Shot! The gold-winning Yeo Valley Organic Garden at the 2021 RHS Chelsea Flower Show

With the first wholly organic show garden at Chelsea, Tom Massey brought a little bit of Somerset to Main Avenue. It was only natural that his garden also won the Peoples’ Choice.

In my review of this year’s long delayed Chelsea Flower Show, I made a point of saying that not only were there noticeably fewer show gardens on Main Avenue, but that my personal favourite was Tom Massey’s organic garden for Yeo Valley, Britain’s largest organic brand.

And it wasn’t just my pick, for as well as being awarded a gold-medal, Tom’s first at Chelsea, it also won the Peoples Choice Award for the best show garden.

Having spent some time on it, I’m in a better position than most to give my opinion. That’s important because, if you’re unaware, the vast majority of visitors to the big show gardens, particularly those on Main Avenue, have to content themselves with looking at them from either the front or from one of the sides. That means they don’t get to experience what it’s like when you’re actually standing in the garden itself.

The first thing to say about it is it continues the recent trend of so many show gardens at both Chelsea and Hampton Court Palace, to be as unlike a formally laid out garden as possible. Instead, the aim is to go all out to recreate a piece of nature. In this case, it’s inspired by Yeo Valley’s Organic Somerset garden, complete with a lot of Mendip stone — the same stone that one sees in Bath and across the Cotswolds. So natural was the landscaping that once you walked onto the garden, keeping your footing was quite the challenge as you had to carefully step from one rocky outcrop to another as well as traversing a stream.

And whilst being on the garden provides a very different experience from just looking into it, the best view of all is from above, where you can appreciate the layout.

Tom’s original design for the garden

Of course seeing it like that is something you can only do by watching the BBC’s Chelsea coverage which features sweeping views looking down and through the show gardens thanks to their huge boom cameras.

The corten steel trough that feeds the stream

Obviously, with tickets to Chelsea at a premium, watching on TV is how the majority of people get to see the show gardens. And like pretty much every show garden these days, Tom’s had a big statement piece that grabbed your attention.

Here it was Tom Raffield’s giant egg-shaped ‘hideaway’ suspended over the stream. Crafted in Cornwall from steam-bent oak — sustainably sourced of course — it was just one of many examples of natural timber being championed on the gardens at this year’s Chelsea.

As beautifully constructed as it was, with its ovate entrance, seating and glass floor, just watching people struggle to get in and out of it, suggested it was perhaps more style over substance, more form over function. Personally, I think its sole purpose was to create some visual drama. With virtually every photo focusing on the egg, if it hadn’t been there one wonders whether the garden would have garnered quite so much attention.

The other wooden ‘design’ element Tom incorporated was a series of blackened timber log walls set vertically into the landscape. Specifically, they were bio-char logs, which being carbon rich, apparently help naturally nurture the soil.

Despite their dimunitive size, these black logs immediately reminded me of another recent garden at Chelsea which also won a gold and the People’s Choice: Andy Sturgeon’s 2017 garden for M&G.

On that garden, Andy featured monumental sculptures created out of 50 tonnes of burnt-oak by Sussex craftsman Johnny Woodford. And to be honest, their sheer size — and the dramatic way they were positioned — meant they were far more impressive than Tom’s use of blackened wood.

Once again, it reminds me of the truism there’s nothing that’s completely original — only things you haven’t seen before. Having never seen Yeo Valley’s Somerset garden myself, I cannot say how close Tom’s garden was to resembling the six and a half acre landscape that inspired it. I do know he worked closely with Sarah Mead, their Head Gardener.

The stream

What I can vouch for however, was his attention to detail in making it look as authentic and natural as possible. Personally, I consider this style of show garden to be less of an actual garden and more of a recreation of a landscape. Apart from the hide, on this one, there was nowhere to even sit!

Much of course was made of it being organic — indeed, it was claimed to be the first ever wholly organic show garden at Chelsea. It may well have been, but organic plants and flowers don’t really look any different from non-organicly grown varieties, do they?

That being said, organic plants mean no chemical pesticides or fertilisers are used and they’re grown in organically certified peat free soil. What’s more, all the pots used are compostable rather than plastic. Surely this approach should be something the RHS insist on for at all their future show gardens.

Beyond being organic, I can’t say there was much about the garden that was truly innovative. As I’ve already mentioned, we’ve seen quite a few similar looking show gardens before, a trend that begun with Laurent Perrier’s Chatsworth Garden which won Best in Show for its designer, Dan Pearson at Chelsea 2015.

Occupying the Triangle, at 300 sq m, the showgrounds biggest site, the Chatsworth Garden was also all about rocks, water and naturalistic planting as it recreated a typical Derbyshire landscape at Chelsea. At the time, it was considered extremely controversial, with some even saying that “it challenges your idea of what a garden is.”

Fast forward six years and naturalistic show gardens are much more common and far less controversial. Indeed, you could say that the Yeo Valley Organic Garden was like the Chatsworth Garden’s little brother.

In terms of the planting, however, Tom’s was a lot lusher, I really liked his colour palette, predominantly yellow with pops of reds and mauves.

Rudbeckia Sunbeckia

All the species were organically grown by Hampshire nursery Hortus Loci and the choice of plants had to change significantly as the garden was originally designed for the cancelled May 2020 show. In a garden like this, perhaps the best compliment one can give the planting is it looked like it was the work of mother nature, rather than two and a half weeks of Tom, Sarah and their team.

Adding a touch of colour among the verdant ferns and swathes of ornamental grasses — which are at their best in September — were groups of late summer perennials including heleniums and rudbeckia.

Pollarded willow

At the front of the garden were a pair of eye-catching pollarded willows. Pollarding is a pruning method that keeps trees and shrubs smaller than they would naturally grow. This ancient tradition is designed so grazing animals don’t eat the new growth and is a practice that’s still prevalent on the Somerset Levels.

Whilst I know the RHS put a lot of focus on environmental and sustainability issues, I’ve long contended that to be accepted at Chelsea, all show gardens should be designed with on-use in mind, rather than just existing for the six days of the event. I don’t think this can be said for every garden this year, but I do know that much of Tom’s garden was intended with that very purpose in mind.

Along with the specimen trees and plants, Tom Raffield’s iconic egg has found a new hang out. It’s now a permanent feature at the Yeo Valley Organic Garden in Somerset. And a powerful reminder that — with the right intentions — it’s only natural that Chelsea show gardens can be sustainable.

The designer

Behind the shot: These images were taken either using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 with the M Zuiko 1.8 75mm lens or the iPhone 12. Over the years, rather than wide shots, I’ve tended to focus on tight compositions when shooting show gardens, floral displays and artworks at Chelsea and Hampton Court. The challenge as always is to come away from the show with a set of interesting images that are different from those taken by all the other photographers there. Being invited onto a garden also means you can shoot it from different perspectives and see things at close quarters that others can’t. Photographed at Royal Hospital Chelsea on 20 September 2021

About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens. With no concerts or major events taking place during lockdown, Gary turned his attention to creatively capturing the landscapes of West Sussex. On the writing side, he also penned deep dives into some of his favourite songs beginning with Bryan Ferry’s ‘These Foolish Things’ ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and ‘All The Young Dudes’ by Mott the Hoople. Most recently, he has written a biography of Robert Palmer and the story behind Whitesnake’s ‘Still Of The Night’. All these can be found here on Medium, along with his reviews of gigs and events and chats with musicians.

Creator of images that are out of the ordinary, reviewer of live music and live events and interviewer of interesting people