As seen at Petworth House, West Sussex
So farewell then, Chelsea, for another year. Just in case you’re suffering a little Chelsea withdrawal, here are a few ideas I spotted among the hi-falutin’ designery and general razzmatazz, the kind of Chelsea inspiration that’s actually not that difficult to recreate at home.
Chelsea is often criticised for not being relevant to ‘ordinary’ gardeners: but I think there’s plenty of inspiration that translates directly into the average back yard. You just have to know where to look.
Hazel bundle edging: A simple (and cheap) but effective way to edge beds and borders, as seen on Sarah Eberle’s design for Hillier’s in the Pavilion. Wonderful for wildlife, too.
Make your logpile into a garden feature: Logpiles are a haven for wildlife, from frogs and toads to ground beetles, but they’re usually a bit of an eyesore and best tucked away where they can’t be seen. Unless you do what Nigel Dunnett did in the RHS Greening Grey Britain garden and cover them in plants like a kind of garden sculpture.
Match your plants to your sculptures: As seen on the Seedlip Garden, where the coppery tones of Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ toned in perfectly with the funky artwork.
Sheds without windows: Why be a norm? Rather than going to the expense of fitting your shed with boring old windows, turn one side into a shelving unit instead and display your prettiest glassware and choice flowers instead. As seen on the Anneke Rice Colour Cutting Garden.
Use clay pots as cane toppers: How pretty is this? A great way to stop yourself poking your eyes out while weeding the tomatoes, spotted on the Pennard Plants stand in the Pavilion.
Clothe your sheds: Another great shed idea, this time spotted on the Horticulture Trades Association exhibit in the Pavilion. They used a planting pocket system to cover one end with strawberries and the side wall with a patchwork of different thyme. The roof was pretty cool too. A whole lot better than looking at a load of shiplap.
Make fencing out of old garden tools: Simple, but effective. These were ordinary garden forks and spades, sunk into the ground on the Chris Evans Taste Garden, sturdy garden twine threaded through the handles to make a simple rope fence.
Tabletop tree pruning: Create natural shade and a living pergola by pruning a quadrangle of four trees – here, on the Poetry Lover’s Garden, limes – into a green roof above your head. They’re also known as parasol trees: if you don’t fancy the hassle of shaping them yourself you can buy pre-trained ones.
Do away with your greenhouse frame: These were quite the talking point. I had never realised quite how imposing the frame of a greenhouse could be until I saw a greenhouse without one. These were frameless greenhouses from Pure, and the RHS was impressed, too: they awarded them RHS Chelsea Garden Product of the Year.
Build walls you can read: What a beautiful idea. Here the words were impressions about scents, on the Jo Whiley Scent Garden: but you could carve a poem, favourite saying or quote into your wall for a feature that’s poetic as well as practical.
Great to see the veg back at Chelsea. We had a brief flurry of edible love back in the mid-noughties, when the GYO trend was riding high, but in recent years they’ve gone back to hiding behind the skirts of flouncier irises, alliums and other glamourpusses.
No longer. This year there were pistachios on the Best in Show garden and potatoes in the Pavilion (to be fair, they never really went away). Even the RHS Plant of the Year was an edible (the genuinely ground-breaking dwarf mulberry ‘Charlotte Russe’). For a dedicated food grower like me, it was heaven.
The Chris Evans Taste Garden
I really liked the Radio 2 Feel Good gardens this year. They had all the Chelsea pizazz but were more accessible than the more highbrow show gardens: these were true crowd-pleasers, and unashamedly so. None more than the Chris Evans Taste Garden, designed by talented edibles specialist Jon Wheatley and packed with astonishingly perfect vegetables grown by Suttons Seeds’ secret weapon, Terry Porter, whose slightly arcane specialism is producing show-standard vegetables out of season for the flower shows.
I loved everything about this garden: and particularly the big trough full of cutting flowers at the back (including a ginger dahlia, ‘Cheyenne’, in tribute to Chris Evans’s famous carrot top). Just goes to show, you can squeeze a cutting garden in just about anywhere.
