Urban Foragers: The creative minds behind Alder Hey’s Chelsea Garden
Liverpool based creatives, H Miller Bros are the playful, creative minds behind The Alder Hey Urban Foraging Station, that will be revealed at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. It has been many years in the making and we are delighted that 2022 will finally see the garden design flourish as it’s brought to life at the flower show.
Brothers, Howard and Hugh Miller, both formally trained as architects but have broad creative experiences and knowledge that have informed and inspired the incredible design of the Alder Hey garden.
Over the coming weeks we will be publishing a series of personal blogs from the designers plus behind the scenes videos, a podcast or two and even a few recipes, to help showcase the immense amount of work that goes into planning and creating what is bound to be an award-winning garden at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show.
The garden can be viewed at Chelsea from 23rd May to 28th May 2022 and will be relocated at Alder Hey shortly afterwards for full public access and enjoyment.
About the designers
“I’ve grown up with plants, my grandfather had a commercial nursery up in Northumberland and my mum worked in the family business too. One of my favourite early childhood memories is of wandering around my grandfather’s nursery of potted dwarf conifers, it was like walking around a miniature forest, I just adored it! I think this feeling of a world within a world is something of a theme in my design work and it probably stems from those early memories. [Images Howard aged 3 at the family Nursery and Howard in the garden collecting plants. With permission.]
When I left home, I studied architecture and, via spells repairing old skyscrapers in New York and building straw bale houses in Australia, I became a registered architect designing primary schools and playgrounds in London. Alder Hey has an ethos of ‘the child at the centre’ of decision making and this is something that really chimes with me; I love sneaking in little opportunities for children to play or make a game out of something in my designs.
Although my background is as an architect I don’t really like to be pigeonholed; I’ve won awards and competitions for garden design, educational buildings, residential design, sculpture, drawing and conceptual designs. Right now, I’m working on projects that range from product design, furniture, interior design, landscape and of course this garden!
The thing that binds this all together is a natural curiosity to experiment with materials and processes, craftsmanship, and this endeavour to create total works of art, where the design touches on everything: landscape, the building within it and the contents of that building are all part of a comprehensive artwork.”
“I started making furniture at the age of 15, but my formal training was in architecture like Howard. I tried the office-based career of an architect, but I just felt too removed from the physical materials I was designing with, so after completing a Masters in Architecture, I started my own furniture studio. I see the pieces I make as small pieces of architecture, where the concept is embedded in the intricacy of the detail. Furniture and architecture are the same thing – they just inhabit different scales.
A major highlight and a key influence on my design work was the time I spent researching in Japan as a Winston Churchill Memorial Fellow. It led me to develop a set of design principles, inspired by Japanese applied arts philosophy, that now underpin my work.
My research in Japan resulted in a book entitled Japanese Wood Craftsmanship which has led to my role as a visiting professor at Osaka Institute of Technology in Japan. I’ve also delivered lectures about this subject and taught at Newcastle University School of Architecture.
I’ve shown furniture internationally, including exhibitions at the Saatchi Gallery, London, in the British Pavilion at the Cheongju Craft Biennale, South Korea, and in the Næstved Museum, Denmark.
I’m really excited about the collection of foraging tools and the foraging kitchen we are making for the Urban Foraging Station; they are so unique and playful, and they really embody this idea of the total work of art that Howard and I love so much.” [Image: Huge’s coffee ceremony furniture collection at the British Pavillion at the Cheongju Craft Biennale in South Korea. With permission.]
Reflecting on their relationship as brothers, Howard added
“We’ve always acted as a second pair of eyes for each other and were doing increasingly more collaborative projects together, which is why we decided to form the company H. Miller Bros. Being brothers, we share an understanding and ambition that transcends most normal business partnerships. We bring complementary skills that combine into something greater than the sum of its parts.”
