A DMZ Watch-tower rises over the Chelsea Showground

LKL gets an exclusive look at the construction of the DMZ “Quiet Time” garden, by Korean designer Hwang Jihae, at the Chelsea Flower Show.

A scene of wild, undisturbed nature in the DMZ.
A scene of wild, undisturbed nature in the DMZ. Photo provided by Hwang Jihae's team

With the increased tension on the Korean peninsula the narrow strip of demilitarized land which separates north and south is ever more in focus. The timing of Hwang Jihae’s appearance at Chelsea with her DMZ “Quiet Time” garden is serendipitous. And given the gold medal she won last year for her Haewooso garden, expectations for her 2012 show garden are high.

The team starts construction on day 1 at Chelsea
The team starts construction on day 1 at Chelsea (4 May). The plot is an empty building site

What has been less fortunate is the UK’s weather, which has been abysmal for gardeners this spring, and many exhibitors at Chelsea are despairing as their plants look like they are not going to be flowering in time. And although the DMZ garden relies more on greenery than blossoms nevertheless the designer is finding it difficult to source planting which will inject a bit of colour.

Hwang Jihae in front of the DMZ watch-tower at Chelsea
Hwang Jihae in front of the DMZ watch-tower at Chelsea (10 May). Trees and a barbed wire fence are in place. A stream will flow where at the moment there is just black plastic sheeting.

The first week of construction at Chelsea has been horrible – wet and cold. But despite this the team has managed to construct the centrepiece of their garden: a DMZ military watch-tower. The unusual garden has been getting a lot of attention from fellow garden-constructors at Chelsea. After all, a garden with rusty bits of metal (intended to look like discarded military hardware), broken railway tracks and a barbed-wire fence is not your average Chelsea Show Garden fare.

Photographs of the landscape that the DMZ Quiet Time garden is trying to recreate. The construction of the watchtower is based on the girders of Freedom Bridge
Photographs of the landscape that the DMZ Quiet Time garden is trying to recreate. The construction of the watchtower is based on the girders of Freedom Bridge

So Hwang Jihae’s team have put up a notice board containing photographs of the DMZ to give an idea of the landscape they are trying to recreate – nature which has been left wild and undisturbed for 60 years, in the midst of which are relics of a war which, as the North continually reminds us, is still unfinished.

A close-up of the bunker shows the immense attention to detail: weathered stones, ferns, weeds, and a rotten tree-trunk all look as if they have been there for decades
A close-up of the bunker shows the immense attention to detail: weathered stones, ferns, weeds, and a rotten tree-trunk all look as if they have been there for decades rather than just a couple of days

Creating, in the space of little more than two weeks, a garden which looks as if it has been in place, untouched and almost forgotten for 60 years is an immense challenge, and requires a massive attention to detail. Hwang has been searching English woodlands for rotten tree-stumps which look just right; the Dartmoor stone from which her team is building a bunker has to have just the right amount of moss – and she has bags of the stuff to apply as necessary.

A Korean Berberis - not easy to get through customs.
A Korean Berberis - not easy to get through customs. The wooden legs of the watch-tower are visible top right

While some of the plants, and the more structural elements of the garden, are sourced in the UK, around 60% of the planting has actually been imported from Korea – quite a task in itself, particularly getting the plants through customs.

Hwang Jihae with a rare Korean woodland plant, waiting to find a home in her DMZ garden
Hwang Jihae with a rare Korean woodland plant, waiting to find a home in her DMZ garden

But the project is about more than the technical challenges of making a peaceful space that looks as if it has been there for decades rather than just days. It is about the symbolism of a divided nation, and about the sacrifices of the soldiers who defended the liberty of the South.

The shed currently used as the team's command centre will be replaced by a memorial bench made with the military ID tags of war veterans.
The shed currently used as the team's command centre will be replaced by a memorial bench made with the military ID tags of war veterans. In the foreground, the railway track severed by the DMZ

The barbed wire fence which divides the garden and encircles the watchtower cuts across a disused railway track: where once there was regular communication and commerce, now there is division and separation. But beside the rusty rails will be a small stream, symbolising the fact that nature knows no boundaries, and that the water can flow freely through artificial barriers. And where the centre of operations currently is (their little shed at the corner of the plot), there will be a memorial chair made out of military ID tags of war veterans. As a finishing touch, hanging from the barbed wire fence will be cans containing letters from soldiers and divided families.

Some of the plants waiting to find a home in the DMZ garden
Some of the plants waiting to find a home in the DMZ garden

With a week to go before the garden is judged, and then opened to the public, there’s still a herculean task to complete. Much of the garden was still just mud when I visited on Thursday 10 May, with a huge amount of planting still to do. But even seeing the garden in its unfinished state was an incredibly emotional experience. I can’t wait to see it finished.

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