The Viking Cruises Garden of Inspiration (gold)
My favourite of all the Artisan Gardens this year. And just look at that orange tree. I have seen orange trees in Italy, France and Florida. But never have I seen one as perfectly orangey as this one. Mouthwatering.
The Potato Story (gold)
Morrice and Ann Innes
Into the Pavilion now, and potato enthusiasts Morrice and Ann Innes became the first exhibit in the history of the show to win a gold medal for a display of potatoes. But what a display. I thought I know a bit about spuds, but came away from this realising quite how far I have yet to go. Morrice (resplendent in his kilt) told me he grows every single one of the 140 varieties on display each year. Only six or so tubers of each, granted, but they take up about half a hectare of back garden. Now that’s dedication.
Robinson Seed & Plants (Silver Gilt)
Loads of unusual veg on the immaculate Robinsons stand. Many, like achocha and cucamelons, I’ve grown already. But these snake gourds turned my head. Apparently, as well as eating them or making medicines from them, you can also turn them into didgeridoos. Who knew.
Also on the Robinsons stand was a rather fabulous edible wall, planted in pockets. This lot included American land cress, watercress, parsley, red-veined sorrel, Bull’s Blood beetroot, rocket, two types of lettuce, electric daisies, New Zealand spinach and asparagus peas. Not bad for a ‘wall’ that measured no more than about 3ft wide by 2ft high.
Tom Smith Plants (Silver Gilt)
And I just had to give a mention to the hottest exhibit in the Pavilion. One for masochists, sorry, chilli lovers everywhere, ‘Dragon’s Breath’ was bred pretty much by accident by Mike Smith, owner of Denbighshire nursery Tom Smith’s Plants. He sent the fruits off to Nottingham Trent University, and much to his surprise they returned with a scorching 2.48 million reading on the Scoville Heat scale. Just to put that into context, the current world record holder, the notorious Carolina Reaper, hits a mere 2.2 million. Mike is now awaiting confirmation from the Guinness Book of Records. Apparently if you were actually stupid enough to swallow one of these little fruits – just a couple of centimetres across – you would be fairly likely to die of anaphylactic shock. The law of natural selection in action, you might say.
Walkers Wharf Garden by Graham Bodle
Best Artisan Garden
I can’t help feeling the judges have been in a slightly bolshy frame of mind this week. Certainly they’ve been in uncompromising mood, with not the slightest concession to things like popularity or crowd-pleasing.
And so they walked past Sarah Eberle’s perfect orange tree and the breathtaking beauty of Gosho no Niwa (No Wall, No War); they turned from the thoughtful planting on the World Horse Welfare garden and the hand-made wooden boat on the Broadland Boatbuilder’s Garden. And instead, they chose as their favourite a garden full of post-industrial rusty metal and hardly a flower in sight.
It might not have been my own choice for the best of the exceptionally good lineup of Artisan gardens this year. But I could see why they singled it out.
The planting was delicately understated yet full of unusual choices like rushes, water mint and miniature hostas. And it had several beautiful little touches: I loved the way the rusty orange flowers on the Pinus sylvestris were picked up in the seat and again in the rusty metal.
It also chimes with one of the RHS’s Big Messages at the moment in showing how a ‘grey’ bit of Britain – i.e. a post-industrial landscape full of the debris of heavy industry – could be transformed through planting. And in the process, managed somehow to convince me that things like rusty old chains made for some really rather funky garden sculpture.
Besides, any garden that shoehorns a socking great iron crane into a tiny 5m x 7m space and then sets it off with plants in such a way as to make it look pretty damn fantastic has already pulled off a fairly spectacular feat of imagination and engineering. Which, when you think about it, is reason enough to claim the top prize. Bloody brilliant.
The RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year competition, launched in 2010, brings new and genuinely different plants into the light each year, these days attracting dozens of entries from growers all over the Pavilion. Here are the ones that caught my eye this year.
