• Wednesday, June 12, 2024


Kerala garden takes gold at Chelsea

Jewlsy Mathews tribute to her mother captivates judges at Chelsea Flower Show

Jewlsy Mathews in her winning garden

By: Amit Roy

A BRITISH Asian woman, whose balcony and container garden has recreated the lush woods of her parents’ native Kerala in south India, has won a gold medal in her first appearance at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Being told she had won gold was an especially emotional moment for Jewlsy Mathews because the garden was also a tribute to her mother, Lucy, who passed away in September last year.

“It’s a real honour, a real privilege,” said Jewlsy. “We’ve put our heart and soul into this. The reception’s been amazing. When you build something, ultimately you’re being judged by professionals. You can’t know what they’re going to think.”

The judges must have thought highly about the garden, which Jewlsy designed with her husband, Mike McMahon. It was one of only three gardens at Chelsea “preselected” for inspection by King Charles and Queen Camilla last week. “The King was lovely,” said Jewlsy. “He was asking about our tree fern, the Dicksonia Antarctica, where we got it from.”

Garden Number 803 at Chelsea, known officially after its sponsor as “The Addleshaw Goddard Junglette Garden: Designed and built by Mike McMahon Studio,” received a visit from Princess Anne as well. At times, the crowds were “10 deep.”

After Chelsea, the garden will be relocated by the sponsor to Rock Trust, a charity it works with in Edinburgh.

A visit from Princess Anne at the Chelsea Flower Show

Jewlsy, who was born in the UK, told Eastern Eye: “My mum and dad are both from Kerala. My mum, Lucy Mathews Payyanat, was from Kanjirappally. My dad, Jose Mathews Payyanat, is from Champakulam, near Alleppey (Alappuzha).”

It was some solace her mother knew before she died that Jewlsy’s proposal to enter a garden for Chelsea had been accepted. “One of the loveliest things is we found out that we were getting Chelsea (before she died), so she was there for the start of the process,” said Jewlsy. “It was very emotional for all of us. She was very proud. She was so lovely and the kindest person I’ve ever met. My dad’s a doctor and when we were growing up, she was mainly a housewife and mother, but then she did a few jobs as she got older.”

Jewlsy and her husband, who is Irish, have a flat in Ernakulam, near Cochin, in Kerala, which they visit regularly.

She said: “Mike and I set up an architecture studio, called Mike McMahon Studio, a year and a half ago. And six months in, Mike said, ‘Should we do a garden at Chelsea?’ I was like, ‘Why not?’ Then we found the deadline was in six days. So we put together a proposal and the planting choices for a ‘junglette,’ a small jungle.”

It helped that the couple have two balconies at their London apartment where they have successfully carried out the junglette experiment.

Jewlsy with her husband Mike McMahon

“We were in Kerala at the time we found out we had got it (Chelsea),” recalled Jewlsy. “We were in my dad’s ancestral home where the back garden had become overgrown. We imagined we took (a plot) five metres by two metres, lifted it up and transported it here (to Chelsea).”

The choice of a black background was deliberate. “The green foliage against the black façade is really striking. When you look into a forest, it’s quite dark because of the canopies.”

The look brought back memories of Robert Frost’s poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening: The woods are lovely, dark and deep; But I have promises to keep; And miles to go before I sleep; And miles to go before I sleep.

Jewlsy explained: “We wanted to imply depth in a small place. The black makes it look like the forest goes on. But we were also concealing the railings. We wanted it to be like a green cocoon from inside, and like a giant hanging basket from outside.

“The nasturtiums we included because we saw them in the jungles of the Azores, the archipelago off Portugal. They were tumbling out of the boulders and the waterfalls there. Instead of putting hard landscaping down on the whole floor, there’s a central deck, and we put a permeable membrane underneath. The nasturtium around the edges have been planted directly into the floor.

“There are big tree ferns, three Dicksonia Antarctica. Those we have on our balconies in London. We know this works in the microclimate of London. We have Cyathea Cooperi with beautiful sculptural leaves at the top. And Fatsia Japonica is on the left.

“We have two banana trees, Musa Basjoos. We bought one at Chelsea three years ago, a seven-foot tree we brought home on the Tube. We wanted to bring it back but it wasn’t quite Chelsea standard. We’ve been to Chelsea before. But this is the first time we’ve exhibited.”

By training, Jewlsy is an optometrist. “I am an eye person. I do optometry a couple of days a week. But the rest of the time I work in the architecture studio.”

She said she would “definitely encourage” more Asians to take up gardening. “It’s brilliant for wellbeing, for de-stressing. When you do things yourself, you feel such a sense of ownership and pride.”

It has been pointed out that “this sanctuary is more than mere aesthetics; it is a haven for biodiversity. Bird nests, integrated bat boxes, and a serene pond intertwine with the landscape, nurturing life’s rich tapestry.”

For Eastern Eye readers who might also want to create a mini-Kerala in the UK, Jewlsy and Mike have provided their winning list at Chelsea: Dicksonia Antarctica; Cyathea Cooperi; Tetrapanax Papyrifer ‘Rex’; Musa Basjoo; Brassaiopsis Mitis; Schefflera Shweliensis; Sonchus Fruticosus; Liriodendron Chinense; Fatsia Japonica; Zantedeschia Aethiopica; Zantedeschia ‘White Giant’; Canna ‘General Eisenhower’; Matteuccia Struthiopteris; Pteris Umbrosa; Onoclea Sensiblis; Phyllitis Scolopendrium; Dryopteris Sieboldii; Dryopteris Erythrosora; Asplenium Tricomanes; Blechnum Spicant; Hosta ‘Elegans’; Hosta ‘Patriot’; Hosta ‘Queen Josephine’; Muehlenbeckia Complexa; Erigeron Karvinskianus; Soleirolia Soleirolii; Nasturtium Podophyllum ‘Spotty Dotty’; Asarum Splendens; Thalia Geniculate; Myriophyllum Rubricaule; and Nelumbo ‘Mrs Perry Slocum’.


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