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Chelsea Flower Show Designer On How To Add A Pop Art Twist To Your Garden

Give your outside space the razzle-dazzle treatment with neon containers, sizzling artwork and exotic plants. Designer John McPherson, from Brighton, shows you how.

You couldn’t fail to notice designer John McPherson’s ‘in your face’ Pop Street Garden in the new container garden category at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, which by his own admission should be a place to party or at least to ‘pre’ before going out on the town.

You too could create bright, bold and playful pots, featuring a cornucopia of bubble gum pink, hot orange and electric blue planters, interspersed with containers painted with pop art classics, from comic strip cartoon captions to Campbell’s tomato soup cans.

Canadian McPherson, a former dancer who began studying horticulture and design three years ago, created a space to jump-start the transition from ‘lockdown to on-the-town’.

“During lockdown we spent so much time at home and I wanted to have things around me that reminded me that there are better times to come,” he explains.

“We’ve been working from home for the last two years. We can have friends over now, we can have drinks and we can go out.”

John McPherson loves pop art (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
John McPherson loves pop art (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

He agrees that a pop art style of garden may not be the most calming, serene outdoor space to return to after a day at work but argues: “When you come home to relax you can go in the neighbour’s garden!”

Many of the plants featured in his Chelsea container garden also appear in his garden at home in Brighton, including rudbeckias, alocasias, cannas, bamboos and miscanthus.

He’s a firm believer in the energising properties of plants.

Alocasia in the Pop Street Garden (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Tropical-looking alocasia in a pop art setting (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

“I’m a huge fan of bright colours. They fill me with energy and joy – they just cheer you up.”

Here, he offers tips on how to give your outdoor space some pop art pizzazz.

Create boxes from MDF

‘Brill’ boxes – featuring pop art in reds, blues and whites – in his show garden can be made from MDF and then painted with acrylic paints and then varnished.

Bag some powder coated containers

“A lot of these are available commercially, so they are easily accessible and not expensive. You can get them in bright colours including yellow, acid green and pink and they come in different sizes and may be cheaper than buying large ceramic containers. Make sure you put in holes for drainage.”

Use coloured gravel

“I used aquarium gravel for the show containers,” he says. “I thought, if it doesn’t kill the fish, it’s not going to kill my plants!”

Be imaginative with planting

“The beauty of a container garden is that you can have two plants which need different conditions in the same container, by planting each individual plant in its pot in the container and then covering the surface with soil and gravel.

“For example, you could have Colocasia esculenta ‘Burgundy Stem’ paired with an Agave filifera, which needs sandy, gritty soil, so it’s in its own container. The colocasia needs a different soil type, so it can go in its own container within the main container.”

Take inspiration from pop art icons

“I’m a huge fan of pop art – I was a student in New York in the 1980s, watching that scene. Some of my favourite artists are Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. I love art that is really bright, graphic and colourful.”

Use masonry paint

If you are thinking of creating your own pop art mural in your outdoor space, you’ll need exterior masonry paints, or you can use outdoor acrylics to decorate pots and sculptures, McPherson suggests.

Are there pop art rules?

“Well, we are all part of the consumer culture – anything can be art if you say it’s art. It’s your space reflecting your tastes. I have used famous pop art homages to Roy Lichtenstein – he did a comic book style – and Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup Tin.”

Can you have too much colour?

“Some people worry that it might be too bold, too brash, it’s not tasteful. But tasteful is a word I don’t understand. Like Marie Kondo (the Japanese organising consultant) said, ‘If it brings you joy, keep it’.”

Accessorise boldly

McPherson chose a pink circular drinks table topped with Martini glasses, plus shiny silver cushions to adorn his garden chairs.

“If you like bright colours, bring them into the garden, be it your chairs or candlesticks. If you prefer muted tones bring them outside to contrast with brighter coloured flowers and foliage plants.”

Change your pop art planting with the seasons

“You can plant bright bulbs for spring, while in summer I’d have bright pops of summer colour. Absolutely anything goes. You can combine your indoor and outdoor plants in the summer months and take some of the bright pots indoors to enjoy during the winter.”

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