Planting combination of the week for me was this soft confection of ethereal pastels from Hay Joung Hwang on the LG Smart Garden: Eremurus robustus, Digitalis purpurea ‘Alba’, Geranium phaeum ‘Album’, Phlox divaricata ‘Clouds of Perfume’, Persicaria bistorta ‘Superba’, Rosa ‘Royal Philharmonic’, and Iris ‘Jane Phillips’. Just sublime.
But so it is with Sarah Eberle’s lushly planted slice of the Mekong Delta for Viking Cruises – winner of a gold medal and Best Artisan garden (by miles, if I had my way). So luxuriant, so densely-planted, so detailed is it that there’s just no way to do it justice with a few snatched pictures – so you’ll have to take my word for it. It’s a true piece of theatre.
The planting floats in flat-bottomed traditional Cambodian fishing boats, dripping leaves and flowers over the sides into the water beneath. A riotous mix of dahlias, gloriosa lilies, philodendrons and orchids crammed into every inch of space conjures up the steamy South Asian jungle in a few deft sweeps of exotic, tropical-looking foliage and flowers.
And I did love that there were vegetables here too. I’m always on the lookout for veg at Chelsea and these were as lush as the flowers that surrounded them. Some veg just have that jungly look, so it wasn’t a surprise to see gourds, okra and aubergines. But who knew cabbage and spinach could look exotic? Must add dahlias to the cabbage patch next year….
Well: Andy Sturgeon has done it again with his dinosaur-inspired creation for the Daily Telegraph. It’s huge, sculptural, dramatic, monumental…. and…. oh dear. Not my kind of thing at all.
I really like Andy’s designs as a rule: the last time he won, in 2010, was with a garden I still talk about today. It had a similarly strong design, with sparse, beautiful, well-considered planting, and a haunting sense of atmosphere. It left you with the kind of images that stay on the retina for years afterwards.
This one may stay in my mind for all the wrong reasons. The bold design was, for me, just a bit too bold, a bit too in-yer-face. It kept pulling my eye away from the extraordinary planting I’d rather be looking at, full of beauties I’d never come across before. When you have star plants like this, it’s a crime to have your attention dragged away so you can look at a load of white limestone instead.
Anyway. What do I know. It was all undeniably very ambitious: Andy has shouldered the task of telling the history of the world in a garden, no less, from dinosaurs onwards, bronze stegosaurus plates and all.
For me, though, it was the plants which swung it: my, but they’re special. Their names are like a rollcall of the rare and exotic and sent me scurrying for my plant encyclopedias: Anizoganthus (kangaroo paw) and gaunt, sparse Corokia x virgata I’m familiar with, but the tufty red spires of Echium russicum, grassy Poa labillardierei and Ephedra fragilis, delicate Bulbine frutescens… all had me rifling feverishly through the pages.
The effect was so ethereal, otherworldly, alien: a world of sparse, twisted stems and delicate, shy flowers in silvers and tangerine oranges, so unfamiliar you could believe a stegosaurus might walk around the corner at any minute. It convinced better, in fact, than any amount of firepits and paving.
As privileges go, it doesn’t get much better than a personal guided tour around Guernsey Clematis by the great Raymond Evison himself.
I have met Raymond on lots of occasions at Chelsea: he is a true gentleman, of the unfailingly courteous kind, and his air of urbane charm rather disguises the fact that he is a sharp and very savvy businessman. He has succeeded in keeping his world-beating clematis nursery not only going but wildly successful, while keeping it on its home island of Guernsey.
It’s a feat many good plantsmen haven’t been able to pull off, and Raymond himself admits it hasn’t been easy, but any business that supplies 25% of the world’s – yes, the world’s – clematis supply is a success by anyone’s standards.
It was fascinating to see how you go about producing millions and millions of top-quality plants, while also running a commercial breeding operation which is about the only one at the moment producing new clematis anywhere. And all from an island nine miles by five miles with an erratic ferry service. Respect.
