For some reason the woodland ride that connects the Chelsea Flower Show’s Artisan Gardens seemed particularly quiet this year. On previous visits this pleasantly shaded route has been thronged with visitors, to the extent that the grass bank opposite has needed to be reinforced to protect it from wear and tear. This year there were fewer, albeit larger gardens and at least one vacant plot, which was a disappointment given how popular these smaller gardens are with the public. I can only imagine the cost of staging even a small garden must have risen beyond the means of the charities and regional organisations that are typically exhibit here.
Having put plans for a holiday somewhere hot and steamy on the back burner whilst we complete building projects at home, I was delighted to immerse myself (not literally) in Sarah Eberle’s floating tropical paradise created for Viking River Cruises. Inspired by a trip along the mighty Mekong river, through Cambodia and Vietnam, Sarah was inspired by floating gardens fashioned from dense mats of floating vegetation. Here local farmers cultivate fruit, vegetables and flowers for cutting. In an unusual twist for Chelsea, Sarah’s garden was bounded on every side by water; a triangular deck at one corner giving access to the deck of a traditional boat arranged for lounging rather than fishing.
I was fortunate to experience the garden very early on the first day of the show, shortly after the designer had been awarded an RHS gold medal and the coveted title of Best Artisan Garden. As sunlight wove its way through tall plane trees, the garden was bathed in a soft, golden light. I could have been back in Burma, at dawn, on Inle Lake, a location synonymous with its floating gardens. Spinach, kale, aubergine, gourds and okra vied with dahlias and orchids beneath an understorey of stag’s horn sumach (Rhus typhina “Dissecta”). This was a brilliant piece of planting design. Not every plant used was genuinely tropical or necessarily found in South East Asia, but the effect was still extremely convincing. Sarah’s gloriosa lilies, dahlias, cleomes and zinnias would be happier along the banks of the Medway than the Mekong, but the paphiopedilum and masdevallia orchids would need protection in the UK.
Created by artist Fiona Campbell, a diaphanous parasol was poised above the boat’s cushion-strewn deck. The design was inspired by the shades used by fishermen to protect themselves from the sun and was woven to emulate the fishing nets hung out to dry along the Mekong’s banks. Copper wire and electrical cables used to construct the parasol represented the countries’ silk and cotton-weaving industries.
I loved this garden for its originality and inventiveness. Just for a moment I could imagine myself reclining on that boat, Panama hat tilted over my brow, staring up a clear blue sky as I glided down the sultry Mekong. It made me want to reach for my travel brochures: the reaction, I suppose, the sponsors were hoping for.
Hear more about Sarah’s inspiration and hopes for her Mekong garden in this short RHS video: