The sheer amount of plant loveliness on display at the Chelsea Flower Show can be quite overwhelming. It’s also difficult to do the whole showground in just one day, so it can be hard to know where to start. This year my plan was to go with a theme in mind in the hope that this would give me some focus, particularly in the Great Pavilion.
Regular readers will know I’m a bit obsessed by home-grown cut flowers, whether they’re from my own cut flower patch or purchased from the growing number of small-scale flower farmers here in the UK. I’m always looking for new blooms that would be fabulous in a vase, or colour combinations that I could tailor my seed sowing plans towards. So what better place to start when looking for inspiration to take away with me from this year’s show?
It seems that the message about British cut flowers finally seems to be getting out there. Marks and Spencer chose to celebrate their suppliers of home-grown flowers with a ‘Blooms of the British Isles’ stand in the Great Pavilion. The exhibit was designed as a quadrant, divided into blocks of flowers grown in the UK to supply M&S. The centre featured a tiered stand filled with flowers which was designed to represent a huge bouquet and the different layers of blooms. Flowers included scented stocks, peonies, lady’s mantle, alliums and tulips, along with pots of moth orchids, roses and chrysanthemums. These container-grown flowers didn’t fill me with joy, they just seem to lack the movement, delicacy and impact of larger cut flowers. The element that really did appeal to me though was the boundary to the display. This was a series of blocks of individual varieties which incorporated details of where the flowers were grown – alliums in Lincolnshire, peonies in Hertfordshire and scented stocks in Norfolk. It also conveyed the sense of them being grown as a crop rather than for ornamental purposes. The leaflet which accompanied the stand included a ‘meet the growers’ section with fab photos of the flower growers and snippets of info such as how Steve Ward of Bury Lane Peonies has 23 acres devoted to growing 140,000 peonies to meet the growing demand for these stunning blooms.
The flower installation by Rebecca Louise Law which hung above the heads of people as they used the walkway which links Main Avenue to the rest of the showground was such a clever idea, particularly for an area which might otherwise be neglected. She’d used a mixture of dried flowers and fresh, tied in bunches, which were then suspended from the roof. Unfortunately on Monday the walkway was like a huge wind tunnel which meant walking through it was like the tornado scene from the Wizard of Oz. Combine the wind with low light levels and it made it tricky to get a good photograph. I’m a huge fan of dried flowers, so I’ve come away with a few ideas for new ways to use them around my home.
I’m always looking for new flowers and foliage which could find a way on to my cutting patch. Verbascums and geums were the two most popular flowers on the show gardens this year. I think Verbascum ‘Merlin’, used on both Matthew Wilson’s Royal Bank of Canada Garden and Chris Beardshaw’s Morgan Stanley Garden, was my favourite. It’s just such a pretty colour, subtle with a slightly faded quality about it that makes me think of antique fabric. I haven’t grown verbascums at home before; they need well-drained soil which might mean winter wet would see them off in my garden, but I’d certainly love to give them a go.
Cow parsley has become a bit of a planting cliché at Chelsea in recent years. This part of London has done a passable impression of a spring hedgerow for a week every May for the last couple of years. It’s common for one plant to prove popular with designers year after year – plants which perform reliably each May regardless of the vagaries of the British weather are bound to be favoured by plant nurseries and designers. But even die-hard cow parsley lovers were starting to get a bit sick of seeing it. I’m one of those fans of naturalistic plants and delicate hedgerow frothiness, but I was pleased to see that there was much less of it around this year, although designers haven’t been able to let go of it completely. This time it was the turn of Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ to be totally everywhere. Launched in 2005 by Hardy’s Cottage Plants there’s talk of the shelves being cleared of it due to its Chelsea popularity this year. As a cut flower it apparently has a lot going for it – it’ll bloom throughout the summer and the long stems are perfect for the vase. I think it’s such a cheerful colour and I can see it working well with late-flowering tulips and wallflowers to make some gorgeous late spring/early summer arrangements and later on in the season with dahlias.
The Great Pavilion is the place to look out for new introductions and I spotted this snapdragon on the Hardy’s stand. Antirrhinum ‘Pretty in Pink’ is the first truly perennial form, it blooms all summer long and has good resistance to the fungal disease rust to which snapdragons are so prone. It’s another which won’t like sitting in wet soils, so it would be worth providing extra drainage and giving it some protection in winter.
I love green flowers. They’re so unusual and striking and work well in a vase as they can provide the focal point or be a foil for other more colourful blooms. So what about this Fritillaria acmopetala on the Avon Bulbs stand? I love the little turn up at the base of the bell-shaped flowers – it reminds me of a bob hair cut where the ends have been flicked outwards. The delicate veining, the hints of gold and flashes of maroon all make it a very intriguing flower. This wouldn’t be a plant to provide bunches of flowers but I can imagine just a couple of stems in a simple vase would make such a pretty display.
Orange was the colour of Chelsea 2015. Rust-coloured metalwork featured in several gardens from Chris Beardshaw’s with its sculpture and the rusty panels of Adam Frost’s Homebase Garden, to the rusted tin can sculptures on Sean Murray’s garden. Tones of rust were found in the planting too particularly on the Pure Land Foundation Fresh Garden with Iris germanica ‘Kent Pride’ and the newly-introduced Foxglove Illumination Series ‘Apricot’. Elsewhere there were the striking orange Californian poppies and Libertia peregrinans on Matthew Wilson’s garden. And the lighter, almost apricot colour of the Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ (it looks more apricot than tangerine to me) added a zing across the showground.
As for how to use orange, well how about this combination which packs a punch, the blue flowers of lithodora against a rust-coloured container I spotted on one of the trade stands? It’s a mix of colours I hope I can replicate in a vase this summer using Salvia patens and a variety of orangey dahlias, strawflowers and pot marigolds.
Dark purples and rich plums were in evidence too. Lupins seem to be making a comeback. I’ve come around to many ‘old-fashioned’ plants in recent years from gladioli to chrysanthemums but I’m still not convinced by these rocket-shaped blooms. I do love the colour combination of this planting on the Alitex greenhouse stand though. And the clashing of dark colours with bright on Chris Beardshaw’s garden with purple irises and salivas placed next to orange geums is truly sumptuous. Using colours like this can be tricky to pull off, whether it’s in the garden or in a floral arrangement. We’ve all seen bouquets of gaudily-coloured flowers shoved together which really don’t work. Taking ideas from the masters of planting like Chris Beardshaw and applying that to the flowers you grow and use for cutting is one way of dipping your foot into the water.
So that’s plenty of ideas and images to inspire me this winter as I come up with my cut flower plans for next summer.