Plants and details
The second of two posts on this year’s event
You can read my initial thoughts on this year’s show gardens at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2018 here.
Having spent the whole of press day here on Monday, when the grounds of the Royal Hospital were relatively quiet, I was interested to see how my reaction to some of the show gardens might be affected when viewing them as part of the crowd on Wednesday evening. If you’re planning on attending Chelsea at some point in the future, let me recommend the evening ticket – it’s a more affordable £35 for RHS members, and gives you access from 5.30 till 8pm which, while still busy, allows you to experience the gardens and the Great Pavilion in a more relaxed manner than at the height of the day’s business. If you’re blessed with good weather, you also have the benefit of the evening sunlight slanting through the gardens and showing off the plants to their very best effect – and having attempted to photograph on site both through the gloom at 7am and under the glare of the midday sun, I can confidently state this is by far the best time to see the gardens at their most atmospheric.
With a day’s interlude to mull things over since press day and limited time before being thrown out, I had both the ability and the need to be more focussed than on my previous visit, and made a beeline for the Viking Cruises Wellness garden by Paul Hervey Brookes, in the Artisan section. This explored the notion of living well in a domestic setting, incorporating a sauna and plunge pool into a small garden space with floating decks as a clever solution to a multi-level garden. What I really loved was the abundance of herbs and forageable wildflowers (i’m convinced I saw fat hen and a dandelion leaf in there) – lavender, lemon balm, thyme, fennel, rosemary, angelica – all nestling beneath the most beautifully knarled mulberry pollard. A garden I could hang out in – I think Paul might have just saved Chelsea 2018 for me.
I was pleased to see herbs featured on several other gardens, which shouldn’t be surprising as three of this years sponsors were gin distillers (well, two gin distillers and Seedlip, who are careful to describe their product as a “non alcoholic spirit”). In my last post I featured a view of the Silent Pool Gin garden, but elsewhere in the Artisan section was the Warner Edwards garden by Tamara Bridge and Kate Savill, built on a grassy bank edged with Northamptonshire stone walling. Another delight for those charmed by alchemy of botanicals, wildflowers and hedgerow finds.
While on the subject of gin, mention must be made of the Seedilp garden by Catherine McDonald, a celebration of the pea family which, fortunately for a garden at Chelsea, doesn’t rule out the use of lupins, which are often a major feature, and never more so than this year. There were sweet peas and clovers and acacias and a laburnum – all fabulous Fabiaceae. All very interesting, if a little busy.
No visit to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show would complete without a masterly interpretation of the traditional Japanese garden to charm our senses, and Kazuyuki Ishihara was back once more with the O-mo-te-na-shi no NIWA Hospitality Garden, complete with signature moss balls and a tapestry of acers, reflected in the waters of a rock-lined pool. I elbowed my way to the front for a few photographs – there’s always a crowd of spellbound onlookers.
Back on Main Avenue, there were details of the large show gardens I wanted to capture. What are we to make, I thought, of the accomplished Welcome to Yorkshire garden from Mark Gregory? It was a fantastic installation by Mark’s company Landform Consultants (also the constructors for the Seedlip Gin Garden), undeniably a crowd-pleasure and a magical mis-en-scene, with its backdrop of woodland, the meadow, babbling brook, dry stone walls and stone bothy. There was a small cottage garden set quite far into the plot – I spied a vegetable plot, and flowers including lupins, aquilegia, delphiniums, salvias and euphorbias.
In conclusion, it was beautifully dressed, superbly constructed and well-finished piece, and will have done the job for the sponsors – who couldn’t want to go to God’s Own County now, if they hadn’t before? But I couldn’t help feeling there was some kind of battle raging between horticulture, land management and set dressing, and my initial impression was that horticulture wasn’t getting much of a look in. Having explored the information available, including the fascinating timelapse video of the garden being put together, I’m not sure that’s fair, but it’s an understandable conclusion to have reached given that the cultivated portion of the garden is set so far into the plot, bounded by the wilder landscape and, once again, unless you’re actually on the garden, you miss much of what’s on offer. Undeniably, this was a popular garden with the public, winning People’s Choice. I was pleased to see a hawthorn right up front, with an “underplanting” of wood avens, stinging nettle and ribwort plantain. That’s my day job, right there.
