Chelsea Flower Show 2018: Show Garden Preview



I have landed on my feet this year, at least as far as the Chelsea Flower Show goes. I’ve had access to the show on Sunday and on Monday afternoon; a privilege afforded to very few. Unfortunately it’s a little like being upgraded to first class on a flight; it will be awfully difficult to go back to cattle class. I guess one could call Members Day premium economy, and that’s where I’ll be tomorrow morning, bright and early, with lots of photography already in the bag and time to enjoy the show like an average Jo. If you’re there, I’ll be the one sporting a floral shirt and a candy pink jacket: it is Chelsea after all.

So, what have I made of the show over the last two days? There are noticeably fewer gardens although the standard of those that remain is exceptionally high. There is very little silliness, which is one of the benefits of tough economic climate. Those that are in it, are in it to win it. The majority of gardens are of high quality, well conceived and thoughtfully planted: a few are truly outstanding and a couple will linger long in the memory. There are yellow lupins and orange geums everywhere. Water plays an important part in the majority of show gardens and sculpture is employed in brave and exciting ways. It feels like a leaner, crisper Chelsea Flower Show that’s fit for the future.



My personal Best in Show would go to The LG Eco City Garden without hesitation. Quite simply, it makes me smile. In fact more than just smile, it makes me giddily happy. This garden makes me question why other gardens, including my own, don’t make me feel this way. Perhaps it’s the exquisite symmetry, or that I’m having a love affair with yellow at the moment, but I want to live and work, relax and party in this garden. Hay-joung Hwang’s design makes this rectangular plot seem considerably wider than it actually is. It is immersive and calm, stylish and sophisticated, playful and fun. Hay-joung Hwang is charming and sincere as well as talented, and if she does not win Gold I will cry for her.



The M&G Garden is very much better than I expected and considerably more approachable than last year’s garden. The beautiful weather we’ve been enjoying these last two days really makes Sarah Price’s design sing, whilst the rest of us yearn to live somewhere hotter and sunnier. The planting is bright and breezy, if a little too ephemeral for own personal taste. But as a set piece it’s great and deserves praise. The attention to detail is incredible and the more you look at it, the more you see.



I discovered whilst judging today that I have high standards. I was inducted into retail at a time when retail was detail so very little escapes my notice and I don’t have much sympathy for a job poorly done. Added to which, despite my personal exuberance, it takes a lot to blow my socks off. The David Harper and Savills Garden, designed by Nic Howard had that firepower. Had the LG garden not been so far up my street, this would have been my favourite. It’s a phenomenal garden, making extraordinarily good use of the space, and of exceptional quality both in terms of planting and sculpture. If I had all the money in the world, I’d buy ‘that’ sculpture which, by the way, is called ‘Aeon’, and commission Hay-joung Hwang to do the design. This is not a slight on Nic Howard, but me being greedy. Whilst I hope this garden does well, I don’t think it needs my endorsement for a moment.



The Morgan Stanley Garden is very pleasing and professionally executed. However it’s an evolution of theme that’s been explored already by this partnership and, whilst not stale, it’s getting a little predictable. I love the impressive scale of the trees and shrubs that Chris Beardshaw has used and I commend every detail of the planting and hard landscaping, but the design sits awkwardly in this plot and is hard to appreciate from outside of it. This, sadly, makes it an also-ran for me, but the judges may think otherwise.



The Lemon Tree Trust has landed an unforgiving site on the Great Pavilion side of Main Avenue. It always feels like an unfair disadvantage for a garden to have to disguise a backdrop that has all the panache of a UPVC door. Both Hugo Bugg and Paul Martin have managed it but even with an upper level this garden does not. There are elements of brilliance in both the hard and soft landscaping, but I had hoped for more.



I found myself unexpectedly transported by the Trailfinders Garden designed by Jonathan Snow. So much could have gone wrong with this concept, which attempts to recreate a South African wine estate in miniature. Combining three starkly different landscapes into one – formal garden, vineyard and native fynbos – was a big ask. Jonathan has done such a good job that the whole journey from smart homestead to charred wilderness feels utterly natural and believable. Hats off to the designer for utilising every possibility offered by this long site. He’s created an image that any South African could feel proud of.



Building on last year’s Welcome to Yorkshire garden, designer Mark Gregory awakens every sense with his beautiful evocation of God’s Own Country. Listen carefully and over the sound of a babbling beck you’ll hear cattle lowing and birds piping. Breath deeply and you’ll catch the scent of the wood smoke rising from the chimney stack of a tiny stone cottage. Look up and you’ll see larches, look down and there’s a cottage garden at your feet. This is the best Welcome to Yorkshire garden yet and I would not bet against it landing People’s Choice.



On Sunday I was a little disappointed by the VTB Capital – Spirit of Cornwall garden, mainly because I had expected it to fill the whole site rather than half of it. However, once I got close up I could appreciate Stuart Charles Towner’s design more fully. Once again this location is cursed by one of the RHS’ horribly ugly pavilions, but taken out of that context this is a good garden. There felt to me to be a few details missing and an absence of some plants shown in the original sketches. I suspect the harsh winter did away with the planned echiums.



The island site is occupied by the Wuhan Water Garden, China. I was begging to be pleased by this garden, but for a design to be viewed in 360º it’s only pleasing for a maximum of 180º. It’s all about the fountain, which is amusing, but not enough to make it worthy of such as prestigious site.



Last but not least the Wedgwood Garden, designed by Chelsea veteran Jo Thompson, is a class act. Again the design is focussed around water and sculpture, but in a wild and secretive setting. It’s billed as a garden designed for a woman, which seems a strange distinction to make in this day and age, but I feel it has broad and romantic appeal.

Later this week I’ll be covering all the show gardens in much greater detail, so do check back for fuller descriptions, plant lists and more honest opinions from yours truly. TFG.