Ursula's Cambridge Garden

Freelance gardener, plantswoman and garden-designer writing from my small urban garden in a great city

Off to Chelsea Flower Show – drought tolerant and beautiful [23 May 2012]


Well, today has been exhausting but brilliant!  I got up at 5am, leaving all my boys snoring gently, for an early train to London, and was going through the gates at Chelsea Flower Show, as they opened at 8am!  It was well worth this fanaticism, because I got to look at everything closely before the big crowds and the heat really got going.  I whizzed around the Great Pavilion admiring the artistry of the stands, and chatting to a few exhibitors, and buying some seeds and catalogues, but mostly I spent some concentrated time examining the show gardens.

CFS is all about theatre and excitement – like Christmas Day or a haute couture show – it’s about the build up and anticipation, and then the arrival of the big day and seeing the very best designer plantsmen and women, pulling off the terrific stunt of creating gardens from scratch, for one glorious week in May, using the most interesting plant combinations, they can think off, after many years of precisely honed wisdom.  This love of the planting shines through.  Although the hard landscaping and novelty gets a lot of air time, I think it’s the plantsmanship, and the vision behind the show gardens that really inspires year after year – it’s the best of everything done to the highest standards, as the ultimate celebration of horticulture.

Of course many people grumble and say ‘but it’s so artificial – those plants are only a garden for one week, and the combinations only work for one season’ – but the artistry and skill of the creators is of such a high quality, that seasonality is a bonus – this is the height of what you can achieve at the zenith of may, the season of such hope, they seem to be saying.  If you achieved nothing else but that, the rest of your seasons can follow and be sorted out later!

The main planting trend is now definitely moving away from simply slavishly copying the Piet Oudolf ‘dutch-wave’ school of planting, and instead adapting his wonderful ‘perennial meadow grassiness’ to mix with old fashioned English cottage garden plants to create a hybrid fusion – ‘English Cottage Prairie’ perhaps?


The best gardens all had a strong base evergreen matrix  –  box, yew, myrtle, pittosporum tobira nanum (in Joe Swift’s garden) and ilex crenata ‘japanese holly’ ( in Andy Sturgeon’s see photograph below) – clipped as soft mounds or large balls to contrast with the abundance and wildness of the perennials, with multi-stem trees providing architectural height and ceilings to the overall picture.

 And the other big concept at the show was the need for water conservation and growing plants that can happily ‘tough it out’ through drought, something I think about a lot in my own garden.  We need plants that can cope without artificial irrigation and still look great – often going back to species natives that have stood the test of time, or looking to very hot climates for inspiration – it’s the new imperative for ‘no-watering-naturalism’.

Cleve West’s garden won best in show (see above), and his planting was certainly beautiful with a frothy mixture of perennials in subtle jubilee colours against wonderful yew towers.  I was pleased for him, as he seems such a modest self-effacing man, after reading his charming prose style in his excellent book Our Plot.

He writes that his allotment “seems a world away from the gardens I design for clients and flower shows.  The common denominator of course is plants….the joy of growing things and the ability to beautify space and make a positive contribution to biodiversity is not a bad way to earn a living.  If nothing else, the allotment reminds us that a garden is never finished.  It shifts and changes from season to season, year to year.  Nothing remains the same. Amen to that.”

Three keys plants stand out in my mind as being show-stealers this year;

Orlaya grandiflora (above) featured in many of the gardens – a beautiful half-hardy annual with lace-like white umbels, which I have tried to grow several times without success, but will now try again!  I purchased some seed from Avon Bulbs Ltd in the Grand Pavilion, and the lady on the stand gave me the key advice that the seeds need cold to germinate successfully, which I shall take on board, as I am determined to add their airy grace to my borders.

Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’, a cultivated form of our native cow parsley, was used with frothy effectiveness in many gardens, its dark stems contrasting very well with its white-pink umbellifer flowers.  It is a posh version of our species plant, with all the refinement that implies, and without losing any of the exuberance of the original.  It was used most memorably by Dr Nigel Dunnett in his fabulous RBC Blue Water Garden (see above), which was to my mind the most original, and gorgeous garden this year.  He planted it as an airy mass under the wonderful mahogany  stems of  prunus serrula, with pink martagon lilies and grasses – inspired stuff, which many have commented on.  This garden was, of course, created by a Professor sustainable gardening, and had the wow-factor in spades.

And, finally, the royal fern Osmunda regalis  cropped up everywhere, especially in Sarah Price’s garden (see above) in all its lime green glory.  I have this deciduous miracle in my own garden and it is a cracking plant – when it delicately unfurls it is a smoky brown colour with a curious texture, and rapidly transforms into the most gorgeous grass green colour, with a tinge of limey-yellow which is just superb.

Joe Swift’s garden (above) was an exercise in ochre – the rich sandy tones of verbascum and bearded iris toning with the lovely caramel wood frames, and contrasting against lime greens of euphorbia and evergreen mounds. It was a completely different colour palette for CFS and stunning in the heat wave sunshine.

Andy Sturgeon’s garden featured wonderful metal sculpture weaving its way round, to very restful and ethereal effect.

Arne Maynard’s rose and foxglove vision, set around a his trademark pleached copper beech hedge, made use of training shrub roses over a willow or hazel twig mound – an old technique pioneered by Vita Sackville West’s gardener Jack Vass – everything comes around again eventually!  It also featured a resin-bonded pebble path I rather liked.

Jo Thompson’s caravan garden was wonderfully gentle and effective, with very stylish wavy benches.

The new ‘Fresh’ area featured three gardens I particularly liked –

trendy irrigation with a wonderfully arty water but in Nicholas Dexter’s carefully considered drought planting Climate Calm Garden;

beautiful woven seats amongst lush planting in Benjamin Wincott’s Petra Tranquillity garden,

 and the Renault dry garden by Scape Design, with white stone columns surrounded by tough but airy drought tolerant plantings.

Interestingly, the later garden was being moved post-show to a school near the sponsor’s headquarters as a donation of garden enjoyment to children in the future, which I can’t help feeling would be wonderful if all sponsors followed the same example.

So, all in all, it was a very inspiring day !


5 thoughts on “Off to Chelsea Flower Show – drought tolerant and beautiful [23 May 2012]

  1. Hi Ursula, I like the notion of ‘English Cottage Prairie’, you may have coined the next great phrase/phase in gardening! Great pics and I enjoyed reading the post. Jason.

    • Hi Jason
      Thanks for your comment, you are the first to comment on the ECP style label but I think it sums it up quite well too! This whole garden blogging adventure is new to me, but I have found your own super blog very inspiring.
      Happy gardening, and happy writing.

  2. Pingback: Garden Blogs of the Month: July 2012 « Jean's Garden

  3. Gardening in Africa, I’m a long way from Chelsea… but I visited once in 1995 when I joined the RHS and year after year I visit in a virtual way… Jean of Jean’s Garden pointed me in your direction. Thanks for the tour!

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