A garden with hardly a bloom in sight and inspired by the dramatic transformation of land through the reintroduction of beavers to the UK has won best in show at the Chelsea flower show.
The garden – A Rewilding Britain Landscape by first-time Chelsea designers Lulu Urquhart and Adam Hunt – may lack eye-catching flowers but features a beaver dam, a pool with a lodge behind it, a shabby shed with corrugated iron roof and UK native plants.
Judges were won over by its evocation of a rewilded landscape in south-west England, which used West Country stone, reclaimed timber and sticks pre-gnawed by beavers – with the dam representing a re-established colony of the keystone species.
Beavers have been reintroduced to parts of the country after becoming extinct in the UK 400 years ago. The garden, designed for the charity Rewilding Britain, aimed to show their role as incredible bioengineers within a natural ecosystem, and incorporated crack willow, hawthorn and alder.
Unusually for the show, native grasses are shown as they would be seen in the wild, with their previous year’s growth and their pre-season seed-head remnants left on, together with the brown, former season’s dead foliage. A soundscape included the tail slap of the beaver and the creature’s mewing.
“It was a hard-fought debate between members of the judging panel to decide which garden to award best in show. In the end, all the judges were captivated by the skill, endeavour and charm of A Rewilding Britain Landscape – every step is exquisite,” said James Alexander-Sinclair, the Royal Horticultural Society chair of judges.
Urquhart and Hunt, based in Bruton in Somerset, have stressed the principles of rewilding are not just for the countryside. Urquhart told the Guardian it was “saying give space to nature with this garden”.
“Like we’re not necessarily just talking about gardening. Leave some areas. Rewilding Britain is about the marginal areas. This may not be a formal garden, but we are trying to show you what you see out in nature when it’s colonising itself, is a lovely mix of shrubs, trees, grassland, meadows. And that gives rise to mass habitat for birds, fish, amphibians, insects, and that’s what we’re trying to show you in a kind of nano-space.
“It was fun to sort of mess things up a bit – we didn’t want our plants to look like they’d been in a pot. We wanted them to look wild.”
Hunt said: “When we design, we try to look at habitat, as well as an aesthetic beauty. When you realise what habitat does, what it can look like, you can start to find it beautiful. It’s about leaving a little part of your garden wild, unmowed.
“Why not leave some hawthorn in the corner with some nettles under it – that’s creating habitat. I mean this is a piece of wildland – it’s definitely not a traditional garden, but all these plants in the appropriate conditions will do very well in a garden.”
Best construction in the show garden category went to the Building the Future Garden, designed for Medite Smartply by RHS Chelsea’s most decorated designer Sarah Eberle for her creation showcasing sustainable construction materials in an “edge-of-the-forest” setting and featuring a waterfall.
Gold medal winners in the show garden category included The Mind Gardenby Crocus, designed for the mental health charity by Andy Sturgeon, and featuring a series of curved walls in meadow planting to highlight how nature can provide a refuge.
There was gold too for The Meta Garden, Growing the Future by Joe Perkins, who emphasised the inseparable connection between plants and fungi within woodland ecosystems. Inspired by the complex mycelium networks that connect and support woodland life, the garden aimed to highlight the beauty and versatility of timber, and the critical role of nature-based solutions, such as tree planting and forest management, in tackling the climate crisis.