In the Pink

After our successful venture ‘#Knolling with Daisies’ with Gardeners’ World presenter Sue Kent at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show we declared ‘Never Again!’ however as time passed the good bits far outweighed the stress of getting everything ready and the physical problems with making the garden.

Since our collaboration we have become great friends with Sue and Steve and sometime in late 2022 when we were having a cuppa Sue casually mentioned that the BBC had asked her to do a border at the NEC for BBC Gardeners World Live – would we like to help her. How can you say no to such a charming lady, and so with a degree of enthusiasm we set about planning. Sue wanted to combine her love of pink with her artistic capabilities and her passion for edibles. This all had to be done in a small area only 6 metres by 1.5.

Now looking on the bright side this meant we didn’t have to grow so many plants; however, we now realise, that small areas are so much more complicated than large ones, the planting has to be so precise, and it is far more difficult to create the desired vision in such a small area.

The plants we required were discussed and a small ‘must have’ list was made. These included Salvias, Cosmos, Alliums, Penstemon, Paeonies and Nemesia. There was not much planning to be done as most of the border consisted of plants.

After this it became a series of nightmares!

November was extremely mild and then at the flick of a switch we had a fortnight of really cold weather, progressively getting colder, culminating in a couple of nights of -12C. Despite heating as many tunnels as possible this wreaked havoc with masses of plants, especially the Salvias and Penstemon.

Having retrieved what we could after the big freeze we then went into a really miserable, wet late spring…. All the plants that we needed just weren’t growing, heaters didn’t really help so we decided to tweak the original plans. As mentioned, the Salvias and Penstemon were poor to say the least and the Cosmos, bought from a very reputable seed company, were awful, weak, varied and just plain horrible – so that was most of our base plants out!

Finally, we had a heat wave so the things that were looking good were advancing so quickly that they would potentially go over before they even arrived at the NEC. These were quickly relocated to the coolest part of the nursery and fingers crossed we had enough.

Sue was very specific about colours so a lot of the plants that were growing nicely were swiftly rejected as were most of the purple leaved items. It was looking like we wouldn’t have enough plants so off we went shopping! Alas no one had anything in the right colour spectrum – I now look at pink completely differently, there are so many different ones, cool pinks, blue pinks, red pinks, salmon pinks, hot pinks…..the list goes on and trying to mix all these together into a harmonious creation was looking at best dodgy.

All the wholesalers and the garden centres had nothing that we wanted, it amazed me how few pink plants were around. – things were looking bleak!

Sues Alliums suddenly developed rust – that’s another off the list!!!!

The Willows were an absolutely essential part of the stand, which we were forcing on to get a decent sized small tree. These suddenly started to scorch in the blistering heat…. Oh no, whatever next, well spotted Alex – quick shade the tunnel and hope we could rescue them.

My prized stock Astrantias, which I had told Sue was an absolute no no, reluctantly had to come along…. They had better be looked after, they really did look superb.

Next, we’ll confirm the van booking, lucky we did! Our local van hire company only had one Luton and this had just blown up, a week before we needed it. The only place we could get one from was far away but duly booked in, things were perhaps looking up.

Two days before we left a management decision was made – take everything we had of show quality and sod the colour mis-match. We would make it work somehow.

Trollies duly loaded and van picked up we started to pack – brand new van with only 1000 miles on the clock – no pressure – have you seen my driving! Alas the trollies were 1” too tall to get into the Luton….. we never had this problem with the last one… old is always best. Angle grinder out, trollies shortened, van loaded, we were off!

We left at 12 and arrived just in time to offload, the weather was scorching, our stand was laid out, a blank canvas, just a square of sleepers.

David Austin had kindly donated 10 roses to us in five shades of pink. These were amazing full of flower and decent sized plants.

We also had a collection of Paeonies on loan and these with the Roses were supposed to be the backbone of the design, flamboyant and scented, just what the doctor ordered. Alas these were all white and not really of show quality another one off the original list.

John Wheetley, an RHS hero, helped us out with a few plants, some lovely dark leaved sweet potatoes, some Amaranth a lovely batch of pale dwarf Digitalis and a number of tree Spinach plants. What a lovely man without whom the garden wouldn’t have looked so beautiful.

Alliums were supplied by W.S. Warmenhoven …. And these really elevated certain areas to a higher level.

We had plenty of time so that was one good thing, plants duly unloaded, willows hidden out of the searing sun. There were so many plants in the end…. Were we going to use all these? Better too many than not enough. Ruth and Sue were ganging up on me as usual when the differing ideas didn’t quite match. All good fun we cried.

