Of all the RHS flower shows it is Chelsea where the gardens feature the most prominently. For some people they receive too much attention with reams of copy in the newspapers and the seemingly endless dissecting on TV. I have to admit that I do find certain elements of the coverage veers towards navel gazing and pretentiousness but I think this is inevitable when garden designers are discussing their contemporaries. It’s not just gardening which is guilty of this. Take a look at some of the food programmes on the TV at the moment and you’ll see the strange phenomenon whereby chefs are achieving a god-like status. And does anyone actually manage to sit through more than 10 minutes of any of those awards ceremonies without feeling nauseous? For me though, the gardens make Chelsea special.
The show gardens along Main Avenue are the starry element to the event. These are the haute couture of the gardening world. For most of us they are fantasy gardens but not for everybody. The Nancy Dell’Olio lookalike who stood next to me as we both looked towards The Telegraph Garden proceeded to tell the retinue around her that her own garden would look pretty much exactly like this by the end of the summer. It’s easy to dismiss these gardens as purely window dressing just as many do with catwalk fashion but just as the clothes we wear are influenced by the top fashion designers, their ideas filtering down to the high street, so do the trends, designs and plants used in the show gardens. I do shudder at the thought of how much money is spent on the large gardens but Chelsea has become a shop window for the best in British garden design.
I think the controversy that’s sparked every year when the medals are announced is fantastic. Why did so-and-so get a silver-gilt and not a gold, particularly when what’s-he-called got Best in Show? If the judges award more than 5 golds they’re being too generous, any less and they’re being too strict. I feel desperately for anyone who receives a silver or, even worse, a bronze. All that hard work and then you have to put on the brave face and say the medal doesn’t matter because the public love it. In reality we all know that if you go to all the trouble of putting yourself forward to design a garden you want silver-gilt at the very least. Or is that just my competitive streak talking?
I thought there was a lot to like about this year’s Chelsea gardens. Patrick Collins’ ‘A Garden for First Touch at St. George’s Hospital’ used the old rock bank and I loved the contrast his garden, built on a slope, provided to the relative flatness of the other show gardens. The planting was stunning, as was the use of the rusty steel, and it was one of the gardens which I felt offered realistic inspiration to your average gardener.
Matthew Childs’ Brewin Dolphin Garden received a silver-gilt but I really can’t see why he didn’t get a gold. Beautiful planting, stunning features and a joy to look at.
I’m a huge fan of Cleve West and was hugely looking forward to seeing his Persian inspired garden for M&G. Strangely though the garden didn’t have the impact I thought it would. It was beautifully executed and had fabulous planting but the front part of the garden which represented the dry, arid areas of the Iranian landscape slightly jarred. The odd thing was when I got home and looked through Wellyman’s photos it all seemed to work. Wellyman and I both came to the conclusion that the garden worked as a whole when viewed from certain points but not others.
The Rich brothers designed a fantastic artisan garden last year so I was looking forward to seeing their first show garden and I wasn’t disappointed. They take their inspiration from the landscape around their home in the Brecon Beacons, a place I know well. I loved the natural planting, the lack of bling and the idea that the garden will be used after Chelsea at an autistic centre in Cardiff.
The Telegraph Garden just didn’t do it for me, it was just too slick for my liking. Everyone seemed so taken with the pristine lawn but it just looked so green it could have been fake. Aren’t these types of lawns a little old-fashioned now anyway – a monoculture needing way too much attention, often of the chemical kind, and offering no real benefits to our native wildlife? Of all the gardens it felt the most corporate, the one which would appeal most to a city banker. It’s the type of garden I’d like to see less of at Chelsea. The geometric layout of Luciano Giubbilei’s Laurent Perrier Garden didn’t appeal but the planting was superb. A cool palette of creams, lemons and greens provided a nice contrast to the berry colours of reds and purples in evidence elsewhere.
And that takes me to a point that has slightly niggled me for the last few years. The similarity in planting really can’t be a coincidence. Last year you couldn’t get stirred for cow parsley. Now I love a bit of frothy planting but I wouldn’t expect to see it on every garden. This year it was the turn of irises, aquilegia and Lysimachia ‘Beaujolais’. I know it’s spring and there are certain plants which are at their best now but the fact that the same plants, in the same colours turn up on different gardens is just a bit odd. Perhaps not so odd when you see that the gardens which shared the similar planting were all supplied by the same plant nursery. In the past it has been dismissed as ‘great minds think alike’ but, at last, Joe Swift suggested last night on the TV that it might well have something to do with nurseries presenting the designers with plants that will be at their peak for Chelsea week. The plum and claret colours I saw this year were really inspirational and I’m already thinking about ways I can incorporate them into my cut flower patch but perhaps for the gardens to be truly distinctive the issue of plant suppliers needs to be addressed.