RHS Chelsea Flower Show
Although this is an extraordinary opportunity and a first for Alder Hey, RHS Chelsea is not new territory for Howard Miller, he explains
“The first show garden I designed in collaboration with my mum. It was for Oxfam at RHS Tatton Flower Show and was about the impact of flooding on food production. We won a gold medal and after that I was hooked, I won two more RHS medals and another Gold at Chelsea Flower Show in 2015 with Dark Matter; a garden designed to engage kids in maths and science utilising their interest in astronomy and space.”
How the Alder Hey Urban Foraging Station came into being
Following the success of Dark Matter, H. Miller Bros worked with Alder Hey to create several artistic projects for when we opened our new hospital building. One of which was a design for a show garden at Chelsea Flower Show.
“Despite years of work behind the scenes by us and Laura Naylor, David Houghton and David Powell at Alder Hey we came to the realisation that it probably wouldn’t get off the drawing board. This was a great sadness to all involved. The garden was accepted into the show in 2017 but had to be withdrawn. We’d worked tirelessly to find a sponsor whose values aligned with Alder Hey and the garden, but reluctantly came to the realisation that it wasn’t going to happen. This was a great sadness to all involved.
During the pandemic, Project Giving Back announced they were to fund gardens for good causes at Chelsea Flower Show. It felt like a perfect match, so we tried one more time to bring the garden into reality. Project Giving Back is the vision of two private individuals who want to support a wide range of charitable causes whose work has suffered during the global COVID-19 pandemic. The scheme is aimed at UK charities to help them raise awareness and support for their cause at the world’s most famous horticultural event.”
A focus on children’s mental health and wellbeing is central to the garden’s design, so it feels even more poignant to make the garden a reality following the challenges brought about by the pandemic. There have been widely reported increases in the number of referrals for support for children’s mental health, which have been seen at Alder Hey and across the country.
Development of the design
Hugh Miller described to us the story of how the design emerged and developed:
“There’s a preconception that designers have flashes of brilliance, where an idea just pops into their head ready-made, but it’s not like that, at least not for us. We tend to start by gathering a lot of information, drawing the various strands of this information into themes or clusters of related issues. Then we explore a range of design responses to each of these themes and start to think how they might be combined into a coherent whole.”
Some of the strands that the designers had to consider included the new hospital, its connection to Springfield Park and links to the rest of the city via the Liverpool Loop Line – a 10 mile walking and cycle route following the path of a dis-used railway line. The brothers’ vision needed to reflect Alder Hey’s ethos of ‘the child at the centre’ and Hugh described the role of the garden as “a great big banner delivering a punchy message that our audience would readily understand.”
The garden is intended as a conversation starter to talk about other more complex issues such as diet, active lifestyles, and mental wellbeing, as well as ensuring accessibility and inclusivity. Hugh continued “a lot of foraging is in the undergrowth, and we wanted to find a way of bringing that experience to children with reduced mobility.”
Alder Hey prides itself on a holistic approach to wrap around care, understanding that the wider family network may require support as they care for their poorly child. Relocation of the garden back to Alder Hey after Chelsea Flower Show has been an important consideration, not only for its legacy, but also to make it available as a resource for families at Alder Hey.
Why a foraging garden?
Foraging came about because Howard found it was a really good way of getting his own children out of the house. He explained “I noticed that they really love the berry picking, they like it because we can all work together on the same thing – unlike gardening where I tend to do the heavy stuff or use sharp tools that they are too young for. Obviously, they love eating the berries while we’re collecting them, but it also tends to lead to a whole load of questions such as what’s this other plant? can you eat it? What can you make out of this? “oh look there’s a weird caterpillar!” …you get the idea. It’s a perfect activity for groups with multi-generations and differing ability levels.”
How far to take what counts as foraging?
Howard and Hugh explained that they had lengthy debates with those close to the design about what should be included and what not. Should everything be edible? Should they widen the planting scheme to include non-edible foraging uses such as natural dyes, bush crafts, herbal remedies? Whether to include forageable plants that aren’t native to the UK? Is it right to include danger, prickly, stinging, or poisonous plants?
