Chatsworth Flower Show 2018: The Show Gardens

 

Tuesday in Derbyshire dawned grey and dank. I had only packed my Man from Del Monte outfit, so arrived at Chatsworth looking a trifle too tropical for the tepid conditions. I was not about to carry a Fedora around all day, so on my head it stayed. Perhaps I’m imagining it, but I am sure people are more deferential when they meet a man in a smart hat – I must wear one more often. Whether that’s true or not, it kept the drizzle off my glasses whilst I crouched uncomfortably on the metal walkway to take photographs of the show gardens. Totally untropical and not a pineapple in sight.

 

 

As expected, the number of gardens at RHS Chatsworth had dwindled significantly compared to last year: in fact there were only five. My suspicion is that sponsors were wooed and cajoled into staging gardens at the inaugural show, but decided not to return a second time, either for reasons of cost or disappointment with the return on their investment. Wedgwood, official partners of the RHS at Chatsworth, went from producing a full-on show garden to a section of limestone wall bisected by a gigantic sliver of glass. This was, apparently, inspired by Joseph Paxton’s Great Conservatory, though quite how is anyone’s guess.

 

 

I’ll say it because I’m in a provocative mood, but the introduction of a category dubbed ‘Installations’ smacked of filling the void left by ‘proper’ gardens with something cheaper and less engaging. The problem is that I’m not sure installations are what visitors come to RHS shows to see. I certainly don’t. With the exception of Brewin Dolphin’s homage to a village that stood in the shadow of Chatsworth House before Capability Brown swept it away (pictured above), the installations were at best amusing and at worse dull. Crowds did not gather round them, only cursory photos and selfies were taken. I found the Long Border competition slightly more titillating, but the siting of these was not brilliant and the quality sadly lacking in some instances. As for the ‘river’ of cosmos, something had gone awry there.

Moan over, otherwise I’ll never be allowed back.

 

 

On a brighter note the show gardens that were presented at Chatsworth were good, with a couple heading towards greatness. The close adjacency to Chelsea in the calendar means that few designers are able to create gardens at both shows, with the notable exception of Paul Hervey-Brooke’s who delivered at both and was still smiling at the end of it. His garden for Brewin Dolphin was categorised as an installation and was therefore ineligible for a medal, despite looking for all the world like a garden. Confused? So was I.

Anyway, of the five show gardens I felt four were worthy of comment and here they are, fully illustrated and in no particular order:

CCLA: A Family Garden, designed by Amanda Waring and Laura Arison (Silver-Gilt Medal)

This garden had three distinct sections – a dining area beneath a modern, grey pavilion; a child’s play area comprising a flowery meadow surrounding an onion-shaped willow ‘den’; and an informal seating area with luxuriant planting around a bench and water feature. I felt the three spaces could have linked better visually, but overall the garden was very nicely done. The downside for me, as it was for other Chatsworth gardens, is that the backdrop consisted of a row of garden sheds and a couple of ghostly white marquees. Why the RHS don’t think this through I do not know. I hope the designers challenge them to position the plots more sympathetically in future. Had the copper beech hedge at the back of this garden been continuous and higher, at least the ugly sheds might have been blocked out. Apart from that I felt the garden fulfilled its brief to create an attractive, safe space for a family of diverse ages. It looked its best in the early evening with the sun filtering through pale ox-eye daisies and illuminating the inviting seating areas.

 

Hay Time in the Dales, designed by Chris Myers (Silver Medal)

After the success of Mark Gregory’s Welcome to Yorkshire Garden at Chelsea, I felt sure that Hay Time in the Dales would follow suit with a gold medal. Although staged on a smaller plot, the romance and atmosphere captured by this garden was magical given it had only been in situ for a matter of days. On a cool, drizzly morning in early June it took no imagination at all to place this scene in the Yorkshire Dales. I loved all the little details such as the woolly socks on a rotary washing line and a sign on the gate reading ‘Winter food for stock. Please keep in single file’. Plants emerged from and enveloped a tiny converted barn, its roof and walls encrusted with ferns, mosses and grasses. I wonder if the judges found the meadow area too loose and unstructured? I really could find no fault with Hay Time in the Dales, despite this not being remotely my personal style of gardening. Chris – you got my Best in Show if that’s any consolation at all. The Man from Del Monte – he say yes!

