The RHS Cut Flower Garden is inspired by Dutch designer Carien van Boxtel’s own garden in the Netherlands, a sanctuary which continues to aid her recovery from tragedy and the long-term effects of coronavirus
Back in 2019 before the outbreak of coronavirus, Dutch garden designer Carien van Boxtel built her own cut flower garden.
It was a personal project that grew out of a commission for a small-scale kitchen garden as well as a spare bit of land which would otherwise have gone to waste. It gave her a space to grow her own blooms for use in designs for gardens across the Netherlands, and wasn't intended as a money-making exercise, more an opportunity that Carien couldn’t turn down.
“I have grown flowers all my life – wherever I have lived I have had flowers. My current project started just as a hobby really. A client built a huge greenhouse and asked me to design a place for them to grow small-scale veg and herbs.
“I asked if there was space for me to grow any flowers – and they found me a little area.”
Initially it was to supply her other projects but then she started to supply restaurants, bars and even individuals with floral arrangements. They would come to Carien’s garden and select the blooms they wanted, perhaps bringing flowers from their own green space to work into the design.
It proved an unexpected hit.
Then came 2020 and the pandemic. Carien lost both her parents-in-law and was seriously ill with Covid herself. To this day she continues her recovery from Long Covid.
But throughout these dark days, she kept gardening and her new project became ‘her sanctuary’.
“I’m a garden designer first – that’s how I make my living – but I’m also a grower and a gardener, especially in the last year. That’s what has kept me alive, mentally and physically,” she said.
Carien has recognised the growth in a demand for provenance, common in the food industry and picking up popularity in the horticultural world, particularly with cut flowers. “People want to know where their flowers have come from,” she said.
She set about the project to make it as ethical and eco-friendly as possible. The greenhouse remains unheated, plant miles are kept low and space is used as efficiently as possible – summer flowering annuals are sown between rows of spring bulbs.
As well as being a beautiful space brimming with biodiversity, it has become a social project. About 30 volunteers have been helping her in the garden and while travel and socialising has been restricted, this has become their holiday, a mental health lifeline.
From all of this, Carien has drawn inspiration for her garden at RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival. It was long-term friend and colleague Sarah Raven, herself an expert at cut flower gardens, who suggested Carien applied for the project.
“I almost didn’t do it because of the difficulties but I thought no, I need to,” she said.
“When they asked me to make a cut flower garden, I had to make something that looks like what I’m doing in my life right now. Not a primarily beautifully designed garden with beautiful borders in the traditional sense – it’s a practical, working garden.
“Although it’s not designed to be just a beautiful garden, it’s still a lovely space to be in and that’s important. This is to show people how to create a cut flower garden at home and it is important to make your work space beautiful.”
The garden is a replica of a working garden, complete with greenhouse, space to rest and benches to work from.
While the full variety of cut flowers grown in Carien’s garden can’t all be blooming at the time of RHS Hampton Court, she will endeavour to give examples of plants to grow at home, so bulbs such as daffodils and tulips will still feature but sunflowers, dahlias and other brilliant summer blooms will take centre stage.
And it all comes back to Carien’s own garden and sanctuary which she hopes will provide inspiration for everyone at RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival.
“Here in Holland, like the UK, people have really got back into gardening. They can’t go out for a meal or to the theatre, so why not spend the time on their own garden?”
She added: “Many people are now reconsidering our lives completely, what is important to us. In this past year I have lost both my parents-in-law, I became ill myself and am now suffering from Long Covid.
“I am not a sporty person so I can’t use that to help my recovery, I have gardening instead. I have to garden, garden, garden.”