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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Syrian garden wows at Chelsea Flower Show

Refugees in northern Iraq camp inspire award-winning exhibit at glittering London event

A dancer performs in The David Harber and Savills Garden at the 2018 Chelsea Flower Show in London on May 21, 2018. The Chelsea flower show, held annually in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, opens to the public on May 22. Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP 
A dancer performs in The David Harber and Savills Garden at the 2018 Chelsea Flower Show in London on May 21, 2018. The Chelsea flower show, held annually in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, opens to the public on May 22. Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP 

It is one of the highlights of the English social season. Titled nobles, middle-class enthusiasts and hard-handed professional gardeners converge on the Chelsea Flower Show for a day among lush garden displays and outlandish sculptured landscapes.

This year there was an added dimension to the annual show staged by the Royal Horticultural Society. A prize-winning garden was modelled on the refugee camps build for Syrians and Kurds in northern Iraq.

The blazer and straw hat wearing patrons visiting the garden — which won a silver gilt medal from the judges — inspected flowers and shrubs growing from concrete breeze blocks and plastic water bottles cut in half.

A pentagonal Damascene fountain sat at the centre of the display. The drought-tolerant flower beds reflected the lack of water in the arid area where the camps have been established. There was a shaded area where a family might gather to take some respite in cooler air.

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Fielding the queries of the curious horticulturalists was Juliet Millican who has been involved with the refugees in Domiz, a former Iraqi army base near Dohuk, since 2015. “I wanted to bring together two different worlds and I think we’ve managed to it,” she said. “It’s the wealthy and well established people here who learn about conditions for the people in the camps and make a connection to over there."

“I hope its not an overtly political thing because after all what we are doing is responding to the needs of the camp residents beyond the most basic. Its showing the patrons here the methods used by the gardeners to grow their flowers or their food in very harsh conditions and to enjoy some of the shade to make life more tolerable when its baking hot."

A British charity, the Lemon Tree Trust took the gamble on staging the garden at the Chelsea event. It recruited an up-and-coming designer Tom Massey to execute the concept. Mr Massey travelled to Domiz in March to learn from the locals about the plants they favour and incorporate their aesthetic into his work.

Maya Youssef, a Syrian musician, played the qanun at the opening on the show’s Main Avenue. As well as Queen Elizabeth, Theresa May, the British prime minister, took time to sit among the poppies and fig trees listening to Mr Massey’s ideas about the garden.

Syrian musician Maya Youssef arrives with her kanun to play in the Lemon Tree Trust Garden designed by Tom Massey at the Chelsea Flower Show in London on May 21, 2018. Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP 
Syrian musician Maya Youssef arrives with her kanun to play in the Lemon Tree Trust Garden designed by Tom Massey at the Chelsea Flower Show in London on May 21, 2018. Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP 

Mr Massey paid tribute to Sami Youssef, a Syrian botanist who works for the trust in Iraq, as his guide to local gardening habits and someone who opened up the meaning of the pastime within the local culture. “Meeting Sami really underlined that a refugee camp is filled with ordinary people,” Mr Massey said. “Journalists, designers, architects, botanists, farmers, teachers, decorators – all just doing their best to survive.”

Another garden designer who volunteered on the garden stand, Colm Joseph said the patrons that stopped at the stall had interacted at two levels. “There is gardening at its most basic, planting seeds in breeze blocks for example, and there is the essence of a gardening with the months of cultivation and the design centred around the Islamic-inspired central fountain and its cooling effect.”

Ms Millican told how the Trust was holding parallel competitions for gardeners in six separate camps where it operates in Iraq. In the camps the Trust helps those who want to establish flowers and herbs that they may have had in their home gardens in Syria. It does so by handing out crisis packs to families and help them make raised beds for cultivation.

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“There are many different approaches that people take. Some like one wealthy man has filled a plot with roses and decorative displays that reminds him of the garden that he fled,” she said. “Others like the Yazidi families have a very different connection with the native world and are less interested in the decorative. They want to grow something to do with well being and that allows them to be in the fresh air and benefit from a green space.”

The English charity has rapidly expanded in Iraq from the first toehold in Domiz, where it helped the authorities with camp’s Liberation Gardens. It now has six polytunnels and a nursery, supplying local agriculture as well as the gardeners. With the expansion to six settlements, the mini-Chelsea competition has drawn 918 entrants from across the communities this year, up from 50 in 2016.

It is not the first time a regional presence has stolen the show at Chelsea. The founding president of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan won the best show on three occasions, the first in 2003. The Chelsea flower show was something of a passion for Sheikh Zayed, a patron of the Royal Horticultural Society who entered seven years of exhibiting with three different designers on the way to winning the top award. At the time the winning the shady, enclosed garden, designed by Christopher Bradley-Hole and titled Garden of the Desert was reported to have taken inspiration from early Islamic gardens.

For Ms Millican the spread of their projects to other camps beyond Domiz has inspired her latest plans to work with more Syrian refugees by opening an operation in a camp in Greece. If the Chelsea Garden exhibit is to be repeated, she hopes more competitions can draw the refugees to the “different world” of southwest London.