Finding creative inspiration at this year’s gardening shows

Metamorphosis - Colour in Contrast

Metamorphosis - Colour in Contrast - Credit: Archant

Gardening inspiration is everywhere at this time of year. If you are lucky enough to be able to visit one of the RHS Gardening Shows, you won’t need to look far to see some incredible feats of gardening imagination and skill.

The larger gardens at major shows like Chelsea, Hampton Court and BBC Gardeners’ World Live, include hard landscaping and complex water features, and most are created from start to fully planted finish in just two weeks. Although when finished they look like they’ve been there for years!

My recent visit to BBC Gardeners’ World Live in Birmingham was an education in how these amazing horticultural feats are created. I was there as an exhibitor, I designed and built my own small show garden in a category called Beautiful Borders.

These “borders”, are small pocket patch gardens that are just three metres square. But they aim to show just how much colour and interest can be created in even the smallest garden.

They add to the incredible spectacle of the show but on a more practical level they inspire people to put together plants and colours in combinations that can create a real wow factor in their own gardens but on a more manageable scale.

The exciting Colour in Contrast garden used dramatic contrasts with beautiful spiky blue erygiums in the foreground, married with purple salvia nemorosa caradonna with vivid spots of yellow achillea filipendulina (Cloth of Gold). At the back orange spikes of beautiful foxtail lilies (eremurus) create height and drama. The garden also made clever use of galvanised steel pails, which stacked on top of each other created a clever and cost effective water feature.

My own show garden also featured some contrasting colours using vibrant tall blue eryngium x zabelii jos eijking (sea holly) with hot orange geum prinses juliana (avens).

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Pairing these two plants together has the added benefit that the blue eryngiums create a framework which hold up the long stems of the geums, which creates airy dots of orange among the bright blue stars.

Although eryngiums are usually a taller plant, up 70cm, I used them at the front of my garden. They were well-spaced, and created an attractive semi-transparent effect, that caught the eye of visitors. The effect also made passers-by curious about parts of the garden that they couldn’t quite see!

There were lots of different types of eryngium at the show including a pretty dwarf version, eryngium planum blue hobbit, which grows to between 20-30cm. Sadly for me, most the plants in my show garden were on loan from the online plant retailer, Crocus, although I have to admit to keeping the odd few beauties for my own garden!

My garden also caught the eye of gardening expert and BBC Gardeners’ World presenter Carol Klein, who used it to demonstrate good plant combinations for hot sunny locations in a recent episode of Gardeners’ World on BBC 2.

One of the plants that she was attracted to was a relatively new euphorbia cyparissias ‘orange man’, a beautiful feathery ground-cover euphorbia. I had paired this with a pretty alpine called erigeron karvinskianus, a small daisy flowered plant which also likes full sun and well-drained soil and flowers throughout the summer. It was an exciting moment having a top gardening celebrity filming from my garden and really nice treat after the hard work of creating it.

After the filming, I had a brief chat with Carol and we laughed about how popular the eryngiums are with bees, but how difficult they must be to pollinate because they are so spiky!

The plants I had selected included other sun-loving low growing plants such as sedums, thymes and summer bedding plants, all grown together to create a low colourful tapestry. thyme (thymus coccineus group) was planted together with another golden thyme (thymus archers gold) against a backdrop of euphorbia cyparissias ‘orange man’ and achillea ‘terracotta’.

Although these plants look like they’ve grown alongside each other for months, at the end of the show, they are all dismantled and returned to the nursery.

It was sad to break up the garden but, like all the show gardens, it had done its job of entertaining and inspiring the thousands of visitors who attended the four day show. I was delighted to have been part of the show, it was hard work but enormous fun and something that I wouldn’t have been able to do without the generous support of local company St Albans Van and Car Hire. Without their help and encouragement I certainly wouldn’t have got all 250 of my plants to the show!

Although the smaller gardens like my own take months to plan, the larger displays are a year or more in the planning process.

Birmingham City Council is one of the few remaining councils in the country with their own plant nursery. They grow 2.2 million plants a year for the city’s parks, open spaces and hanging baskets and they even have their own floral decorating team.

Their display was an incredible and colourful tribute to the city’s role in the First World War. The eye-popping mix of colourful annual and exotic plants included a steam train of flowers, a recreation of a First World War trench and a huge water feature fed by three giant silver Hudson whistles, the ones famously used to signal troops over the top of the trenches.

This garden had everything – and more importantly for me, it was enormous fun. It was part of a tradition of garden show displays that are big, bright and beautiful.

So it’s easy to see why this garden received not just an RHS Gold but also the President’s Award and was even admired by The Queen when she visited the show.

The next show on the calendar for gardening enthusiasts is Hampton Court Flower Show which opens from July 8-13. I’ll be there soaking up a bit more garden design eye-candy and it will be nice to enjoy this show as a visitor rather than an exhibitor!