With so much to take in at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, one visit is rarely enough. I was fortunate enough to be able to get there for a second time, this time later in the day, to catch up on those gardens and plants I’d missed on press day, with a change of camera lens and a mind to focus on the details.Read More
If Chelsea is to be any more than the (admittedly rather fabulous) latte froth upon the upper lip of the horticultural industry, it needs to have something to say, not only to gardeners like you and me, but to homeowners with an emerging interest in their outside space, to indoor gardeners with not so much as a balcony and, I’d venture to suggest, to park bench philosophers.Read More
May brought us sunshine and rain, burgeoning borders, a late frost and, of course, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. It’s the month of the gardening calendar when everything goes a bit bonkers – in a wonderful, exuberant way. Always quite nice to reach the end with your sanity intact, and your body parts functioning, though by the final week I was being reminded of the need of a good stretch, and that its about time I really ought to be getting some serious yoga practice in.Read More
A Chelsea experience greatly diminished in terms of the number of sponsors and gardens, but the RHS are still managing to put on a top drawer horticultural event worthy of its heritage. Knowing how quickly this year’s tickets sold out, many visitors might even welcome the increased space to sit, relax and mull over what they’ve seen. Here are some of my first impressions of the show.Read More
The Chelsea Flower show opened its gates to RHS members today, before welcoming in the general public on Thursday. It’s a great opportunity to see the work of some of the most talented garden designers, immerse yourself in a fabulous variety of plants, and pick the brains of the most expert nursery folk in the country, if not the world. Naturally, I left it too late to buy a ticket. Fortunately for me, this year I’ve been in the extraordinarily privileged position of being involved with with the preparations for not one, but two multi award-winning nurseries, Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants (and Rosemary Hardy’s first show garden) and Fibrex Nurseries, which allowed me access to the site during the build. Having spent another wonderful day surrounded by pelargoniums, laughter and more tea than my bladder could reasonably be expected to contain, I left the Fibrex stand in the Great Pavillion at around six on Sunday evening and headed off to make a round of the show gardens.
While you can expect me to be a little biased about the garden I worked on (a post on the background to Rosy’s Forever Freefolk garden here, and, likely as not, more to come), I’ll whisk you through some of my favourite sights, as captured on camera in the failing evening light of the final hours before press day.
The Chelsea Barracks Garden by Jo Thompson. A streamlined curving rill runs through grey stone, representing the lost river Westbourne that flows beneath the site of the Chelsea Barracks. This is a modern rose garden, referencing the rose window of the listed Garrison chapel that will be preserved as a focal point in the new development now owned by the Qatari royal family.
The garden blends roses with perennials and biennials, offset by the bronze hued metal of the sleek, sweeping bench seats and the upright pillars which intersect the tall yew hedging. It’s a masterly blend of sleek, contemporary lines and finishes with a very traditional, cottage-garden style planting.
Controversially, this garden features a lawn – a wonderful, circular bowling green-flat stretch of turf*. There’s a lot of rot talked about lawns, and although I don’t hold with chucking chemicals and valuable water at them, while our climate will sustain such useful, restful patches of green space, I’m happy to allow them room in the garden, and pleased to see the odd example at Chelsea. This won a gold medal for Jo and sponsors Qatari Diar, and deservedly so. Well done, judges.
Cleve West has worked his magic again, this time with a garden inspired by Exmoor National Park where he spent his youth. Sunlight filters through the oak woodland canopy onto The M&G Garden, the dappled shade creating the perfect environment for epimediums, ferns and other perennials and grasses that work well on the woodland edge.
The themes are memory, strength and longevity, but while Dan Pearson’s wonderful homage to Chatsworth at last year’s Chelsea almost conjured you into the Derbyshire countryside, this garden feels much more like a contemporary space inspired by memories of aspects of a specific place.
There’s a central sunken terrace, outward from which radiate stone and gravel paths that wind their way through the woodland glades, past substantial sandstone borders, some with rain-weathered hollows making a de facto bird bath here, a miniature reflecting pool there. It’s a tranquil, energising space, another worthy gold medal winner.