Morus rotundiloba ‘Charlotte Russe’
Winner, RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year 2017
Not the most spectacular of pictures to start with, but then May isn’t the best time to be showing off a new mulberry either. I spotted this one at the Garden Press Event back in February where it was attracting much interest: it is the first genuinely dwarf mulberry bush, small enough to grow in a container and a real breakthrough in small-scale fruit production. It’s even said to fruit in its first year (unlike tree mulberries, which take at least seven).
Rosa ‘Dame Judi Dench’ (‘Ausquaker’)
Meet Judi Dench: one of the five or six new roses which has made it through the rigorous 10-year selection process at David Austin Roses this year. Peachy-apricot, sweetly fragrant, and a little louche in habit: Michael Marriott at David Austin’s says they could be amenable to training as a climber, too.
Lewisia longipetala ‘Little Snowberry’
A truly lovely lewisia from alpine specialists D’Arcy & Everest, delicate, pretty, dainty, and carefully selected for the purity of colour of its flowers and for its robustness.
Lilium ‘Sunset Joy’
I found this one bursting from containers on the Horticultural Trades Association stand – actually, you couldn’t miss it. Asiatic lilies are usually single colours but this one is a bicolour: it’s also a compact and vigorous little thing, great for summer patios.
Another chance discovery among foxgloves in the National Collection at the Botanic Nursery in Wiltshire: yellow foxgloves are rare, and this is a particularly interesting shade of lemony, limey yellow which looks lovely among brighter shades. It’s also quite compact, so could be a good one for containers.
Corydalis ‘Porcelain Blue’
There were mixed reactions to this little plant, tucked into the side of the Hilliers exhibit. But I liked it, especially that pretty bicoloured effect as flowers open blue and fade to white with age.
I am usually a little wary of brightly-coloured clematis, but this one had something. The flower matures from spiky to rosette, then opens fully into a full double, each purple petal tipped with white like a little icicle.
Sweet pepper ‘Popti’
I am possibly a little biased here as I’m always on the lookout for new veg varieties coming onto the market. But this little bell pepper on the Pennard Plants stand did turn my head: it’s a bushy plant but still compact, and covered with peppers, unusually for a pot-grown plant. It’s disease-resistant and early-ripening, too.
Pelargonium ‘Rushmoor Amazon’
Well, who knew. A yellow pelargonium. And what a pretty one, too. This is the result of 30 years of breeding in Australia, the first in a series to be known as the Rushmoor River Series. Its habit is so different it’s even invented a new type of pelargonium, the Zonartic pelargonium, with big, open flowers and that delicate yellow colouring, this one just brushed with a smidge of pale pink. I loved it.
The M&G Garden, James Basson
I can’t help feeling a bit smug about this year’s winner of Best in Show. I have been saying for quite some time that I thought James Basson was destined for great things: I first met him in Japan back in 2012, when he was doing the Gardening World Cup and created a fine, thoughtful and delicately judged garden based on the Wilfred Owen poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. Even back then I knew he was doing something rather different.
I have loved everything he’s done ever since. Last year’s garden for L’Occitane recreated a Provence landscape with breathtaking attention to detail and was, for my money, head and shoulders above the rest (the RHS judges, sadly, didn’t agree with me).
Which is why it is a little painful for me to confess that this year’s garden is not, for me, a favourite. I hope he won’t mind me saying that I found the strongly geometric hard landscaping, meant to evoke a Maltese quarry, overwhelming and over-dominant. I think it’s something to do with the crisply-cut, cuboid, modernist shapes. There was a lot of rock in his L’Occitane garden, after all, but there it complemented the planting. This swamps it.
And that’s a shame, as the plants themselves are quite remarkable. Typically of James’s attention to detail, each one is thoughtfully chosen and grouped to recreate particular microclimates: many are Maltese natives, rarely seen on these shores.
