Chelsea volunteers counting the sleeps

Leon Kluge

The design of this year’s Kirstenbosch-South Africa exhibit for the Chelsea Flower Show has been revealed.

Now it’s time to source and pack the plants that will be air freighted to London for the five-day show which takes place this year from Tuesday May 22 to Saturday May 26. Considered the Olympics of gardening, it draws more than
160 000 visitors.

But it could not happen without the help of volunteers. The launch was held at Kirstenbosch on Wednesday April 18 and was the first time the volunteers saw the model of the exhibit.

Norah de Wet from Tokai, one of seven volunteers, said: “It is a vibrant concept, with an authentic South African feel. The designer Leon Kluge has chosen plants from regions throughout South Africa which reflect the diversity and beauty of our plants. I’m really looking forward to the whole experience of working with him, being at the flower show and working with the Chelsea team.”

Ms De Wet, from Peninsula Landscaping, has a background in fine art and 25 years in the industry as a landscaper. She is also the national chairperson of the South African Landscaping Institute. Volunteering at Chelsea is an ideal opportunity to combine her love of plants with a visit to her daughter, who moved to London one year ago.

Ms De Wet said it is exciting to be on the team of Chelsea volunteers and a wonderful opportunity to view international garden designers’ work. It will also be an opportunity to meet Chelsea visitors and encourage tourism to South Africa.

Linda Keevy of Plumstead has been a volunteer at the show three times before and said it is hard work but wonderful wandering around and seeing some of the other 600 designs created by some of the world’s best garden designers.

Ms Keevy ran a nursery called Heaven Scent Garden and Nursery on a farm in Elgin. She said it was fairly small, mostly done for the love of it, selling the plants to landscapers and visitors who got to know her through the Elgin Open Gardens. She designed and built a garden for each of the three years that the Lourensford Show took place in Somerset West, which is where she got to know David Davidson, former co-designer of the South African Chelsea exhibit. The farm in Elgin has been sold and she and her husband have just moved to Plumstead where she continues to garden.

Robin Penny of Kalk Bay will be in London for over three months and is a passionate gardener who has worked in gardens all over the world. She trains gardeners, local people and others from Malawi and Zimbabwe. “I’ve heard it’s a lot of hard work but I’m not afraid of that. I love flowers and plants, especially our local ones and I do know many of the ones on the stand and will brush up on the aloes, kokerbooms and euphorbias,” said Ms Penny.

Ms Keevy said part of the job is to unload the truck that delivers the plants and cut flowers. Then to unpack the boxes and re-cut the stems of all the proteas, leucodendrons, leucospermums, ericas and all other foliage and place them in buckets of water. The stems need re-cutting to help the plants to absorb as much water as possible. The oasis, in which the flowers are exhibited, also needs to be soaked in water and put onto bases for the flowers and foliage to be arranged in, to keep everything as fresh as possible for the duration of the show. The flowers and foliage must be arranged to look as they appear in the wild, she said.

Mr Kluge said the next step is for the SA National Biodiversity Institute staff to clean and pack all plants as strict protocols need to be upheld.

The plants are then air freighted to London where judging takes place on Sunday May 20. The public is allowed to attend from Tuesday to Saturday.

Kirstenbosch media spokesperson, Sandra Struys, said the exhibit brings many tourists to South Africa.

Acclaimedgardenerand founder of Keith Kirsten Horticulture International, Keith Kirsten, has been a co-sponsor since 1993. He is presently the vice-chairman of the Kirstenbosch branch of the Botanical Society of South Africa.

He said the stand design has changed since 1993 when it was previously designed by British floral designer Pam Simcock. The previous Kirstenbosch exhibits were grand floral displays beautifully done, however, very often with exotic flowers from other parts of the world. Since 1993 the exhibit is a plant and floral landscape to a specific theme, each year representing the eight South African plant biomes from all provinces.

Ms Keevy said lots of ex-South Africans come to the stand just to gaze and smell the fynbos.

“The stand is very popular and seeing our fynbos through the eyes of the visitors gives a new appreciation of our beautiful flora. We love the English country garden and want to grow peonies, and they want to grow our fynbos,” said Ms Keevy.