The RHS Chelsea Flower Show last week presented an amazing spectacle. Sadly I am neither a celebrity nor royalty, so I wasn’t there on the first day.
But like many of you, I saw on telly the bands by the Great Pavilion, the dancers whirling, and the amazing acrobat who balanced on top of one of the huge monoliths - itself balanced on another stone! Not forgetting the poppy-red uniforms of the Chelsea Pensioners and the equally amazing sea of knitted and crocheted poppies by the Great Hospital.
The Chelsea Flower Show is renowned internationally. Our best and most creative garden designers are keen to use it as the showcase for their latest ideas, opening up to us new creative avenues and offering inspiration galore. In the Great Pavilion, all manner of plants are brought together in wonderful displays, from chrysanthemums to cacti, trees to trachelospermums.
Key trends from Chelsea
After a long, but hugely stimulating and enjoyable, day at Chelsea last Wednesday, I came away with some thoughts about the key trends and the ways in which this might influence our own, possibly more modest, gardens:
Gardens with reality
There was a strong showing for naturalistic garden planting this year. One garden beautifully evoked the dusty soil and drought-tolerant plants of a Provence landscape – an amazing feat to pull off in wet and cold London. Others combined grassy, meadow-y planting to contrast with stone or concrete monoliths or large metal panels. British wild flowers were much in evidence, including cowslips, Queen Anne’s lace and red campion. Several gardens included edibles such as fruiting trees.
The appearance of simplicity
I felt there was a general trend towards gardens with deceptively simple designs. Despite the softer planting over laying many of the designs, it was possible to pick out some really delicious organic shapes and curves. As a designer myself, I know how difficult many of the apparently simple curves and whorls were to set out. Our recent Silver-gilt garden ‘Transition’ at Harrogate Spring Flower Show involved a very simple design of two interlocking circles which took several hours to install correctly!
Many of the gardens at Chelsea also made clever use of changing levels to offer those within the space the opportunity for a variety of viewpoints, adding interest and effectively enlarging the space. As ever, I longed to experience some of these gardens from within rather than as a spectator!
Get the look
Naturalistic planting can be a difficult and time-consuming thing to achieve in our own gardens if we try to use wild flowers. Many only grow well on poor, light or even chalky soil. And they grow, flower and die back in a few months; whereas most of us by contrast are looking for gardens that have interest and variety for much of the year.
However, there are many cultivated plants that can help us achieve a soft, billowing and grassy look to a border. Shorter grasses such as stipa arundinacea or briza, or a carex such as ‘Curls’ give a soft, shimmering look, especially when interplanted with flowers such as geums which give a dappling of hot colour, or the cool airy sprays of orlaya grandiflora . Add sprawling stems of nepeta for a blue-green contrast; or taller, white, aquilegia; or even alliums, the purple or white relatives of the wild onion. In cracks in paving in sunny areas add in the tiny daisies of erigeron karvinskianus. In shadier areas try the lovely, scented lily of the valley; dicentra Alba for taller, swaying stems of white; both contrasting with the wonderful blue sprays of Brunnera macrophylla with its deep green heart-shaped leaves.
In terms of design, I would advise always aiming for something that makes use of straightforward shapes such as rectangles or circles. Lines that involve a lot of undulations can look fussy and over-complicated, while simple shapes take on a boldness and assurance that help make the resulting garden feel grounded and calm.
New on the block
Every year the RHS decides on a plant of the year; this year’s winner was from one of my favourites nurseries Taylors Clematis in Doncaster. I admit to being a bit of a clematis devotee and have a dozen or so in my own garden. They are brilliant for adding interest to boring fences, climbing up dull shrubs, and generally cheering the place up. This year Taylor’s new offering of clematis chilsenensis ‘Amber’ caught the judges eye. You can find out more about it, and what was second- and third- placed, here
So what was my own favourite plant at Chelsea this year? Actually it was a tree, a hawthorn. In several gardens this had been crown-lifted, allowing us to see its beautiful, craggy, bark while softer planting nestled beneath it. And in one garden it had been pruned in a way that was reminiscent of an Italian stone pine – a lovely thing to think about on a cold May day!
And my favourite garden? The wonderful ‘Winton Beauty of Mathematics Garden’, celebrating especially the Fibonacci sequences which underpin so many beautiful plants from pine cones to aloes.