The great thing about the show gardens at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show was that they were all completely different. Yes, there were common threads – a preponderance of pines, the full gamut of red metals and exceptional visions of nature – but every design took a different angle on garden making. There really was something for everyone; one could validate this by the number of different gardens where visitors confided to one another “this one’s my favourite”. Yet the garden I kept returning to again and again was the Winton Beauty of Mathematics Garden designed by Nick Bailey. As the light changed from the cool, dappled shade of morning to the uncompromising glare of midday and back to the golden glow of evening, this richly textured garden revealed its many faceted quality.
Endowed with a wealth of rare and interesting plants and bestowed with great structure, Winton Capital must have been delighted with the return on their investment. Although only awarded a silver-gilt medal by the judges, this garden could have been no more than a hair’s breadth away from the gold it so richly deserved. No matter, Nick Bailey is a man with many strings to his bow and this, his first Chelsea show garden, will have cemented his career both as a garden designer and TV presenter. Nick has the casual smartness and ringing timbre that suits the modern-day BBC. His recent slots on Gardener’s World have been a hit.
At first one might imagine demonstrating the beauty of mathematics through the medium of a garden to be a pretty tough gig. Not at all it turns out. Every plant is driven by mathematical algorithms and many display these outwardly in the way their trunks, stems, leaves and flower petals are arranged. Nick based his design on the symbol for infinity (∞), using a band of copper, cut through with complex plant algorithms, as the sculptural form sweeping a figure of eight through the space. These symbols and equations were illuminated at night, something few people would have been lucky enough to witness.
Nick’s garden was always going to win my heart, using as it did plants of structure and character from around the world. The complete plant list is staggering – surely the longest of any Chelsea show garden – and is summarised in my preview post. Behind the belvedere and the steps leading up to it there was a forest of eucalyptus, banksia and Ceratonia siliqua (carob). Then to the left we were treated to a dense planting of perennials including Lupinus “Masterpiece”, Polemonium ‘Bressingham Purple’, Cerinthe major “Purpurascens”, Campanula ‘Summertime Jazz’, Allium atropurpureum and Hesperis matronalis “Alba”.
Towards the middle and front of the garden the planting became more eclectic, picking up the copper tones of the sculpture and mingling that with complementary blues, whites and purples. Here could be found bearded iris I. “Kent Pride”, Calendula officinalis “Sherbet Fizz”, Geum “Mai Tai”, Reseda ordorata and Helichrysum bracteatum ‘Scarlet’.
Finally, at the front of the garden, taller plants gave way to bushy Westringia fruticosa, Aeonium arborescens “Zwartkop”, Elegia capensis and tufty Libertia “Taupo Blaze”. The ultimate low growing plant, the fabulous flat-topped aeonium, Aeonium tabuliforme, featured at the very front of the plot where visitors could appreciate the intricacy of its overlapping prostrated leaves.
If there had been one garden I could roll up, tuck under my arm and take home to Highgate it would have been Nick’s. Whilst many of the plants used were a little tender for most parts of the UK, and would certainly be intolerant of our dense London clay, they might have stood a good chance in the warmth of the capital’s urban heat island. The only part of the design which didn’t please me as much as the rest was the very front, bordering Main Avenue, where the very pale gravel screed was so clean and bright that it looked a bit too manufactured. A small niggle which I was more than happy to overlook. It pains me to think this garden will be dismantled tomorrow, but it will live long in the memory. Hats off to Winton Capital for helping us all to appreciate the beauty of mathematics and introducing us to the exciting talent that is Nick Bailey.
Below I have described a handful of the most fascinating plants in Nick’s garden, explaining how they embody the gardens central theme:
Yucca rostrata (beaked yucca, silver yucca, Adam’s needle): This fine, tree-like plant from Texas and New Mexico played a starring role in Nick’s garden. Yuccas display mathematical patterns, akin to a pineapple’s scales, on their trunks and in their leaf arrangements. Borderline tender in the UK and would need exceptional drainage to survive.
Pinus sylvestris “Glauca” (blue Scot’s pine, shown top of post): The “top worked” pines in Nick’s garden produce beautiful cones displaying perfect Fibonacci spirals. Unlike other plants in the garden this one is perfectly hardy in all parts of the UK.
Stewartia pseudocamellia: A japanese tree of great grace and beauty, Stewartia pseudocamellia has single, white peony-like blooms and smooth copper bark. Nick chose stewartia because of the colour of its trunks and its perfectly divided seed pods.
Eucalyptus camaldulensis (red river gum): hidden away behind the belvedere these towering giants were chosen to demonstrate how eucalyptus trees change their internal algorithms dramatically when they move from youth to maturity. The foliage on younger trees will be round, and on older trees, sickle-shaped. Eucalyptus camaldulensis is considered the most widely planted exotic tree in the world, though not suitable for smaller gardens.
Leucospermum cordifolium (pincushion): Related to the proteas and hailing from South Africa, these tender shrubs produce brightly coloured flowers arranged in perfect Fibonacci spirals. Requires frost protection in a cool greenhouse over winter.
Corokia cotoneaster (wire netting bush): The L-system (please don’t ask me to explain!) drives a plant’s stem arrangement. This disagreeable looking New Zealand native creates near perfect heptagons with its twisting, turning stems.
Iris “Kent Pride”: the flowering plants in Nick’s garden represent the way in which plants make sensitive calculations all year round to determine when they should flower. Sunshine, warmth, day length, competition and nutrient availability are among the factors that may trigger a plant’s inner mathematician.
Aloe polyphylla (spiral aloe): from the tiny kingdom of Lesotho this beautiful succulent creates the most perfect Fibonacci spiral of any plant in the world. Needs cool air and bright sunshine to thrive, so might grow well in the UK given the right conditions.
Nigella orientalis “Transformer” (love-in-a-mist): This diminutive annual inspired the design of the garden’s belvedere. Unlike other nigellas, N. orientalis “Transformer” produces a curious crown of sickle-shaped seed pods.