Jane Moore seeks inspiration at Chelsea Flower Show
There’s no business like show business and no flower show that’s quite like Chelsea Flower Show. It is, as Miss Jean Brodie would have said, ‘the crème de la crème’.
Yes, I know there are other shows but none that truly compare. Don’t get me wrong, I love many of the other shows: the unmatchable setting of Hampton Court, the lovely location of Malvern and the local charms of smaller shows such as Harrogate and Shrewsbury. But only Chelsea is the true barometer of horticultural fashion, the trendsetter, the Paris Fashion Week, the It Girl of flower shows.
At Chelsea the garden designs are always that bit out there, especially in the case of Diarmuid Gavin, pushing boundaries, breaking new ground and costing an absolute fortune. Even in the marquee where the nurseries show their wares there’s a sense of boats being pushed out as far as they can go, plant trends being formed and fashions started.
However, seasoned old salt that I am, I had become somewhat jaded. Going every year had left me a little overexposed and feeling that I had seen it all. So this year marked my return to Chelsea after a three year break and all the planets seemed to collide rather marvellously. First off, I got a pass for Press day which is nigh on priceless and secondly the weather was utterly fantastic.
That frisson of excitement was back, that sense of anticipation as I arrived at the gates of the Royal Hospital and set out eagerly to see what Chelsea had to offer in 2017.
The scented garden for Jo Whiley, designed by Tamara Bridge and Kate Savill
The Big Show Gardens
This year there were only eight full size show gardens – eight! I was shocked – I can’t remember such a lean year. For those that have been to Chelsea before, the main show garden avenue had gaps in it – one filled by an exhibition of photography. Many blamed Brexit but the costs of building a show garden have become outrageous in the past decade or so too. Anyway back to the gardens . . .
The best by far in my opinion were the Royal Bank of Canada garden by Charlotte Harris and Chris Beardshaw’s for Morgan Stanley – both had lovely planting and that serene ahh factor which is so difficult to achieve in a plot 10m x 20m which is viewed on at least two sides. The Canada garden achieved a lovely textural look which contrasted beautifully with the bold lines of the hard landscaping. Chris adopted a more traditional planting and I especially loved the woodland planting of candelabra primroses, ferns and hostas highlighted with the odd peony under a tree canopy of multi-stemmed native field maple. It seems I’m not alone as Chris’ garden won the People’s Choice this year.
The M&G garden aka the Maltese quarry by James Basson won a gold medal although I was decidedly underwhelmed by it and actually preferred the planting by the information booth opposite. The secret nature of the Linklaters garden for Maggie’s must have seemed like a great idea on paper but it effectively meant you had a lot less to plant because there were so many hedges.
Also my able assistant Anna who went on a public day told me that in practice you had to shuffle along the raised path in a slow moving queue getting glimpses of the garden as you went. Not very visitor friendly. And the Yorkshire garden would have made a good – but not great – artisan garden. The City Gardens So onto the smaller gardens which are so often brimming with ideas. These fresh gardens are more modern urban style and one or two were rather good. The Mexican one with its colourful walls you’ll remember from the TV – really dramatic and truly fresh. Kate Gould’s City Living apartment garden was also great but must have cost a lot – all that laser-cut steel and a balcony too doesn’t come cheap. The planting while great, was an addition to the structure, rather than the main event. The Bermuda Triangle I was frankly bemused by.
The listening garden for Zoe Ball, designed by James Alexander-Sinclair
The Artisan Gardens
Often my very favourite part of Chelsea, for here you see the budding designers cutting their teeth alongside little horticultural societies and what-have-you having a go. Or a least you used to. No, you still do but what shocked me was that you also now have show garden designers designing these smaller gardens with all the weight, contacts and budget they can command.
David Domoney and Sarah Eberle both created artisan gardens this year – although neither was as good as the beautiful Japanese one created by Kazuyuki Ishihara. This entire garden looked as if tectonic plates had pushed up the rock from the ground of the Hospital a millennium or so ago, allowing it to become beautifully mossy and ferny and for Mr Ishihara to create a little pavilion upon it. Probably the best garden I saw at Chelsea.
The Radio 2 Gardens
The cynic could suggest that these non-competing Feel Good gardens were created as fillers to make up for the lack of show gardens. Whatever the reasoning these were a lovely addition with very different approaches to exploring each of the five senses. Sarah Raven did her usual incredibly beautiful thing with colours and I suffered rusty steel trough envy from James Alexander-Sinclair’s sound garden.
There were a lot of ideas to be gleaned from these five little gardens and that’s what Chelsea is all about for me. You can keep your Maltese quarry, I’d rather have Sarah Raven’s cutting shed in my garden any day.
Jane Moore is the award-winning gardening columnist and head gardener at The Bath Priory Hotel. Follow her on Twitter: @janethegardener.