“We decided that the important thing is authenticity, foraging is partly about learning which species are edible, which part of the plant is edible, if it needs to be processed before eating and what species are poisonous. The garden that will be on display at Chelsea does include mild threats. For example, we’re using regular brambles, not the thornless varieties, and it does include a select few poisonous plants that are easily identifiable.”
The designers have included species that don’t have a forageable use because they are required for context; for example, the species normally found in a meadow environment need non-edible grasses and wildflowers alongside them to make sense. They haven’t included anything that you wouldn’t find in the UK, though some non-native plants are included that are widespread enough to be considered naturalised.
“The garden also includes a few cultivated varieties, for example hawthorn ‘Paul’s Scarlet’ which has dark pink flowers because it’s a long-established cultivar that has found its way into hedges outside of cities here and there. To tackle the issue of poisonous plants head on, our experience is that children tend to be very interested in poisonous plants and this is when they realise that they need to pay close attention to the natural world.”
Howard explained more about some of the poisonous plants in the UK, and our relationship with them
“There are only a handful of naturalised plants in the UK that are truly deadly. Some quite ubiquitous plants are somewhat poisonous, such as daffodil and rhododendron, but we take no extra precaution around them. Sometimes only a certain part of a plant is harmful, for example apple seeds and rhubarb leaves, and some plants are technically poisonous but would need to be ingested in such large amounts they are considered safe, like parsley. Other plants are labelled poisonous when in fact the harmful nature is not poison per se but rather a skin irritant or they may cause an allergic reaction in a small minority of people. I’ve also included plants li
ke foxglove, used by foragers to make natural dyes, to show the diversity of uses for the plants we see around us.”
When the garden is moved to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, no harmful plants will be relocated but Howard keenly explained his reason for their inclusion in the show garden
“The natural world does contain dangers and editing them out might do more harm than good, by igniting the foraging bug without noting that there are dangers.”
The fine line between wildness and a garden
Curating a garden based around a theme centred on ‘wildness’ required careful consideration and execution. Howard explained more about the title ‘Urban Foraging Station’ and the details included that give it an identity as a garden.
“I had run a student project with Sandy Britton at the Liverpool School of Architecture to design a cycle hub for the Liverpool Loop Line and this fed into the idea that the garden might be acting as a station or stop along this line. The foraging ‘garden’ became a foraging ‘station’, implying a nexus point where people might stop and gather.
We like the term ‘design language’ though we realise it’s probably a bit pretentious! What we mean by it is that the individual design moves combine to make a cohesive and distinctive approach that can be applied to any challenge the design problem might throw at you.
The idea of weaving came from the way the new hospital is ‘woven’ into the landscape. The hospital’s design, inspired by a patient’s drawing, has wings arranged like petals spreading out into the landscape to allow greenery and fresh air deep into the core of the building. That linked with the idea of using the garden as a connector – literally weaving together links between the hospital and its community. The design language in this project is one of weaving and this informs everything from the picnic blanket feature to the way we are laying some of the hedges, to the mobile foraging kitchen and tools.”
Throughout the design process, the brothers continually returned to the question of how to strike exactly the correct balance between recreating a semi-natural environment like a hedgerow or woodland edge, which to their minds is not a garden, and creating something that was too obviously ‘provided’, like a herb garden or a pick-your-own fruit farm, where the adventure and curiosity inherent to foraging would be by-passed.
“Our definition of a ‘garden’ is that a garden has a gardener; someone deliberately tending the plants for their own sake, though this could be very light touch. We feel the picnic blanket in this design transforms it from a found space into a garden because it juxtaposes the naturalistic with the curated and therefore implies a gardener is active here.”
Come back regularly for personal blogs, updates, recipes and behind the scenes videos from our journey to Chelsea.
In the run up to Chelsea we are publishing a series of personal blogs from Howard and Hugh Miller, the designers, plus behind the scenes videos and even a few recipes, to help showcase the immense amount of work that goes into planning and creating what is bound to be an award-winning garden at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show!