I am not a negative individual by nature, but I had misgivings about this year’s Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. Some of the design drawings on the RHS website looked positively ghastly and I am still scarred (or should that be scorched?), by the furnace-like temperatures Helen of Oz and I had to endure last year. Happily it turns out that this year’s garden designers are much better designers than they are draftsmen. The show gardens, so numerous that I gave up checking to make sure I had seen them all, are diverse, interesting and, unlike Chelsea, packed with ideas one might readily try at home.
My only criticism of the show is that the standard of construction and plantsmanship is, with a few notable exceptions, a shadow of what one sees at Chelsea. Make no mistake, Hampton Court Palace Flower Show is as good as it’s ever been, better perhaps, but it is moving firmly down a populist route, leaving its sister show to deal with matters of high horticulture. This is fine, because Hampton Court is bigger, brighter and bolder than ever with a lot of space to fill. In addition the public want to shop, in a Brexit free zone, and boy, did they shop today. There was nary a trolley without a corkscrew stake, a sunset orange zantedeschia, a gimmicky hydrangea or a coral-red delphinium in it. Some nurseries definitely had a good day; how many of plants purchased will still be alive this time next year is another matter. With Chatsworth coming on board next year, I wonder how the RHS will differentiate yet another show – the subject of a future post perhaps.
Meanwhile the Hampton Court show organisers have clearly decided that more is more, creating no fewer than five show garden categories and inviting 43 designs to compete. Relatively speaking the standard is high, as is the amount of innovation. Unfortunately one or two gardens, and I will not name names, are not quite up to scratch, which is surprising given the RHS’ rigorous selection process. There are plenty of water features, although the number of shallow metal bowls filled with inky or swirling water, or a combination of the two, gives the impression that someone, somewhere has been offering a good deal. There is a lot of yellow, mainly of the sulphur variety, paired with blues and purples (pleasing) and with burgundy (not so pleasing). Sunshine shades, starting with pale yellow and moving through orange to poppy red, certainly seem to be in vogue, as do all the blues. In the Floral Pavilion, which has taken steroids since 2015, there are more salvias and ferns than I have ever seen, but fewer grasses and foxgloves.
I have two favourite gardens. The first is the Bowel Disease UK Garden for Crohn’s Disease which, despite its unattractive title, is a garden after my own heart. Designed by Andrew Fisher Tomlinson and Dan Bowyer it has more joie de vivre than any of its neighbours, as well as a fabulous plant list. It richly deserves a gold medal and Best Summer Garden award. More on this design in a future post.
The second garden to tickle my fancy is John Warland’s reprise of his design for World Vision, first staged at Chelsea. At Hampton Court the RHS has granted the charity a much larger and more prominent spot, allowing the designer to let his undulating turf strips fly across a blousy meadow of ox-eye daisies. This is both a stimulating and show stopping garden. After two strong years, I can’t wait to see what the World Vision has in store for 2017.
The summer gardens are the most consistently high in standard, so much so that I went back to see them three times during the day, each time witnessing them bathed in a different light. Simple yet beautiful is the Japanese Summer Garden designed by Saori Imoto. This elegant, paired-back garden demonstrates the principle of ‘less is more’ with great deftness. The lavender blue hydrangeas remind me of Cornwall, pulling hard at my sense of belonging.
At the opposite end of the fussiness spectrum comes Kate’s Garden, designed by Carolyn Dunster and Noemi Mercurelli. In this compact little plot the flowers are almost falling over themselves with enthusiasm, as are the lovely people giving out plant lists and information. The garden has been made to raise awareness of lymphoedema, a painful side effect of breast cancer surgery. It shows how to grow cut flowers in a small space, and champions seasonal, locally-grown blooms. Dried seedheads on display show the cyclical nature of life. In this garden the obligatory round, metal water feature, this time filled with floating dahlia flowers, represents the flow of the lymphatic drainage system. Not something one normally considers in the garden, but worthy of consideration nonetheless.
A Summer Retreat is the ultimate crowd pleaser, sending huddles of ladies of a certain age weak at the knees. Those that don’t require the attentions of the St John Ambulance can enjoy a garden inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement. Designers Amanda Waring and Laura Arison have created a garden awash with delphiniums, nepeta and roses in front of raised summerhouse. Naturally the central water feature is a) round , b) full of inky black water and c) bowl-shaped. Perhaps the RHS are awarding extra marks for these attributes in 2016? Meanwhile, I suspect many a husband will be pestered for a petite black and yellow summerhouse over a bedtime sherry tonight.
On the windswept plain that is the blank canvas for the Conceptual Gardens a couple of designs stand out. My favourite, the Near Future Garden designed by Arit Anderson, depicts a scenario where rising temperatures radically alter the plants we can grow in an English garden. At the centre is a swirling black vortex symbolising our oil resources draining away as we use up all our fossil fuel resources. Sobering stuff. Arit has employed some very tempting plants, including Salvia lanceolata (rusty sage), Bulbine frutescens “Hallmark” (burn jelly plant) and Bituminaria bituminosa (pitch trefoil), so called because the leaves smell of bitumen. Three dramatic wooden sculptures representing sun, wind and water implored visitors to harness these natural energy sources to power the world sooner rather than later.
Nearby, The Red Thread is a garden inspired by an ancient Chinese myth which says that when we are born the gods tie our ankles to all the people whose lives we are destined to touch, using a red thread. This thread may stretch or tangle, but it will never break. I liked this garden very much and felt a similar structure of wooden pillars and red rope (other colours are available) might make an interesting boundary, plant support or climbing frame in a family garden.
Sadly the vision presented by UNHCR Border Control is all too familiar to us Brits, which makes it especially poignant and politically relevant. This is not a pretty garden by any stretch of the imagination, but a thought-provoking, perhaps chilling one. Visitors enter through a forbidding turnstile to be greeted by the message “Nobody Left Outside” imprinted on the floor of the central building. Thankfully the water feature here is a moat: circular, yes, but not bowl-shaped or brooding. Thank heavens! I feel the garden achieves very effectively what it sets out to do, highlighting the plight of refugees and the risks many take to find shelter somewhere welcoming.
The big show gardens are, well, big. They struggle significantly to rival anything we see at Chelsea because they lack a decent backdrop and are not grouped together. Honestly, I didn’t like many of them, except the Dog’s Trust Garden designed by Paul Hervey-Brookes taking a gold. It’s the first garden I’ve come across that’s designed specifically for dogs and their owners, which poses the questions why, when so many of us have dogs as pets? John’s design includes tunnels and sniffer tracks playfully woven into the colourful herbaceous borders. A cosy pavilion retreat rests at one end of the garden enabling “dogs to survey the landscape with their human guests” – a nice way of looking at things.
With 43 gardens to cover, a few less if you exclude the ones I didn’t get to, I think it’s time to take a break and come back with more over the next day or so. If you are visiting Hampton Court Flower Show during the next week you are in for a treat. It’s perhaps the best ever. Be sure to wear comfy shoes and sun block (I didn’t) and have your route home planned as you’re going to be buying a lot of plants. Happy Days!