Despite this being her first Chelsea Show garden, Charlotte Harris comes with all the credentials to ensure that she makes an outstanding debut on Main Avenue. She trained and worked in Tom Stuart-Smith’s design practice, and has also played a prominent part in making many previous Chelsea gardens, including Luciano Giubbilei’s in 2014 and more recently Hugo Bugg’s 2016 garden for Royal Bank of Canada, which is her sponsor this year. We catch up with her to see how it’s all going…
This is the seventh Chelsea garden that Royal Bank of Canada has sponsored, highlighting the importance of protecting the world’s most precious natural resource, fresh water. However, it’s the first time its garden has celebrated the Canadian landscape. Why?
Canada has what is considered to be the largest intact forest on earth, known as the Boreal. It’s also the largest source of unfrozen fresh water on the planet, so there was an obvious connection with the RBC Blue Water Project, a historic, wide-ranging, 10-year global commitment to help protect fresh water. This year also marks the 150th anniversary of the Confederation of Canada, and it seemed to me there was nothing more iconic and inspiring than its wilderness.
I’m not sure many people are aware of the Boreal Forest. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
The Boreal is a vast area of forested natural habitat, which stretches across the far northern latitudes, right across Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia. It’s the world’s largest land-based biome, a third of which is found in Canada alone. We hear so much about the Amazon Rainforest offsetting carbon, and yet some recent research suggests the Boreal Forest absorbs even more carbon than the Amazon Rainforest, so it is great to talk about the contribution that this vast expanse makes to our global environment.
You visited the Boreal Forest in Ontario last September. What difference did that make to your vision?
It is spectacular. Once you’re in the heart of it, there are no roads – you can only get around by float plane, by canoe or on foot, which is how I spent two weeks last year exploring the habitat. This has been an incredible experience to draw from, and I have used it to help inform and resolve any design issues. What really matters to me is that this is a show garden that is inspired by the Boreal, rather than in any way trying to recreate this vast landscape.
What would you and Royal Bank of Canada like visitors to take away from your garden?
The aim of the garden is to really highlight the preciousness of fresh water and encourage people to see that the forest wildernesses, like the Canadian Boreal, have such critical global ecological value. Appreciating them and protecting them is a responsibility we all share.
You worked with Hugo Bugg on his 2016 Royal Bank of Canada Garden. Did that lead directly to your being chosen to design this year’s garden?
I worked really closely with Hugo last year on the planting of his garden, and throughout that process he kept encouraging me to design a show garden. I really felt that it was time to step up to the challenge. I wrote to RBC and put myself forward for this year. I was put on the shortlist and eventually selected, much to my excitement and, it has to be said, terror. But no, it was no straightforward coronation!
Was there a particular brief from Royal Bank of Canada?
RBC’s brief is to celebrate its 10-year commitment to help protect fresh water and to highlight the 150th anniversary of the Confederation of Canada. It is also essential that the garden has a life after Chelsea to provide a sustainable green space that benefits the local community. But what’s great is that I have been given the latitude to respond to the brief in my own way.
Interview: Emma Reuss