It’s going to be a different kind of Chelsea Flower Show for me this year. As is tradition, I shall be there on opening day, but also for two days before. How come? Because it’s my first year as an assessor for the show’s trade stands. This is exciting as it will give me a sneak preview of the exhibits and time to appreciate them fully. The high standards demanded on Main Avenue and in the Great Pavilion filter directly through to the commercial parts of the show, so I am fully prepared for some tough decision-making on Monday.
In the meantime I’m anticipating a few minor changes at Chelsea, but none that will scare the horses. M&G Investments have struck a new three-year deal with the RHS. They return as the show’s main sponsor with a garden designed by Sarah Price. I hate myself for saying so, but I could not relate to James Basson’s homage to a Maltese quarry last year. The judges liked it enough to award the garden ‘Best in Show’, and on that basis it’s a wonder the RHS are allowing me to judge anything at all. Sarah Price has transported M&G back to the Med, opting for what appears to be a more approachable, feminine, floriferous design. The use of ‘raw’ materials and native Mediterranean herbs is, in my opinion, an idea that has been sufficiently explored at Chelsea recently, but here we have it again. We all know that climate change is happening, but I’m not sure we can expect Margate to bask in the climate of Marseille any time soon. The M&G Garden will need to be brilliant to warm my temperate heart and sublime if it’s to match last year’s performance. Regardless, one has to fancy Sarah’s chances if the sun shines and the garden is executed well.
There will only be ten high-budget show gardens this year. The uncertain economic climate continues to limit the number of sponsors, which will not matter so long as all the gardens are good. New sponsors include sculptor David Harber and property company Savills, The Lemon Tree Trust and VTB Capital. It’s especially cheering that Trailfinders have returned to Chelsea, although they are playing it fairly safe with a South African garden unfolding before a replica Cape Dutch homestead. I wish for Jonathan Snow’s design to be authentic and not pastiche. From formality in front of the Dutch gabled house, we will be led through a vineyard and out into wild, beautiful fynbos landscape. I am a sucker for South African flowers so I want to love this garden and all the plants in it. In my experience the more literal garden recreations can struggle to be taken seriously, so fingers crossed Trailfinders pull this one off.
I have similar feelings about the Lemon Tree Trust’s garden, which has a modern, Islamic feel. The Lemon Tree Trust supports refugees by helping them to grow food and create beauty whilst promoting a sense of wellbeing, community and belonging. Tom Massey’s design is inspired by the tenacity and ingenuity of refugees living in the harsh environs of Domiz Camp in Northern Iraq. The garden incorporates the sorts of unglamorous materials typically found in a refugee camp, including concrete, steel, tin cans and plastic bottles. I shall be paying special attention to this design as elements are similar to my long terms plans for the Gin & Tonic Garden. Those plans are themselves inspired by Le Jardin Secret in Marrakech. A slightly offset water feature at the heart of the garden distributes cool refreshment to trees, shrubs and herbs typically found in Middle Eastern gardens. There’s a lot of hard landscaping so the planted areas will need to be perfection to win top marks.
The LG Eco-City Garden looks to the future with a space designed for a housing unit in a ‘vertical-forest’ residential building. The design acknowledges our reliance on technology by incorporating the latest innovations, whilst also considering how to reduce pollution and encourage pollinators into urban areas. If Hay-joung Hwang’s second Chelsea garden is as strong as the images suggest then it will be a cool, contemporary contender for a gold medal. It’s not as groundbreaking in layout as the situation it’s designed for, which would be my only criticism. To my mind there are too many echoes of Luciano Giubbilei’s Laurent Perrier garden and Charlie Albone’s Husqvarna garden to be considered truly original.
You’d be aghast if I didn’t single out the garden inspired by Cornwall for comment. The VTB Capital – Spirit of Cornwall garden, designed by Stuart Charles Towner, is a collaboration between a sculptor, architects, musicians and a composer. Quite how this worked in practice I hope to discover next week. The design is inspired by renowned sculptor Barbara Hepworth and the sea views from her celebrated garden in St Ives, Cornwall. Music by Leo Geyer, composed to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Hepworth’s garde, influences the design of the metalwork and pavilion. This garden is simple and contemporary in style, furnished with a typically Cornish palette of subtropical and temperate plants. I have no doubt that I will enjoy this garden, and am willing it to be truly exceptional. Again, it should provide lots of inspiration for my own humble plot.
Off Main Avenue the Artisan Gardens return. These are often more approachable than the show gardens, ranging from rustic to highly contrived. I am disappointed to report that with the exception of one design, which stands out for all the wrong reasons, this year’s designs appear very samey. Kazuyuki Ishihara returns with yet another acer-filled spectacular, and Paul Hervey-Brookes does not stray very far from the successful formula that won him Best in Show at last year’s Chatsworth Flower Show. I generally commend Sarah Eberle for her playfulness but wonder if she’s gone too far with India: A Billion Dreams for the British Council. The designer has thrown every sub-continental reference known to man at this design, including two monumental cricket stumps. It is not subtle, and I doubt it will be lovely.
The RHS are keen to point out that almost half the gardens at Chelsea have been created by female designers, and there are lots of newcomers across the board. It does feel as if this year could mark something of a changing of the guard; either that or business is booming for the biggest names in garden design. Yet another Chris Beardshaw / Morgan Stanley collaboration leaves me feeling that it’s time that this partnership also moved on. I’ve no doubt the garden will be lush and beautiful but, please, use all that money and talent to show us something different next year.
Completely new for 2018 are the Space to Grow Gardens. Their focus is on small, urban spaces with designs aimed at demonstrating the benefits that gardens provide and ideas that can be replicated at home. The RHS claims to have devoted extra space to this category, in which medals will be awarded, although I suspect some of this space has been reapportioned from the larger, more expensive show gardens. The Silent Pool Gin Garden promises to be a crowd pleaser.
In another break with tradition, for the first time Chelsea will be open after dark on Friday. Usually the twilight hours are the preserve those attending a VIP event or those responsible for refreshing plants that have spent a long day in the spotlight. The Chelsea Late is billed as attempt to attract a ‘younger crowd’, I assume because the RHS believe older folk don’t enjoy live music, artisan foods or staying up late. If the youngsters can afford the £95 evening ‘package’, which affords access to only half the showground, then they’ll get to enjoy Ranelagh Gardens as evening falls, when the light at Chelsea can be especially beautiful.
I shall be reporting from the show full-time from Sunday afternoon and throughout next week, so do follow me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or here at The Frustrated Gardener. I’ll be vlogging as well as blogging, and might even go live if I pluck up the courage! To give you a flavour of the build up to the greatest flower show on earth, I leave you with this short video. TFG.