The NHS Tribute Garden at Chelsea 2021 uses water to perfectly represent pandemic emotions

Photo credit: RHS| Naomi Ferrett-Cohen
Photo credit: RHS| Naomi Ferrett-Cohen

This past year, many of us have turned to gardens and nature to find some calm, and mindful moments, so it is no surprise that this is a big focus for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2021. The RHS has introduced a new Sanctuary Gardens category especially for these troubled times, and one exhibiting garden in particular is dedicated to capturing this theme – Finding Our Way: An NHS Tribute Garden.

Designed by Naomi Ferrett-Cohen for the University of Oxford and the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the garden is a celebration of all those who have worked so tirelessly, and given unwavering support and care, throughout the pandemic. “This has been a stressful time for all of us and it is a difficult topic to deal with carefully, to convey in a garden,” Naomi tells Country Living. “What we decided to do is really focus on those that have been working together for one cause.”

Photo credit: RHS| Naomi Ferrett-Cohen
Photo credit: RHS| Naomi Ferrett-Cohen

What inspired the Finding Our Way: An NHS Tribute Garden?

The garden came about because of a previous garden Naomi had created at Chelsea, in 2018. Called A Life Without Walls, it was about the experience of people living with HIV. Professor John Frater of the University of Oxford, a specialist in infectious diseases, had worked with Naomi on that project, and got in touch again last summer. “Because of what has happened with Covid, at the university he and the whole team changed what they were doing and turned to researching the vaccine,” she explains.

He had seen first-hand the most amazing dedication and collaboration during the crisis, and suggested they create a tribute garden in honour of the incredible frontline staff of the NHS, the scientists researching Covid treatments and vaccines, and all the unsung heroes who have kept the country running in so many ways, in such difficult circumstances.

Finding Our Way: An NHS Tribute Garden: Design features

The design is for a relaxing space to reflect, and feel immersed in nature, but it also had to somehow represent the trials and triumphs of the past 18 months. “I came up with the idea of using water, in a series of rills and small pools,” Naomi tells CL, “which represent everyone coming together.”

At the entrance to the garden, steps lead to a tall timber structure – an oak canopy with curving edges – which is inlaid with rills, so water falls down the outside, into rectangular pools at the base. “When the pandemic hit, first there was the shock of what was happening, and then the fear was huge. The water plunging down the side represents this sharp descent.”

Design features:

  • water, in a series of rills and small pools, representing emotions

  • steps leading to an oak canopy with curving edges

  • soft planting with a calming feel

  • ornamental grasses: Stipa gigantea and Anemanthele lessoniana

  • late-season flowers: Echinacea pallida, Persicaria ‘Firetail’, aster ‘Little Carlow’, Achillea ‘Walther Funke’

  • dahlias including ‘Thomas Edison’

From here, the water travels around the garden, down winding rills, into and out of many different little round pools, which symbolise the diverse groups of people who have come together and collaborated for the greater good. It then flows on to a final, larger central pool. “That represents where we are all hoping to get to, that point where we can all have a normal life again, where we are safe and can move around once more.”

More Chelsea 2021 Show Garden profiles:

  1. BBC's The One Show reveals their Garden of Hope

  2. The Yeo Valley Organic Garden and its hanging egg

  3. The "pocket park" M&G Garden

How has the NHS Garden design changed to suit the new September dates?

To further instill a sense of tranquility, Naomi wanted to use soft planting with a calming feel. “I had planned very earthy tones, apricots and peach tones, with roses including ‘Phyllis Bide’ and Rosa glauca, with lots of lush greens.” Then the show, which usually takes place in May, was postponed until September because of concerns over Covid restrictions, and Naomi had to go back to the drawing board. “I’ve had to change the whole palette of the planting, and at first I thought it was going to be a great challenge, to find a totally new set of plants for September,” she says, “but when I actually came down to it, I realised I had to think it through a lot. I decided to use grasses intermingled with perennials to bring that soft tone.”

Due to plant shortages across the industry and uncertainties about the weather this summer, Naomi can’t be sure of exactly what plants will feature, but she is hoping to use the ornamental grasses Stipa gigantea and Anemanthele lessoniana, with warm-hued, late-season flowers including Echinacea pallida, Persicaria ‘Firetail’, aster ‘Little Carlow’, Achillea ‘Walther Funke’ and dahlias such as ‘Thomas Edison’.

Even with the issues caused by the change of plan, the planting is Naomi’s favourite part of making any garden, and the bit she is most looking forward to in the build-up to the show. “It is really fun doing the build on site and getting all the landscaping sorted, but the actual planting at that stage is always such a nice moment. The greenery comes in, and it feels like a garden. I get excited when it’s time to add the plants.”

How will the garden interact with people and NHS staff?

A keen gardener from a young age, Naomi believes in the importance of horticulture for wellbeing. She now runs a successful garden design practice in Sussex, but before she retrained several years ago, she worked in the care sector. It’s important to her that she gets this garden right, but she says has received a lot of positive feedback already.

“People are loving the design, which is really nice,” she explains. “It’s an amazing project to be a part of. We are going to be speaking to some nurses in a few weeks – they are the ones who have put their lives on the line, and it’s good to be able to show how grateful we are to all these people who personally had to deal with what happened, on the frontline.”

There are also plans for NHS staff to volunteer on the garden at Chelsea, so they can come and spend the day at the show, and chat with visitors.

What will happen the NHS Garden after Chelsea?

After the show, it is hoped that the garden will be transformed into a hospital garden. “If it goes to a hospital, it is going to be of most benefit, and we are in talks right now about how that can happen,” Naomi explains.

But whether at the show or as a more permanent fixture somewhere else afterwards, she wants the garden to be a space for contemplation, somewhere people can try to recover and heal from tragedy. “I really hope that people will feel special when they sit in the garden, and enjoy it.” It’s about looking to a brighter future, she says, and remembering that even in these testing times, we are all united by a common aim to support each other.

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