By Catherine Pepinster
This year’s Chelsea Flower Show, held in September for the first time, will also be the first to feature a garden that brings Bible verses to life.
The Psalm 23 garden, sponsored by the Bible Society, will offer visitors solace, tranquillity, and hope, says its award-winning designer, Sarah Eberle, and will also take visitors on a journey through its spaces, all based on The Lord Is My Shepherd verses.
The Psalm 23 design ideas were first put together before the pandemic, but they now seem particularly appropriate, and match a Covid-inspired theme of sanctuary that the Royal Horticultural Society, the show’s organiser, has devised for one set of the designs on display.
Hazel Southam, the Bible Society’s project manager for the garden, said that The Lord Is My Shepherd was first chosen because it is the best known of all psalms, familiar even to the non-religious. It is often used for weddings and funerals — and theme tune for the BBC TV comedy The Vicar of Dibley — and speaks of God’s presence in all moments of life.
“Now after the pandemic it feels as if it has never been more pertinent,” she said. “We hope it will really resonate with people.”
Planting in the garden is intended to reflect the mood of the opening verses of Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
For you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
There are areas to reflect the green pastures, still water, winding paths to depict the route of righteousness and a hanging rock to reflect the valley of the shadow of death. A final section reflects the hope expressed in the psalm that God will restore people’s spirits.
Ms Eberle, who has frequently won gold medals at Chelsea, said she was immediately excited by the idea when it was first suggested to her by the Bible Society, the organisation founded in 1804 by William Wilberforce and others to translate and distribute the Bible and to educate people about its contents.
“Psalm 23 is so visual that I could immediately see how I could do this,” she said. Eberle, who describes herself as a Christian but not a churchgoer, said that to her “the psalm is a parable for life; it is about a journey and life is a journey, and during that journey we need places where we can be at peace”.
For Bible Society, the garden offers an opportunity to inform people in an unusual and non-threatening way. “Anybody can be a gardener and for many of them, gardening can be a spiritual activity, but they might not be churchgoers,” Ms Southam said. “Some people might not want to go inside a church but they would be happy to go into a church garden. The essence of this garden is that God restores my soul. It is an opportunity for people to experience the psalm in a fresh way.”
The actress and comedian Sally Phillips will read Psalm 23 in the garden on Monday, 20 September, the opening day of the show.
Gardens feature frequently in the Bible, from the Eden to Gethsemane, and their verdant character is in marked contrast to the desert lands that were known to the authors of books in both testaments. But while many plants are mentioned by name in the Bible, including lilies, the rose of Sharon and cedar trees, Eberle has designed a garden that uses plants more common in Britain, especially in her native Dartmoor. The rocks and wild landscape of the moor suggests a life can be a struggle, she says, and many of the plants have a toughness, especially the hawthorn and hornbeam trees she has chosen. Other plants being used include grasses and eupatoriums.
Once Chelsea is over, the garden will be moved to a hospice being built in Winchester. The Bible Society is also encouraging people including church groups through its Psalm 23 website to create their own. It recommends four key components: water for tranquillity and to attract insects; a small meadow area and long grasses also to attract insects; seating, for people to read text; and a tree as a focal point.