21 May 2024

Designer Holly Johnston on ‘The Bridgerton Garden’ created for the Chelsea Flower Show

21 May 2024

You don’t see too many stories told in gardens. But Holly Johnston, who designed Netflix and Shondaland’s first-ever RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden, inspired by the award-winning television drama Bridgerton, wanted to tell one about the evolution of Penelope Featherington.

In Season 3: Part 1 – which is available to watch now and based on the fourth book, Romancing Mister Bridgerton, in Julia Quinn’s bestselling book series – the wallflower-like character, who is also Lady Whistledown and played by Irish actress Nicola Coughlan, finally embraces her true self and “steps into the light”, as her relationship with Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton) takes centre stage.

“A lot of people can see themselves in this really complex female character who finally steps into the light and sheds the opinions of others,” said 33-year-old Johnston.

“The Bridgerton Garden is designed to transport people into this very intimate and enclosed space where you can truly feel at one with yourself and safe.

“Each designer has their style, but I’m very influenced by storytelling and always want a strong narrative to come through. And I think from my background, growing up in New Zealand, I am naturally drawn to whimsical and enchanting spaces, playing with the depth of light and not being afraid of shade – strong and challenging features.”

Gardens are such a visual element in the show. In the early 1800s – the regency era Bridgerton is set in – the British aristocracy enjoyed going on long walks and hosting parties in gardens, that were full of extravagant water features, topiaries, lakes, and bright flower shrubs that showcased their wealth and grandeur.

“From an aesthetic standpoint, they create a beautiful backdrop. In those times, people would spend time together in gardens as you wouldn’t really have a sense of privacy, especially as a young woman. It provides a tiny bit of escapism,” says Johnston.

They are illustrative too, Johnston goes on to say. “You can use gardens that are darker and shady to create mysterious moments, perfectly kept rose gardens to create romantic moments, or topiary gardens for a formal setting. They can work to express the emotion of what is happening in the scene.”

Bridgerton rejects full historical accuracy in favour of being opulent and wonderful, which encouraged Johnston to bring a sense of age and heritage to her garden.

“You start with scribbles on tracing paper, draw key features and then you start working in the dimensions to make sure they feel proportionate. So I think about ‘How much space I would need for a path? How much space for a seating area?’ You work through these very basic stages before you start looking at materials or plants. It’s really important that the base design works,” says Johnston, who is very collaborative and prioritised working with creative people and artisans who were hardworking, precise and outstanding for her debut at one of the most iconic gardening events in the world.

At the entrance of the romantic garden is a moongate – the first at Chelsea in over 20 years – created by Lewyn Diveney-Clegg, a dry-stone waller and craftsman at Natural By Design in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, using traditional skills.

The centre of the garden has a gorgeous reclaimed three-tier fountain, which is nearly 90 years old, in the Regency Georgian style. There is also a hand-carved sandstone plinth, even older than the fountain, standing nearly two metres in height and one metre wide, created by sculptor Ryan Johnson James from Horbury Bridge near Wakefield, West Yorkshire, which has the quote: “Even a wallflower can bloom” across it – referring to Penelope’s story arc.

“Planting-wise, I wanted the garden to feel a little bit woodland-adjacent and evoke the feeling of a garden that could have been in existence 100-150 years ago, which pays homage to what we see in the show,” says Johnston.

“I focused particularly on layering and the transitions. So, as you step through the moongate, washed with beautiful leaves, you step through power plants to illustrate the messiness of human nature and the beauty in it. Then there is a full-bloom moment which is a very sophisticated and [with a] warmer palette, to show how Penelope has developed and gained the confidence to be who she wants to be.”

Throughout most of the garden, Johnston opted for calm and muted plants, including Rosa white pet, often depicted in Bridgerton; Hedera helix, excellent for wildlife and providing charm; a bright yellow wallflower is symbolic of Penelope’s journey called Erysimum ‘Bredon’. Then there are Carpinus betula (hedging) and Betula utilis (silver birch), which are trees and hedging wound with ivy to help achieve a sense of aged maturity, and a variety of ferns, such as Dryopteris affinis.

There is also an informal mix of climbers, shrubs, perennials and grasses to reflect a sense of ease, and it’s obvious that sustainability was the only way to go for Johnston.

“We have a world that needs us to lead the way in that. I really believe in the circular economy, a lot of what we need is already in existence,” she adds.

Johnston is thrilled that the garden will have a new home after the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, when it is relocated to a central area at Cambridge University Hospital and is keen for amateur gardeners, who would like to channel a touch of Bridgerton finery into their own gardens, to go for it.

“Don’t be afraid to experiment. Performance is a major element of Bridgerton and there are some really simple things that you can do. Introducing verticality through climbers is a great place to start. Whether you have a fence or pergola or even some trees you can grow, as simple as a Hedera helix ivy,” says Johnston.

To bring a sense of heritage, focus on an element in the garden that has that aged look, whether it’s a seating area, a bird bath, or whatever works in the aesthetics of your garden.

“In terms of planting, have fun with it, and bring colours to life that you really enjoy. Choose a palette that makes you happy, something bright, cheerful or more sophisticated using pastels. We see a lot of colour in Bridgerton, they don’t shy away from that.”

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