Chelsea Flower Show 2016: Best in Show – The Telegraph Garden

The problem with writing about The Chelsea Flower Show is that there’s so much to say and so little time to say it. And then there’s coming up with a new angle to share. The BBC’s coverage is so fulsome that one overhears almost every visitor to the show quoting little facts to one another as they thrust their iPads aloft to get “that” shot. “The designer collected the seeds himself from the Camargue and grew them on in Kettering you know” says Dierdre. “That’s the one over there with the Murano glass floor that broke Dierdre. How awful!” Marjorie replies. You get my drift. But aware that many of my lovely followers live overseas or, like me, don’t have a lot of time to watch the television or read newspapers, I am going to take time to describe those I consider to be the most interesting show gardens in a little more detail.

Isoplexis canariensis played a starring role in Andy's Jurrasic inspired garden
Isoplexis canariensis played a starring role in The Telegraph’s Jurassic-inspired garden

 

On Saturday, Tim Richardson, gardening columnist for The Telegraph, candidly proclaimed the newspaper’s own garden to be odds-on favourite (3-1) for Best in Show at this year’s event. Having predicted correctly for the two previous years, he can now smugly lay claim to a hat-trick. With his jagged, Jurrasic, geologically inspired design Andy Sturgeon claimed a well-deserved gold medal and his second top accolade for his multi-media sponsor.

Having claimed Best in Show for The Telegraph for the second time, Andy Sturgeon has something to smile about
Having claimed Best in Show for The Telegraph for the second time, Andy Sturgeon has something to smile about

 

I will begin by saying that I found this to be an impressive, sculptural and beautifully executed garden but, alas, not a loveable one. For me there were too many choppy angles and hard surfaces for the space to feel either comfortable or restful: I prefer my gardens on softer and cuddlier side.Β  The only elements I could feel much empathy with were the plants (and then not all of them) and the bowl-shaped fire pit, which provided a focal point at the end of the plot. Practicality and commerciality are not things one should dwell on too much at Chelsea, but I could not envisage this garden in my own personal space, nor could I imagine how I might maintain it: weeding between rocks is not a pleasant task. In fairness Andy recognised that his garden might not appeal to everyone: “The garden’s monumentality and slight chaos may divide opinion, and it isn’t really related to anyone’s real garden, but Chelsea gardens ought to provoke and I wanted it to be dramatic and unexpected” he explained.

A quiet seating area at the end of the garden centred around a hammered bronze fire bowl created by James Price
A quiet seating area at the end of the garden centred around a hammered bronze fire bowl created by James Price

 

Compared to its peers, Cleve West’s M&G Garden in particular, I found The Telegraph Garden lacking either sense of place or atmosphere. In Cleve’s garden one knew exactly where one was supposed to be and how to feel. There were birds singing and the mingled scents of woodland foliage and tiny flowers all around. It was utterly transportative and, in that respect, a triumph. But in Andy Sturgeon’s garden there was very little that helped the average punter understand where this garden rightfully belonged, apart from on the RHS’s pedestal at Chelsea. There was running water, yes, although oddly disguised from view if one found one’s self standing at the front, and the fire bowl was eye-catching, especially in the evening. It may not have helped that so many other gardens this year positioned themselves somewhere very explicit, planting an obvious question of “where is this supposed to be?” in the mind. Andy’s ambition, and I am ashamed I didn’t rise to it, was that spectators would have the imagination to go on a journey back through time with him.

The fire bowl drew visitors' eyes across a representation of a meltwater stream to the end of the garden
A fire bowl drew visitors’ eyes across a representation of a meltwater stream to the end of the garden

 

A definite sense of prehistory offered something for us heathens to latch onto. The garden’s procession of 17 bronze-coated metal wedges, representing a stegosaurus’ gigantic bony back plates, leant the composition an unmistakably Jurassic air. Thanks to Andy’s deft hand this idea was not taken to its theme-park limits and the choice of stone was made carefully, sourcing from quarries known for their fossil packed rock. It was a pity that the bronze chutes delivering water into a shallow pool were not especially visible and that the water body itself was not more interesting. Bubbling geysers or steam rising from the surface might have been taking things too far, but without more going on I found the feature a trifle bland.

