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Dragon Interview: Tom Harfleet – Gold Medal Winning Garden Designer at Chelsea Flower Show

Published on: 5 Jun, 2013
Updated on: 5 Jun, 2013

Tom Harfleet together with his brother Paul struck gold at this year’s Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) Chelsea Flower Show. Their medal winning feat caused them to be featured on the BBC coverage of the show where they were interviewed on camera by Joe Swift.

The brother’s come from Chilworth. Paul is the main designer with the partnership and Tom has the job of making the paper design into a living breathing garden, together with the hard landscaping and structures.

Paul and Tom Harfleet proudly show off the gold medal won at the recent Chelsea Flower Show.

Paul and Tom Harfleet proudly show off the gold medal won at the recent Chelsea Flower Show.

Martin Giles managed to catch up with Tom who kindly agreed to be interviewed…

Is this the first time you have exhibited at Chelsea?

Yes, it was quite daunting. The ranking of Chelsea amongst horticultural shows, as many know, is probably similar to Wimbledon amongst tennis tournaments. It’s pretty much number one.

Have you won any prizes before?

Paul and I first worked together on the Pansy Project Garden in 2010 which contrasted a broken society suffering from homophobia, represented by angular chunks of concrete and bare cracks, with massed mixed pansies representing hope and healing. We won a gold and best conceptual garden at the RHS Hampton Court flower show for that.

I also won a silver-gilt at the 2011 RHS Hampton Court flower show for the Bright Idea garden which symbolised a human brainwave by positioning a 20 metre tube, with pulsating LED lights, set among a sea of grasses, representing brain matter.  At the points where the “brainwave” struck the ground, there were familiar flowering plants, as if a “bright idea” was spilling out.

Then in March this year Harfleet & Harfleet collaborated with Fisher, Tomlin & Bowyer to create two conceptual gardens at the Ellerslie International Flower Show. Sometimes you need to see and try and understand why certain gardens receive the awards they do: why one gets a gold and another a bronze, and so on.

The garden was divided by a partition with panels that opened up commensurate to the amount of mentions of Chelsea on twitter

The garden was divided by a partition with panels that opened up commensurate to the amount of mentions of Chelsea on twitter

What was the purpose and meaning of your design at Chelsea?

Well the garden was actually connected to the internet and responded to online activity. The garden plot was divided diagonally by an electronic panelled screen that separates the planting into two distinct areas; one visible and one concealed.

The visible area was a tapestry of familiar plants, including soft green shades and creamy-coloured flowers with a touch of pink and yellow. Foliage added texture and movement. The partially obscured planting, beyond the panelled screen, was there to give a dramatic contrast. It had less familiar, stout-stemmed plants and large, rich green leaves creating a dark and exotic effect.

When Tweets discussing the RHS Chelsea Flower Show were detected, they activated the panelled screen permitting selected views of the concealed garden. So the planting represented the world of the internet, accessed and revealed by our desire for knowledge and interaction

We collaborated closely with the schools of Architecture, Computer Science and Psychology from University of Lincoln to realise this project.

How many hours work does it represent?

Paul and I started work on the project last July, so not short of a year. But then there is also the vast amount of time and effort put in by the staff and students at the University of Lincoln.

How long did it take to construct the garden at Chelsea?

The process of pre-fabricating the structure off-site started at the University of Lincoln back in March. But on site we only had a ten day build available so there were lots of long days.

What was the biggest obstacle?

The biggest obstacle was definitely the logistics. The show ground is tiny compared to the amount of traffic that comes on site during the build. This has a knock on effect on so many things you take for granted at other shows like: storage of materials; tools and; plants.

Luckily we were working with Neale Richards garden design who are based nearby in Wonersh and Godalming. They are not only experienced contractors but have also worked on a number of show gardens and have won a gold medal for their own garden at RHS Hampton Court flower show. With their team involved we managed to avoid the majority of the obstacles which can crop up.

Did anything funny/amusing happen in the project?

During one Sunday of the build at about five past three the garden was searching or ‘mining’ twitter for the word Chelsea and all of a sudden it went berserk with all the panels suddenly opening. We all got excited, imagining the flower show must have been ‘trending’. Then I checked the iPad which we used to control the garden and it turned out the Chelsea football team had just scored a goal!

The Harfleet and Harfleet logo

The Harfleet and Harfleet logo

What do you and your brother plan to do next?

At the moment, Paul and I are taking stock of what we’ve just achieved and looking in to the possibilities of doing Chelsea again next year. But first up we are continuing our collaboration with Fisher, Tomlin & Bowyer at the inaugural Australian Garden Show in Sydney this September where we are creating the main show garden. Which is an amazing opportunity which we are all looking forward to.

Readers who want to follow Tom and Paul on twitter can use @_harfleet . Tom and Paul’s website can be found at:

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