Chelsea Calling

Reading time 14 minutes


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.


The M&G Garden, designed by Sarah Price


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.


The Trailfinders South African Wine Estate Garden, designed by Jonathan Snow


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 Lemon Tree Trust Garden, designed by Tom Massey


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.


The LG Eco-City Garden, a glimpse into the future for residential development?
The LG Eco-City Garden, designed by Hay-joung Hwang


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.


The VTB Capital Spirit of Cornwall Garden, designed by Stuart Charles Towner


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.


British Council Garden – India: A Billion Dreams, designed by Sarah Eberle


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.


The Morgan Stanley Garden for the NSPCC, designed by Chris Beardshaw


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.

The Silent Pool Gin Garden, designed by David Neale


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.


Categories: Chelsea flower show, Cornish Gardens, Cornwall, Flower Shows, Foliage, Garden Design, Landscape Design, Planting Design, Small Gardens

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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30 comments On "Chelsea Calling"

  1. The gardens designers appear to be having a ball. Sounds so interesting and your commentary a thrill to read.
    Looking forward to your impression of this years Chelsea.

  2. A lovely informative introduction Dan. I have never been to Chelsea and doubt I shall now due to the cost, but over the past few years I have become less and less enamoured by the show gardens. Maybe Chelsea is a victim of its own success and the designers are becoming either too formulaic or too ‘out there’. The quarry from last year did achieve the ‘wild planting’ look, but a garden? Really? It left me cold. I think I will prefer the new Space to Grow Gardens, a Gin and Tonic garden is right up my street 😀

    Have a great time at the show!!

    1. Thank you! It’s difficult to judge the gardens just from the renderings, so I may be wrong about some of them. I think perhaps that austerity does stifle creativity to a degree, as does the desire to bag a medal. Nevertheless, I know of no other show where the standards are as high as Chelsea, so we are critiquing gardens at the very highest level here. I feel fortunate to be in such a position.

      Meanwhile I always recommend the evening tickets to anyone who finds the whole day too expensive or too gruelling. It’s usually a bit quieter after 6pm.

      1. Agreed, it must be eye-wateringly expensive to create these gardens. I look forward to seeing the South African garden and the Cornwall one. And your posts 😀

  3. Thank you for the introduction and your personal comments. I envy all visitors. I would love to visit it just once.
    I love The Silent Pool Gin Garden (love any small garden) and hope to see photos 🙂

  4. Looking forward to seeing the Trailside garden—South African bulbs make me happy—and the small gardens, especially if they do something other than variations on the tripartite modern town garden that clogs my Pinterest feeds. (A nice Spanish courtyard, maybe? Costa del Islington?)

  5. Enjoy your new role Dan. For the last 17 years I have been to Chelsea on both the first and last days but last year I thought the show was very much below par so only going on the last day this year to meet up with friends made on various stands and exhibits these last 20 years or so. Thought the Quarry Garden last year was a big no, no. Mrs. P

  6. I would love to visit Chelsea one day. I hope South Africa gets another gold medal – I think it is harder than it used to be.

  7. The LG Echo City concept is my first glimpse at something like this on this scale. Some of Seattle’s waterfront highrises feature roof gardens, but this sketch more or less represent a “hanging gardens” concept. I think I’d like that if I were “confined” to vertical urban living.

    1. A plot this size would certainly be very generous in size compared to those I’ve seen, for example at the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) in Milan. And in London, well, I can’t imagine what something like this would cost. Definitely for the super rich …. and we have plenty of them here!

  8. Wow, just Wow! How fabulous you are assesing and you get to go early! I do look forward to you sharing your thoughts and photos with us. I really need to get to Chelsea one of these years. Have a great time!

  9. Green with envy🤢 can’t wait until next year and our champagne morning tea!. Fabulous post Dan and will be wonderful for you to have a sneak peak during those first couple of days, minus the crowds. 💚💚💚

    1. OMG by next year we’ll be all over Insta stories, vlogging, you name it. You can teach old dogs new tricks 😂 I’m so excited about going tomorrow. They’ll be chucking me out at midnight.

  10. Green, green, green with envy..u will be sleeping on the footpath at the front entrance like a homeless person! Not a good look in Chelsea😂😂😂😂😂365 days to go for me! 💚

  11. Have a brilliant time Dan – LOVE your plain speaking, a fabulous combination of wisdom and courage!

  12. Brilliant, looking forward to your coverage, I just know it will be great. Can you see the sea from BH garden in St Ives? Not so sure, but I am ready to be corrected. Have lots of fun x

    1. Perhaps if you shimmy up a cordyline. I think there may have been a degree of literary licence in that statement! Next time I go I will need to check. I don’t need a lot of encouragement or visit St Ives.

      1. We were down a couple of weeks ago and back in September. Did the Tate but not BH this time. It was all rather wonderful (especially Porthminster Restaurant 🙂 )

  13. The asymmetry of the fountain in the Lemon Tree Trust Garden is so divergent from tradition. That is one feature that it never tampered with.

  14. Looking forward to your photos and thoughts about Chelsea, as we greatly enjoy watching TV coverage of the whole thing. Congrats on being selected to assess the trade stands (I know an insider now!) Best, -Beth

  15. Well done on being an assessor. I’m looking forward to going on Wednesday for my first ever time. Ps….. I didn’t much like the quarry garden either.

  16. Late to the party on this post in that you’ll have done your “official” job already. Congratulations on being selected to judge! Can’t have been easy though. I well remember that on my first ever visit to Chelsea I was most surprised by the displays from the trade stalls – something I sure hadn’t expected – and found myself thinking I’d already be quite happy to have something like that at home, never mind the show gardens…
    Hope you had and continue to have a great time at Chelsea! Really looking forward to your coverage – especially since I’m not in a position this year to go visit myself.

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