Oh, Chelsea! The highs and lows of an unforgettable show
PUBLISHED: 13:00 01 June 2017 | UPDATED: 17:46 01 June 2017
Our columnist has enjoyed another inspiring visit to the Chelsea Flower Show - but she won’t be trying everything she saw at home...
Every year when I go to Chelsea, I wonder what can possibly be different. Gardening for pleasure has been well established for hundreds of years, and you start to consider that garden designers can’t keep re-inventing the wheel - but of course there is always something new. Whilst new plants are continuing to be discovered, and whilst new cultivars are being bred, there will always be something interesting and new to see, and nowhere better to see it than at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
This year, things felt slightly different. There has been much made of the fewer large show gardens - apparently one of the casualties of the Brexit decision, that some of the companies who would normally have sponsored gardens at the show have perhaps been feeling the pinch of the financial uncertainty caused by the result of the vote. Nevertheless, the large show gardens that were there were a sight to behold. The Welcome to Yorkshire garden had the greatest impact on me - we are used to seeing gardens that make use of ponds and water features, but this garden in particular had used water to look exactly like the edge of a lake or beach - with a little boat moored up. The garden instantly transported you to another place - true escapism, which is what many people try to achieve in their gardens (albeit not to that extent normally!). The planting in this garden was simple, and was supposed to look like a natural landscape, but everything about it was so sympathetic that there was nothing to make you feel as though it were a planted garden.
The Hillier garden - normally the centrepiece of the Grand Pavillion certainly did not disappoint. Every year, it draws thousands of visitors to the stand - located right in the centre of the pavillion, it is hard to miss, but not least for the fabulous planting schemes that they have become so famous for. This year was no different; the overall effect of the stand was stunning, but on closer inspection, the plants themselves were in such fantastic condition, that it was easy to see why they achieve such high acclaim year on year. The lovely thing about the gardens and stands in the Grand Pavillion is that each group of plants is labelled with their name, so that the keen gardener - who can often be seen scribbling these names down in their notepad - can go home and buy plants for their own garden to recreate small bits and pieces of what they have seen.
The Artisan Gardens are always my favourite - showing just how much can be achieved in a small space, and somehow managing to look like a huge garden. Sometimes these garden can contain sheds/summer houses or large constructions, set among meticulous planting schemes. They are a real feat of design, and I love the way in which you could recreate them in your own garden if you wanted to (and indeed if money were no object). Of particular note for me this year, was the Poetry Lover’s Garden, by the incredibly talented Fiona Cadwallader - the mixture of plants seems to have gone down a storm with those visiting the show, and you could really imagine yourself sitting in this peaceful garden and reading a book of poetry!
There are some aspects of the show which I struggle with - partly because they seem so abstract - which just doesn’t happen to be my personal preference within a garden - and sometimes because they are so idealistic (not necessarily a bad thing, but not always practical). For example, the Silk Road Garden - which had huge red structures in amongst the planting, but which would be highly unlikely to feature in anybody’s own garden. I sometimes struggle to see past the subtle designs which I have come to love so much, and always try to recreate in my own planting, to see the beauty in much larger visions held by some of the braver designers. Of course it is important for me, and anyone else visiting the shows this season, to remember that often these large gardens on grand scales are not really supposed to inspire mirroring in our own homes. They are more to raise awareness of various causes, or to attract attention to travel to certain parts of the world - this particular garden being based on the mountainous region of the Sichuan Province.
A theme which seems to have become recurrent at the Chelsea Flower Show, is that of city gardening, and the way in which people in their own gardens, and also local councils, can take the opportunity to fill otherwise unused spaces, with plants and make them more enjoyable for those living in urban areas.
The City Living garden at this years’ Chelsea showed how areas such as walkways to carparks under apartment blocks can become gardens in their own right. I was particularly taken with this garden, and loved the way that this otherwise bland area was really improved by the planting. I did wonder how likely it would be that these areas would be maintained if such a garden was created in similar spaces in ‘real life’, and also how well the plants would have survived in a largely subterranean space, lacking in natural water and sunlight - but the concept itself was superb, and again, I had to remind myself not to be such a pessimist!
With the Chelsea Flower Show over for another year, it’s time to look forward to the Hampton Court Flower Show in a few weeks’ time - but if you have been inspired by anything that you’ve seen either at the show itself, or on the television coverage - make sure you get out into your own garden and recreate the bits you liked where you are able to!