Not many Koreans will have heard of Jihae Hwang. In fact, probably more Brits have heard of her. She has recently been on national TV here, with coverage in the best broadsheet newspapers.
The English are known for their love of gardening. On sunny Spring Sundays and Bank Holidays, garden centres are crammed with people hunting out the lastest bedding for the restful patch of greenery behind their house. Flower shows and vegetable-growing competitions are a feature of rural life, and the pinnacle of the flower show scene is the annual Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show, which has been held annually (with a few wartime breaks) at its current venue since 1913, and the show traces its history back through previous incarnations and venues to 1833.
Chelsea is the premier flower show in England, and there’s a good argument that it’s the premier flower show in the world. It’s also the start of the London social season, and its opening day is attended by the Queen and A-list celebs.
There’s fierce competition for the coveted gold medals for the show gardens and other, smaller, gardens, and many of Britain’s top gardeners never get there.
Jihae Hwang won a gold medal on her first appearance at Chelsea with her “Haewooso” garden. She also won best Artisan Garden. Self-effacingly, she says it was “just luck”, but the judges were clearly impressed by an unusual concept which inspired an unusual garden that was “more than the sum of its parts.”
The first garden expo to be held in Korea is in two years’ time, at Suncheon Bay, Jeollanam-do. Suncheon were sponsors of Hwang’s garden, along with the city of Gwangju where Hwang works and Jeollanam-do’s Gokseong County where some of the plants were sourced. And the mayor of Suncheon came along to Chelsea to see how the Brits run their shows. He must have been delighted that “his” garden was getting a lot of the limelight: not only a gold medal but also the best artisan garden. Hopefully the attention will have alerted more than a few people as to the existence of his expo in 2013.
Exhibiting at Chelsea doesn’t come cheap. Ten people were involved in building Hwang’s “Haewooso” garden – a 4m x 5m space – over a 3 week period. While much of the planting was sourced in England, some was brought over from Korea. And of course the planning and design all takes time. Hwang didn’t tell me how much her garden cost. You can probably do the sums better than me, but it’s going to be well into the tens of thousands of pounds.
Hwang started with modest aims (and budget). The Artisan Garden of which she was best in class is small. But having won this category, the obvious next step is to exhibit a Show Garden. And of course that is her ambition. As you would expect, she even has a concept – the De-Militarised Zone. As most readers will know, the DMZ has become something of a unique wildlife habitat, having been left unbuilt upon for 60 years. With its geopolitical resonance as well, the DMZ offers a rich picking-ground for ideas for a Chelsea Show Garden. Hwang has even been doing some background preparation: there is a rumour that somewhere in the UK some rare plants, which otherwise only grow in a narrow strip along the 38th parallel, are being cultivated in secret – so much easier and safer than being air-freighted from Korea.
Entry to Chelsea is an achievement in itself. Many applicants do not get past the first stage. And once the judges give the initial green light, the applicant has to demonstrate that they will have the funding to realise their ambitions. The average cost of a show garden is around £200,000 (350 million Won), though the more profligate spenders can blow more than double that.
Mr President: how about some sponsorship cash to promote your green growth policies? KTO: how about a Korean Tourism garden next year? The Malaysian one this year was disappointing and I’m sure Jihae could do a better job for you. Hyundai: how about a big ecological marketing splash to go with your latest hybrid model? Next year people’s eyes will be on London as never before, for the Olympics. What better time to have a Korean garden centre-stage at the world’s most prestigious flower show?