Two Chelsea Flower Shows in one year is an incredible achievement for both organisers and participants. Last September’s Chelsea was a little subdued, perhaps, with everyone feeling their way in the Covid world, happy to be out, but still cautious. This May, things were back with a flourish, and a very special sense of excitement and celebration. I could feel it even before entering the Show, as the shops in and around the area were gloriously bedecked, sporting Union Jacks for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, as well as some stunning floral dressing.
This year’s show was less about manicured perfection: although of course everything is planned and executed to the highest standards. The planting was focused on sustainability, rewilding and attracting pollinators. Many gardens carried messages about climate change, social inclusion and the mental health benefits of being in a green space. As last year, there was a major focus on small space gardening, with balconies and containers getting a big shout. Although I marvel at the show stopping gardens with waterfalls and unbelievable feats of engineering, the more down to earth exhibits also have a huge appeal for me. I enjoy the many different ideas for balcony gardens and small spaces with lots of ideas to take home.
This is The Blue Garden designed by Tom Wilkes-Rios. I loved the burnt orange and teal paint, a perfect backdrop for those amazing succulents, all of which are perfectly possible to grow in the shelter of an urban balcony. The mix of shapes and proportions was perfect. I also liked Nikki Hollier’s Mandala Garden, which was restful even on buzzing press day.
and how about this Potting Garden Balcony…?
It even had a small pleached apple tree growing in a pot. This is perfectly possible to grow, so long as you keep on top of the pruning, according to the designer. Pollination in a town is not a problem either, as there’s bound to be another tree within a half mile radius. This is definitely on my list for my new garden plan.
Walking down the main avenue was a riot of colour and activity. There were carnival dancers, the Drag Queen Gardener resplendent in heels and a cerise sweeping floral train, photographers and TV cameras jostling around the main show gardens, corks popping, a steel band playing, and even a flugelhorn with its melancholy boom over in the Swiss garden! Yet despite this wonderful cacophony, there was a real emphasis on gardening for mental health and a sense of sanctuary.
This garden, designed by Richard Miers, for the charity Perennial, which offers support and care to those working in horticulture, was a beautifully peaceful spot with a pared back palette. It featured spikes of white foxgloves and white gladioli (‘The Bride’), a beautiful deep purple lupin ‘Masterpiece’ and some gorgeous white Centaurea montana ‘Alba.’ Hawthorn trees provided structure along the central rill.
Tony Woods Garden Sanctuary By Hamptons offered a similar sense of order and calm, helped by the presence of an incredible yoga practitioner.
Kate Gould’s gold medal winning Out of the Shadows was another interpretation of a sanctuary, a small contemporary garden with a luxe feel. It had a Jacuzzi Swim Spa, a yoga/meditation space and dramatic tropical style planting. It was utterly inviting, and for me, that’s what all the best gardens do, beckon you inside. In the same line up of Sanctuary Gardens came the Stitchers’ Garden, with a completely different vibe. Here were golds, peach and yellows, colours which I don’t usually love but which worked really well here.
This garden publicised Fine Cell Work, a charity which rehabilitates prisoners and ex-prisoners by teaching them to stitch handmade products. Designed by Frederic Whyte, it was intended to be a creative, contemplative space, and it definitely achieved that aim. The theme of craftsmanship leads me on to my favourite garden in the whole show.
Packed planting, woven together in a tapestry, just like the William Morris textiles which inspired it. Everything growing was sustainable and chosen for its appeal to pollinators. Morris & Co worked with designer Ruth Willmott to pay homage to two iconic designs: Trellis and Willow Boughs. Willow Boughs is probably one of the most recognisable of William Morris’s designs, and the pattern was used as the inspiration for a hand crafted metal pavilion at the heart of this garden.
On press day, access into the gardens is very limited, as priority is given to TV cameras, invited guests and stakeholders, but I was standing at the edge for ages, looking so longing that I was allowed past the rope for a closer look. I could have spent hours in here studying every element.
I loved how the shapes which often appear in Morris designs were echoed in the plants. So there was actually a vast willow tree (how do they do that?), acanthus and oakleaf hydrangea planted in this garden, and everything in a palette of white, blue, green with some lovely deep reds and apricots. Enough fan-girling, but this was so special. After the Show, it will be relocated to some community gardens on the Packington Estate in Islington, very close to where Morris & Co designs were first printed.
Even the accompanying booklet and planting list was beautiful….
Other gardens which made an impression on me…
The St Mungo’s Garden was all about social inclusion and demonstrating how green spaces can benefit everyone who has access to them. This urban pocket park was created with recycled materials and a heart-singing palette of clashing brightness.
The Body Shop Garden summed up the cycle of regeneration from burnout to wellbeing. A neat take on an idea I thought, and lovely planting in the blooming area.
There was so much to catch the eye at the show. I always look closely at container planting, because I have a lot of it at home. I am always searching for fresh ideas and unusual combinations. Here’s what I noted:
An antique stone planter with airy grasses and dots and buttons of black cornflowers and cirsium.
I saw quite a few Senecio candidas ‘Angel Wings’ this year. They are very effective with their pale, fleshy leaves teamed with airier foliage and stronger colours.
And of course, border planting. It was mainly loose and billowy and smothered in bees, and this combination in the RHS Garden was perfection. I was so absorbed in looking that I did not notice a large camera trained on my face. When I glanced up, the cameraman laughed and said, “please, carry on, don’t take any notice of me.” I did not think any more about it until I got home, and my mum rang me in a state of high excitement, saying she’d seen a close up of me on the BBC 1 o’clock news, filming plants with my phone!
A big shout out to all the stand holders as well, who always do such an incredible job. I think the Grand Pavilion is a subject for another day, as this post is getting very long, but I did clock some wonderful businesses outside. Agriframes had a gorgeous stand showcasing its plant supports.
Of course I was drawn to the vintage gardenalia stand, Garden & Wood, and here I made my only purchases. I will share those another day…
And what would Chelsea be without the people? There were so many contributing to an amazing event, including lots of famous faces, Dames Judi Dench and Joanna Lumley, Mary Berry, Jo Whiley, Philip Schofield, Anneka Rice, Grayson and Phillippa Perry and many more, all adding to the buzz. Here are a few of my snapshots.
Just as the time came to leave the show ground, the rain came down. It had stayed dry almost all day. I threaded my way through the dripping trees, heading for a super large pot of tea at Peter Jones in Sloane Square, with an hour to collect my thoughts before heading for the train home.
I’ll post a part 2 another day with a look inside the Pavilion with all its horticultural delights. I hope you enjoyed my whistlestop tour of this year’s RHS Chelsea.