 

The Great Outdoors designed by Phil Hirst (Gold Medal and Best in Show)

This was a solid show garden and deserved a gold medal. For me it felt ever so slightly dated, perhaps because of the colour scheme used, or the purple floor cushions which I could have done without. Something about the arrangement of green, purple, magenta, yellow and orange in geometric blocks reminded me of an 80’s shell suit. Once imagined, this is a hard image to shake! However some of the planting was divine, especially towards the back of the plot where luminous Anemone ‘White Swan’ romped about with hostas, ferns and black-leaved elder in the shade of a young oak tree. There was heaps of interest in structures, seating and surfaces, including a section paved with handsome wooden blocks laid end-on. One for that infamous professional couple we last met at Chelsea I don’t doubt, but a little too jumpy and jagged for my taste.

 

The John Deere Garden, Designed by Elspeth Stockwell and Jo Fairfax (Silver Gilt Medal)

Who would have thought a garden celebrating 100 years of tractors could be attractive to anyone other than a 6-year-old boy or a farmer? Well, designers Elspeth Stockwell and Jo Fairfax succeeded and landed a silver gilt medal for their efforts. This garden was all about the agricultural, featuring a convoy of miniature golden tractors floating above a sea of Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ and Luzula nivea (snow-white wood-rush). The garden was surrounded by a bold sweep of charred oak posts which did a sterling job of hiding everything behind. The blackened wood set off a fine selection of flowers, including one of my favourite spring beauties, Chaerophyllum hirsutum ‘Roseum’, an umbel that resembles a pinky-lilac cow parsley. This garden was all about strong vertical lines, reinforced by plants such as foxgloves, lysimachia, persicaria and camassia. Blousy thalictrums and floaty aquilegias stopped the composition from appearing too upright and spiky. A pleasing design that struck me as better suited to a public space than a private one.

 

 

By lunchtime the clouds had started to disperse. By 4.30pm, when my judging duties were over, the sky was clear-blue crisscrossed by fuzzy white vapour trails. All of a sudden my hat started to make me feel hot and I wanted to take it off. A fellow judge and I snuck up to Chatsworth’s walled gardens to seek out Becky Crowley, cut-flower grower extraordinaire, for a chat. I can heartily recommend her Instagram feed if you are easily excited by beautiful flower photography. I found it hard to imagine that there could be a more beautiful place to work than here, looking out over rows of iris and peony to the Brownian landscape beyond.

 

 

At 6.30pm, as the show ground closed down for the day, a golden light flooded across the River Derwent causing Chatsworth’s gilded windows to gleam with all the richness and magnificence they were intended to convey. The Man from Del Monte, having spotted only one, very small pineapple all day, returned home to Kent satisfied but empty-handed. TFG.

 

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17 thoughts on “Chatsworth Flower Show 2018: The Show Gardens

  1. Your penultimate photo says it all; a beautiful garden with a fabulous backdrop. More of this please, much more heart warming than the pop up gardens which have to be surrounded (compromised) by a stockade to hide a messy showground background. Gold to Chatsworth……. bronze to the RHS?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I couldn’t possibly comment Andrew. I stopped at Coton Manor on the way home. Stunning garden, you would like it a lot. A post to follow in due course. Between Coton, Marshborough Farmhouse and Chatsworth’s walled garden I have been completely spoiled this week. I feel very fortunate to be able to visit all these wonderful places.

