The Chelsea Flower Show opened yesterday, showcasing the best clutch of show gardens in many years. Visitors were treated to magical woodlands, gracious urban formality, alien abstract sculpture, planting inspired by Provence, Japan, Jordan and the Mediterranean and a big dose of contemporary outdoor living.
Inspired by Dan Pearson’s superlative Chatsworth Garden for Laurent-Perrier in 2015, there are several gardens this year that aim to evoke natural habitats. The most accomplished and convincing is conceived by Cleve West for M&G Investments, drawing admiring gasps from the crowds as they arrived at the top of Main Avenue. There is something about this site that makes it devilishly tricky to photograph, added to which Cleve’s multi-stemmed oaks create a gauzy screen of foliage around the boundaries. Never mind, Cleve’s garden, inspired by his childhood home on Exmoor, is utterly transportative, conveying one directly to the damp, moss-scented hills and valleys of the West Country. Wonderful, accomplished work from a master garden designer.
Further down the main drag, Hugo Bugg mirrors Cleve’s essentially timeless design with a contemporary one, inspired by the limestone landscape of north-western Jordan. Centred around a gently rippling triangle of water, the garden is almost volcanic in its colouration, form and strong physical presence. This is a masterful, clever garden design, brooding and dazzling all at once, yet sadly not distinguished enough to land a gold medal.
Clever as it is, James Basson’s evocation of a steamy Provençal summer leaves me completely cold. There is the art of recreating a foreign landscape and the art of creating a garden: they are not the same thing. I admire Mr Basson’s skill and artistry, but found myself wanting to leap over the boundary ropes to start weeding and putting in some “proper” plants. “The voice of a Heathen!”, I hear you cry. Well yes, probably, but we are all entitled to an opinion. The classic line overheard from a smartly dressed lady as the evening wore on was “yes Darling, but we have gardens that look like that at all our French properties already”. Welcome to London.
Hartley Botanic played it safe by commissioning Catherine MacDonald to work with Chelsea favourites, the birch and the foxglove. This garden feels rather shoe-horned in and is hard to distinguish from one of the many trade stands, which is never a good sign. It is alright, but not worthy of show garden status (it might have made an acceptable Artisan garden) and certainly didn’t feel remotely comparable to other silver-gilt winners. As with other gardens that didn’t impress on day one, I will revisit them this afternoon to see if they might be a slow burner.
At the end of Main Avenue Sam Ovens’ Cloudy Bay Garden struggles to find its place in the world. The idea of a garden without boundaries is fine, but the largely unstructured composition is hard to read in such an open position. In sharp contrast to Diarmuid Gavin’s garden, Sam’s airy, textural, naturalistic, less-is-more planting left me wanting more, a lot more. No doubt, the western red cedar pontoon-cum-pergola is a stand-out feature, but perhaps looks a little too clean and sharp in amongst the wilderness-style planting. All a little flat and uninspiring, which is a shame from this bright young garden designer. There’s always next year.
Eschewing any one particular landscape and concentrating instead on innovative planting and fabulous structure is Nick Bailey’s Winton Beauty of Mathematics Garden. I wanted so much for this design to win gold, but alas the judges saw fit only to award a miserly silver gilt. This is a tragedy, as in going for height, water, sculptural elements and adventurous planting alongside a strong narrative I felt Nick’s design had what it takes to get top marks. If I had the space and means to transport any of Chelsea’s gardens home to Highgate it would be this one. Nick Bailey is a great talent, a charming man and one to watch.
In truth there are many other gardens I’d be more than happy to give garden room. Paul Martin’s garden for his regular sponsor Vestra Wealth is cool, calm and wonderfully masculine. Conceived as a space in which a busy city client with a love of Far Eastern travel and yoga could relax, it feels more like the luxury lair of some handsome playboy. The palette of rust, caramel, yellow and green transports me back to the 70’s, in the best possible way.
The Yang to Paul’s Yin is The LG Smart Garden designed by Hay Joung Hwang. Unashamedly feminine, it is drawing admiring gasps from the crowd, almost all of which are women. And no wonder. Here is a beautiful, stylish, modern interpretation of living, planted with every crowd-pleasing plant known to man or woman. There are wisteria, foxgloves, roses and irises emerging bountifully from a froth of white Orlaya grandiflora and pink Hesperis matronalis. This is a sweet, sexy, seductive garden which may live on to haunt many a corporate husband or wife when they return from the show this week.
Across the way, occupying an inexplicably enormous plot, is Chihori Shibiyama and Yano Tea’s The Watahan East & West Garden. Exploring the fusion between Japanese and English garden styles, there are elements of manicured and minimalist zen, asymmetric bonsai and ikebana fused with dense herbaceous planting (presumably the English bit). I’m afraid to say it doesn’t quite work, with the garden feeling overwhelmingly oriental and with rather too much empty space. This garden probably belongs at Hampton Court, where its more contemporary message might read better. Nevertheless there are some lovely planting “moments”, including a riotously pinky red rhododendron (which I am always happy to see) and lots of coppery-bronze verbascum.
