I love a G&T, so much so that I have an entire garden named after my favourite drink. Naturally I was very happy to discover another garden inspired by the juniper-infused spirit at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show.
The Silent Pool Gin Garden was part of a line up in the new Space to Grow category. If I’m honest I didn’t really grasp the distinction, except that each of the gardens had a smallish scale and a contemporary twist. Space to Grow included gardens highlighting the threat to our underwater ecosystems, the experience of young people with HIV, skin care and awareness of Myeloma, alongside gardens promoting gin and a non-alcoholic ‘spirit’ called Seedlip, featuring plants exclusively from the pea family. Let’s just say it was a broad church. The best thing about Space to Grow was that the RHS had pushed these gardens back against the show’s inner perimeter, providing them with the backdrop of Christopher Wren’s magnificent Royal Hospital, a nugget of borrowed landscape that money could not buy. There’s no comparison with the Great Pavilion on the other side of Royal Hospital Way, a functional building with about as much charm as a Zanussi washing machine.
Designed by David Neale, the Silent Pool Gin Garden effectively addressed two briefs – to create a relaxing, urban haven in which a professional couple might unwind, and to incorporate references to distilling and the Silent Pool brand in particular. This ‘professional urban couple’ is particularly well served by garden designers at RHS shows, although I have yet to meet anyone resembling them: these lucky people have a lot more money than any professionals I know. Nevertheless this was a garden that professional people, twinned or otherwise, might aspire to, provided they could afford a skilled gardener to maintain it whilst they go about their busy lives.
Where the designer’s skill lay was in interpreting the sponsor’s exquisitely romanticised brand. Back in 2014, Silent Pool gin was in the vanguard of a new wave of British gins, which has lately built into something of a tsunami. Silent Pool is distilled and bottled in Surrey, using water drawn from an ancient spring that rises from a natural chalk aquifer. The gin’s name is taken from the ancient freshwater pool which the spring feeds. The pool, considered by some to be sacred, is noted for an eerie and unexplained calmness. The water exhibits n intense, blue opalescence, caused by the chalk content. The bottle mirrors exactly the colour of the pool’s water at its deepest point: it’s a pale, translucent, teal-blue vessel, adorned with a filigree pattern depicting the 24 botanicals that form the gin’s unique recipe. The silhouettes of rose, iris (orris root), lavender, camomile, angelica and nineteen other botanicals are picked out in copper, echoing the bespoke stills in which distillation takes place. Look closely and you will find illustrations of the evil Prince John and Emma, a woodcutter’s daughter, whom the prince is said to have drowned in the pool. How we adore a product with a good story attached to it!
So here we have the garden’s essential ingredients – still water, overhanging trees, decorative botanicals, filigree panels, cool blues and coppery oranges. (Alas no trembling maidens or wicked knights, but perhaps they are being held in reserve for next year’s show?) These are attractive elements to work with, at once restful and also sufficiently diverse to create tension and interest. David Neale chose UK-sourced Purbeck walling, warm Portland stone, rugged Corten steel and weathered English oak as his hard landscaping materials, using them to create a series of walls, raised beds, pathways and planters framing a sequence of pools and planted areas.
A restricted palette, with only multi-stemmed hornbeam used as structural planting, made for a calm and clean garden. Drama was delivered in the form of a twisted ‘citrus peel’ sculpture, formed of hammered copper, and a gorgeous planting scheme. Here we got to enjoy Chelsea stalwarts Anchusa azurea ‘Dropmore’ and Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ combined with Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’, Corydalis flexuosa ‘China Blue’, Aquilegia ‘Henson Harebell’ and Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’. Somewhere in the undergrowth were the blue poppy, meconopsis, with flowers of the most perfect Silent Pool blue.
In the water grew Iris fulva, the Amercian copper iris. Presented in perfect condition, David explained that the flowers had been encouraged into bloom in a child’s paddling pool in his parents’ conservatory. Chelsea designers will go to any lengths to achieve perfection and this garden came so close, landing a fashionable silver-gilt medal and, perhaps more importantly, the People’s Choice award in the Space to Grow category.
There was nothing challenging, quirky or especially original about this garden – we have seen the like before – but thank goodness it was in the Chelsea mix. Most of the gardens at this year’s show were great to look at, but not to live with. My earlier gentle sarcasm aside, this garden would have satisfied the aspirations of professional clients dreaming of a garden in which to unwind on a summer’s evening. Here they might readily enjoy a gin and tonic, gaze into the water and quietly slip into a fantasy world where princes really do drown maidens in silent pools. TFG.