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For his fifth year at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, award-winning landscape and garden designer Thomas Hoblyn created a show garden inspired by the great Renaissance gardens of Italy for leading research charity Arthritis Research UK.

Inspired by the stunning gardens at Villa Lante and Villa d’Este the Arthritis Research UK Garden captured the drama, formality and beauty of the Renaissance gardens. Whilst Hoblyn retained all classical ideals of order associated with these historic Italian gardens, he stripped away the flamboyance and decadence to reveal a simpler and more minimal design.

Chelsea Flower Show 2012 garden design

The garden explored the Renaissance obsession of man controlling nature, in particular their desire to tame wild rivers to create spectacular fountains, cascades and jets. Hoblyn worked with water expert Andrew Ewing to create three water features to replicate the ingenious trickery and technical engineering that was employed to great effect in the period. Linked throughout the garden, the water features – a long fountain seat set against a backdrop of 30 powerful jets, a water cascade and a shallow mirror pool with infinity edge – were authentically powered by gravity and hydrostatic power.

The water cascade, inspired by the Fontana dell’Ovato (oval fountain) at the Villa d’Este, was an isolated decorative element in the vista and a stunning backdrop that visually linked separate parts of the garden and drew visitors in.

In a nod to the Renaissance quest for divine proportions and perfect symmetry, Hoblyn designed the garden using the principles of the Golden Section. A series of raised beds and gently sloping paths and stairs are aligned to compliment the mathematically proportioned water elements, whilst a row of evenly arranged, eight meter high Cyprus trees will towered majestically over the garden.

Hoblyn was keen to reflect the look of the Renaissance gardens today, which is very much a story of Nature defiantly back in control. So by way of disrupting the main axis of symmetry, and as a gesture of his admiration to Mother Nature, he deliberately incorporated a beautifully weathered Cork Oak at the entrance to the garden. 

Travatine stone from Tivoli, close to Villa D'Este, was chosen for the hard landscaping elements. With finishes ranging from rough hewn for feature walls and finely honed for the sophisticated mirror pool, it was a further representation of man's desire to control nature.

The planting was decidedly Mediterranean with plants sourced from Spain and Italy for authenticity. Although the scheme references the original Renaissance ideals of precision planting with avenues of Cupressus, clipped topiary, knots and parterres, Hoblyn interpreted it in a more naturalistic way. Self-seeders colonised less-trodden parts of the garden, while naturalised parterres in each of the raised beds weaved like knotted ribbons through the scheme, clipped in a cloud-like way.

Hoblyn specially commissioned Jekka McVicar to supply an inspiring selection of herbs for the garden, in particular Artemesia schmidtiana ‘Nana’ and Thymus ‘Jekka’ as well as the Nasturtium ‘Red Emperor’ which were seen for the first time at RHS Chelsea and were chosen to match the poppy used elsewhere in the garden. Other key plants included Fritillaria persica and Punica granatum Nanum

Traditional Mediterranean colours of silver and green foliaged herbs formed the base of the colour palette, with foliage colours rather than flower dominating. The orange-red of the poppies and nasturtiums lifted the scheme along with ribbons of burgundy Fritillaria weaving through the naturalised knots.