It was a b-i-g day in the horticultural calendar yesterday. The start of RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Monday is the Press and VIP day, when film crews and photographers are swarming everywhere, the finishing touches are being added to the displays, celebrities are out in force, and if the Royal Family do make a visit, this is the day they will attend when things are slightly less crowded than the rest of show week.
I walked to my local station at 6am and by 8.15, I was hurrying along the Chelsea Embankment, shivering slightly in my frock, but the forecast was set fair.
It’s always hard to know where to begin…the sights, colours and spectacle begins as soon as you set foot over the threshold, but after four visits, I know the lie of the land. I made my way to the main show gardens to see what caught my eye. It didn’t take long. Love at first sight came with the Nurture Landscapes Garden, designed by Sarah Price and inspired by artist Cedric Morris’s garden at Benton End in Suffolk. Morris (1899-1982) bred irises and Sarah Price had cleverly combined various varieties of this plant with poppies, succulents, cistus, geums, the prettiest Rosa odorata ‘Mutabilis,’ and a central Scots Pine tree. The plant colours were a mix of muted mauves and silvery greys, with some bold dark succulents (Aeonium ‘Zwartkopf’). The walls were made from rendered straw bales and painted in a soft pinkish terracotta, which was echoed in the reclaimed brick paths. It wasn’t a big frothy garden, or a landscaped wonder, it just hung together so beautifully.
The carbon footprint of this garden was low, with many of the materials reclaimed, and it will be returned to Benton End. The property has been gifted to The Garden Museum with the intention that it will be restored and opened to the public once again.
Film crews take priority in the show gardens. There were also a lot of VIP visitors being shown around in large, well-dressed herds. So you have to duck and dive a bit to get to see what you want to. The gold medal winner and Best in Show, Horatio’s Garden, designed by the Harris Bugg studio, was besieged pretty much all day, so it was hard to take a good photo. But it was a deserved champion.
Horatio’s Garden is a charity which encourages wellbeing after spinal injury by transforming souless spaces in NHS spinal injury centres into sensory, therapeutic areas. Harris Bugg’s design was aimed at creating a beautiful, uplifting garden, which is accessible to wheelchairs and patients in hospital beds. It combined wide, smooth pathways with cleverly layered planting which can be seen from any vantage point. A domed garden room provided shelter, and stone cairns created structure. The planting was soft and tactile.
The garden will eventually be relocated to The Princess Royal Spinal Injures Centre at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield, where patients and staff will benefit from it.
It’s well worth looking up the Horatio’s Garden charity, which was created in the memory of a teenage boy who lost his life www.horatiosgarden.org.uk
Leaving the show gardens for a change of pace, I made my way the Alitex greenhouses. This is a trade stand, and one which always lures me in. It’s not just that I’m a massive greenhouse geek, although, I admit, it’s turning into an obsession. Alitex sell my dream greenhouse, and the team always style them to perfection with mix of vintage accessories and perfect planting. So, this really was my treat of the show.
Dreamy Alitex greenhouse….
The beautiful textiles are by Molly Mahon, block printer and textile maven, and the subtly gorgeous greenhouse floor tiles are from a new range by Bert and May.
Julia Parker, an author, teacher and sustainable grower had created growing areas in one of the greenhouses, using thrifty techniques to raise fruit and veg. She showed how household scraps could be propagated, using a slice of ginger to grow a plant, or the end of a leek coaxed into new life. Coffee grounds were shown as slug repellents, old corks as cane defenders, and eggs shells as seed pods.
Soothed by the Alitex experience, it was back outside to the show gardens.
There were many gardens with messages. Do I think they work? Yes, I do. Very occasionally, it feels a little uneasy, but not this year. The Centrepoint Garden, celebrating the work done by the charity which supports young people facing homelessness, was designed by Cleve West. It was heavy on symbolism, with a ruined house, upturned trees, their roots looking raw and exposed, and weeds and wildflowers colonising barren ground. A mural consisting of 120,000 dots represented each young person who is homeless in the UK, but the regrowth and green shoots did seem to offer hope for their future.
There were a number of gardens connected to mental health charities. The connection between gardens and wellbeing is not new, and I have seen a few people grumbling about the constant emphasis on this link, but as far as I’m concerned, it needs to continue to be said and acted upon.
Saying that, there’s also a much-needed place for gardens which are just there for sheer pleasure, to be marvelled at and enjoyed. The Savills Garden did this, and so did the Hamptons Mediterranean Garden, where chefs were cooking up Italian treats all day long. Every time I went past, another table of lucky recipients were tucking into bowls of fresh pasta and glasses of wine, surrounded by fruit trees, beds bursting with herbs, and grapevines. Luckily, I was treated to show sponsor The Newt’s generous hospitality suite, or I might have fainted with longing.
The Savills Garden was a lush pottager, a walled oasis with a large outdoor kitchen and dining area. Some Chelsea Pensioners were enjoying the hospitality, and you can see how busy this one was. Lots of areas were roped off, so off I trotted along to more open and accessible spaces.
The Great Pavilion is always a delight, and although I’m going to write a second blog with some of my favourite plants from that area, I do need to give it a mention here. The Great Pavilion is like a plant fantasy world. The knowledge and the work that goes into the exhibits inside that tent is quite staggering.
The star for me was The Monument, an installation created to showcase the role of women in horticulture.
The shepherd’s hut is surrounded by my favourite planting in the whole show. A series of large, deep, woven planters made by weaver Deb Hart feature jewel colours: blackcurrant lupins, glowing orange geums, velvety purple irises, alliums, salvias, hardy geraniums and grasses. The plants have been grown by women from independent nurseries and smaller scale growers, and the whole thing is designed by Pollyanna Wilkinson. I was itching to get my sketchbook out, but there was just no time! I had to stick to the day job.
And just one more…
It was hard to top that, but there were some other horticultural rock stars in the house. David Austin Roses, for one.
And how about this for perfect whimsy?
Outside, the sun had started to show through by about 2pm. The celebs were now out in force. I was chatting to a friend in the Eastern Avenue when there was a small commotion, and a very slim dark haired woman in a pink dress brushed past us, walking quickly and surrounded by a gaggle of school children. It was the Princess of Wales.
King Charles and Camilla did not visit until the press had been kicked out at 3pm.
But I did see showbiz royalty in the shape of Dame Joanna Lumley, Fiona Bruce, Brian May, Jim Broadbent, Monty Don (well, you would expect him to be there), Alan Titchmarsh, and quite a few drag queens.
All in all, it was a lovely show and a fabulous year, busier and brighter than ever. Tomorrow, I’m going to share some of the takeaway ideas that I spotted.
I gained lots of inspiration, plans and dreams for my own small garden, and really, that’s what RHS Chelsea is all about.