was ready to go.
"At the cornerstone of the work is collaboration – between international organisations, national governments and, critically, between local communities and nature. It was phenomenal to see how the many pieces of this conservation puzzle come together, for the benefit of both people and wildlife"
Jilayne Rickards underneath Hagenia abysynica tree, Volcanoes National Park. Credit: Camilla Rhodes/Fauna & Flora
Creating a garden based on the Afromontane habitat of the endangered mountain gorilla is no mean feat. We aimed to illustrate the biodiversity of the protected forest area where the mountain gorillas live – which spans Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo – and the collaborative approach to gorilla conservation that benefits the communities living closest to the park. Our garden therefore includes both a ‘human area’ – featuring medicinal plants and a tourist kiosk – as well as a protected area, brimming with bamboo, a true-to-life gorilla nest and even a towering waterfall. The two sections of the garden are separated by a drystone boundary wall, akin to the wall that surrounds the forest area in Africa.
Jilayne Rickards looking at a lobelia plant during a trip to Rwanda. Credit: Steph Baker/Fauna & Flora
Authenticity is essential to any show garden, and we are extremely grateful for the many people and organisations that supported Jilayne with her design process, including during her design inspiration trip to Rwanda.
First, and foremost, a thank you to the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP). The garden has been inspired by Fauna & Flora’s mountain gorilla conservation work, which started in 1978 as the Mountain Gorilla Project (after a personal plea from Sir David Attenborough) and has today evolved to become IGCP.
Mountain gorilla group, Volcanoes National Park. Credit: Camilla Rhodes/Fauna & Flora
Alongside IGCP team members, during Jilayne’s visit to the project, she was supported by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, another charity based in Rwanda working to protect mountain gorillas and the communities that surround them. Both teams were invaluable in helping Jilayne to fully connect to the area and the conservation work – from organising visits to women’s co-operatives which craft gifts sold to tourists, to helping to identify the popular plants in the area.
Jilayne Rickards, Garden Designer, comments: “The protection of mountain gorillas is a complex, but highly successful, model of conservation – one that has taken decades to perfect. At the cornerstone of the work is collaboration – between international organisations, national governments and, critically, between local communities and nature. It was phenomenal to see how the many pieces of this conservation puzzle come together, for the benefit of both people and wildlife.”
Once the garden design was complete, the garden team set out on the enormous task of bringing Jilayne’s design to life and – central to the ethos of our garden – doing it in the most sustainable way possible.
One of the most prominent features of the garden design is the height of the waterfall, reaching a magnificent 5m, with a stunning 2.5m drop – all made of boulders weighing a combined total of 14 tonnes. The team was determined that this waterfall – along with the rest of the garden – would be constructed entirely cement and concrete free. But, where to start?
Finding the ‘right’ boulders was one of the first things the garden team set out to do once our funding and spot at RHS Chelsea Flower Show were confirmed. CED Stone Group has been central to this process; the team has donated boulders and rocks that are waste products from agricultural farming, and post-show they will be returned to them and used again.
Tecwyn Evans, Director of Living Landscapes and James Madden, Landscaper, preparing boulders in Scotland to be transported to Chelsea. Credit: Stephanie Foote/Fauna & Flora
"Constructing a garden in the most sustainable way, often does not mean it is the cheapest or easiest way. We hope the Fauna & Flora Garden will be a strong example to gardeners and future Chelsea show gardens of what can be achieved when you make sustainability central to your design and construction"
Sourcing the boulders was stage one, but the process of constructing the garden boundary – without use of cement or concrete – has taken a lot of work. Initially, Jilayne and Tecwyn explored using a gabion structure to keep the boulders in place. But, as well as hiking up the carbon footprint of the garden, the plan fell through due to uncertainty about the gabions being able to cope with the sheer weight of the boulders, as well as rising costs.
Boulders for the waterfall being positioned. Credit: Stephanie Foote/Fauna & Flora
The daunting question of how we supported the waterfall, using such large boulders, was solved thanks to an innovative Rootlok method that retains the compacted hardcore and soil using soil-filled bags on a stable base, and stacked together with interlocking plates. The Rootlok method has been engineered by GeoGrow Ltd, which is providing the materials and installation of the garden’s retaining wall free of charge.
The Rootlock method: soil-filled bags retain the compacted hardcore and soil, and are stacked together with interlocking plates. Credit: Steph Baker/Fauna & Flora
In addition to the waterfall structure, the rocks provided by CED Stone have also been used to create the garden’s drystone wall, which signifies the boundary that separates the gorillas’ protected forest habitat from the human area. This wall has been created using a traditional construction method – also without cement or concrete – just soil, stone and a little bit of science.
Constructing the drystone wall at the Fauna & Flora Garden. Credit: Steph Baker/Fauna & Flora
Tecwyn Evans, Living Landscapes, comments: “Constructing a garden in the most sustainable way, often does not mean it is the cheapest or easiest way. There has been a lot of trial and error during the creation of this garden to ensure we are covering every area we can to reduce our carbon footprint and waste. All of the small changes can have a huge impact. We hope the Fauna & Flora Garden will be a strong example to gardeners and future Chelsea show gardens of what can be achieved when you make sustainability central to your design and construction.”
The big dramatic features of the garden are one element of its charm. But it wouldn’t be a Chelsea garden without the plants!
From grand banana trees (Musa) to delicate Parochetus ‘Blue Gem’, a wide range of plants are included in the garden and Jilayne has called upon her trusted black book of nurseries and plant experts to find the best options to recreate and represent the gorilla habitat.
Lobelia gibberoa and the Afromontane forest landscape. Credit: Camilla Rhodes/FFI
The Eden Project – with its world-famous tropical biomes – has provided many of the plants included in the garden and invaluable horticultural knowledge, working closely with Jilayne her team throughout the project.
EuroPlants UK Ltd has also supplied a large proportion of the plants at trade price and has also helped to collate and store the plants at its nursey.
Jilayne Rickards and Tecwyn Evans in the polytunnel where the plants are being grown at the Eden Project, Cornwall. Credit: Stephanie Foote/Fauna & Flora
Other plant suppliers include Fachjan – which has supplied Ficus lyrata, a real star of the show – as well as Beth Chatto Gardens, Treseder Plants, Cotswold Garden Flowers and Piccolo Plants. All of which have been essential to helping us to bring a slice of Central Africa to Central London.
Planting, of course, would not be possible without the soil, and Boughton has donated all of the dark soil that covers our garden’s planting areas.
After the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, our garden will be relocated to the tropical biome of the Eden Project, where around one million annual visitors can learn from and experience our garden for many years to come.
The Eden Project, Cornwall. Credit: Matt Greenwell/PGB
We have supported mountain gorilla conservation since 1971, but our work began in earnest in 1978 when we set up the Mountain Gorilla Project.