I designed an award-winning garden

Peter Reader left his job as a doctor to become a garden designer and by the end of a one-year training course, he'd won a prestigious competition to design a garden for the RHS Hampton Court Show.

I've loved gardening all my life, and having a garden in a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) show had always been an ambition. Once I left medicine and started training in garden design, that ambition was even stronger.

I entered a garden-design competition

While I was training for my new career, a trade nursery was running a national competition to design a garden. The prize was that they would pay for the winning garden to be built at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. My college encouraged us all to enter, so I went in for it even though I didn't expect to win.

The brief was to design a garden for a young professional couple who liked art, nature and travel and wanted their garden to reflect all of those things. It was a very broad brief, so you could pretty much do what you liked.

I mulled the brief over for a while before coming up with my idea, then did a few sketches on a piece of paper and gradually developed it into the final design.

Growing a theme

RHS Peter Reader garden grassesI wanted my design to have a flavour of foreign travel and I love water in gardens as well, so I decided to blend these. On my course we'd studied garden history and learned that the world's first gardens were Arabic, and were divided by four narrow waterways, called rills.

I started with that structure but gave it a very modern twist – while traditional Arabic gardens had lots of marble and cool spaces, mine had planting with a very Mediterranean feel. I included an olive tree and rosemary and lots of grasses with flowers growing through, so it looked a bit like a meadow.

I had to bear in mind that I was designing a show garden, which is very different to an everyday garden. There's much more theatre required: it has to be a real showcase. You also have to take into account that people will be standing outside the garden looking in, as opposed to being in the garden looking out.

I called it 'Four Corners' to reflect the fact that the garden was divided into four, but it also contained plants from around the world so it was four corners of the world if you like.

The Hampton Court Show

RHS Peter Reader lavender by rillWhen I found out I'd won the competition it was fantastic. Such an amazing feeling. And then I thought, oh wow, I've got to actually do it now!

I realised that I was going to be on display. My design, my choice of plants, my planting skills and my people building it. So I was going to be kind of out there.

As soon as I'd graduated from my course I started to prepare for the show. There was a lot of legwork involved, which was a really strong learning experience.

Everyone at the college was really pleased I'd won. Because I was a new student and because I'd been a doctor and it was an interesting career change, a number of the horticultural magazines were keen to do a story about it. So my win created quite a bit of noise in the horticultural press, which was very exciting.

To have a whole group of people saying, "We think this is so good we're going to invest our time and money into putting it into this RHS show," was really, really nice.

Planning and preparing

As well as thinking about exactly how the garden was going to be built, I also needed to plan how, if some construction element didn't work on the day, how it could be done a different way. You only have two weeks in which to build a perfect garden, fit for an RHS show, so you have to plan every step of the way for that time.

My first meeting with the nursery and the contractor who was going to build the garden for me was quite intimidating because they pointed out all the possible problems. They said the water feature would be quite a challenge to build technically. Water is very unforgiving if you don't get it right. If you don't get things level then water gives the game away because it lies flat and so everything looks uneven. It can also simply leak. So I came away from that meeting feeling quite nervous.

But actually my course had prepared me well and when I worked some more on the details of how we were actually going to build it, I found that things worked quite smoothly.

RHS Peter Reader gardenI'd been to the Hampton Court Show before so I knew what the backdrop to my garden would be like. There were lime trees and grassland in the background and my design fitted in nicely.

When you're designing a show garden you need to take the surroundings into account. At the Chelsea Flower Show, some of the gardens have the great big RHS tent as a backdrop and if you don't do something to hide or mask it, that can completely ruin the look of your garden. As part of the preparation for the show the RHS runs a couple of seminars where they tell you what to expect and they showed a couple of slides of gardens that had missed out on a medal because the backdrop ruined them.

Doing the groundwork

I remember arriving at Hampton Court on the first day and all these guys started to dig. I felt fantastic, because they were building my vision!

You basically start with a blank grass rectangle, on which you only have two weeks to build a garden from scratch. Because of this, though, we had pre-built as much as possible beforehand - fence panels and decking, for example - and assembled it on arrival. That helped a lot, and fortunately everything else in the build ran pretty smoothly.

As well as the issues around designing and building the hard landscaping, the plants also presented some challenges. You design a garden with a set of plants in mind, but you also have to have backups because you can't guarantee the ones you've chosen will be ready on time. They may not grow well that year or, if it's been really warm or cold, they might have flowered and finished early.

