The RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2022 – 5 Sensational Show Gardens

Reading time 15 minutes

Ahhh, it was good to be back at Chelsea in May. This year’s show gardens sparkled, embracing the headline brief of sustainability and naturalism. There was a great mix of style, plenty of substance and less evidence of the ‘over messaging’ that can sometimes kill a show garden dead. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of gardens with purpose, but that didn’t overwhelm them. Chelsea 2022 will go down as a return to form and perhaps lay the foundations for an even more exciting show next year.

Chelsea’s gardens, 39 of them in all, are categorised as either Show Gardens (the largest and most expensive to build designs), Sanctuary Gardens (a little smaller but still impressive), Balcony Gardens, Container Gardens or a new class hosted in the Great Pavillion called All About Plants ….. more on these in a future post. They are all judged gardens that can be awarded medals ranging from bronze to gold. There are also Feature Gardens that are purely there for the enjoyment of visitors and not part of the competition. In this post, I focus on my pick of the showstoppers – the Show Gardens with the big names, high budgets and ambitions to change how we think, feel and garden.

There were 13 Show Gardens in all this year. The winner of the top award – A Rewilding Britain Landscape – richly deserved the prize. If you read my previous post, you’ll note this was not one of my predictions for Best In Show and that’s why I am not a betting man. In fairness, this was a garden that one needed to see and experience first-hand to appreciate the skill and artistry that went into its creation.

The designers and their teams have about three weeks to construct their gardens on-site: for a garden to look this settled in its plot is not only remarkable but breathtaking. Perhaps the wild, naturalistic style of Adam Hunt and Lulu Urqhart’s garden might not be what everyone wants at home, but you could not argue that it was not deeply evocative and wonderful to experience.

This garden deserves a post of its own, but to summarise the idea, the designers chose to be inspired by the reintroduction of beavers into the British landscape. The garden represents a rewilded habitat in the South West of England, complete with a babbling brook, superb dry-stone walls, a rustic viewing hide and a dam constructed entirely of beaver-gnawed sticks. Approximately 3600 native and naturalised plants were grown for the garden, from mighty willows to tiny orchids. Not only beavers were welcome in this space but also voles, otters and the whole gamut of aquatic and insect life. A ‘soundscape’ was created to introduce us to unfamiliar sounds such as kingfishers piping, Muntjac deer calling and beavers playing, fighting and chewing. Perhaps this garden will increase the possibility of these sounds becoming more commonplace again. Hats off to Adam and Lulu for whom this was their first Chelsea garden. Beginners luck? I don’t think so.

5 stand-out plants from A Rewilding Britain Landscape

Viburnum opulus – Guelder-rose
Symphytum uplandicum – Blue comfrey
Osmunda regalis – Royal fern
Digitalis purpurea – Foxglove
Dactylorhiza praetermissa – Southern marsh orchid

Next, to the garden I thought might land Best In Show – Andy Sturgeon’s The Mind Garden for mental health charity Mind. I expected it to be excellent and it was – subtle, expressive and wonderfully planted. Andy’s gardens are always understated but also exacting in their standards and rich in the intensity of their planting. A designer so assured of himself needs no bells and whistles to stand out from the crowd.

Andy’s garden was both austere and pretty, enveloping and freeing – contradictions that echo how it feels to struggle with one’s mental health when it can veer so quickly from one extreme to another, or when a situation can feel either comforting or unsettling depending on your state of mind. As you can see from my photographs, a series of sculptural, clay-rendered walls cascaded gently down from the highest point, at the end of the garden. Andy intended for them to look like a handful of petals tossed to the ground. Perhaps from above this is more evident, but structurally they formed some intriguing spaces and opportunities to set off individual plants to their best advantage. The walls created a series of small rooms and narrow passages before opening out to welcome visitors in. Benches for contemplation and conversation were fashioned from wind-blown oak and soothing water poured gently from ceramic spouts into small pools. The planting was designed to evoke an open woodland setting with vibrant meadow planting towards the edges. It was all very restrained, quietly lovely and deserving of a 9th gold medal for Andy in his final appearance on Chelsea’s Main Avenue. He will be much missed and leaves the bar set high for the next generation of designers.

5 stand-out plants from The Mind Garden

Betula pendula – silver birch
Rosa glauca – red-leaved rose
Baptista ‘Dutch Chocolate’ – false indigo
Papaver somniferum ‘Lauren’s Grape’ – opium poppy
Stipa gigantea – golden oats

I image many of us thought that Sarah Eberle could win Best in Show for her stupendous Medite Smartply Building The Future garden. Chelsea’s most decorated garden designer went big and bold with her entry this year, wowing the crowds on arrival at the show. Rarely do we see such large trees and imposing structures used at Chelsea but they worked because they were perfectly in proportion to one another and the surroundings.

Impressed as I was with all the individual elements – spectacular trees, incredible ‘metalwork’ fabricated from sustainable ply, a trio of plunging waterfalls and infinitely textured planting – I found it quite tricky to view the garden as a punter and felt it was a touch unattractive from the rear.

