Sunday, June 4, 2023

A Chelsea garden for our darkest days

Darren Hawkes knows exactly why he wanted to create a garden for Chelsea Flower Show that acknowledges life is full of fear and pain and loneliness: “When we are in despair, what’s common is, we all feel alone. We feel as if that despair is not a shared experience – it’s a personal one. And so, by putting the experience into three dimensions in a public space, there’s a chance it may remind someone that they are not alone. That there are other people who have experienced that.”

Hawkes, an award-winning garden designer, gives up his free time to quietly confront this fact on a regular basis. He has lost friends to suicide and is a listening volunteer for the helpline of the suicide prevention charity, Samaritans, to whom he has dedicated his show garden. “It’s not a real garden. I wouldn’t create this garden for a Samaritans centre. But if, as a show garden, it helps to communicate some of the lived experiences of people who reach out and call Samaritans, that starts a dialogue.”

The idea for the garden – or at least, the feelings the garden would evoke – came to him like the fragments of a dream, and the space is intended to have an otherworldly, even nightmarish quality. At the entrance, slabs of reinforced concrete, shaped into brutal, frightening forms by Hawkes’s own hands, hang “uncomfortably low” from thin nylon wires. Unfamiliar, spiny, spiky, thorny plants – including the prickly, towering shape of Aralia chapaensis, a rare shrub – and lots of dark russet foliage crowd the visitor. “It’s the sort of colour you fall into, that draws you in, rather than reaching out to you.”

There is only one way to escape: down a path cracked with deep fissures where the sound of gushing water can be heard. “We can’t see the water, we only hear this crazy turmoil.” Further ahead, a sculpture that looks like a “swirling vortex” of more than 3,000 recycled nails appears to fly out of the ruptured ground, creating a sense of foreboding or even menace. “There’s this feeling of, ‘Is everything closing in on me? Is the ground opening up underneath me? What lies beneath?’”

Hawkes wanted to install a garden at Chelsea that would act as a polemic against the perfectly curated, manicured beauty of other designs. “A lot of what we do in gardens is reflective of good times, and feeling content and happy and at peace,” he says. “So if you’ve experienced loneliness, loss, self-loathing – what does that look like?”

So many gardens at Chelsea are designed to be tranquil, comfortable spaces. “I was interested in doing something that was harder, more authentic, something that dealt with conflict or struggle.”

I was interested in doing something that was harder, more authentic, something that dealt with conflict or struggle.” The Samaritans’ Listening Garden at Chelsea.

Experiences of pain and suffering can transform how you perceive beauty in nature and encourage you to relish the joy in your life. “In our struggle in life, there are moments of absolute bliss when suddenly life, in its pain, is revealed as being so precious.” He cites people living in war-torn parts of the world who take solace from seeing flowers blooming amongst the rubble and destruction. “Plants and garden settings can be places of hope for people in their most distressed time.”

Like distressing feelings and conversations, this is a garden you can’t ignore. “At the front, you have to look ahead and assess and think, ‘Am I ready to step into this? Because I can see something beautiful beyond.’” At the end of the twisty, narrow path, past the crowding concrete and prickly thorns, the garden opens up into a welcoming sanctuary. At the back a bench, sculpted into a L-shape, sits under the canopy of a small-leaved elm. It provides a “listening space” where people can “talk, be heard and gain perspective on their struggles”.

Hawkes hopes that people who have experienced anxiety, sadness, fear, insecurity and depression will feel “a sense of recognition” when they see the garden, a rare opportunity to openly connect with these negative emotions that is not often offered in public spaces. “We don’t outwardly demonstrate these feelings and experiences, because we’re ashamed of them or we feel they need to be overcome. And when we do overcome them, we don’t really want to revisit them.”

His words strike a chord with me. Recently, my mother, Pnina Werbner, died and I am constantly battling immense feelings of loss – particularly in public. I understand exactly what he’s talking about and how isolating such feelings can be. When I have dark thoughts, a common reaction to bereavement, reading poetry about grief has helped me to feel less alone. I ask Hawkes if his garden is intended to be like a poem about loss? “Are you trying to convey that whatever you’re going through, other people do understand – that this garden understands?”

“Yes, that’s it,” he says. “Thank you, that’s it.” He shoots me a look of concern, as though my questions disquiet him. He lost two of his friends to suicide when he was in his early 20s and he feels, looking back, that he could have done more. “The signs were there. But I danced tentatively around them when they were alive and depressed and struggling.”

He wishes that, for example, he had tried harder to take one friend outside for walks and checked up on him more often. “I phoned him and suggested things but, of course, he was never going to say yes.” With his other friend, he failed to acknowledge how tough things were for her. “I was kind of self-obsessed at the time.”

Now, thanks to his training as a Samaritans volunteer, he knows how to listen properly. “Real listening means attending to everything someone tells you. That isn’t just the words they’re using. It’s the pauses between, the shortness of breath, the unsaid things or little clues you might find in a throwaway sentence.”

He tries to offer empathy to his callers, he says, not sympathy. “Sympathy can be patronising and condescending and suggest it’s all going to be OK.” Such an approach is not helpful because it is false. By contrast, “Empathy says: ‘I’m here. I’m here with you, alongside you. I don’t pity you. But I’ll sit with you now, and be comfortable with any discomfort I feel.’”

He hopes his garden will be an empathetic space for difficult emotional conversations, like the Samaritans helpline. “There’s no danger that by talking about suicide, you’ll encourage somebody to take their own life. In fact, it’s probably the opposite. Sometimes, just giving people the space to be able to talk about their feelings can help.”

If visitors do find their emotions are triggered by his garden, he hopes they will leave feeling a sense of pride in their resilience. “I have had times in my life when I’ve been really lonely and lost. And you don’t forget that.” It was a long time ago, he says, when he was a young man, trying to make it in the world and feeling a lot of self-loathing and low self-esteem. He doesn’t often talk about it. “It was horrible and I don’t want to go back there. But I also know that, for years, it gave me a fire in my belly that I drew on every day as a fuel: ‘How can I rise above this struggle? How can I be stronger?’”

To convey this difficult emotional journey that many callers to Samaritans must go on, and the difference that time and perspective can make, the back of each rough slab of worthless concrete in Hawkes’s garden has been lovingly polished, carved and inlaid with gold. “As you pass them, you see that the very obstacles which appeared frightening and difficult are actually things that are very precious – things that, on reflection, you might want to hold on to later.”

This also serves as an analogy about how precious Samaritans volunteers perceive the lives of their callers to be: “It’s a metaphor about taking people, who consider their life not worth living, and saying, ‘Right now, you’re important enough for me to listen to you. I’m going to listen to everything you tell me. And I care.’”

At the end of the interview, he makes a decision. He invites me, quietly, to talk about myself. I tell him about my mum. He listens, and he listens. And I cry.

Samaritans Listening Garden, designed by Darren Hawkes, is at Chelsea Flower Show until 27 May. Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email or In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counsellor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at

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