Anneka Rice, Beth Chatto, Chatsworth, Dan Pearson, Great Pavilion, Jo Thompson, Matthew Wilson, RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2015, RHS Hyde Hall, Sissinghurst
I spent yesterday immersed in plants, from orchids and exotic proteas to classic English roses and native elm trees. There were gardens created by the best designers and plantspeople from Britain and beyond. One enormous marquee – the Great Pavilion – a temple to plant passion with nurseries from across the country. There were sculptures, greenhouses and all manner of garden-related bit and bobs. This was press day at RHS Chelsea Flower Show and it really doesn’t get much better than this for someone who loves plants.
On a cold, grey morning in south-west London someone had clearly forgotten to mention to the weather that it was meant to be spring and, as if on cue, the spots of rain started to fall just as we entered the showground at 8am. Press Day is the day when suits, summery frocks and fabulous hats abound. Exhibitors, designers and sponsors want to look their best for the press calls, photos and, later in the day, the Queen and other members of the Royal Family. I had huge admiration for those ladies who had looked out of the window that morning and had disregarded the weather forecasts and thought ‘I’m wearing those heels and floaty dress regardless’. Then there were the rest of us in waterproofs huddled under umbrellas trying desperately to stay warm. Later on that morning Anneka Rice would enter the Great Pavilion looking like it was a summer’s day outside despite the fact that a deluge of rain was pounding the roof. I’ve always been somewhat in awe of women who manage to look glamorous in situations when I look bedraggled and windswept. I’m sure Anneka must have had lots of those heat pads strategically stitched into her dress, as I was wishing I’d worn a second pair of socks and some thermals at that point. I think she must win the award for smile of the day – like the ray of sunshine we were hoping would come from the sky at some point.
Despite the weather the plants shone and looking back now through the photos you really can’t tell that it felt more like March than May. A testament to all the hard work that goes into creating these gardens and the nurturing of plants over the previous months and, of course, Wellyman’s lovely photos.
I was giddy with excitement at the prospect of seeing Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth inspired garden and Jo Thompson’s design with its natural swimming pool. Seriously, I’m like a child before Christmas in the period before Chelsea. These two gardens, in particular, had caught my eye because they looked so different from the more typical Chelsea show garden. I often find some of the show gardens to be a little too similar – very masculine, blocky and sometimes a bit too slick for me, very suited to their sponsors and potential clients in the City but no spaces I can warm to. The space alongside Main Avenue is divide up into rectangles which need to be viewed from two sides, both elements which create restrictions on the designer from the start. It could also be why some of the more successful and unusual gardens in recent years have been those off Main Avenue where they have a slightly different footprint.
Dan Pearson’s garden inhabits the triangular-shaped spot at the end of Main Avenue. Viewed from all sides, unlike the other gardens, this can prove tricky, but Dan had requested this spot specifically. Dan Pearson is one of the UK’s most successful designers, but it has been over a decade since he last designed a garden at the show. His return has been much-anticipated by fans of his naturalistic planting and take on garden design. His garden this year for Laurent Perrier has been based around the landscape and gardens of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Enormous boulders chosen from the estate perched, some of them seemingly precariously, in the space. Around these stones the garden trod the boundary between wild and cultivated. Water meandered through the garden inspired by the trout stream at Chatsworth. The attention to detail was incredible. Honestly I’ve never seen anything like it. My eye was drawn initially to a patch of grasses with red campions and leaf litter mixed in amongst it. Initial thoughts were this had to have been there before the build started and that it was perhaps a piece of the ground poking through from the pre-Chelsea build; it looked just like a patch of woodland glade or hedgerow verge. But, as I took in the rest of the garden, it became clear this had been created. And it really was fabulous. It wasn’t a wow garden in an obvious luscious planting, stunning hard landscaping way. For me, both Jo Thompson’s and Matthew Wilson’s gardens wowed me straight away. Dan’s garden however was much more of a slow burner. I just wanted to keep looking at all of the details then I’d spot something else, another plant like a delightful white ragged robin, or the way the plants mingled together so naturally. This is what made it so different from so many other gardens. From what I have read about Dan and from interviews I have seen with him this very much seemed like a garden which reflected its designer; quiet, thoughtful, unshowy. The judges loved it too, awarding it a gold medal and Best in Show.
