IT is inspired by the deepest tropics – and a disused green house in Fife. But although adventuring in search of rare and exotic plants has been key to one entry at this year’s world-famous Chelsea Flower Show, the last thing its six Edinburgh-based creators want to do is leave members of the public feeling the work is out of reach.
The gardeners in question – all students at the Scottish Agricultural College – have had to race against time to get their Plant Explorers plot ready for the Artisan section of next week’s show.
“It came together well but that’s partly through our hard work,” says team member Tom Edgar, 24, who is in the second year of an HND in Garden Design. “Since we started building it, we’ve been working on site from seven in the morning until seven in the evening every day.”
The rules state that contestants must produce a design that is sustainable, uses natural materials and has an artistic feel or inspiration. And it would be a harsh judge who decides the SAC team hasn’t delivered.
A mixture of sculpture and horticulture, the garden – which has had to be squeezed into a five by four metre plot – features bespoke art objects and exotic plant species. These include massive, frog-inhabited Gunneras, bamboo and banana plants.
And while it evokes the daredevil exploits of David Livingstone and Scotland’s other legendary explorers, its underlying concept is completely in tune with the competition’s focus on environmental responsibility and sustainability.
“It’s a cornucopia of different plants from around the world that we’ve put into our own garden,” says Tom. “But these are plants we have grown ourselves. We were chatting to a number of people beforehand and there’s a big movement now to try to control the movement of plants around the world and a reaction against just tearing them out of their natural habit.
“Our idea for this was having a plant explorer who travels round the world and visits areas and discovers new plant species. But he’s not like the plant hunters of old who actually take the plants.
“He sees them and then comes back and sources them from nurseries from here and creates the habitats he saw in the wild. It’s essentially what we’ve tried to do with our entry.
“It’s a rejection of that colonial attitude of, ‘that looks nice to own – I want it’, which is why we’ve created this figure of the plant explorer rather than the plant hunter.”
Not that a lot of actual, cross-border plant transportation wasn’t needed to get the garden ready in time for Chelsea. “We have more than 140 plants, most of them sourced from Scotland,” says team leader Penny Wright, 50.
“We have alpines from Stella Rankin in Lasswade, herself a Chelsea medal winner. The giant Gunneras [a herbaceous flowering plant with leaves that can grow up to 11 feet], for which we had to build boxes to transport them safely to London, had frogs living in them when they first arrived here from the Botanics.”
At the heart of Plant Explorers is the idea of preservation – expressed through the careful cultivation of species from far-off, vulnerable habitats and more literally.
“Our garden isn’t only about plants,” explains Tom. “We have also created sheets of clear resin – about 5cm thick – and plants are placed inside them. These are going to be layered together to form a cube that can be sat on or used as a coffee table.
“But it’s also just an artistic way of preserving plants. It hasn’t really been done before in the way that we do it.”
A far cry from the Edwardians’ pressed-flower approach to preservation, the resin installation was the brainchild of team member Karolina Tercjak, 27, from Mikolajki in Poland.
“I went to the Modern Art Gallery one day and I saw a sculpture made of resin,” she remembers, “and there was a broken violin inside and I thought I could do the same thing with plants. We were also thinking that we could make big blocks from the sheets that could be used as a table or chair.
“I was really scared it was not going to work but it really worked.”
The team has taken the concept of preservation even further. “One of the main features of the garden is this old greenhouse that we have got which was salvaged from one of our lecturer’s cousins up in Fife,” says Tom.
“We went up to salvage it and one of our hardest challenges has been putting it back together as there were only certain parts of the original building that we could use.
“We had to renovate and refurbish it while still keeping it looking like one building. Parts of it were over a hundred years old and other parts completely new.”
• The Chelsea Flower Show takes place on May 22-26. For more info, visit www.rhs.org.uk.