I had wanted to go back to Chris Beardshaw’s garden for the NSPCC which won best show garden. I’ve been a massive fan of Chris Beardshaw and his work for as long as I can remember, but I found this the least accessible of his gardens that I can bring to mind (once again I’m out of step with the general consensus here, which I promise is not a pose deliberately struck). It almost felt deliberately inaccessible from the front – and perhaps this was the point – with a narrow path flanked by pink flowered rhododendrons disappearing into a very cool, blue-toned, ericaceous woodland. Perhaps it was the colour scheme that unsettled me – it’s the coolest I’ve seen from this designer’s gardens at the London shows, and I may simply be being lazy and pining for warmer tones. Colour temperature here was low, extending to the blue-toned walls right at the back, and carried through the planting by the leaves of the hostas.
So, while it wasn’t a garden I warmed to, I can still rave about it a little. The trees and large shrubs, for example – a gorgeous, peeling-barked river birch (Betula nigra), the delicate but profusely flowered Styrax japonicas and Enkianthus campanulatus. An understory of ferns, geraniums, ammsonias, dead nettles, and the punctuations of the Himalayan blue poppy. And the way in which the planting approached the pavilion at the end, as if seeking to come up onto the platform.
And, with that, into the Great Pavilion for the plants! All the while I’m skirting the outside looking at the show gardens, I feel the pull of the nursery stands. And nowhere is the pull stronger than at the stand of Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants – yet another gold medal winning display for Rob and Rosy on their 30th wedding anniversary. The team at Freefolk (in Hampshire, where the nursery is based) work tirelessly year round to produce these beautiful plants, and the show team no less hard putting on an immaculate display year after year. For all my own fascination with tender perennials (for which read, pelargoniums!), it’s these stalwart hardy perennials that I feel most comfortable with in the garden. Is it because so many of them are seemingly indestructible? Tear a bit off, bung it in the ground, and multiply your collection. Many will even shrug off the attention of slugs and snails – what’s not to love?
There’s always something that grabs my eye and, as I’m beginning to venture into orange hues in the garden, it annoys me that I’ve not thought to include a verbascum like ‘Cotswold Beauty’. Hopefully I can still get some in time and find a gap in the border.
This white ragged robin that I spotted on a few show gardens is completely charming. I realise there’s something about its petals that remind me of the flowers of stellar pelargoniums, so that’s another reason to include it in the garden, while the pellies enjoy the shelter of a pot in the courtyard.
I’ve used the deep purple leaved and reliable Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’ in gardens before, but it’s quite a large plant, and the more compact ‘Lady in Red’ might be better suited to a smaller space. Such as the smaller space I’ll have to squeeze it into in my garden.
Surely these geums are the colour of sunblush tomatoes?
And while we’re on the subject of geums, take a look at these water avens, Geum rivale, parent to so many of the popular cultivars.
One last combination from the Hardy’s stand. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Cosmopolitan', Geranium phaeum and Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’. You can never argue that the show gardens have the best planting.
The pavilion is also the place for those with an interest in house plants and indoor gardening. There was a collaboration between Indoor Garden Design and IKEA featuring gardens for the home office, including plants du jour like sansevierias, alocasias and the ZZ pant Zamioculcus zamiifolia, perfect for a poorly lit spot indoors.
Also ideal in a dingy corner is the aspidistra, and the selection available on the Crûg Farm Plants stand was breathtaking.
There were also towering Araliaceae, a mini pokeweed (Phytolaccca spp) and more Ruscus (butcher’s broom) than I’d seen before in one place.
There were beautiful aloes and succulents from Palms-Exotics…
…and of course huge Rex begonias and Streptocarpus from Dibleys.
As ever, Todd’s Botanics was a dreamy indoor meadow.
And while most of us might just have begun to pinch out the tops of our dahlias, the National Dahlia Collection put on such a stunning display of floral magnificence, you can’t quite help wonder how they do it.
With which witchcraft, it was time to go. Another year at Chelsea, another memory card full of photographs and a head full of gardening thoughts. As ever, it will take me a few weeks to work out what I really think about the show – and these posts are not intended as a comprehensive guide, but rather a record of the gardens and plants that made the most impact on me at the time. Do join me on Instagram for more images, and join in the discussion about this year’s show on Twitter with the hashtag #RHSChelsea.
What were your impressions of the show this year? Did you get there yourself, or have you been following the television coverage on the BBC? I’d love to hear what you think, either on twitter or in the comments below.