Jo Thompson’s Writer’s Retreat Garden for M&G Investments takes its inspiration from Vita Sackvile-West’s writing room at Sissinghurst in Kent. Jo and her all-female planting team have created a stunning, feminine garden with voluptuous plantings of roses and species I recognised from my cut flower patch, such as ammi, ridolfia and Gypsophila ‘Covent Garden’. These mingle around the base of an impressive multi-stemmed Betula nigra with fabulously textural, peeling bark – the pinky-apricot tones cleverly reflected in the spires of foxglove ‘Sutton’s Apricot’.
A richly planted backdrop of trees and shrubs creates a lush boundary and the natural swimming pool looked inviting. I think Jo’s garden is a real stunner and feel slightly disappointed for her and her team that the garden received silver-gilt and not gold, particularly as other gardens which didn’t appeal to me so much won gold.
Matthew Wilson’s garden for the Royal Bank of Canada is inspired by Beth Chatto and his experience of previously managing the gardens at RHS Hyde Hall in Essex, where rainfall levels are similar to those in Beirut. Designed around the idea of a garden which uses water sustainably, the zero-irrigation ‘dry garden’ is packed with beautiful planting. Verbascum ‘Merlin’ was the first to catch my eye, followed by the shrubby Leptospermum scoparium ‘Red Damask’.
Clumps of striking Californian poppies contrasted with the purple flower spikes of Salvia nemorosa ‘Mainacht’ I started to hanker after my own gravel garden. The dramatic 150-year old macro-bonsai olive tree is spectacular and the steamed ash benches with their sinuous lines crafted by Cornish designer Tom Raffield must surely win the award for the most stunning seats at Chelsea. One of my top three gardens this year.
You have to be prepared for every eventuality when it comes to the British weather. Swirling winds, low light levels in the Great Pavilion and lashing rain in the morning made photography and note taking tricky particularly as I was often juggling a tripod, umbrella, and notepad. My propped up umbrella nearly took out a couple of plants on a few occasions. I had visions of me being escorted from the showground for taking out an exhibit. Pollen and the tiny barbed seed pods of London plane trees planted around the periphery of the showground whipped up by the wind left most of sneezing, coughing and scratching our eyes, rather ironically like a plant-based biological weapon had been unleashed on Chelsea. We both did passable impressions of a cat coughing up a fur ball on the journey home.
Despite all of this the plants came out on top and I’ve come home brimming with ideas. Mid-May can be a tricky time for gardeners frustrated by the weather and exhausted by the demands of a spring garden. Chelsea is just the fillip this gardener needed.
Janice Brooks said:
I’m going tomorrow – am so excited !! Delighted that Dan won, not only Gold, but also ‘Best in Show’….cant wait to see it in ‘real life’ !! I don’t even care if it rains !!
Hope you had a great day. Looks like you had some sunshine. 🙂 What did you think of Dan’s garden?
I loved Jo Thompson’s garden as well, so tranquil, really gorgeous. The Chatsworth one too, those are some serious lumps of stone. A shame Dan Pearson doesn’t intend to do any more, he’s so very talented. Glad you had a good day, despite the chill. CJ xx
I thought Dan Pearson’s garden looked incredible (on the TV coverage) – it always astounds me how the planting can look so ‘established’. But his planting seemed to be in another league altogether. Wish I could see it ‘in the leaf’.
Apparently the ground cover planting was grown in mats a bit like green roofs. It was amazing because it all blended in seamlessly. Sad to hear it’ll be his last show garden. Perhaps he feels he couldn’t improve on it. With gold and Best in Show maybe he’s right.
