Marcus Barnett’s garden for The Telegraph, featuring Tulipa ‘Spring Green’ and massed Aquilegia
After many years of attending Chelsea Flower Show I didn’t think I could ever be particularly surprised before I got inside the show ground, but this year, having risen at 4.30am and got smoothly to the gate queue by a respectable 7.45am, I was indeed surprised to be asked to hold the ‘planted’ (excuse pun) test bag for the working cocker spaniel sniffer dog to find for the official security dog-handlers – a charming exercise (he found me within a minute!) which I took to be a good omen for the gardening highlight of the year, which never fails to fill the gardener’s heart with Christmas-morning-like excitement.
Rupert Till’s dog sculpture
So what did I make of this year’s show? Well, every Chelsea Flower Show has a different flavour, but, as always, certain highlights stand out for me. I have chosen my favourites to share with you – and there was a great deal to love this year, from the zingy and zesty planting schemes of the Fresh gardens category, to the classic, clean lines of the larger show gardens.
A beautiful shadow thrown by Macleaya microcarpa (plume poppy) in Fernando Gonzalez’s garden
Firstly, Fernando Gonzalez’s garden for the Pure Land Foundation was my absolute favourite in the whole show, with its lovely rusty red, orange and burnt ochre colours and perfect planting, set against beautiful undulating walls made of Jesmonite – a marble like structure I had never heard of before, which shimmered very subtly (like new snow in sunshine) in the intermittent sunshine. (If you look very carefully in the above picture you can see just a little bit of sparkle.)
The planting featured one of my favourite trees (Koelreuteria paniculata) and an inspired mix of Macleaya microcarpa (plume poppy), Geum ‘Fire Storm’ and ‘Lady Stratheden’, Iris germanica ‘Kent Pride’, Asphodeline lutea, Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’ and Euphorbia cyparissas, and a newly released, sun-loving, sterile perennial floxglove Digitalis ‘Illumination Apricot’. The whole effect was stunning.
Then there was the ‘Dark Matter’ garden for the National Schools’ Observatory by Howard Miller Design, which as the daughter of, and husband of, a scientist perhaps I was predisposed to love, and this was my second favourite. This was apparently illustrating, by the use of a warped lattice of steel rods, the bending trajectory of light around massive objects in the Universe, which implies the presence of ‘Dark Matter’. But forget about the science which I can’t even grasp – it was just a really super garden which made you smile!
The concept of showing a scientific principle in a garden sounds dry but just looked lovely, especially the rusty glow of the steel structures, with the yellow/orange/ochre/green palette, which is rapidly becoming my preferred CFS palette. Obviously all designers are constrained by what plants are available and will thrive in the unpredicatable May cusp-of-summer weather, but a change from the traditional roses/peonies/astrantia purples and pinks is very welcome and fresh feeling.
Anemanthele lessoniana, Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, Euphorbia cyparissias ‘Fens Ruby’ and Verbascum ‘Clementine’ were stars in this garden and made for a lovely combination.
Then, who could not love the mighty vision of Dan Pearson? The man destined to design the planting of the Garden Bridge for London has long been one of my all time gardening heroes, and his return to CFS, designing for Laurent-Perrier, after over ten years is a triumph.
Not only did he win a Gold Medal (naturally) and Best in Show, but he also produced such a still, beautiful, wild, untamed wilderness that you could hardly believe it was man-made, let alone that it was in the middle of London. It was elemental and very characteristic of his style – atmospheric, elegant and wild all at once. The work of a great plantsman.
A blasted tree trunk and the fresh yellow of Rhododendron luteum in Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth inspired garden
The Chatsworth boulders, the weight of which almost threatened the sewers underneath the site
Smyrnium perfoliatum and tree trunk
So after those three top favourites of mine, what about all the others? Well, there were lots of other wonderful stand out gardens as well.
In a totally different vein, I loved Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliams’ Wellington College garden (for Darwin Property Management Investment), which very tastefully managed to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo in a beautiful and memorable way, whilst also being very contemporary – a difficult trick to pull off.
Eremurus, Iris and poppies striking under Fagus sylvatica pleached cubes
A single soldier sculpture surveys the scene
The tranquility of the Wellington College gates recreated
Two more gardens that also promoted lovely yellow/orange themes in their expert planting were, firstly, Matt Keightley’s garden for Sentebale, with its lovely use of orange wallflowers Erysimum ‘Apricot Twist’ and ‘Winter Rouge’ ….
and, secondly, Sean Murray’s garden (deliberately referred to as a ‘Feature’ rather patronisingly by the RHS because it had won their own TV competition RHS Great Chelsea Garden Challenge – but actually executed to a very high standard, so I will call it what it was – an inventive and engaging show garden!)
And Matthew Wilson’s equally elegant symphony of hazy blues, lovely landscaping and unusual, artistic seating for the Royal Bank of Canada.
Perfectly placed succulents in Matthew Wilson’s garden
Apart from the show gardens as entities in their own right to be analysed, there were some other specific gems in the show. In particular, I have come to really look forward to the high quality sculpture and art works at CFS and how they are used – always well chosen and expertly sited.
Stone circle in Jo Thompson’s M & G garden
David Harber’s regular lovely stand
‘Trust’ by Anna Gillespie in Chris Beardshaw’s garden
‘Let Heaven Go’ by Anna Gillespie also in Chris Beardshaw’s garden
‘Xylem’ – 4 metre high sculpture in welded steel by Ian Campbell-Briggs (with lovely Astelia and Geum planting below)
Aluminium frame ‘dripping wall’ feature in Tatyana Shynkarenko’s ‘Thinking of Peace’ garden
Bearded Iris are a great personal favourite of mine, and this year they were taking centre stage, as they often do.
Chris Beardshaw’s dark blue Iris with orange Geum
and lighter blue Iris also in Chris Beardshaw’s garden.
Matthew Wilson’s blue Iris and pond
Sir Cedric Morris (1889-1982), artist and Iris breeder of great renown, was commemorated in the Grand Marquee.
I also love slate in gardens, and on Darren Hawkes’ garden for Brewin Dolphin there was enough to satisfy any enthusiast – 40,000 hand cut pieces to be exact! – forming lovely structures and striking decking like this:
And so another Chelsea Flower Show over for another year. Returning home crossing Lammas Land in Cambridge reminded me of Mr Pearson’s wilderness –
And on returning to my own garden, as I sat recovering from the excitement of it all, I thought it really wasn’t looking all that bad either….
Happy gardening for another month!