The first time I met Queen Elizabeth was on a Monday afternoon the third week of May, 2003 at the Chelsea Flower Show in London.
The occasion was the opening day of the flower show, a day anticipated, planned and worried over for a solid previous year.
Proposals to participate in the show are submitted almost a year in advance to the Royal Horticultural Society.
For over 100 years the show has been held the third week in May, the date and occurrence only disrupted by the World Wars and lately COVID-19.
It is held on the grounds of the Royal Hospital in the Chelsea district of London, a venerable veteran home designed in 1692 by the noted architect Christopher Wren, the same architect who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral.
In early 2002, Simon Legge, the London-based United Kingdom marketing manager for Fetzer Vineyards in Hopland, California, where I worked as the landscape manager, asked me if I would be interested in designing a garden for the Chelsea Flower Show in London.
He was a frequent visitor to the company headquarters in Hopland, coming over often to attend company educational seminars on enology and organic and sustainable viticulture organized by Glenn McGourty, the innovative and well-informed (former) University of California Cooperative Extension Viticulture and Plant Science Advisor for Mendocino County.
Simon often brought European wine critics, writers, wine distributors and salespeople with him for immersive tours of the winery, organically managed vineyards, the organic gardens and general focus on sustainable business practices.
For Simon personally, the visits were a point of connection with a place and the values he thought were important — and he thought the British public and media did, too.
Entering a garden design and proposal to the flower show was a marketing effort for the Fetzer wines.
As Simon explained to me that summer in 2002, the show is the biggest social and media event of the year in the United Kingdom. During the six days of the show 157,000 people attend. Tickets sell out well in advance.
There are two hours of prime-time TV a night for the duration of the show and extensive radio and print coverage for months in advance.
Simon’s marketing goal was to develop the company wines as a “cool beverage” connected to organic agriculture and sustainable business practices through a number of marketing campaigns across the country with the Chelsea Flower Show a vital focus.
He wanted to do a series of three gardens — companies, charities and governments sponsored gardens for the extensive and positive, creative and uplifting marketing opportunities it offered.
He had managed to convince the very conservative former owners of Fetzer Vineyards, Brown-Foreman Corp. based in Louisville, Kentucky, that this was a viable marketing effort worth supporting.
As I became interested in gardening, I read English gardening books like novels and studied the photos minutely.
I understood each plant was a multi-faceted character in a village of other characters with cyclical and temporal life trajectories that interacted with their surroundings and the people viewing them.
The profuse and diverse winery garden filled with vegetables, fruit trees, flowers, and beneficial insect and pollinator plantings was a public garden and offered a real opportunity to see how the plants and gardens engaged and affected people — both the public and winery visitors.
My supervisor at the garden had been trained in horticulture and organic agriculture in England and had had a big influence on the initial engagement of organic practices in the 2,000 acres of vineyards.
The science and large-scale application of them in a commercial setting was measured and further delineated by U.C. Cooperative Extension and many other university scientists.
The garden Simon Legge proposed was a condensation of all of this — the viticulture practices the company used to develop healthy soil, support biodiversity, and grow healthy vines, but must also greatly appeal to, charm, and communicate with the public and the media.
My initial reaction was how difficult would the design and logistics be to plan and plant one 33-by-39-foot plot at the flower show be compared to planning, planting and maintaining to perfection 6 acres of vegetables and flowers and an additional 6 acres of landscaped grounds (with almost no lawn) each year?
I had never attended the show before, though I had been to England a number of times.
The garden I designed largely featured agricultural cover crops and wildflowers planted as cover crops under grapevines and looked like a miniaturized, concentrated representation of the company vineyards in spring.
To the absolute surprise of us all, the design was accepted by the Royal Horticultural Society.
I didn’t know Americans very rarely participated in the show — considered the “World Cup” of horticulture — and to our knowledge never had medaled.
Simon secured a lovely small flat for me within walking distance of the show for the 16-day garden buildup and to then to staff the garden during the show duration.
It was evident from day one at the buildup that we were swimming in waters well above our depth of experience.
Cranes, lifts, cement mixers, beautiful masonry, stylish plants, and aged centenarian shrubs and trees surrounded us.
Our installation team had shovels and wheelbarrows, and the interpretation of the measurements on a tape measure were largely left to the auspices of the minutes of the day.
Adding to the aspect of our garden being an oddity was the fact that all the plants were agricultural plants, wildflowers, and weeds; plants with very working-class pedigrees compared to the coiffured denizens of the other gardens arriving by covered van and being carefully escorted off the truck like models descending to the runway.
We planted 6,000 plants, 83 different species — basically weaving a variety of wildflower meadows and cover crops in the garden pot by pot. The gardens at the show have to look like they have been there always — not just planted.
We decided our garden would NEVER win a medal — but it would be the most talked about garden of the show.
The parallel lines of flowering overcrops in the front of our garden represented the swaths of overcrops between the vine rows planted each year to benefit soil health and fertility and promote biodiversity.
The strident yellow mustard, crimson clover, brilliant orange California poppies and white radish were in distinct and cringing contrast to the “polite colors” of the other gardens where harmony and pastel colors reigned.
Instead of limestone paving and masonry structures forming the garden hardscape, our garden featured gravel paths and woven willow bed edging.
The wildflower, clover, vetch, and grass cover crop under the vines was just that — a cover crop. It was essentially a garden of sticks, agricultural plants, and wildflowers.
So much was at stake on the world stage; the garden represented a world of possible humiliation. For Simon and me in the company’s eyes, a very expensive bad choice — about $200,000 worth.
On the world stage, an American joke of a garden for all to see. But at completion our garden accurately represented spring in the Fetzer vineyards — a soft and profuse fairyland of wildflowers and agricultural plants in bloom under the vines.
The naturalness was transporting. To our huge surprise, the garden won a silver-gilt medal — just below a gold. Queen Elizabeth visited and shook my hand.
Other noted people visited too, like Jerry Hall, Joanna Lumley and Ringo Starr as well as top BBC garden presenters inclulding Alan Titchmarsh and Carol Klein.
The then-head of the U.K. Soil Association, Patrick Holden who had hosted us at Highgrove, Prince Charles’ organic farm, said, “You Americans have come over and bested our own endeavors in organic farming.”
Primetime TV coverage totaled 22 minutes and we got tremendous print and radio coverage. Wine sales met planning goals.
In 2003 and 2007 we completed two other gardens, both also representations of the organic and sustainable practices of the company vineyards and business. They won gold medals.
The 2007 garden was in the final vote for the People’s Choice award. Queen Elizabeth visited and shook my hand again in 2007. With her hand she has touched my heart forever.
That such an important person could publicly recognize a gardener from America representing the small things of the world — the wildflowers and agricultural plants that fed the soil and crops, and insects and birds is yet another reflection on the depth of her character.
Beyond the Queen and perhaps more important, standing on the garden all day for 6 days each show meeting or observing the 157,000 people who came to see it each year really showed me how gardens can communicate.
By far the most frequent reaction for all the gardens was seeing people’s faces light up and hearing them say, “Happy! This garden makes me happy!”
They loved the naturalness of the garden and that all the plants were working plants and friendly to biodiversity.
As the show does not cater to those so inclined, I think this is a universal connection we hope for with our gardens everywhere.