I love a bit of formality, which has been missing from Chelsea since Tommaso del Buono and Paul Gazerwitz presented their Telegraph Garden to the world in 2014. The Husqvarna Garden by Australian Charlie Albone is again conceived for a London couple who jet into town out again, but want a relaxing retreat to escape to after a hard day at the office. They would need gardeners to trim all those hedges, that’s for sure. The Husqvarna garden doesn’t quite live up to the earlier Telegraph Garden. A sunken area in the centre combined with very tall standard hornbeams makes the garden a little oppressive, particularly in poor light. I wanted to push the boundaries of the garden out and let the whole space breathe a little. Whilst achingly stylish, experience suggests to me that lounging or entertaining in the swish seating area at the end of the plot, despite any amount of fancy lighting, might be a colder, more midge-infested affair than Mr Albone might be accustomed to. That said, I do very much like this garden, especially the planting, which includes stand out plant Leucandendron “Burgundy Sunset” (anyone selling this, brace yourself for the onslaught) and many other lovely Australasian species.
In front of the Royal Hospital Jo Thompson’s Chelsea Barracks Garden is a classic, beautifully finished show garden. Stylish and sculptural, one could imagine this fitting behind a townhouse in almost any part of London. As an advert for new clients I am sure it will be very successful, as a Chelsea garden it is a tad predictable. And it is wonderful to see a designer celebrating the good old British lawn. Why designers from a country which is so synonymous with its unique ability to cultivate the perfect greensward should be so shy of exhibiting real turf I do not know. God knows there are enough trade stands peddling the artificial stuff!
Chris Beardshaw’s Morgan Stanley Garden for Great Ormond Street Hospital is a garden I feel I have seen a hundred times before, but I am happy to do so. It combines the now formulaic elements of water, a rusty figurative sculpture, intensely green planting and lovely blue, mauve and white flowers perfectly. Nothing to offend or especially to inspire here; just a lovely, calming, visually pleasing garden.
Traditional garden style is left entirely to Jekka McVicar in her “A Modern Apothecary Garden” and she pulls it off wonderfully. I overheard so many visitors commenting that this was their favourite, reminding me that for many Chelsea-goers the majority of the gardens are a little too far from their own reality for them to be interpreted at home. This garden is meant to convey what we can do to improve our own health within the context of gardens and plants, inspired by a quote from Hippocrates, “let food be your medicine and medicine be your food”. In essence Jekka’s garden is simply a very fine herb garden, centred around a distinctly Sissinghurst-like centrepiece, full of useful, tasty and pretty plants.
And what of Diarmuid Gavin’s whirling, twirling, roof-raising British Eccentrics Garden? One can look at it two ways. Yes, it’s a little bit silly, but the crowds love it, entertained every quarter of an hour by a performance in which bay trees spin around and the top of a brick tower lifts up. It’s a bit of fun and a much-needed reminder that gardens are a) a matter of personal taste b) things of joy as well as contemplation and reflection and c) that we can all get a bit up ourselves from time to time. Inspired by the likes of W. Heath Robinson, Rowland Emett and Aardman animations, Diarmuid’s crazy, wacky, kinetic garden fits perfectly into its half of the Triangle Site and has, I expect by design, created something of a focal point for this year’s show.
If Diarmuid Gavin was in any way concerned about coming bottom of the class, and I don’t imagine he was for a moment, then there were two other gardens to break his fall. The Forever Freefolk Garden designed by Rosy Hardy is supposed to be about the fragility and degradation of the world’s chalk streams. I missed that point, perhaps because I was distracted by the giant alien sculpture, apparently representing the structure of chalk rock, and a rather psychedelic planting scheme. It is all a little bit trippy, and not in a good way. I am sorry to be down on a fine plantswoman like Rosy Hardy, but perhaps this demonstrates, and I would include myself in this, that plantspeople are not always the best designers. Then again, one never knows quite how heavily the sponsors influence Chelsea designs and if this is the case then Brewin Dolphin need to take some of the blame.
I came to Matthew Wilson’s God’s Own County garden at the very end of yesterday. The rock bank site hasn’t witnessed greatness since Trailfinders and Flemings abandoned Chelsea in 2013: its fortunes have not improved in 2016. Whilst the evening, with the light shining through the garden’s plasticky looking stained glass windows, is probably the best time to view the garden, it is not an entirely joyful experience. All rather gaudy, centred around a gargantuan, ugly representation of York Minster toppled on its side. I feel quite horrid having so few kind words for this garden, but I do not consider this brutish creation up to the standard of Matthew’s design last year for the Royal Bank of Canada. Silver here was justified, if not a little kind.
There were only two gardens widely considered to be in the running for Best in Show: Cleve West’s Exmoor inspired design for M&G investments and Andy Sturgeon’s design charting the earth’s geological development for The Telegraph. In the end it was Andy’s garden, complete with fire bowl, dramatic bronze fins and a meltwater stream that won the top accolade, but either (and one or two others in my opinion) would have been worthy winners.
I am back to Chelsea this afternoon to give the Great Pavilion a proper going over. If you have visited, or are watching the BBC TV coverage from home, I hope you are enjoying every moment of a vintage Chelsea Flower Show. I’d love to hear which gardens tickle your fancy and which send you running for the hills.
Keep looking back throughout this week for more in-depth Chelsea coverage at The Frustrated Gardener.