Finally, we had soil, and the plants were laid out in their anticipated spots…. From a dark end with lots of purple foliage (lucky we brought enough) to a very pale end where the easel would nestle amongst an array of terracotta pots, some painted the most revolting lilac pink colour.  Time and time again we adjusted the placing, time and time again the different pinks just didn’t look right, the sky was darkening, and some much-needed rain looked like it might at last fall so off to the hotel we went to have a break and come back in the morning with fresh eyes.

Twenty minutes later, having just settled in for the evening there was a clap of thunder, then another… Never mind I thought let nature take its course, so the Roses might get a little damaged but there’s not a lot we can do about that. But oh no, daughter Ruth (who is now obsessed with Roses) demanded that we make a mad dash back to the NEC and put our lovely Rose specimens under cover. So, this is what we did. The NEC was pretty much finished for the night, we had to climb a few fences to get in and when we did finally arrive the buildings were all closed so no where dry to put them. Meanwhile the heavens were about to open. Quick I cried, lets put them in the next-door garden’s greenhouse, it was the only dry place we had available to us. Hopefully we could get them out in the morning, and no one would be the wiser. Daughter did not approve & then it rained and rained and rained so good job done really.

Next morning, we were in early to remove all evidence of the break-in but alas it was not to be. Every time we moved a plant a shower of rose petal confetti littered the floor, it looked like a society wedding had been here. We did manage to pick them all up – just before the owners arrived, who found the whole incident hilarious.  We made so many good friends during the build-up, a nicer group of people one could not imagine.

Plants watered Sue duly turned up and we decided that a complete revamp was called for, island plantings of predominantly Roses and Astrantias were softened with other perennials and surrounded with flamboyant annuals. All of a sudden it just flowed, amazing what a good night’s sleep can do, and we were off planting like crazy.

The plants had to be meticulously picked over, Ruth’s forte, sitting for hours taking off every blemish and dead bloom so that the end result would be as perfect as possible. The Willows, slightly scorched, were a nightmare but two hours after starting they looked pristine.

We could only work in the mornings and evenings as the heat was so intense, just totally draining.

Gradually the garden evolved, the beautiful pink painted pots were sidelined, and some lovely old terracotta ones substituted. Sues Easel looked perfect with her amazing painting, done with nail varnish on toughened glass. It looked really classy even though it portrayed several plants that we couldn’t include in the border for one reason or another.  It was really starting to take place. We even managed to put Sues coveted scented Geranium in much to her delight.

We had to wait until the evening before judging to place the willows, just in case the leaves burned again, and with these in place and the sweet peas lovingly fixed to the tripod we were done.

Would it be good enough for the coveted Platinum award. We were pleased with the final product but it really was pink, very pink. It certainly stood out, but had we blended the colours correctly, had we placed the taller herbaceous plants in the right spot. Would the judges like the combination of annuals, vegetables and cottage garden plants…. The list of ‘what ifs’ just got longer and longer.

The results were due to be announced on the Wednesday evening after a mornings judging, which just gave me chance to get the Lorry back on Tuesday night and return to the NEC the next day.

The results were nail-biting. As Sue and I sat there while they announced the string of medals and then it was our turn – Sue Kent ‘In the Pink’ ….. Platinum. We were by now emotionally drained and this was just amazing, we were totally humbled and ecstatic at the same time. All the effort and troubled swept aside, we were now riding that moment of elation yet disbelief.

As the open days progressed we realised how much the general public loved it. The small gardens are essential as, unlike the larger show gardens, people can relate to them. Hopefully we inspired people to go home and re-create the ‘in the pink’ border. Even the medal, which exceeded our expectations, was eclipsed by the public’s views – after all this is what it is really all about.

Thank you BBC gardeners World Live for giving us this opportunity.

As a parting shot, I would like to thank so many people. Most importantly all our growing team, Matt the nursery manager puts up with my whims and keeps the place running while I am away but everyone on the nursery had some input and each one deserves part of the credit.

Sue Kent and Ruth. my partners in crime, who helped, complimented, pestered, nagged,  and just were always there for the fine tuning and design, they are both amazing.

David Austin, W.S.Warmenhoven, Jon Wheetley and Hardys Cottage Garden Plants for supplementing our planting lists.

Belinda was an absolute star helping admirably with all aspects,  but amazingly good with the visitors.  Her camera skills are now world renown as the number of pictures she took of Sue posing with anyone who wanted a picture was endless.

And finally All the staff and helpers from BBC Gardeners World Live and / or the NEC, especially the adorable Erica who looked after us unbelievably well.

Take a look at the lovely plants that went into our ‘In the Pink’ Border below

our pink border at the NEC