These are austere wildflowers, with none of the over-the-top prettiness of Chelsea. It’s a harsh, uncompromising landscape which perfectly evokes the dry, edge-of-existence environment that is as fragile as it gets. It is brave, for Chelsea (especially in the sponsor’s garden), and makes no concessions to crowd-pleasing. It is, in fact, what James Basson does best.
So look past the overly-geometric, jarringly modernist stonework which I wish had more rough edges, more chaos, more wildness; and concentrate instead on the gaunt, stark dignity of the plants between. For that is where the real truth of this garden lies, and that is why James is such a very special and very different kind of designer whose moment in the spotlight has, at last, arrived.
A happy day yesterday pottering among the plants at the RHS Spring Festival at Malvern. This is one of the most low-key of flower shows, rarely talked about yet hiding treasures at its heart. Not least of which is one of the very best floral marquees of them all: for my money, second only to the marquee at Chelsea in terms of quality, quantity and sheer wow factor. I never tire of it.
By the time I left I was three scented-leaf geraniums, three salvias, a solar-powered irrigation system and a lot of large bamboo plant labels the heavier. All of which, no doubt, more later. But since I also had a camera loaded with pics I thought I would resurrect an old Constant Gardener tradition, last seen in 2012, and dish out a few gongs for the bits of the show that I thought were worth singling out for special attention.
Best Use of a Borrowed Landscape
At One With… A Meditation Garden (Gold and Best in Show)
Head and shoulders above the rest, and a shoo-in for Best in Show, Peter Dowle’s garden was a study in how to transport you to another place using plants, water and very, very clever design. Not least of which was nicking the grandeur of the Malvern Hills to make your acers look like they’re at one with the landscape.
Best Use of Recycled Materials
Team AK’s Grand Day Out, Ashton Keynes CofE Primary School, Wiltshire (Highly Commended)
I adore the school gardens at Malvern: they never fail to provide new ideas. I think it’s something to do with the way that kids see the world differently – and that includes gardens. Loved this painted bottle path edging – it just made me smile.
Best Wildflower Planting
The Refuge (Gold)
Ragged robin and corn poppies in a sublime little mini-meadow on Sue Jollan’s garden for Help Refugees UK.
Wall of the Year
Buckfast Abbey Millennium Garden (Silver)
How lovely this garden was. Dominated by a delicate wire sculpture of a deer drinking, it combined gentle, airy planting with green oak arches – infilled at the base with cut logs to make a wall which combines natural beauty and elegance.
Molecular Garden (Gold)
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best: this wooden wall art transformed a stretch of render in the winning garden in the Spa Gardens category, by visiting designers Denis Kalashnikov and Ekaterina Bolotova, on an exchange from the Moscow Flower Show.
Garden Furniture I Most Wanted To Take Home
Ocean Garden (Bronze)
Colour… and comfort. Love it.
Funkiest Sculpture of the Year 2017
Garden grunge at its best. Loved this chap right down to the bulb. Now that’s what I call garden lighting.
Plant of the Show 2017
They were everywhere: breathtaking, blowsy, beautiful. I particularly liked that the ravishing display on Primrose Hall Nursery’s stand was staged close enough for you to be able to smell the blooms and work out which are as perfumed as they say they are. I will be filling my garden with la Duchesse de Nemours forthwith.
Most Astonishing Stem Colour
Acer palmatum “Sango-kaku” (Staddon Farm Nurseries, Gold)
Extraordinary: and those lime green leaves just popped against the stems.
Plant That Most Resembled a Pillow
Scleranthus biflorus (D’Arcy & Everest, Silver Gilt)
Hands down the weirdest plant in the marquee. I had to look twice before I realised it even was a plant. Then all I really wanted to do was lay my head down on it and go to sleep.
The “Why? Oh Why?” Wooden Spoon Award for 2017
Bubble Drops (Spa Garden, Bronze)
It had one slightly lonely-looking plant in it. In a pot. ‘Nuff said.