Stone formed during the Jurrasic period and quarried in Portugal and The Isle of Purbeck was used to realise Andy's vision
Stone formed during the Jurassic period and quarried in Portugal and The Isle of Purbeck was used to realise Andy’s vision

 

Andy Sturgeon understands plants and, most importantly, how to deploy them. His idea was not to recreate any particular habitat but to bring together plants from around the world that flourish in the same, Mediterranean climate. There were species from the Karoo in South Africa, alongside those from South America, California, the Canary Islands, Croatia and Italy. Many of the more unusual plants were sourced from a nursery in France specialising in dry habitat flora. They were transported to balmy Spain to keep them growing through the winter, before arriving in the UK in time for Chelsea.

Isoplexis canariensis is, you guessed it, from the Canary Islands and is hardy in warmer parts of England
Isoplexis canariensis is, you guessed it, from the Canary Islands and is hardy in warmer parts of England

 

The selection of plants in the garden was artful, controlled and innovative but, again, not terribly approachable. I found it a little fragile and scrubby-looking, the sort of undergrowth that might scratch one’s legs. But I loved the way lusher plants had been arranged behind benches and near the water’s edge, suggesting they had found a niche in which they were truly happy. This attention to detail is the signature of great Chelsea planting and would have garnered all-important points. The stand out plant for me was one of my own personal favourites, Isoplexis canariensis (now Digitalis canariensis) which was the perfect choice for this garden. Not only did the hooded, copper-orange flowers look magnificent against the bronze fins, but they also echoed wonderfully the flames in the fire bowl. An interesting choice was Jaborosa integrifolia, a starry white flower from South America which was completely new to me. From the same part of the world, delicate Schinus molle (Peruvian pepper tree) created willowy veils of feathery foliage around the borders of the plot.

A section of Andy's re-imagined stegasaurus spine fashioned from bronze-coated steel
A section of Andy’s re-imagined stegosaurus spine fashioned from bronze-coated steel

 

In summary I found The Telegraph Garden interesting rather than beautiful, admirable as opposed to loveable and clever instead of compelling. But by no means was it unworthy of Best in Show, far from it; it just wasn’t my personal favourite. When one sets out to provoke, as Andy did, one must be ready to get a reaction.

I’d love to hear which Chelsea garden inspired you most and if you took a different view of this year’s Best in Show winner.

Hear about what inspired Andy Sturgeon in this short video with its amusingly cuddly and un-Jurassic soundtrack!.

Plant List

Trees

  • Arbutus unedo
  • Maytenus boaria
  • Quercus ilex
  • Schinus molle

Shrubs

  • Caesalpinia gilliesii
  • Cytisis racemosus
  • Diosma ericoides
  • Fouquieria macdougalii
  • Limoniastrum monopetalum “Carnaval”
  • Melaleuca gibbosa
  • Osmanthus burkwoodii
  • Ozothamnus diosmifolius
  • Ozothamnus ledifolius
  • Ozothamnus rosmarinifolius “Silver Jubilee”
  • Parkinsonia aculeata
  • Phillyrea angustifolia
  • Senecio mandraliscae
  • Sophora “Little Baby”

Textural Plants

  • Cistus x dansereaui “Decumbens”
  • Dianella revoluta “Little Rev”
  • Ephedra fragilis
  • Euphorbia pithyusa
  • Euphorbia rigida
  • Euphorbia seguieriana subsp. niciciana
  • Jaborosa integrifolia
  • Marrubium bourgaei “All Hallows Green”
  • Ridolfia segetum
  • Sarcopoterium spinosum
  • Westringia longifolia

Flowers

  • Acaena microphylla
  • Ampelodesmos mauritanicus
  • Anigozanthos flavidus
  • Bituminaria bituminosa
  • Bulbine frutescens “Hallmark”
  • Catananche caerulea “Tizi n Test”
  • Centaurea bella
  • Crithmum maritimum
  • Achium russicum
  • Glaucium flavum
  • Hesperaloe parviflora
  • Isoplexisis canariensis
  • Limonium pruinosum
  • Lotus hirsiutum “Lois”
  • Polygonatum scoparium
  • Salvia “Violette de Loire”
  • Sphaeralcea incana
  • Teucrium ackermannii
  • Tragopogon porrifolius
  • Tulbaghia violacea “Alba”
  • Zizia aurea

 

Andy's original design drawing for The Telegraph Garden
Andy’s original design drawing for The Telegraph Garden 2016