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  2. I wrapped up a group garden tour (for 22) to East Anglia with a day at the show on Wednesday and everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves. I think you are spot on with most of your assessments, especially regarding Hay Time in the Dales, though I was not a fan of The Great Outdoors (which I felt was too contrived and not at all inviting). For me, the floral marquees were the highlight of the show with their exuberant displays and high quality of horticulture. Initially I felt the event was a bit overrun with vendors, but people were shopping with enthusiasm (particularly for plants) and I was impressed with the number who came prepared with pull-along baskets. The border competition was fun and interesting and if attracting large show gardens remains difficult, additional vignette-type competitions (doorways, small balconies, etc.) would add the needed design interest and flair. Most of all, I was thoroughly impressed with the hospitality of Chatsworth and their commitment to excellence. I, too, enjoyed a visit to the vegetable and cut-flower plot, as well as to other areas of the garden, and was thrilled to see the restoration and new planting at the rockery–much improved over my last visit in 2015.

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    1. I’m so pleased you got to visit Marian. Great timing. I like the idea of more vignettes and cameos, but appropriately staged rather than swimming around in nothingness. I think the RHS could do with employing a set designer or someone with more skill in creating layouts rather than making it so ‘plonky’.

      The plant trolleys are both a blessing and a curse in my opinion. They’re great when they belong to you, not so great when they whack you in the shins or cut you up. I look at some of the specimens that have been dragged around all day and wonder what condition they must be in when they arrive home!

      What were your East Anglia highlights? Not an area I’ve explored extensively, I know there are umpteen great gardens to see. Dan

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  3. A lovely write up Dan. I enjoy your honesty and humour 🙂
    The purple cushions are definitely a touch too far, but although I am a fan of blues and purples I am beginning to tire of the same old colour schemes (and plants) in these show gardens. I want something different to excite me! And after seeing the wildflower meadow I am beginning to think that maybe I should just allow my lawn to become one! Need to add some rattle, ragged robin and native orchids…

    Have a lovely weekend in the garden!

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    1. The issue with Chelsea and Chatsworth being so close is that the plants that are available to designers are almost the same. Hampton Court is often better for variety.

      A meadow is much better for wildlife than a lawn, but it still takes some looking after and perseverance to develop the sort of diversity you are looking for. Definitely something worth striving for. Dan

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      1. We’ll see. I want to keep the grass under the rotary dryer as it is nice to go barefoot at times and the washing needs room to spin around without getting caught on shrubs. I noticed the one in the Dales was probably not very usable 😉

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  4. As always, thanks for the honest coverage. One of the (many) indicators that I’d never have made it as a landscape architect: the asymmetry of the pergola bugs the snot out of me, but the sagging roofline on the mini-barn doesn’t even register. (My phone autocorrects to “minibar”—clearly it has its priorities straight.) My husband suggested going to an RHS show on holiday next year; I’m thinking with the heat, the crowds, and the asymmetry we might be better of on a canal barge or a river cruise.

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    1. 😂 you’d soon get into the spirit of it! Go on a members day and don’t be in a hurry. The shows are best taken an unhurried pace. My problem is that I dash around and try to cram in too much, which takes away some of the enjoyment. Next year I want reserve at least one show just for fun.

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  5. Thanks again for covering this show — I’m looking forward to seeing coverage on GW, but yours is always so much more better! Enjoy your weekend, Best, -Beth

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  6. Oh Dan! Can always count on you for an honest review! I am 100% with Andrew M…. I want a beautiful garden, not a pop up and that pergola??????? Looked totally wrong to me…maybe I am too old school… it reminded me of the quarry last year at Chelsea…not quite right, uninspiring….😊

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the review Helen. You’ll be pleased to know I’ve been to several gardens with proper lawns, roses and delphiniums since. You’d approve of these. No lumps of rock or abstract pavilions to be seen, just lots of lovely plants grown well. X

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  7. Great post as always Dan. Witty and honest. Such a shame Chatsworth comes so soon after Chelsea but I imagine it’s a matter of finding a spot in a crowded calendar. Hopefully success will come in time as it’s so wonderful to see such a great historical house branching out and making the best of their resources.
    Oooh, I do envy you your gardening travels!!

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    1. The setting is rather wonderful. The best bit of Chatsworth is actually what goes on inside the marquees. Sadly I didn’t have much time to spend on these exhibits as they were still being judged when I finished my duties. I might work it slightly differently next year so that I can stay another day.

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