The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is back in its familiar May slot after a two-year, Covid-induced hiatus. This will come as a huge relief to a nation that has come to regard the world’s most prestigious flower show as the most important week of the gardening year, commanding extensive TV coverage and boosting sales of everything from geums to giant driftwood horses. It’s where the horticultural elite come together to show us lesser mortals how it’s done and we lap it up, making notes and taking pictures to fire our imaginations for the next twelve months.
Although there will be plenty of familiar exhibits and big names, the organisers have embraced the changing times by giving us smaller, more sustainable gardens and new categories that will showcase the talent of young, less experienced designers. The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee provides inspiration and impetus for a number of floral exhibits and, with luck, we shall see Her Majesty there on Monday afternoon.
Wild and wonderful – The RHS has encouraged designers to embrace the natural world in a move that will delight many. We can expect to see greater use of native plants as well as naturalistic spaces taking centre stage – even stinging nettles make an appearance in Tony Woods’ A Garden Sanctuary garden for Hamptons. New to the Chelsea Flower Show, designers Lulu Urquhart and Adam Hunt will be using exclusively native British plants to represent a rewilded landscape, celebrating the reintroduction of beavers and other native species in the southwest of England. The garden reflects the rich, diverse landscape that evolves when nature’s eco-engineers are able to go about their business unhindered.
What to look out for in the Rewilding Britain Landscape:
(Alas there will be no beavers in attendance, but much evidence of their impact)
– A flowing brook beneath a glade of hawthorn, hazel and field maple.
– A pool dammed by beavers using wood sticks, woodchips and tree debris scattered around their lodge.
– A riparian meadow with rejuvenating alder trees, fed by water trickling from the beaver dam.
– A dry-stone wall built in a West Country traditional style using stone from a carefully managed iron-ore quarry in Exmoor.
– An old timber walkway made from reclaimed oak planks and chestnut poles, leading across the wetland meadow to a viewing hide at the side of the pool.
– Native wildflowers mingling with grasses and marginal plants along the edges of the pool and stream.
– A soundscape giving a taste of a future landscape alive with nature, including the famous tail slap of the beaver and the creature’s characteristic mewing.
The Queen hopes to pay a visit – Our longest-reigning monarch, Elizabeth II, has been the royal patron of the Royal Horticultural Society since 1952 and was a regular visitor to the show with her parents as a child. She has attended Chelsea more than 50 times during her 70-year reign and, despite mobility problems, she hopes to make an appearance this week. Many of this year’s exhibits celebrate her seventy years on the throne. Buckingham Palace say that a final decision on the Queen’s attendance will be made on the day, but The Earl and Countess of Wessex, Princess Beatrice, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Duke of Kent, Prince and Princess Michael of Kent and Princess Alexandra have all confirmed.
The Mind Garden – If I was a betting man (which I am not) then this would be where I put my money for ‘best in show’. Andy Sturgeon has an incredible Chelsea pedigree – 8 gold medals in all – and this garden is particularly close to his heart. He also says it will be his final appearance on main avenue, marking the right moment for him to make way for a new generation of designers.
Gardens have been a refuge for Andy during difficult periods in his own life and for The Mind Garden, he’s created a place where others can connect, share experiences and find comfort together. At its highest point, a circular seating area will create a sanctuary for conversation. Set within curved clay-rendered walls, it will be a place to sit side-by-side and share experiences and advice, surrounded by meadow-like spaces and calming birch trees. A gravel path then arcs down to a lower level, bringing people together before the garden opens out before them. The design reflects how it can feel to open up to others about your mental health. First, it brings people closer, then there is a sense of release and of possibility. It’s a great message and one can be certain that it will be executed superbly. I for one can’t wait to see it.
The hotly contested Plant of the Year competition includes a rose named ‘Elizabeth’, three succulents and a pink version of Salvia ‘Amistad’ called, imaginatively, S. ‘Pink Amistad’ (above). The original plant, bred in Argentina, has sold 4 million plants worldwide and is being introduced in the UK by Middleton Nurseries. Also on the shortlist are a variegated forsythia (Forsythia × intermedia ‘Discovery’), a tiny rhododendron with star-shaped flowers (Rhododendron ‘Starstyle Pink’) and purple broccoli that keeps its colour when cooked (Brassica oleracea (Italica Group) ‘Purplelicious’). In a few years’ time, these plants will either be in every garden centre in the land or largely forgotten and it’s here that their fortune will be determined.
Jay Day is a balcony garden designed specifically for Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius), one of birds I enjoy watching regularly from my home office window. The balcony garden category was launched last autumn and provides a great way for lesser-known, innovative designers to get a foot on the Chelsea ladder. Jay Day is a reimagined urban jay habitat designed to encourage us to consider integrating live plants into our bird-feeding regime. The Eurasian jay uses hypnum moss for nut caching, so to encourage birds into the space, the substrate of the balcony is a carpet of green moss overlaid with a metal grate for human access. It’s an intriguing concept and I am delighted to have been invited to meet the two designers, Su-Yeon Choi and Alison Orellana Malouf at the press preview tomorrow.
Entirely new for 2022 is the ‘All About Plants’ show garden category. There are four entrants this year: A Textile Garden for Fashion Revolution, celebrating the beauty to be found in plant-based dyes and fibres; The Core Arts Front Garden Revolution, presenting a concept where two urban households have removed the defining boundary between their front gardens to make one open space for gardening, socialising and wellbeing; The Mothers for Mothers Garden – ‘This Too Shall Pass’, articulating the challenges of raising young children and the associated mental health issues that can come with it, from postnatal depression to anxiety and isolation; and The Wilderness Foundation UK Garden, depicted above, inspired by plant communities in native Japanese forests. A sense of green immersion has been heightened by lifting the planting and driving a sunken path through it. A charred timber walkway enables visitors to engage with the deliciously green understorey. I love the sound of these plant-focussed gardens and hope they deliver on their promise to showcase interesting plant communities above all else.
There is so much more that I’d like to cover in detail but as time is now short and I still need to pack my suitcase I’ll summarise. I am delighted that the Houseplant Studios are returning as these were a highlight of the autumn Chelsea flower show and so well done. There are five this year, including a Studio 54 themed cabin complete with lava lamps, a coat check and bar offering refreshment for thirsty plants!
Given my age, I can’t help but be excited about the prospect of The New Blue Peter Garden which highlights the importance of soil. I am the first to admit that I found soil science a bore at university but as I’ve grown as a gardener I’ve realised what a mistake I made – soil is the secret to every gardener’s success. The New Blue Peter Garden will encourage us to investigate the soil beneath our feet, bringing it up to eye level for us to see, touch, smell and hear. The garden’s message is, ‘Don’t treat soil like dirt!’
If all the focus on naturalism, mental health and science does not float your boat then you may be relieved that some traditional formality lingers on in the form of The Perennial Garden ‘With Love’ designed by Richard Miers and The RNLI Garden designed by Chris Beardshaw. The planting in this garden looks absolutely fabulous – an exuberant feast for the eyes that is sure to be a big hit with visitors.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the show has a new sponsor, The Newt in Somerset, a prestigious country house hotel and working estate in the West Country (see image below). Will we notice much difference? It’s hard to tell, but there would certainly seem to be a good fit between the RHS, its members and The Newt, which has poured megabucks into the restoration of the house and gardens at Hadspen.
Detailed Chelsea posts will start to appear here from Wednesday onwards. In the meantime, follow along with me on Instagram @thefrustratedgardener and @dancoopergarden to get a ‘Dan’s Eye View’ of all the gardens, plants and personalities at this year’s show. TFG.