I was back at the Chelsea Flower Show yesterday, the world’s most prestigious flower show, and always exciting and inspirational to visit. I almost didn’t make it. Due to various uncertainties, I left it late getting a ticket and just when I thought I was going to miss out, my son Jonathan managed to get hold of two tickets – right at the last moment!
It was special to go with him, particularly as it was his first time at Chelsea and because last year he’d had to drop out on the day due to illness and I went on my own. Going on your own is definitely better than not going at all, but going with another enthusiastic gardener is wonderful. We had such a great time looking at the show gardens and all the other things there are to see; discussing what we liked best and why; how ideas might transfer to a garden at home; and feeling awed at times by the sheer brilliance of design, beauty of planting and variety of things to enjoy.
We had similar reactions to the gardens but there is always controversy at Chelsea. It’s been interesting to watch BBC TV’s coverage and learn more about the criteria for judging the gardens – why some deserve Gold but others miss out by a margin, gaining a Silver Gilt, or even get only a Bronze. For instance, each garden has a ‘theme’ and that theme must be respected and well conveyed to the viewer: we have to understand what we see and what we are meant to feel or how we should respond; the theme should ‘speak’ to us. The planting has to fit the theme and you shouldn’t try to mix the seasons or plant things that wouldn’t thrive together, nor grow well in the ‘theme’ of your garden, e.g. plant a moisture-loving hosta in a desert landscape. But one’s reaction to a garden is always personal to some extent – whether a simple thing like the colours of the planting appeal (I always go for blues, lilacs, dusky pinks and white in my garden) or are not your kind of colours at all; whether you like something traditional or a garden more cutting edge and modern; whether you’re a city person or prefer the deep countryside.
Here’s some of what we saw and what we liked.
The M&G Garden (Gold Medal), designed by Sarah Price, is ‘an imaginary oasis’. When I’d seen this on TV before the show it made me think of Morocco and I love Morocco so much, I knew it would appeal. In ‘the flesh’, so to speak, it wasn’t really Moroccan but it was stunning. We liked it a lot but didn’t feel it was a garden to transport to our homes; other than small ideas. I think of gardens – gardens such as you see at Chelsea – as works of art; how can they not be! And just as at an art gallery I am sometimes awed by a painting but know I couldn’t live with it on my walls (even if I did have a few spare £millions!), you can look at show gardens in the same way – admire and like but not necessarily want to live with.
The LG Eco-City garden, designed by Hay-Joung Hwang, is a ‘reimagining of inner-city life’ and despite it’s first appearance as a polished and posh garden, boasts all kinds of sustainable features, including a glass solar roof on the summer house (or whatever the building is meant to be) that generates enough electricity to power the kitchen and all other electrical features. It was a lovely garden and interesting, particularly for Jonathan, as he and his wife are about to do a similar (if not so expensive!) extension. For me it was just a little too ‘manicured’ to want to live with.
Now – for the big one! The Morgan Stanley Garden for the NSPCC. Apart from being awarded a Gold Medal, this garden won Garden of the Show – the best garden of all! This is in large part because it ticked all the RHS’s criteria but for me, it was also simply the most stunning garden and the one I’d most love to live with. You can see from the photos below that there are various areas, leading seamlessly from one to another yet distinct and this provides mystery, different areas to fit different moments and moods. But overall it meets its theme so well – to provide ‘the emotional transition in a child as they experience support from the NSPCC … a healing and restorative space with a rich sensory environment, designed to evoke a sense of safety, security and strength’. Perhaps it doesn’t immediately come across as a ‘children’s’ garden, but I think too often we underestimate children and a damaged child doesn’t need to be stimulated by too much bright colour and busy surroundings; they need calm. I don’t think anyway it’s meant as a ‘children’s garden’ as such but to evoke a sense of calm and security that’s needed by traumatised children or people in which they can heal. More than any other garden I could see myself sitting in it and feeling at peace.
Deciding whether the Morgan Stanley garden or Welcome to Yorkshire garden (Gold Medal) was our favourite, inspired a lot of good conversation! The Yorkshire garden is beautiful and I particularly loved the planting by the stream. This was just the kind of planting I aspire to. It certainly meets its mission to evoke a sense of being in the Yorkshire Dales with ‘buttercup meadows and rich flora’, and its stone bothy in the background. But maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, born, bred and always lived, that living in the Yorkshire Dales doesn’t appeal (a holiday perhaps) and I could so much more easily see myself sitting in Chris Beardshaw’s Morgan Stanley garden.
The Trailfinders South African Wine Estate garden (Silver Gilt Medal) was an interesting and attractive garden, apparently very typical of the old Dutch houses you see in South Africa, with a traditional cottage-style garden and a small vineyard. There were lots of aspects I liked but overall I found it too busy; I like more calm in a garden.
There were lots more gardens to enjoy but also lots of other interesting things to see – to decorate or use in your garden. These driftwood sculptures by James Doran-Webb were spectacular. We saw all kinds of sculptures as we went round the show but these were our clear favourites. They each cost £20,000+ so there was no way we were ordering one to take home! But they were works of art; truly beautiful.
As you walk round you find yourself sometimes drawn by just a colour or a small planting. There were lots of irises (and it’s the right time of the year for irises, too) but these deep purple ones were glorious. And this little planting in just the space of an old butler sink showed just how inventive you can be no matter how small your garden – even if it’s just a balcony.
There was so much to see in the Grand Pavilion but we were running out of time – we’d only managed to get late-entry tickets. The Grand Pavilion is a huge sensory experience – the deep fragrance almost overpowering at times. But also amazing to see for each flower, each plant, is an example of excellence. That is one of the great things about Chelsea: you could never see a plant or flower in better, more perfect condition. We loved these Lupins and the wonderful variety of colours amongst the Acers.
What a fantastic time we had going round the Show. We just loved seeing the show gardens, which were so inspirational; stunning to look at and beautiful to see. There were lots of other lovely things and we could have spent so much more time there – next year, we need to book well in advance and go in earlier in the day! Meanwhile, it was a great Chelsea; better than last year. And I’m looking forward to 2019’s already!