Wry Society: The Chelsea debut

Will a former ballet star-turned-über-hip garden designer wow the RHS with his wildly cool meadow garden – or find himself dancing to an altogether more devilish tune?

Image: Phildisley.com

Oliver climbed out of his racing green Mini convertible and inhaled the verdant tang of blossom-scented Hampshire air that hovered over the vast plant nursery. For one brief and blissful moment he was relaxed, but then it was back to the brain-rattling, ticking time-bomb (42 days and counting) of his flower-show deadline. “Why did I sign up for this?” the debutante designer inwardly groaned for the 63rd time that week. It had been five months since the RHS confirmed his prestigious slot on Main Avenue and only four years since he’d graduated (with flying colours) from his garden design course at Inchbald. 

It was all a long way from the Opera House where he’d leapt from corps de ballet to principal dancer by the time he was 23, swiftly gaining a reputation for gravity-defying leaps and diva-esque demands. But a ropey Achilles heel ended his dreams of dance superstardom. During a six-month sabbatical at his mother’s bucolic Sussex cottage, he rediscovered his somewhat precocious childhood passion for herbaceous borders and decided to trade grand jetés for evergreen allées.

After college he quickly notched up a dizzying list of illustrious commissions: sleek topiary lawns for Belgravia’s uptight residents, perfectly coiffed terraces for Mayfair’s bubbly socialites and a clutch of sumptuous walled gardens for Notting Hill’s yummy mummies; but Oliver longed for something more romantic, wild and unfettered, somewhere he could let his exuberant artistry and exquisite taste run rampant. Chelsea was the logical next step – the perfect showcase for his experimental scented meadow garden.

Little did he know the work that would be involved. Reams of plans were poured over and pondered by the flower-show advisers; his chosen prunus was prohibited and, no, he could not introduce 50,000 Bulgarian bees to the showground, even if they were housed in state-of-the-art eco-hives. But none of these missives was as teeth-clenchingly troublesome as the deluge of additions from his sponsor, Brenda, the brassy Aussie heiress and owner of a juicing empire. 

As Oliver’s mind drifted over all of these stresses, his mobile jolted frantically to life. 


“Ols,” screeched Brenda, who may have been 10,000 miles away but felt scarily close. “Great news – I got ’em: 380 of those red glads are on their way to you.” The call was abruptly ended, as Oliver tried to digest this latest bombshell.

Brenda was determined that he incorporate swathes of ghastly gladioli into the garden, as they’d been specially bred in the exact same Pantone shade as her new Power Punch Super JuiceTM. They were wildly inappropriate, garish and, in Oliver’s mind, only one tiny notch above his absolute garden nemesis – the pink dinner-plate dahlia.  

A month later, as the garden construction raced on and the planting commenced, it was with a heavy heart (and the constant reminders of Brenda’s not insubstantial £250,000 bank-rolling) that Oliver conceded defeat to the river of gladioli. He would never sell his soul to the devil again, he muttered to himself as a crate of Brenda’s bloody juices were dumped kerbside by a forklift truck – a gift to the busy team of contractors.

As the show opened, Oliver lurked at the back of the garden, hiding out in Brenda’s custom-built, eucalyptus juice bar. Against all the odds, the bright pomegranate red of the gladioli made quite a statement as they rose, like an army, out of the billowing grasses and delicate wildflowers. As he waited for the judges’ verdicts to be dished out, he dipped into the morning papers on his iPhone. “A triumphant and bold comment on our fractured society” reported one glowing review; “A brave battle-cry for globalisation” announced another. Oliver had absolutely no idea what they were on about, but Brenda’s brash old flowers seemed to be a huge hit. 

And then as the judges arrived beaming at the front of the garden, Oliver nervously opened up his medal. It was Chelsea gold! After almost fainting, he fell into the arms of Brenda who had hot-footed it from Heathrow to bask in the glory of her debut garden.


“We’re going to do this again next year, Ols,” said Brenda. Oliver nodded limply in agreement. “My new range of juices is going to be all about subtlety and refinement,” she continued. “So we should dial it down a bit. I’m thinking pink… and I’m thinking dahlias.”

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