Chelsea Flower Show 2018: Show Garden Preview

Reading time 11 minutes


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.


Categories: Chelsea flower show, Flower Shows, Flowers, Foliage, Garden Design, Landscape Design, Perennials, Photography, Planting Design, Plants

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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22 comments On "Chelsea Flower Show 2018: Show Garden Preview"

  1. Thank you for this column. I learnt far more from reading this than I did from the pathetic show on BBC One tonight. I look forward to the rest of your comments this week.

  2. Have you seen the Kirstenbosch display yet? You will probably see plants there that you did not even know existed. I have seen photos of the latter but I had not seen any of the Trail Finders garden and I agree that Jonathan Snow has done a good job – this really is a miniature of many wine farms here. I would love to visit the Chelsea Flower Show…maybe after I retire!

  3. I always look forward to your Chelsea posts and this one was no exception. I’m living vicariously through you and the BBC so I’ll be (not-so) patiently awaiting the next installation!

  4. Oh Dan, what a super post and to be able to take it all in without the crowds must have been amazing. I am so envious. I so love that LG garden, it is just gorgeous. And it makes me feel happy too! And goodness so many lupins on show. Agree with you about the Yorkshire garden. Again another truly beautiful garden that gave me a sense of homey comfort.

    Chelsea certainly turned on beautiful weather for you…and you got to see Queenie!

    Looking forward to your next Chelsea report which will be better than anything we will get on AUSSIE Tele….

    Have a Pimms for me 💚💚💚

    1. Thanks Helen. When the royals visit the show ground is cleared of everyone apart from officials, one person per exhibit and invited press, so I felt very honoured to be there. Away from the royal family it’s completely quiet, so a perfect time to look around. It’s like the calm before the storm ….. and there very nearly was a storm!

  5. A fabulous post, thank you for sharing your perspective of the gardens. How wonderful to be able to look round in peace. Looking forward to the next post. What a lot of lupins, are they this year’s ‘in’ flower?

  6. Hi! Thank you for this! Stringent but appropriate comments and reactions- thank God! I have been fuming at the Variety Show approach that the BBC seems to have decided we want from Chelsea coverage…grr. So really excellent to get a detailed perspective from a tried and trusted hand- well done! Enjoy the rest of the week…medals today should be interesting.

  7. Thanks Dan, for sharing these exhibits…lovely to see them. I’m liking the Trailfinders Garden- strong colours and shapes in the planting. Looking forward to seeing more in your next post…..

  8. Kirstenbosch did get their gold medal 🙂 – I’m so looking forward to seeing more of your posts – your photos are lovely! I would love to know how the Trail Finder garden did?

  9. Yes indeed Lupins, Lupins all the way. Beautiful but martyrs to greenfly.

    Such a loss that we are no longer treated to the great designers at Chelsea. My guess both too much stress and not enough sponsorships. Pity. I miss the brilliance of Arne Maynard, Chris Bradley Hole, Tom Stuart Smith, Dan Pearson and PLANTS. Give us more plants. Thanks to you Dan for the expansive commentary and photographs, agree entirely with your well thought out criticism.

    1. Thank you Kathryn. I guess many of the big names have been ‘made’ and they find easier ways to make a living. Or they are charging too much! Tom Stuart Smith did design a garden within the Great Pavilion which was a bit different and very green.

      It’s important that we have new designers coming through, and a better balance between male and female designers is welcome. However I am not convinced we’ve seen the next Arne Maynard or Dan Pearson emerge this year.

  10. This garden is beautiful. Scrolling through these photos and what you had to say about them instantly put me in a better mood.

  11. Wow, this looks amazing! The LG Eco City Garden is stunning. Sounds like you had an amazing time. Great photos. Your enthusiasm for these exhibits is rather infectious. Actually, truth be told I had the opportunity to attend this year’s Chelsea Flower Show for free helping out at the KLC School of Design stall (I’m learning garden design at the moment). And after you’ve done 2 hour shift you’re free to roam as it were. I had to turn it down due to work deadlines at my day job. Damn! But, hey, Hampton Court is coming up soon. I’ll be at there!

    1. What a pity! You should definitely take the opportunity one time, but I know it’s difficult with work commitments. I have to take the whole week off otherwise I get very stressed out trying to balance work and pleasure! I shall be at Hampton Court so hope to see you there.

      1. Do you think Hampton Court is the better gig (in your opinion)? I know Chelsea is perhaps the more ‘iconic’. I’m not originally from UK but I’ve heard so much about these two shows . . . even back in Australia.

      2. They are very different shows Jason. Chelsea is iconic and the standards are the highest of any flower show in the world. It’s the pinnacle and winning a medal there carries enormous prestige. However it is space constrained, expensive to show at, and extremely popular. Hampton Court is considerably bigger (allegedly the biggest in the world), slightly more relaxed and far more commercial. The show gardens are still of an extremely high standard and sometimes larger than at Chelsea. The weather is often very good so it’s great for picnicking and having a slightly more leisurely time. I think Hampton Court is probably more appealing to less die-hard gardeners, looking for a pleasant day out.

        I always recommend people try both shows to see which suits them best. I find it hard to say one or the other is better. Dan

  12. Hi Dan, Yes, I imagine it would cost a small fortune to exhibit one’s latest project at RHS Chelsea . . . and for such a short time too. But as you said it carries a lot of prestige. You know you’ve become a major designer to be sort after if you win a medal at RHS Chelsea! Hampton Court sounds fabulous too. I look forward very much to reading your blogs regarding your upcoming visit.

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