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Gardens Blog

Musings on Chelsea 2016


Did you go to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year? Or did you watch chunks of it on BBC1? I did both – and thoroughly enjoyed my annual pilgrimage on the Tuesday to soak up the thrills of the new and hope to reacquaint myself with old friends. As always, I wander around the show gardens, wondering what I as a designer would do were I to be faced with the challenges of a small site, with a number of sightlines and requirements, limited budget and materials which left me with the following observations.

The same plants appeared time and again in different gardens – I’ve noticed this phenomenon before. One year it was Orlaya grandiflora, the next it was Anthriscus Ravenswing. This year there was an overdose of Lysimachia atropurpurea Beaujolais . Possibly it comes from many designers sourcing their stock from a few large growers? Whatever, some of the spaces this year looked a little too wild to deserve the noun ‘gardens’ and although these gardens are still major achievements in their evocation of chalk streams or Provençal lanes where just a few weeks ago were grassy banks and English lawns, they were perhaps a step too far off what most of us would term a ‘garden’.

Some years I want to take away an entire garden and have it all for me – they can be simply sublime in design and planting – and other years it just doesn’t work for me at all. 2016 was a year in point and I left feeling mainly as though I wanted to take home elements of different gardens so, just for you, here is my wish list:

Andy Sturgeon’s fire basket, elegantly cast presumably in bronze, a simple collection of sticks and a flame (propane fuelled?) which burned throughout the show.

Cleve West’s Exmoor boulders, particularly the one chiselled out to catch water in a basin. This was indeed a beautiful garden and could easily have been best in show. Tim Richardson, writing in the Daily Telegraph, called it a ‘quotation of Exmoor’ which nails it perfectly.

The beautiful copper water bowl from Nick Bailey’s Winton Beauty of Mathematics garden (and indeed the perfect, Fibonacci plants forming flat spirals on the pale cream gravel)

The brick and pebble paving in Jekka McVicar’s herb garden – traditional in appearance, peerlessly executed, immaculate attention to detail. Goodness knows how long it took to put together but it made that garden.

Jo Thompson’s tidal rill – I’ve seen dozens of rills in my time but never a tidal one. Good for her. The longer I looked at that garden the more I saw in it (and shame on the grumpy old man behind me who compained he could only see “a boring lawn and a bit of planting” – presumably his feet hurt and he was only there to carry the plant lists)

The glorious planting in the Garden for Yorkshire by Matthew Wilson, echoing the stained glass window of York Minster – it filled out gradually over the week and just got better and better.

The moss in the Garage Garden by Kazuyuki Ishihara – yes, he does it every year (do we suspect he leaves it all in the UK and simply comes back each spring and gets it going again? Or is that just too cynical?). Whatever, it forms delicious damp plump green cushions and I long to walk barefoot on it.

The fabulous pale stone on the L &G Smart garden – crisp, clean edges and perfectly cut to set off the planting. Also, on that garden, the clever brise-soleil which only had supports at one side. How difficult that must have been to get right and how effortless it appeared.

Did I like Diarmud Gavin’s faux Arts and Crafts garden for Harrods? Yes, for about the first ten minutes and then it turned into a bit of Disney meets Alice in Wonderland. Possibly the best part of that garden was the inventor’s shed to the side which displayed working models which actually made sense of the madness going on round the corner. Judging by the smiles on people’s faces it brought a bit of levity and joy into the whole thing which probably annoyed the purists but that’s OK too.

The winner for me in the great pavilion has to be the hepaticas; grown and displayed with exquisite care and attention by Ashwood Nurseries, they sat like precious jewelled treasures in their whiskery glory and I just wanted to be left to gaze at them for ever.

If I were allowed to take a garden home with me it would have to be Chris Beardshaw’s perfect garden for Great Ormond Street Hospital. Not some abstract, impossible to recreate at home space but instead a collection of shapely shade loving trees and dense underplanting, thoughtfully combined to provide texture, colour, movement and scent, creating refuge and comfort for people living through their own worst nightmares. He could have easily placed all his trees and perennials around the reflecting pool and statuary and walked away, boxes ticked and job done. Instead he did something clever – towards the bottom end of the rectangular pool he added a semi-circle into the water, planted it lushly with irises and in doing so broke the parallel lines and symmetry so gently and stylishly. It made all the other gardens look organised and artificial and I loved it.