I hadn’t been on a train since February 2020, and I was very excited as I set off for this years RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival 2021. It was an early start from my house in Lincolnshire, with my bag packed with phone, camera, notebook, sandwiches and flip flops for aching feet on the way home! I have been to this show quite a few times now, and I know the score.
I love the approach to the show, stepping off the train at the flower-bedecked station, walking alongside the Thames, past the grandeur of Hampton Court Palace, and entering the show ground, which was buzzing with press, with school parties and with busy participants. There are gardeners and stall holders putting the finishing touches to their stands and show gardens, journalists scurrying around with phones and notebooks, film crews with cranes, and professional photographers working their way methodically around the show gardens. It’s such an exciting atmosphere.
There is always a theme that emerges in the show, and this year, I felt that it was about gardening for everyone. That seems appropriate after lockdown introduced so many people to the pleasures of cultivating even the smallest space to create a retreat. I was pleased to see this being recognised and celebrated. Community gardens, allotments, inclusive gardening – making it accessible to everyone, no matter who they are or where they live, is key. I’ve always written about gardening in a way that I hope makes it inviting and available to everyone, not just those lucky enough to have a large garden and lots of cash for plants, so this really chimed with me. I loved the allotment and community garden feature in the show. There were representatives from some gardens around the country, showing how they encourage everyone to get involved. Friends of Ascott Allotments have green space in Ealing, London while an organisation called ALFI creates fruit and veg gardens in unused areas in Alton and shares the produce with the community. Many allotments are over subscribed, and have long waiting lists. The Ascott Allotments have introduced a scheme to offer single raised beds, so that people who are waiting at least have the chance to plant up a small area of ground until they can get access to a proper plot.
There was even a group which converts old rubbish bins into productive planters…
The RHS had a lovely No Dig Allotment Demonstration Garden which was full of the most incredible cabbages and wonky rows of peas twining up pea sticks. This was all about the principal of growing food without digging or disturbing the soil and disrupting precious organisms: no-dig gardening. The garden was designed by Stephanie Hafferty and Charles Dowding, with Stephanie working on the project for 18 months prior to the show, and spending two weeks on the impressive build.
The installation also featured the most glorious greenhouse with tumbling pots of strawberries and tomatoes. I just want to move in!
And these cabbages…
It’s fair to say that I always home in on recycled and up cycled gardens. I admire the very aspirational, sleek and modern ones, but it’s always the homespun that gets my pulse racing. For this reason, the Down Memory Lane show garden was very appealing. It was designed and created by the Blue Diamond garden centres team, with input from the Alzheimer’s Society. The concept was developed from a collection of stories and memories from Blue Diamond employees whose relatives have experienced dementia in some way. So, it was a bit nostalgic, a little bit comforting and just really inventive and pretty.
I love the branch fencing, the up cycled bucket hanging basket, the enamel bowl bird bath and that greenhouse built from old doors and rescued pieces of wood. There was a fabulous water feature, too….
In between the show gardens, there are lots of stalls and features to enjoy. I noticed two women setting up some floral installations which really intrigued me. They were Katie Musgrave and Natasha Betteridge (@unruly_flowers and @rollingwiththeposies). I loved this tablescape that they were just finishing….
An ordinary wooden picnic table has had holes drilled in it and glass test tubes inserted so that single blooms can be displayed. It really was gorgeous!
And in the RHS Cutting Garden hub, there were lots of interesting features, including the work of artist Rachel Dein, who casts flowers in clay and then plaster.
On we go to some more lovely gardens…Cancer Research UK’s wonderful Legacy Garden earned a gold medal for its designer, Tom Simpson. It was a very peaceful space, with two interlocking circles in a figure of eight, forming the infinity symbol. A winding path leads to stone steps situation by two River Birch trees, with benches placed for contemplation.
I borrowed this photo so you can see the clever design.
Here is designer Tom. It really was very calming (even though I managed to burst in while there was some sort of private function taking place. Press day is fraught with these incidents!).
The theme of accessibility was continued in another show garden which I loved. This was the Ability Garden, which was created to allow everyone to be able to participate. It contained mobile raised beds, and a circular raised space which is wheelchair friendly. I was so impressed with this one.
Sometimes at shows, I love being wowed, taken to another level of gardening, if you like. This definitely came in the form of the RHS Iconic Horticultural Hero garden. This is the work of landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith, who is a very hot name in the gardening world at the moment. This garden really knocked my socks off. It was a tapestry of shapes, colours, foliage and flowers, carefully threaded through one another to make a dreamy, soft border. The bees were absolutely buzzing around this one. I stayed for some time!
I was fascinated by the plant combinations, so I’ll share some of these now. All the chosen plants are drought tolerant.
Absolutely lush, all of it. Well done to everyone concerned.
This plant passion lead me to the Floral Pavilion, where nurseries and plants people are selling their wares. This is always such a treat. I spotted some absolutely beautiful plants, some of which were new to me, so here comes another pictorial list of my favourites….
I could go on with wishlist plants, but you’ll probably be falling asleep by now! Suffice to say that I also loved the succulent displays, the amazing alliums and the exhibit by Heucheraholics, just the best foliage plants.
The stalls are so inventive. It’s hard to know where to look first.
No visit to RHS Hampton Court is complete without roses, and I always love to view the David Austin exhibit. This featured a rainbow of roses, a tribute to NHS staff and key workers. So beautiful.
What else did I enjoy? I liked the thrift and ingenuity of the Punk Rockery show garden. This was aimed at beginner gardeners and people without many resources. It was designed by Amanda Grimes @spark.garden.design. This was one of the Get Started! gardens, designed to encourage people to have a go.
Lots of takeaway on this one for me. It had benches made from piled up slabs with planks across the top. A dustbin lid wildlife pond. Walls clad with recycled boards (how cool for concealing a nasty modern brick wall like we have on one side of our garden!) and much more besides.
By now, I needed to sit down for my first coffee of the day (at 3pm, I had not stopped!). I spotted this cute churros van setting up…but sadly no churros were ready!
Before I left, I needed to do some shopping. So I headed back to the Floral Pavilion where I picked up a bag of herbs to take home from the Kitchen Garden Plant Centre, from Gloucestershire. This is when I caught sight of Simon and Yasmin Le Bon, busy buying plants. They are eighties icons, my era (not that I was ever a Duran fan, strictly Joy Division and New Order over here) and proof that gardening is cool, even for rock stars….
There were quite a few well known people floating around. The Gardeners World team, with Carol Klein looking great in orange tunic and trousers, and Rachel de Thame in an amazing dress. I saw singer Will Young, presenter Anthea Turner, and I even had a chat with Vanessa Feltz about the controversial smoking plane crash exhibit, which I have not included in my round up. Neither of us liked it very much. I’m all in favour of thought-provoking installations, but I found this one to be a bit tasteless. We’ve all had a mega-dose of reality recently – can’t we just be left to wander round a garden show and lose ourselves in plants for a few hours?
That tiny issue aside, this was a great show, and a lovely day out. I have just introduced the briefest flavour of what was there. I’ll finish with an image from the community gardening section, appropriately titled The Sanctuary. Because I think that was what our gardens meant to us over the last year, however big or small they might be.