The revealing of this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show gardens is always an exciting moment, and just the boost you need at this time of year. It reminds you that there is life beyond the snow and the ice: that one day the flowers will bloom and look breathtaking and you will feel inspired by the sheer scope of what’s possible in a smallish garden space.
This year looks like a cracker yet again: 24 show gardens, and the return of gardening heroes like Nigel Dunnett, Sarah Eberle, Jo Thompson, James Basson and Chris Beardshaw. Everyone is clearly in escapist mood as there are gardens to take you to Spain, Malta, China, Japan, and Canada.
You can expect more of the trend towards naturalistic, landscape-evocative planting that’s crept up on the show in recent years: I’m not sure anyone will quite outdo Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth garden of 2015 but they’re having a good stab at it. Nigel Dunnett is something of a pioneer in the field, of course, and this year takes on the RHS’s Greening Grey Britain installation; James Basson is another master and I’m looking forward to his recreation of a Maltese quarry. If it’s anything like the one he did last year it’ll be breathtaking.
Here are my picks for the gardens to look out for this year:
The M&G Garden: James Basson
James has been for some time now the stalking horse for the Chelsea crown: every year his gardens get better and better, his trademark understated flair producing sublime set pieces which transport you effortlessly into another environment altogether. They’re sophisticated gardens, yet deceptively simple, so you have to pay attention to appreciate the sheer brilliance of his thoughtful, intelligent design style. I’ve loved his work ever since I first saw it in Japan a few years ago: last year he won his third Chelsea gold and I think this could be his year.
The Morgan Stanley Garden: Chris Beardshaw
You always sit up and take notice when Chris’s name is on the card: this looks to be a masterpiece of subtle plant design as usual. The USP is its connection to music: the National Youth Orchestra has been exploring their emotional responses to the garden and its plants through music and have composed a piece of music inspired by the design. Expect lots of contrasts in mood and texture.
Musen Landscape SEEK Garden: Jin Yang
We’ve seen a lot of Japanese designs at Chelsea: but it is rare that a Chinese design breaks through, even though gardens were essentially invented in China many, many years before the Japanese thought of raking a pattern in a bit of gravel. So this garden by first-timer Jin Yang should be fascinating: from the picture it looks like an exquisite piece of Chinese artistry picked out in mosaics and rare rhododendrons.
The Chengdu Silk Road Garden: Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins
Just when you think it’s about time you saw a Chinese garden, two come along at once. Actually, this is about China rather than being a ‘Chinese’ garden as such; but it does take East-West trade links along the Silk Road as its theme, and specifically Sichuan province – one of the most florally diverse in the world – and the town of Chengdu which it turns out is famous for embroidery. That is the perfect excuse for a quite spectacular-looking piece of sculpture, a ‘Silk Road bridge’ spun above and round the garden as though swept up in a whirlwind. Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins have form with ambitious, architectural designs: this one should be a real head-turner.
The RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden: Nigel Dunnett
I’m not a big fan of the ‘installation’ gardens at Chelsea as a rule: they seem to lack an identity, more PR exercise than actual garden. But when Nigel Dunnett is behind the planting it’s never boring. This is the man who pioneered ‘meadow’ style annual flower plantings for inner city Sheffield and the London Olympics, and brought us rain gardens, too. Here he’s tackling gardening in high-rise apartments with very restricted outdoor space: his ability to think laterally could bring us the solutions we badly need.
Sarah Eberle is designing the Hillier stand again – she scooped gold for them (yet again – their 72nd I believe) last year with her spectacular waterfalls. Burncoose is looking at plants pollinated by moths, flies and beetles: expect Calycanthus, pollinated by beetles, and magnolias, which evolved before there were any bees so are pollinated mainly by flies.
The Hardy Plant Society celebrates its 60th birthday with 60 plants; Raymond Evison has created an entire seashore to show off his clematis; and Birmingham City Council is recreating one of eccentric inventor Rowland Emett’s whimsical kinetic sculptures in flowers. Finally, it’s always nice to see a new face, and first-timers Calamazag Nursery, from Looe in Cornwall, are going to be popular: their penchant is hardy pinks, among my favourite plants.
The Fresh Gardens look a bit earnest, on paper at least, this year: though I do like the sound of the ‘clementine, coral and cappuccino’ colour scheme to ‘Inland Homes: Beneath a Mexican Sky’ by Manoj Malde. Pray for sunny days at Chelsea to do it justice, though.
The Artisan Gardens are much more promising. Sarah Eberle is back with Viking Cruises and promises date palms, citrus and succulents and inspiration from Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, who was very into Lord of the Rings style pinnacles. We have a 17th century apothecary in The Seedlip Garden from Dr Catherine MacDonald – right up my street as it’s all about distilling (non-alcoholic) drinks from herbs. Also love the sound of The IBTC Lowestoft Broadland Boatbuilder’s Garden – a bit of a mouthful perhaps but it does feature a replica of an 800-year-old wooden boat plus lots of lovely edibles including chives, peas, garlic and kale.