Roughly twenty years ago my Mum and I went to the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show and made a promise to one day visit the Chelsea show together. Little did we know then just how long it would take to organise this trip (between us, various work, family and health commitments always cropping up) but this year, finally, we got there. For Mum a first visit and for me, the second. Thank you to all those who helped out to get us there, it was a brilliant 50th treat!
This year I avoided much of the press and TV coverage of the show as I wanted to react to the gardens without knowing too much about the design processes and philosophy behind them. Hoping instead to simply concentrate on the planting schemes and garden forms and maybe find my way to the right meaning from these. I also found a mission statement I wrote for our own garden when we moved house 17 years ago. It is an encapsulation of all the hopes of a new mum to build a home for a family and maybe a reaction to exterior events: the approach of a new century and the rise of terrorism and war. Perhaps a quiet prayer for a moment of calm before the approaching chaos of family life. Probably pretentious and completely unrealistic but a concept for a garden all the same. Did I even slightly succeed? Who knows or, in new century speak, whevs. Like life, the garden is destined always to be a work in progress, dependent on kids, pets, impulse plant buys, the weather and our free time to shape it. But without the concept is it any less of a garden?
Chelsea Show Gardens are very definitely not a work in progress. They are the definition of the finished article, as shiny as a new minted coin and masterpieces of horticultural perfection to be looked at but definitely not lived in till after the show. But without knowing the rationale and ethos behind them, are they any the less for it?
Notes from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2016.
A Plantsman's Year
Plums and purples
Orange or lime green accents
Cerise and white
Pinks and peaches
Copper, bronze, sandstone, wood, topiary.
'The M&G Garden 2016' designed by Cleve West
A controlled sprinkling of citrus, sky blue and frothy pinks and whites amongst the green ferns and downy oaks, echoing a rolling spring sky. The small leaved trees providing the dappled shade while the rust and iron hues of the paving and monolithic stones provide a perfect foil for a meandering path drawing you towards the formal seating element of the garden. The downy oaks, with their smaller, slightly scrubbier appearance lend to an atmosphere of windswept permanence. Vibrant and crisp.
'Support: The Husqvarna Garden' designed by Charlie Albone
Hugged by topiary hornbeam and box this intimate, manicured space is the epitome of the outdoor room. Pretty purples fill the borders, regimented by a copper-coloured rill. Sleek, modern and urban, it recalls traditional internal courtyard gardens and retreats.
'The Winton Beauty of Mathematics Garden' designed by Nick Bailey
A sinuous explosion of structural plants in a palette of purple, blue, grey, copper, bronzed yellows and greens. Spiky firs stand sentinel over a sea of interlocking leaf and plant spires all sweeping your eye up to a balcony overlooking the garden. The densely planted flowerbeds draw your eye with their fractal patterns repeating throughout a lively, dynamic garden.
'God's Own Country – A Garden for Yorkshire' designed by Matthew Wilson
A cathedral space criss-crossed with a contemporary grid of white paths delineating areas of rich planting with a beautiful stained glass palette of deep, tranquil colours. Shimmering white accents add light and space and the gorgeous backlit stained glass panels will be wonderfully warming on a cold winter's day while the plants slumber in their topiary pews. A medieval window-shaped pavilion provides a meditative space to sit and ponder this wonderful hymn to wide open spaces.
'The Harrods British Eccentrics Garden' designed by Diarmuid Gavin
Red brick Victorian elegance with clipped topiary bay and box and terracotta pots of lavender, neatly punctuating paved town house patios and abundant flowerbeds bursting full of roses, lupins, nepeta, salvia, iris... a sophisticated city take on a cottage garden border. While drinking in the gorgeous blooms the whole garden springs to life, as twirling trees and zooming flowers whizz round in a crazy clockwork waltz. Will it make the pruning easier? Maybe. Will it move plants from shade to full sun? Possibly. Will it bring a huge smile to those watching? Absolutely. Bonkers, beautiful but completely bonkers.
'RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden for Health, Happiness and Horticulture' designed by Anne-Marie Powell
Gorgeous colour combinations and textural planting with depth and height. Jam-packed with garden ideas for small spaces.
'The Morgan Stanley Garden for Great Ormond Street' designed by Chris Beardshaw
A green oasis of tranquillity, with a subtle palette of greens and soft blue tones. Clipped shapes bring calming order and flashes of colour hover like birds in a forest.
'A Modern Apothecary. The St John's Hospice Garden' designed by Jekka McVicar
This beautiful space has echoes of a traditional knot garden in it's central, circular beds radiating around a water feature with seating. The lovely pear cordons bordering the garden remind me of old walled gardens and country orchards. On closer examination the flowerbeds turn out to be herbal beds. Planted like a fabulous piece of jewellery, the flowering herbs shine like precious stones providing a feast for the eye and a balm for the soul.
A week or so later, having watched the TV shows and reflected on what we saw, I am still buzzing with new ideas for the garden only to be thwarted by deluges of rain and have to sit by and watch as a horde of hungry snails and slugs head straight for the newly planted hostas. With only one BBQ so far is it going to be another washout this year? Amid the deluge the bluetits in the bird box decide to fledge, scattering like feathered puffballs under the table and into the wild edges of the lawn. I wonder, as the pond slowly spills over, if the newts will be OK and, as I watch, the rambling rose takes a nosedive, flattened under the weight of the rain. The newly refurbished garden seat set into the bank remains still unused as the weather refuses to let up.
For me, the best show gardens are the ones you can connect to. Spaces that evoke memories or provide a framework for new memories to be made in. Some of the gardens imparted their rationale effortlessly while others made you think for while before reaching any kind of conclusion.
Gardens create a place we can be free in but still safe from the pressures of the world and that freedom allows us to contemplate some of the more complex issues life throws at us. Perhaps gardening itself provides all the ethos a garden needs or perhaps gardens allow a place for ideals and ideas along with the plants to flourish. On things for sure, what we learn from, what we nurture and grow, what stand we take. These three things define us and shape our world.