Ahhh cunning! Reckon he’ll get people’s choice as well.
Yes, I think he might.
Thanks for the lovely descriptions and photos, WW! After all, we can’t even watch it here… 😛 And once again, I am reminded that I had better start thinking about benches. Those by Tom Raffield are marvelous and must combine so nicely with the plantings…!
Hi Amy, Thank you. Those benches were stunning. Some photogenic and they worked incredibly well with the planting. A real pity he didn’t get gold.
Thank you so much for your brilliant report. I’m disappointed not to be going this year but I am watching tv coverage. It looks like it is a really good year. I love Dan Pearson’s planting style and am very sorry not to see his garden ‘live’
Hi Christina, Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say. The TV coverage is fantastic and at least you don’t get sore feet!! I really liked that there were some quite different gardens this time. It felt more varied than in previous years. Dan’s garden is really quite incredible. The level of detail. I thought the Japanese designer who does the moss gardens was good but I think Dan surpassed him this year. He seems such a lovely guy too. He was there most of the day chatting to people.
David Marsden said:
What a shame the weather was so rough. But it sounds like it didn’t dampen your enthusiasm too much.
There was a point in the Great Pavilion where I was so cold I was starting to loose interest, but tea and lunch gave me a second wind. Such a pity you didn’t get to go. We were both looking forward to meeting up with you. Hopefully another time.
Hope you’re well. It’s been an odd spring with such cold nights here but finally it looks like I might be able to empty the cold frames. Lou
David Marsden said:
Hi Lou, yep I’m well, ta. It’s just that I got back from a trip to Krakow and Prague on Saturday, worked Sunday (to try and make up for lost pay) and didn’t much fancy more travel and pay loss on Monday. And then the weather was the real decider!!! It was hammering it down, here in Sussex. But yes, hopefully next year! Glad you got through the cold/miserable stage and enjoyed yourself. I’ve watched a little coverage – and, of course, now regret not going. Ho hum. Dave
Ah! I’m not surprised you didn’t feel like going, particularly as the weather looked so grim. We managed an hour or so before the real rain set in and then sheltered for a couple of hours in the pavilion and then the sun came out. There’s a podcast on the Guardian website from Monday and you can hear the rain in the background as Alys Fowler is talking. The gardens stood up to it all remarkably well. I was there 2 years ago when the weather was cold and overcast and everything looked cold and grey. Hope you had a great trip to Poland and Prague. I’m hoping there’ll be pics. To be honest it’s a struggle at the moment to keep up with blogging. Yes, it’s never fun to miss out on something and then see coverage and wish you had actually gone. It’s so much worse nowadays what with blogs and Twitter, you can’t escape from people like me reminding you about it. Sorry!! 😉 Fingers crossed for next year when I’m sure there’ll be stunning gardens and lots of warm sunshine. Have a great weekend. Lou
Backlane Notebook said:
Great reporting Louise. I’ve watched Chelsea avidly on the box and love Dan Pearson’s garden. He manages to capture the spirit of a place in all its natural beauty.
Thanks Sue. Isn’t his garden gorgeous? I could have spent ages just looking at it.
What a lovely post to describe some of your favourites. I am loving those steamed Ash benches, so beautiful. Glad that the weather didn’t spoil your day. I’m always amazed by how groomed some ladies and gents can look whatever the weather, I sport the “drowned rat-through a hedge backwards” look more often than not, even on a sunny day! Hey ho! Lovely post and great photos as always. Thank you for sharing your take on the day!
Thank you my lovely. The benches were stunning. I thought it was cold 2 years ago but Monday was bonkers considering it’s May. There was a point where I wished I’d brought some gloves!! That’s the look I tend to sport too. I honestly don’t know how some of the celebrities managed it. It’s as if they’re teflon-coated. 😉 Thank you! Glad you liked it. My head is whirring with lots of ideas. 😉
Thanks for the great post! I have wanted to attend Chelsea since my teens when I read about the show in a gardening magazine.
