How grief helped shape a Chelsea show garden

Designers Gavin McWilliam and Andrew Wilson have channelled personal loss into creating their Memoria & GreenAcres Transcendence Garden

Gavin McWilliam and Andrew Wilson

Gavin McWilliam didn’t intend to become a garden designer, but bereavement nudged him to change direction. He was working as an art director when his father died. “Prior to losing my dad we lost my sister, she died when she was 24, so we were already aware of the mortality of life at that age. A few years later my dad died as well, he said.

“At the same time, I had an operation which turned out to be serious, and it ended up changing my entire perspective on life.  I had this desire to do something that was tangible that had value, something that connected me to nature, to try to create beautiful spaces.”

This experience has led Gavin and co-designer Andrew Wilson to design Memoria & GreenAcres Transcendence Garden which aims to deliver an uplifting, spiritual space, reflecting the emotional experience at the end of life.

Memoria & GreenAcres Transcendence Garden.
Gavin and Andrew felt that a fresh approach was needed for memorial landscapes. “What’s lacking is the spiritual side, but also the beauty, or celebratory side. My association with going to funerals and going to crematoriums or graveyards is very heavy, very negative and they are not spaces I’d ever want to return to. But you don’t want to lose someone and then forget about them, so I felt there was a real opportunity to improve those spaces.”

Gavin said: “There’s a cycle of life in landscape – growing and dying, growing and dying – and there’s something quite positive about that. So we are very fortunate that we got asked to design this garden for Darwin. They were looking to approach loss in a really positive way and that aligns perfectly with what we want to do.”

McWilliams and Wilson's RHS Chelsea 2017 garden Breaking Ground
McWilliam’s and Wilson’s RHS Chelsea 2017 garden, Breaking Ground

Choosing plants to create atmosphere

McWilliam and Wilson gardens are often noted for their bold and elegant hard landscaping but always aim to balance this with luxuriant planting. “We are looking forward to using substantial number of Papaver rhoeas ‘Bridal Silk’, which we hope will prove spectacular. Gleditsia triacanthos is our main tree species, closely planted but offering a delicate and light, flickering shade.

Rosa glauca and R. pimpinellifolia  are used as structural shrub specimens, around which many of the more detailed associations form. Berberis temolaica – which Andrew first saw at Denmans Garden in Sussex, home of the late John Brookes  - is the only berberis we would consider using, (it also made an appearance in our 2013 garden at Chelsea) and Elaeagnus ‘Quicksilver’ will echo these forms, with grasses such as Hordeum jubatum and Briza softening the perennial combinations below. The plants are designed as informal, layered groups within a gravel setting below the light tree canopy so the planting will vary in density across the garden.”

Berberis temolaicaAbove: Berberis temolaica’s silvery leaves

There are key questions that memorial spaces need to consider at the design stage. “What is the experience we want people to have? How do you arrive at the site? Are there points for refection? Are there points for celebration?  Can we create a space that people want to be in and return to? On a personal level, my sister and my father are buried on the same plot and there isn’t really a desire to return to it. Because it’s sad. It’s not a place you want to be. There’s a gravestone, but nothing else, they’ve tried but it hasn’t worked that well.”

“I look at it as putting on an amazing performance...”

It is particularly fitting that this garden will have an afterlife. Following RHS Chelsea, Transcendence will be relocated to a Darwin memorial garden, and McWilliam is sanguine about it being dismantled. 

“I look at it for what it is. It has given loads of pleasure to all the visitors, it’s been on the telly, and people have seen it and shared it, a bit like putting on an amazing performance. The key is in the title - it’s the Chelsea Flower Show, you are putting on a show celebrating the best of what we can do in our industry and there are bits people can take away.

“Some of it will be about the materials, some of it will be about the plants, but some about  the conversation we’re having about the space itself. Everyone can read this garden differently. That’s why we don’t want it to be too literal. Because if you make it too literal, people can’t interpret, so we like the idea of keeping it open so people can take away from it what they want.”

You might also be interested in...

RHS Membership

Members enjoy early booking and discounted tickets to RHS Shows.

Join the RHS

Get involved

The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.