Andy Sturgeon’s garden for The Telegraph also uses monolithic structures, although here the slabs are of bronze-coated steel and arranged in a stylised manner which manages to suggest at once both the bony back plates of a stegosaurus, and a jagged mountain range thrust from the earth in some tumultuous seismic event. Both are intentional, the theme of the garden being the changes wrought upon our planet over geological time and scale.
It’s an awe-inspiring garden, which contrasts the drama of the sculptural elements and the purbeck limestone boulders (some containing fossils) strewn over the site, with a delicacy of touch evident in the semi-arid planting. This latter uses a restricted colour palette – mainly greens and blues with splashes of hotter orange (Digitalis canariensis) and red (the Australian kangaroo paw, Anigozanthus).
The upper story is dominated by a holm oak Quercus ilex, a strawberry tree Arbutus unedo, and the frothy foliage of Schinus molle, the Peruvian pepper tree.
A bridge of smooth limestone crosses the gorge filled with “meltwater”, going some way to inject a touch of domestication to the wildness, but this is still a very dramatic place. I loved the planting, the theatre, and the execution. This year’s Best in Show.
Charlie Albone’s garden for Husqvarna garnered silver gilt for its marriage of lush, European formality with Antipodean colour. Clipped yew hedges, squared pleached hornbeams and stepped box surround a sunken square lawn, through which a path of grey stones travells up and down the levels to a suspended seating area at the rear. A rill rounds the path and lawn, contained within the same bronze/corten steel coloured material that is a feature in so many of the gardens this year. It’s lush, and disciplined, but the perennials in the border in shades of cream, purple and mauve inject an element of chaotic fun, without getting too unruly. More digitalis, also eremurus giving the tall vertical accents in the beds, while alliums and poppies gently jostle with leucadendron and grevillea in a kind of floral equivalent of the Ashes.
The Winton Beauty of Mathematics Garden by Nick Bailey of Chelsea Physic Garden is a celebration of the laws of logic and maths that underpin life, and are seen to be at work in the natural world. A copper band winds through the garden, etched with mathematical equations. At one point it's a bench, then it becomes a stair rail, then a balustrade atop the roof of the garden structure, overhung with trailing plants. Architctural forms of Aloe polyphylla, Aeonium tabuliforme and yuccas feature prominently, while Pinus sylvestris ‘Watereri’ and Banksia integrifolia lend height to the planting. It's an inspiring, immersive space, with layer upon layer of detail, which importantly (to me, at least) works well as a beautiful garden.
James Basson is back with another masterful evocation of the Provencal landscape for L’Occitane. More lavender, rocky terroir and stunted almond trees. You can almost feel the heat baking the stones underfoot – another gold medal for this skillful recreation of a unique landscape.
I spent several moments during the build admiring the pear stepovers on Jekka McVicar’s Modern Apothecary Garden for St John's Hospice. This is a healing space, with a circular path of pebbles surrounding a thyme and chamomile lawn, in the centre of which stands a water feature. Two benches nestle among the outer beds, packed with medicinal herbs and aromatics, the whole garden bordered by a herbal ley, which is how I shall from this point on be referring to my weed-ridden lawn.
It’s the kind of intensive, herb-stuffed space I’ve always wanted to grow myself, and not yet managed – most of my herbs living in pots out of reach of the more antisocial activities of Bill the border terrier. I often wonder what kind of havoc he’d cause if let loose at Chelsea.
The light began to fade, and my camera’s meter started to behave oddly, notwithstanding the fact I’d had rather a long day. Just time for a shot of Matthew Wilson’s Garden for Yorkshire, inspired by the East Window of York Minster, in which the perennial planting cleverly echoes the panes of the stained glass.
Something of a whirlwind trip around the show gardens, but a fantastic opportunity to see them without the crowds, as well as having been on site to witness their progress from soggy patches of muddy ground to fully realised designs. Chelsea 2016 is certainly not one RHS show I’ll be forgetting in a hurry.
