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Building the Tropical Extravaganza

Kirsty Watson
16 February 2012
Blog team: 
Experience Kew’s Tropical Extravaganza from an apprentice’s point of view.

That time of year is upon us again... it’s Kew’s Tropical Extravaganza! This year’s festival is inspired by the forces of nature – earth, fire, air and water - and I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to help transform the Princess of Wales Conservatory into an explosion of colour in celebration of the elements.

Orchids really are the stars of the show and this year’s selection won’t disappoint. Bright yellow Oncidiums and vibrant Phalaenopsis decorate the pillars, stunning blue Vandas form a tropical arch and elegant Dendrobiums festoon the giant hanging baskets. 


Volunteers behind-the-scenes working on the plants for the displays

Decorating the pillars

My first task of the week, and one of the largest, was to help decorate the pillars. Behind the scenes, an army of volunteers prepared each pot for mounting. They drilled two holes in the back of the pot, through which a wire hook was inserted, and then they attached a wad of moss to the front of the pot with a rubber band to camouflage the container in the display. After watering, the pots were passed to those of us perched at the top of a ladder where we could begin to fix them to the pillar. Each pillar was already wrapped in coir and covered with a strong plastic mesh to which we attached the pots using a cable tie through the mesh and the wire hook of the pot. The cable tie was tightened to hold the pot in position and we worked down the pillar attaching each individual plant in much the same way as a patchwork quilt is assembled.


The team dress the pillars from ladders and reach the top of the tallest pillar from the cherry picker

In at the deep end

The large ‘twister’ in the lily pond was designed to give visitors a sense of the movement of air and wind, the element used by many plants to disperse their seeds. Blood red Begonias and Guzmanias, yellow Anthuriums and orange Kalanchoes were mixed with silver foliage plants such as Tillandsia usneoides to represent air and cool wind. I donned a pair of (leaky) waders, filled a floating wheelbarrow with plants and compost and lowered myself into the pond. This was a fun job! I love planting up any kind of display but doing it waist deep in water just made it cooler. The plants are only going to be in this display for the short term (the duration of the festival) and won’t have much time to grow and fill out a large space, so we planted them unusually close together. The result – a display that looks full and appears well established. Stunning!


Working on the ‘Twister’ display in the lily pond

Every year I marvel at the finished product and I’m really happy that this year I got to participate. It was busy, physical, hot, challenging - and one of the most memorable and fun weeks I have spent in this job. I can’t wait to take my friends and family around the festival to point out all our hard work! I’m sure they will appreciate it, just as I did when I could only guess at the imagination that went in to it.


- Kirsty -

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24 February 2012
How very interesting and exciting--a dream come true! Makes my gardening skills pale into insignificance!
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18 February 2012
how amazing to see such wonderful plants so beautifully displayed wish we could see them for real-maybe one day!Keep up the good work Kirsty-great to hear that you are doing so well

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