Managing the plants can be very stressful. Several months before the show I was wandering around greenhouses saying, "Let's keep these," and "Hmm, I think those have moved on a bit – let's keep them outside so it's cooler and they'll slow down," and "These aren't coming on quickly enough so let's put them in the greenhouse to get them going a bit."

Right up until the last minute you're worrying about whether your plants are going to look right: will they be in flower or will they be past their best? The plant side had a lot of drama!

I wanted to create a garden that was good for nature so I chose lots of plants that are easy for insects to land on and get nectar from. There were shrubs and grasses that would remain during the winter, creating hidey-holes for creatures to survive the harsh winter months.

In a nod to the 'liking art' part of the brief, I designed picture frames to hang on the rear wall of the garden. Two of them were filled with succulent plants and the third contained lots of pieces of drilled wood, bamboo and other materials, all laid out in a pattern to create a huge hotel for insects.

Everyone who was involved in creating the garden loved the experience. Some of the students from my course came to help with planting and there was a real team spirit. Each garden at the show is judged on its own merits so you are not in competition with anyone as such, and all the other designers and exhibitors were really friendly. We were all up against the same challenge, so there was a great atmosphere.

Tending an RHS show garden

We finished the garden with a couple of days to spare, which was really nice because it gave the plants time to settle in and turn to the light - they feel more comfortable once they've been out there for a day or two.

By the time the show opened, we knew exactly what we were doing on each day, so everything ran very sweetly. The gardens have to look pristine throughout the show, so every morning you arrive early to deadhead plants and check everything. It was really hot that year so we were watering all the time, too.

RHS Peter Reader watering show gardenThe show lasts a week and it's hard work! We had people five and six deep every day and we were handing out leaflets and answering their questions. It was great fun but pretty exhausting.

At the end you have less than a week to take it down and return the site to normal. This is especially true at Hampton Court, as it's an ancient historic site, so if you've dug a hole the officials come and check that there are no stones or rubbish in it. Because the water you use might contain chemicals, it has to be pumped out into a canister rather than just dumped onto the grass. The Hampton Court team put the turf back on but in essence you've got to clear the whole site.

So the planning madness is followed by the building madness, then the whole week of the show and when that's over you have to take everything out! It was a month of chaos, but it was fun too.

We got the professional and public vote!

When the show opened, the garden was really well received. The public loved it and asked lots of questions about the garden and the plants. It was lovely standing in the garden, chatting to people and laughing and joking with them.

RHS Peter Reader water spoutThe best gardens at the show are awarded medals, which can be bronze, silver, silver gilt or gold. Four Corners got a silver-gilt medal, which is two or three marks short of gold, so that was great. It was the first show garden for me and for the guy who built it, so we were very happy. It was a shared accolade.

Better still was winning the People's Choice award, where the public votes for the garden they think is the nicest one in the show. That was fabulous because while the RHS look at and judge the garden in a certain way, the gardens are really built for the public so for them to say, "We like this one best," was fantastic.

I was given an engraved glass bowl for the People's Choice award, and also received my silver-gilt medal.

Another year, another garden

It was such fun that we decided to enter the competition the following year as well with a very different design. Whereas the first garden was very soft and naturalistic, the second one was a clean-cut, modern outside entertaining space. There were white rendered walls, raised beds, a much more formal water feature, a big posh gas barbecue and a lovely table for eating outside. I wanted to show that I could do something completely different.

The second year, we had to build everything on site, so that was much more of a challenge, and the contractor who built the garden fully funded it, which was great. I was thrilled when we were awarded a silver-gilt medal again.

Designs for the future

I would certainly like to do more show gardens. I'll definitely go back to Hampton Court, although RHS Peter Reader in show gardenI'm not doing a show garden this year because it takes a lot of time and I want to concentrate on my garden-design business. Having said that, the shows bring great publicity and both gardens were featured on the BBC coverage. So the more gardens I can build, the more people will see my work. The medals are also an excellent marker that you can design and build great-quality gardens.

I enjoy designing a mixture of gardens, from little courtyards to big sites. I'd like the opportunity to work with other artisans: architects, contractors, sculptors etc. When I was doing the show gardens I had to design a spout for the water feature, which I developed with a local blacksmith who does some sculptures as well. That was fun! I like the idea of branching out into different media and using different skills.

Looking to the future, I'd like to continue growing my business and keep learning - and I'd love to be invited to build a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Photos by Emily Reader and Peter Reader
Four Corners video by Clockwork Video Productions

To find out more about Peter's designs, visit his website.

Read about Peter's career switch from medicine to garden design.

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