* I saw this being cut to shape by a friendly chap, Roger Moore, of Lindum Turf in Yorkshire. I was laughing at him edging the turf with a battery operated angle grinder with cutting wheel attached, when he pointed out that the grass seed sown into and grown on a felt, rather than soil-based substrate. Perfect for show gardens and exhibition stands. Lindum also provide wildflower turf for meadows and green roofs.
Rosy didn’t have to look far when it came to deciding upon a concept for Forever Freefolk, her show garden for Brewin Dolphin at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Inspiration lies all around the award winning nursery which she and husband Rob have been running since first setting it up in their back garden 25 years ago. Located in the heart of the Hampshire countryside and within walking distance of the River Test, today Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants occupies a 13-acre portion of that chalk landscape that stretches from Dorset, across South East England, beneath the Channel to France, and northward into Norfolk.
This is Watership Down country – the local pub in the village of Freefolk has been renamed in honour of the much-loved book by local author Richard Adams – renowned for its rolling green hills, close cropped pastures and crystal clear streams. These chalk streams provide a unique environment, home to iconic species such as otters, water voles, salmon and brown trout, and it's this biodiversity, coupled with the vulnerability of fragile habitats in the most populous region of the country, that has led WWF to a declare that Britain's chalk streams “are our rainforests”, with all the incumbent responsibility that confers upon us for their conservation.
Rosy’s design for the show garden on main avenue references one of the starkest possible outcomes: dried up stream as a result of excessive water extraction represented by an area of gravel planting traversed by stepping stones constructed from flint-filled gabions. There’s certainly an element of cautionary tale, but the garden overall is more a celebration of both the natural landscape and the manner in which we interact with it.
“While the main concept informing the design is the chalk stream, the garden also draws upon the flora of the chalk downlands, our local industrial heritage and its effects on the area,” says Rosy, pointing out how the silver path that meanders through the space represents the metal security thread to be found in the banknotes made from locally milled paper. From one local industry, set up by Huguenot refugee workers in the eighteenth century, to another, and a photograph of a fishermen’s hut from which a raised walkway over the river leads to a series of eel traps.
“This image gave rise not only to the floating aspect of the pathway, but also to the structure that I wanted hovering above the space.” Seeing as this is Chelsea, something a little more high concept than a shed on stilts is called for, so for the design of the structure, Rosy turned again to the chalk bedrock of Hampshire, only this time at a microscopic level. The chalk itself, laid down in the warm, shallow seas over millions of years during the Cretaceous period, is made up of elaborate structures formed from the skeletal remains of microscopic marine plankton, or coccolithophores .
The garden building
The characteristic geometric shape of these tiny fossilised creatures has been used as the basic building block for the frame of the garden building – the ‘Coccosphere’ – an elegant sculpture constructed from cast aluminium.
There are four planting zones in all: shade, dry, damp with part shade and lush damp. Rather than slavishly recreating the planting communities of the calcerous grasslands, Rosy has drawn inspiration from the flora of her local chalk downland landscape, using a palette of soft pastel colours in the dry gravel bed, with deeper, more saturated hues in the wetter zones. Yellow tones will also run through the garden, with plants such as the marsh marigold Caltha palustris and Achillea 'Moonshine' bouncing golden light about.
Of course, this is a perfect opportunity to introduce new hardy perennial cultivars, and four new plants will be making their debut: a compact catmint, Nepeta x faassenii ‘Crystal Cloud’, the white thistle Cirsium rivulare ‘Frosted Magic’, pale blue Veronica ‘Mountain Breeze’ and the appropriately named pink gaura with red foliage, Gaura ‘Rosy Shimmers'.
With such a wealth of information and expertise packed into every element of this garden, it’s hard not to see this project as yet another out working of an impulse to share knowledge and enthusiasm, for both plants the environments in which they thrive. “I love trying to educate people in plants and how they can be used in the garden”, admits Rosy, when I quiz her about this aspect. It’s that passion and generosity of spirit that shines through, and is sure to make this garden one of the highlights of Chelsea 2016.