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Hillier’s gold medal winning display from 2015: as it turns out, their last

Of course the RHS Chelsea Flower show isn’t just about the big fancy show gardens, even if they do shout the loudest.

Among my very favourite features of the show are the small gardens – particularly the Artisan Gardens (still think of them by their old name, Courtyard Gardens though: can’t get out of the habit, somehow).

And then there’s the Pavilion… the great beating heart of the show. What it’s all about, really: without those perfect, breathtaking, impossibly beautiful plants from every corner of the world there simply wouldn’t be a show.

So while I’m previewing Chelsea 2016, I couldn’t possibly pass up the chance to give you a sneak peek at the bits of Chelsea regular visitors know are really the best.

Great Pavilion

There are seismic changes afoot in the Pavilion next year.

The huge display by Hillier around the central monument has been a landmark fixture for 70 years of gold medal winning displays: they’re the most successful exhibitors in the century-plus history of the show.

Now however their MD and designer of the last 25 gold medal winning displays, Andy McIndoe, has bowed out. There can be few people on whose shoulders Chelsea can be said to rest: but Andy is definitely one of them. He’s being a bit cagey about whether or not he’ll be involved with Chelsea next year: but he’s definitely not doing another Hillier display. He – and his shirts – will be much missed.

Instead, in the big central spot there will be a large train. Specifically, the Orient Express, or rather one carriage of it. Bowdens, the hosta people, have taken on the daunting task of filling the 6000 sq ft plot with a fully planted railway station. There will be stewards, I’m told. And crockery.

Sue Beesley will be back again for another go at improving on her impressive debut silver next year (despite the cack-handed helpers); and New Covent Garden Flower Market is making its debut with what is going to be a breathtaking extravaganza of cut flowers.

There will be some front gardens to give you a few makeover ideas a la Ground Force, courtesy of the Horticultural Trades Association‘s Love the Plot You’ve Got campaign; and rhododendrons a go-go (both the RHS and Millais Nurseries are celebrating the centenary of the Rhododendron Society). People keep trying to resurrect rhodies and I don’t see any sign of it catching on yet: let’s see if this does the trick. Oh yes; and a chunk of castle from Cholmondeley Castle in Cheshire.


Sarah Eberle’s watery world

Artisan Gardens

In the secluded huddle of gardens under the trees of Ranelagh Way the headline act is undoubtedly Sarah Eberle, a Chelsea veteran with a Best in Show (2007) under her belt. Love the sound of her floating garden: fishing nets, watercress, and a lounger-cum-boat.

There is going to be much noise in this corner of the show: Frederick Whyte is creating a garden all about helping children to make music and Peter Eustance has drawn inspiration from percussionist Evelyn Glennie for an ‘acoustic garden’ harnessing everything from the wood to sunshine to make pulsing rhythms. Just hope they don’t put them next door to each other, that’s all.

Fresh Gardens

Conceptual gardens have made a shaky transition from Hampton Court to Chelsea; in fact they’ve rather lost their way at Hampton Court too what with the imposing of this year’s misguided ‘themes’ instead of letting artists have their head. Maybe it’s because it’s no longer new; it’s harder to surprise when you’re expecting to be surprised.


The Dyer’s Garden

This year is looking promising, though, perhaps because people aren’t trying quite so hard. I love the sound of Claudy Jongstra‘s dyer’s garden: right up my street, all hand-dyed fabrics and the plants used to create them. Juliet Sargent weaves a strong story about modern-day slavery around an oak tree; and I really want to see Tatyana Goltsova‘s Lace Tree, threading living branches through gossamer lace.

There’s also a garden in a concrete box. ‘Nuff said.