Just Wilde about Alice

It is hard to imagine anything further from nature than the run-of-the-mill Garden Show “show” garden. It is executed at the speed of light and planned with military precision so that everything blooms just at the right moment; in other words, on the day of judging. It was delightful, therefore, to see the Alice in Wonderland Garden carry off the top prizes at the RHS Tatton Flower Show.

I would nominate Alice as the inspirational garden of the year, partly because although the concept is pure surreal fantasy, it cannily incorporates dozens of ideas that will work in every conceivable type of garden. A scaled-down version could be reproduced to make a great play area for children. The smart chess board – squares of cropped turf alternating with squares of black water – offers a splendid solution for anyone wanting a truly minimalist patch.

If you have a dead tree, why not employ a chain-saw artist to turn it into a sculpture? At Tatton, old tree stumps have become oversized tea cups for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and there’s a manically grinning Cheshire cat carved into an old oak.

The second big plus is a sight seldom seen at a garden show – ore than 40 different species of wild flowers in a meadow making a charming setting for the Wonderland game of croquet, with the hoops and giant croquet mallet made from willow. To judge from the queue that snaked all round the showground before the judging took place, Alice got a definite thumbs up from the public. Commissioned by Countryside, an English property development company that plants more than 500,000 trees and shrubs every year, Alice is the brainchild of David Fountain, Countryside’s landscape director, and pop-star-turned-horticulturist Kim Wilde.

The theme is appropriate, for Lewis Carroll was born at Daresbury, just a few miles from Tatton. Fountain, a gold medal winner at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, is a well-known landscape designer while Wilde is in the early stages of her gardening career. The pair first worked together on another Countryside project, moving the largest London plane tree ever to be transplanted from Belgium to grace the landscaped garden of a Cheshire housing development.

Fountain is full of praise for his apprentice. “Kim has all the makings of a really fine plants woman,” he said. “She has amazing enthusiasm and energy and she soaks up information. She’ll go far in horticulture.” But why the career change? Watching Wilde wield a trowel she looks every inch the natural, outdoor girl, worlds away from her days on Top of the Pops.

“As a pop star there are only so many challenges and I felt I’d faced most of them, success and failure alike. I’ve had the fantastic experience of performing for an audience of 300,000, but I’ve also produced albums that didn’t sell, singles that didn’t make it into the charts,” she said. “Deep down, I’ve always had a sense of wanting to do something connected with nature. This is a job I feel I can do for the rest of my life, one that fits well now that I’m married and have two young children. Horticulture is a very forgiving profession, the world I’ve come from isn’t forgiving at all.”

Having studied Lewis Carroll’s texts and arrived at a grand plan the pair then called in a number of specialists including chainsaw artist Dennis Heath, willow weaving specialist Alexandra James and wild flower expert Julie Toll to advise on the best species. These were then grown by Linda Laxton of the British Wildflower Society.

“We felt it was important to incorporate all the main elements of the story. So you enter the garden by descending into the dark rabbit warren before coming up into the maze (carpinus betulus) and the Hall of Mirrors. The Tea Party takes place in a woodland glade (betula utilis, betula jacquemontii and fagus sylvatica) and the playing cards are outlined in dwarf box,” Wilde said. “The main challenge was recreating Lewis Carroll’s surreal atmosphere without ‘Disneyfying’ it. It’s been six months of very hard work, including going round at 4.30am with a bucket of snails and placing them one by one, very carefully, in the nooks and crannies of a stone wall. The moment I knew it was all worth it came when the garden was finished and suddenly the air came alive with dragonflies, bumble bees and beautiful butterflies – I felt that was a definite omen.”