Ah, the vagaries of the British weather. Last week: wind and torrential rain, this week: clear skies and temperatures in the twenties centigrade. I’ve veered from wearing boots and a winter coat to shorts and flip-flops in the space of four days. I’ve attended some very chilly Chelsea Flower Shows in the past, but tomorrow looks set to be fine and dry. Out with the short-sleeved shirt and dare I risk bare ankles? That would be a Chelsea first. Even if the sun does remain behind the clouds, one garden is guaranteed to provide us all with a lift: Beneath a Mexican Sky designed by Manoj Malde for sponsors Inland Homes.
This bold, exuberant garden, with its walls washed with tints of clementine, coral and cappuccino, is inspired by the work of Mexican Modernist architect Luis Barragán. Manoj Malde has brilliantly captured the essence of Barragáns brutal-yet-bright style in a garden that begs to bask beneath a beating sun. It might, perhaps, be a garden to dream of rather than one to recreate at home: the planting demands super-dry conditions and the colours require strong light to make them sing. However, the design’s simple layout and generous seating area will appeal to anyone who yearns for contemporary design and architectural planting.
In contrast to the bright walls, the concrete deck balancing elegantly over an inviting pool is cool and smooth. I am not a fan of a grey, but here the colour works perfectly with the silvery foliage of Agave parryi var. truncata, Agave amerciana and beautiful, felty-leaved Kalanchoe behariensis. Manoj believes it is the first time that a designer has used this unusual Madagascan plant, also knowns as velvet elephant’s ears, in a Chelsea garden. The variety ‘Fang’ has an Award of Garden Merit from the RHS and irregular toothed protrusions on the underside of every leaf.
Another first for the show is a specimen of Agave parrasana which has produced a 4m high flower spike bang on cue for opening day. The agave’s candelabra-like inflorescence, which has emerged from a compact rosette of succulent, grey leaves, won’t be casting much shade. That job is left to a fine, multi-stemmed strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) which produces flowers beloved by bees and fruits that can be used to make jams and liqueurs.
Luis Barragán liked to create contrast using shadows. In this design another succulent, this time a cactus, Stenocerus marginatus, is underplanted with the popular Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus). Set against a wall painted in a delicious shade of taupe, the cactus looks cooler than a cucumber.
For flowers lovers there are plenty of blooms in scorching colours, including purple bearded irises ‘Modern Woman’ and ‘Serene Moment’, Cleome hassleriana ‘Violet Queen’, Baptisia ‘Blueberry sundae’, orange Cosmos sulphureus and almost black Cosmos astrosanguineus.
Manoj Malde was born in Kenya and trained as a fashion designer, working in the industry for nearly twenty years, before retraining in garden design. His innate sense of style is evident in every detail, from the planting, to the colourful cushions arranged on the love seat and finally Rupert Till’s equine sculpture, which references Barragán’s love of horses.
At night, Beneath a Mexican Sky is cleverly lit so that the plants create interesting shadows as darkness falls. The two strawberry trees are under-lit, projecting shadows from the multi stemmed trunks onto the coral and clementine walls. Agave parrasana and the organ cactus, Stenocerous marginatus, are lit from the side so that their striking architectural forms make dramatic shapes. The illuminations lend the garden a cosy pink glow, supplemented by six glass storm lanterns housed in rectangular niches. The water in the pool is lit from under the grey cement steps, concealing the light source and making the bright turquoise cement that lines the pool shine invitingly.
So what can we take from this garden? The structure and layout could certainly be replicated in a traditional, rectangular suburban plot blessed with a sunny aspect. The pool might be traded for lawn or a section of paving in a contrasting colour if water was not practical. To achieve anything resembling the planting one would need exceptional drainage or raised beds and some cover for the agaves in winter. This could be managed by supporting sheets of plastic over the rosettes or by lifting the plants and bringing them into a brightly lit conservatory. The colour combinations are gorgeous, demonstrating the versatility of silver-grey foliage plants. I particularly like coral, fuchsia, violet and silver-grey association, but also the mixture of clementine, turquoise and lilac.
If all that sounds a bit much, then this probably isn’t the garden for you. The solution might be to move to Spain, Portugal or, indeed, Mexico where the climate would be ideally suited to this style of garden. As for medal prospects, it’s rare for an exotic garden like this to win gold, but it’s all in the detail and the judges may yet be swayed by the craftsmanship and plantsmanship. My money’s on silver gilt. Regardless, this is a cracking debut from a garden designer who has the style and confidence to bring a taste of Mexico to our murky metropolis.
Tomorrow I will be at the show, taking my own photographs. Those included in this post were taken by the very talented Jonathan Buckley. If you look out for me, I’ll be the one in the sunflower print shirt with a lady in black. Do stop me and say hello. TFG.
Arbutus unedo (multi-stem)
Kalanchoe beharensis ‘Fangs’
Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’
Agave parryi var truncata
Cistus ‘Silver Pink’
Salvia greggii ‘Royal Bumble’
Baptisia ‘Blueberry Sundae’
Centaurea montana ‘Jordy’
Euphorbia cyparissias ‘Fens Ruby’
Gaura lindheimeri ‘Rosy Jane’
Gaura lindheimeri ‘Sisikiyou Pink’
Linaria ‘Canon’s Went’
Salvia Indigo ‘Spires’
Salvia officinalis ‘Purpuascens’
ANNUALS & BIENNIALS
Cosmos sulphureus (orange)
Eschscholzia californica ‘Red Chief’
Seseli elatum subsp. osseum
CACTI & SUCCULENTS
Bulbine frutescens ‘Hallmark’
Echeveria ‘Blue Prince’