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