This was a garden of huge contrasts, setting frothing cow parsley against brutal sculpture, bright yellows against glaucous greens and rambling roses against structural rice paper plants (Tetrapanax papyrifer). It was not for the faint-hearted nor the traditionalist, but there are no awards at Chelsea for playing it safe. Sarah’s garden pushed the boundaries in terms of scale and style and has no doubt inspired other designers to think bigger and be braver in future. Engineers and architects would have marvelled at the gnarled pine perched above an enormous arch whilst lovers of interesting plants, myself included, had plenty to satisfy them with a plant list extending over 2 pages. Extra points would have been awarded by yours truly simply for not using copper-coloured verbascums or orange geums. In lieu of the latter, it was nice to be reacquainted with a plant I have long lost touch with, the globe flower, Trollius ‘Dancing Flame’.

5 stand-out plants from the Building The Future garden

Picea omorkia – Serbian spruce
Corydalis ‘Craighton Blue’ – blue corydalis
Rosa ‘Kiftsgate’ – rambling rose ‘Kiftsgate’
Rheum palmatum – Chinese rhubarb
Iris siberica ‘Butter And Sugar’ – Siberian Iris

Fans of the Arts & Crafts Movement would have been in seventh heaven in the Morris & Co. Garden. Ruth Willmott’s design was one of those that looked good on paper but could have gone either way in practice. Deftly, the designer steered a course between homage and pastiche to deliver a garden that was so clearly inspired by William Morris and his iconic patterns and yet deliciously modern. For sure, Chelsea will have earned Ruth a legion of fans at the same time as introducing Morris & Co. to a new, more contemporary audience.

The layout of Ruth’s garden was inspired by two classic Morris & Co. designs: Willow Boughs (1887) was represented in the pergola-style structure and watercourses and Trellis (1862) informed the layout of the pathways and rivulets. No detail was overlooked, from the choice of plants and the colour of the flowers through to the delightful garden furniture. Chelsea lacked an international flavour this year but this garden offered subtle hints of the Orient and Mughal courtyards wrapped in a big, blousy English hedgerow. This was masterful, clever, well-researched design, beautifully realised. I imagine Mr Morris would be very content to see his legacy treated so sensitively.

Many Chelsea gardens live on beyond their moment in the spotlight and the Morris & Co. garden is set to become part of a series of community gardens in Islington, North London.

5 stand-out plants from the Morris & Co. Garden

Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’ – dragon’s claw willow
Crataegus x lavalleei – hybrid cockspur thorn
Rosa banksiae ‘Alba Plena’ – Lady Banks’ rose, white double
Verbascum ‘Petra’ – mullein
Iris ‘Jane Philipps’ – bearded iris

I didn’t realise how much I had enjoyed the Urban Foraging Station garden until I reviewed my photographs and realised I had taken rather a lot of them! That’s perhaps because it was a particularly awkward garden to capture well and also because it had many component parts. The design, by Howard and Hugh Miller for Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, aspires to inspire children to lead active, healthy, pleasurable lives by encouraging them to forage.

That undulating blanket of pale concrete you see in my photographs was conceived as an abstract landscape in which edible herbs such as thyme and marjoram might grow. One imagines that over time this would fill out, creating a hard-wearing surface over which children could scramble without damaging the plants. Different spaces alluded to a number of natural habitats including hedgerows, orchards, marsh and meadows. And when all the foraging became too wearisome there was a quiet seating area for rest or storytelling. As a child, I would have loved a garden like this with trees to climb and thickets to explore – perhaps a tree house was all that was missing. One of the highlights of my day at Chelsea was being reminded of how water collects in the leaf joints of teasel, forming deep pools. Sometimes it’s the little things!

Among all the naturalism, beautiful oak furniture crafted by Hugh Miller provided a sophisticated counterpoint for the eye and a focus for outdoor activity. A wheelbarrow-style workstation even included an induction hob for cooking, as demonstrated by Chris Mapp of the Tickled Trout.

Do you have a favourite from my selection? Or perhaps I missed one of the gardens you loved? Do let me know your thoughts. In the meantime, keep checking back for more Chelsea coverage over the coming days. TFG.

5 stand-out plants from the Urban Foraging Station

Sambucus nigra – common elder
Angelica archangelica – angelica / wild celery
Chaerophyllum hirsutum ‘Roseum’ – hairy chervil
Cardamine pratensis – lady’s smock
Primula veris – cowslip

Categories: Chelsea flower show, Flower Shows, Flowers, Foliage, Garden Design, Garden Wildlife, Landscape Design, Perennials, Photography, Planting Design, Trees and Shrubs, Urban Gardens, Wild Flowers

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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17 comments On "The RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2022 – 5 Sensational Show Gardens"

  1. Thanks for all the amazing photos, especially of the William Morris garden–that was the one that made my jaw drop. Seventh heaven indeed! I wish I were going to Chelsea now. I’ve always loved the way Morris brought nature into his designs, but now I’m about four-fifths of the way through the Fiona MacKay biography of Morris and find it’s the man himself who truly impresses me. I can only imagine what he might think if he could see this tribute.