The Chelsea Flower Show hasn’t really been on the media radar over here in Australia but the media have started to report on it in recent years especially since TV gardener Jamie Durie (who once was a member of all man stripping show Man Power! lol) designed a garden 5 or so years ago.
There was a fair bit of coverage when the Australian Garden won 2 years ago (complete with the vile orange thing in it). I thought the winning Australian garden was horrible – totally kitsch. Maybe it won because it was so different?
The Dan Pearson garden sounds beautiful. I really loved Cleve West’s garden last year, the planting was beautiful.
I’ll be scouring the internet for coverage to watch. Apparently Monty Don is the main presenter this year? I love Monty so all the more reason to watch coverage.
Sounds like you had a brilliant day despite the rain. Now if you ever need an assistant on press day to hold your brolly, hand you your camera etc give me a bit of notice and I’ll hop on a flight! 🙂
Did you end up buying anything, Lou?
Thank you! There’s another Aussie designer this year, Charles Albone. He won silver-gilt for his Time In Between garden. It was a lovely garden but I think he lost marks for his mixing of proteas with alliums and aquilegias. It was striking but don’t they need very different conditions?
There’s lots of coverage here. Have you had a look at the RHS Chelsea website? They’ve got video clips and interviews with various designers.
Monty took over last year to quite a bit of debate over here. Some gardeners in the UK are very loyal to certain presenters. Monty has his fans, Alan Titchmarsh has his. Then there’s Carol Klein and Toby Buckland. It is quite funny! I like them all. 🙂
You can’t actually buy any plants at Chelsea until the sell-off on the Saturday at about 5pm. The showground isn’t really set up to store all the extra plants that would be needed and the show stands have to look good all week. It is funny though because you’ll see people leaving on the Saturday with massive show-size plants and then trying to get into taxis, on the bus or the tube.
I really hope you get to go at some point. Maybe the RHS could give you an award for being the visitor who travelled the furthest to get there. 😉 xx
I haven’t heard of Charles Albone, I will have to google him!
I have grown proteas and alliums and aquilegias and I have to say that is an odd mix that just wouldn’t work in the garden as they required vastly different conditions.
I will admit that I just cannot stomach Alan Titchmarsh, his interviewing style drives me nuts! I was watching a documentary of his where he interviewed Prince Charles at Highgrove (I adored Highgrove and it is high up on my bucket list). However Alan’s sycophantic interviewing manner was a complete turn off for me, I didn’t finish watching it.
Monty on the other hand I could watch all day. 😉 I quite like Carol Klein too and love her books as well.
Apparently he’s a TV presenter. That’s what I thought about the proteas. I think of them as needing dry, arid conditions and not ideal planting partners for aquilegias. I quite like Alan but I do know what you mean. I managed to visit Highgrove about 6 years ago. It was all a bit of a fluke really. I was studying horticulture at my local college. Someone on the year above me had applied for tickets to visit and she ended up with enough spares for those in my year to go along too. A case of right place at the right time. It was fabulous. The only two problems were you can’t take in a camera for security reasons and you have to stay in a group with the guide. You can’t just wander off or go back to a spot you really liked. It’s all perfectly understandable. His walled garden and meadows were just amazing.
A most enjoyable read, and excellent pictures. I’m not a fan of Chelsea but it’s good to read posts like this which tell it as it really is so to speak.
My sympathies re the pollen, that and London’s poor air quality are more reasons why I steer well clear. xx
Thanks Flighty. I live in a rural spot and I still have hay fever. The coast is the only place at this time of year where I’m sneeze-free. Those plane trees though. I know they’re good for coping with pollution but they don’t seem the best tree for an area where so many people live and work. xx
Stephen Studd Photography said:
Great to see you both at Chelsea, lovely blog and photos too.
And you. Thank you! Ian’s having a lot of fun with the camera. 🙂