Chelsea Flower Show: Designing a wonderful outdoor edible classroom for children

18 April 2023
A year and a half ago, School Food Matters won the incredible opportunity to host a garden at the 2023 RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Since then, award-winning garden designer Harry Holding has been working to create a show garden that uniquely represents everything the charity stands for and has been working towards for the last 15 years.

This has meant not only designing a garden that is beautiful and eye-catching but one that puts children at the centre and promotes themes like food growing, access to nature and sustainability. Harry has ensured, for example, that 80% of the plants in the garden are edible and all the elements are made from natural materials. Most importantly, after the show is over, the garden will be relocated and reimagined at two primary schools - one in London, the other in Liverpool - giving the children and their communities a magical space to learn about plants and nature.

Harry is now working on the final stages of bringing the School Food Matters Garden together. With six weeks left until the big event, we sat down with Harry to discuss the design journey and the thinking behind it all.

What was your reaction to finding out that you’d be designing the Chelsea Garden?

Building a garden with School Food Matters has been a long time in the making, so to actually collaborate and get the funding to do it through Project Giving Back was a huge moment. And then to go on and get the place at Chelsea was incredibly exciting.

With a show garden, it's really an opportunity to explore and try experimental ideas and concepts and allow your mind to open up so that you’re pushing yourself as a designer. It's also a chance to get involved with the work and messages that our studio is passionate about.

We already work in schools, delivering our Green Walls In Schools project. Also, school food, and food generally, has been a huge part of my life. My parents used to run a nursery school and I set up a business when I was 17 called Grow Cook Eat, which was about empowering children to cook their own food. So, it's great to be involved and bring important messages to a national and international audience.

School Food Matters Garden design

Talk us through the design of the garden and your process

As a starting point, we had a vision of Alice in Wonderland - this sort of wacky, spiring natural space and playing with scale - and it just evolved from there. The design brief was children being at the front and centre of the garden and trying to encapsulate what food and access to nature really mean to them. We had to think about putting that into a form that was not only awe-inspiring and exciting but also educational and nourishing.

In the end, we brought lots of big ideas into a small space. We tried to create a sense of immersion so that children can walk through the garden with plants towering above their heads. We have areas that are open and areas that are more closed, creating the sense of really being in nature.

All the elements in the garden are of natural materials and are there to tell a story. So, the raw elements of food production, including soil, are, in an abstract way, represented through stabilised rammed earth walls. In the future, with climate change, we'll have even more intense summer droughts, but also, a lot of winter wet, and this contrast features in the design. We've got the negative space around the central wall, which symbolises air, and the ribbons of colourful flowers, which highlight the importance of pollinators.

We’re also going to have quotes from the children painted on the central garden wall, which is all about giving children a voice and platform to express their views about climate change, food and access to nature at the Chelsea Flower Show.

How did you go about making the garden a calm and relaxing place?

We’re all about designing with ecological principles in mind. We're evoking what happens in nature. And I think the more we can do that, the more calming the space will be and the more it’ll benefit our wellbeing, because there's nothing like getting out and walking in a natural environment. So that's what we've tried to distil.

Tell us about how you incorporated sustainability into the design

A huge part of this garden is about promoting sustainability and ensuring that it can offset its carbon footprint over its lifetime. For example, we're building stabilised rammed earth walls using 10% cement to ensure it'll be there for many, many years to come.

The majority of the plants are drought-tolerant and resilient for a changing climate. That’s really significant because our studio’s ethos is to design for the future. There’s a really nice synergy with the fact that we are designing for children. You can't think about children and not think about the future.

Relocating the garden to the two primary schools means that the garden will live on after the show and benefit so many children. It’s a very ambitious part of the project and quite costly, but we really want to deliver it for the children. The River Cafe - a restaurant business local to one of the schools - kindly partnered with us and is funding the relocations.

You held a workshop with the children at Alec Reed - one of the schools receiving the garden. What did you get from speaking with the children?

We always work alongside the client when building a garden to thoroughly understand what they want to get out of the space. The clients in this case are the children. Obviously, we're not going to be able to reflect all of the fun and wild ideas in the garden relocation design. It's about trying to distil the essence of what they love about nature and what they want for their school garden.

Is there any advice or tips you would give schools in terms of making the most of their garden, bearing in mind they may not have much of a budget?

Try to partner with local garden maintenance, garden aftercare, local horticulturalists, local organisations like Kew, famous gardens, the RHS or National Trust gardens - people with expertise. There are lots of people like us who want to help and get involved, maybe even pro bono, and can visit the school and share their knowledge and experience, helping you to make the most of that space. Bring in expertise and engage with people who do this day in, day out as a living and care about giving back to their local community. Reap the rewards of collaboration!