  2. Many thanks, Dan for an excellent round-up of the gardens. The Morris & Co Garden captures my heart and I was especially taken by the pergola and furniture though the planting was a little blockish for my taste though I liked the colours.

    1. Yes, big blocks of colour in this garden although perhaps my photographs unfairly overemphasised them. It would be quite a tricky garden to work in but I don’t think much consideration is given to that sort of practicality! Very few gardens this year were designed for living and entertaining so this was a nice counterpoint. I could have sat under that arbour all day! Dan

  3. Thank you for the best group of photos I have seen of this year’s Chelsea show. The Rewilding Britain garden was so lovely, breathtaking and evocative. I think I would have stayed longest in front of this garden. Of the others you showed, Building the Future Garden was amazing, so jungly and full of lush greens, such enormous trees, and the cascades were fantastic. Third, I would say the Mind Garden although it was hard to see how one might get to the sitting and contemplation area, the planting was a delight.

    1. Thank you Sandra. Very few people get to step onto these gardens in real life which is a pity as that means they are always assessed from the sides. I did get to walk on a few and, despite the embarrassment of being watched by hundreds of people, it does give one a very different perspective. More posts coming soon. I hope you will enjoy the next one. Dan

  4. Muntjac! Possibly the most destructive form of ‘wildlife’ that you can dread to see in your garden, rivalled only by the grey squirrel. Interesting that these are both introduced species, so not really wildlife at all, more escaped hunting park animals.

    1. Having lived in towns for most of my adult life I am fortunate not to have had to deal with anything more destructive than herring gulls, blackbirds and the odd fox. I am not sure why the Muntjac were on the soundtrack but perhaps it’s a case of ‘that’s life!’ Dan

      1. They were on the soundtrack because all this re wilding is just so much urbanite self indulgence and virtue signalling. Let’s pretend that we are not destroying the countryside by ever expanding housing estates with their tiny gardens filled with hard surfaces to be ‘outside rooms’. How are we going to do this ? Oh, I know, we’ll tell people that if they grow weeds instead of cultivated plants, thats their contribution.

        Sheffield University examined the ‘best’ planting for bio diversity, and discovered that basically the wider the range of plants, the better for birds and insects ( as long as they weren’t all double, of course). I read this in the RHS magazine! It’s a pity they have forgotten their own knowledge, or maybe just thrown it away in the relentless desire to embrace the latest fad.

        ‘Urban foraging’ …..I hope someone is warning the foragers about the dangers of Hogweed. Being stung by nettles,,of course, is a badge of rewilding honour.

  5. The Morris & Co Garden is my favourite, I particularly love the pergola and the colours used in the planting. I thought the rewilding garden was more of a landscape and not a garden. It just looks like a Cornish lane to me without the beavers! As for Andy Sturgeon’s garden, I love the planting but hate those concrete walls.

    1. The Morris & Co. garden was brilliant and I would expect this, the Perennial garden and the RNLI garden to be in with a shout when it comes to the people’s choice award. These three gardens were a lot easier for most of us to relate to and had huge crowds around them. At least there was something for everyone this year! Dan

  6. Hi Dan
    Fabulous photos, I love the foraging garden, and the William Morris garden is beautiful.
    Sometimes it’s not about the gardens anymore, I love the idea of the rewinding garden, but not practical for probably many people.
    I love your blogs, please keep them up .

    1. No, not remotely practical or replicable, if that’s a word! I think this is always the case with wild gardens (do you remember the canal lock a few years ago?) and in this case we’re unlikely to be blessed with resident beavers either. What the designers did deserve praise for is replicating a natural environment very convincingly. Let’s see what they come up with next year! Dan

    2. I am genuinely curious, why would you feel this is not replicable by most people?

      My parents have rewilded most of their garden, and the only part which requires significant maintenance is the vegetable plot. It’s the opposite of manicuring a garden, with weekly mowings of a mono-species lawn, lifting and putting out seasonal plants etc.

      1. Because most people don’t have natural running water in their garden, or dry stone walls. And because maintaining a garden of an equivalent size to look like that would take as much work, if not more, than a traditional garden. Nature prefers a slightly larger canvas in my opinion – that said, having visited Chatsworth this week even they have serious challenges creating perennial meadows and such like. It’s simply not as easy as not mowing and leaving things be.

  7. The garden for Alder Hey children’s hospital warmed my heart : it’s truly thoughtful of children’s needs , especially the undulating concrete “rug” impregnated with sweet smelling herbs . I adore plants and gardens but have never had an inclination to go to Chelsea . However your well chosen observations and good writing took me there most pleasurably – thank you !

    1. I’m so pleased Jenny. It’s certainly worth visiting Chelsea once, although perhaps not if you don’t enjoy big crowds. I found the torrential downpours this year leavened the situation somewhat.

      This was an unconventional garden with some original elements. I’m glad that it warmed your heart. Dan

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