Here’s how he does it:
I did get a little look at the breeding operation too, but I’m afraid Raymond would have to shoot me if I revealed what he’s up to. A few facts and figures though:
• 2,500 crosses a year, done via hand pollination with paintbrushes
• from which 25,000-35,000 seeds sown – about a third germinate
• About 6,000-8,000 new seedlings are grown on and assessed for several years (it takes 8-10 years to produce a new clematis variety)
• qualities which are prized include ability to flower up the stem (rather than just at the top), compact, with a ‘pick me up and buy me’ quality: clematis have to flower within the first 60cm or they won’t sell in garden centres
• Current breeding goals are better reds, truer blues, as many doubles as possible, and a new strain of late-flowering, small-flowered clematis which bloom earlier in the season too
What I can say is that he’s releasing two new varieties at Chelsea this year: Volunteer, a container clematis in delicate mauve streaked plum purple; and Tekla, a deep pinky-red with deep red anthers and a late spring flowerer with a second flush in mid to late summer. It grows to 1.5m (5ft) and like all Raymond’s clematis is smothered in flowers from top to bottom.
Both will be on the Guernsey Clematis Chelsea stand: and do look out for the plant support Raymond has the Volunteer growing through. It’s not often I get excited about a plant support, but this one is a work of art and a thing of beauty. That’s all I’m saying.
As always the launch press event is all about the details you want to know but can’t (always) get off the press releases. So here’s the lowdown on what not to miss at Chelsea this year – and I’m not, on the whole, talking gardens:
The Queen’s 90th birthday party: Yes, HRH is a nonagenarian. It didn’t surprise me to learn that she’s now clocked up 51 visits to Chelsea: getting kicked out at 3pm on press day so she can view the gardens without the hoi polloi bothering her is one of the traditions of Chelsea I look forward to every year, mainly because it means an early shout on a Monday.
Anyway: the RHS is laying on an exhibition taken from their back catalogue of photos, plus a floral arch inspired by made for Queen Victoria in Reigate, of all places.
Poppies will be much in evidence and no doubt much discussed: an installation of 300,000 crocheted poppies (yes, you did read that right) will cover 2000 square metres either side of the walkway leading up to the recently denuded front facade of the Royal Hospital in a sea of red. It is – as one journo pointed out – reminiscent of the Tower of London poppy installation a couple of years ago: but cosier.
Poor old Alan got a lot of stick for his part in wiping away centuries of ancient tree and replacing them with a new design by George Carter: but as he said, ‘a Grade I listed building by Christopher Wren deserved better than an overgrown Victorian shrubbery’. Quite.
Ann-Marie Powell is designing the RHS garden (better to just say that than its full title, The RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden for Health, Happiness and Horticulture – snappy, eh?). I love Ann-Marie’s gardens: they burst with a kind of irrepressible energy, all enthusiasm and verve. There will be much gorgeousness including a perennial meadow, kitchen garden and demonstration beds. And you can walk through it. Divine.
There’s a new award: the poor folk who work their socks off constructing every painstaking detail of the show gardens yet barely getting a mention in the footnotes by comparison with the glitzy designers (a bit like the drummer in a glam rock band) will – at long last – get their very own award, the Best Construction Award. All gardens which score ‘excellent’ for construction on the judging sheets will go forward automatically for the gong.
There are seven female designers on Main Avenue this year: not, the RHS was at pains to assure us, because of any particular positive discrimination during the selection process but rather because of all the chat last year about the fact that there were only two prompted some of our best female designers to think about putting themselves forward. It’s still not 50:50 (there are 17 show gardens) but it’s a good start.
Sarah Eberle is designing the Hillier Garden in the Pavilion (as well as her beautiful watery Artisan Garden). Seasoned team member Ricky Dorlay – 50 Chelseas and counting – is there though of course the designer of the last several dozen gold medal winning exhibits previous to this, Andy McIndoe, and ever-smiley plantswoman Pip Bensley have moved on to pastures new. We’re promised a more designerly garden with a central water feature and plant groupings which will work not only with each other, but also in your garden. It’ll be right alongside their old plot around the monument, now taken by Bowden Hostas and the Orient Express’s sister train: the urge to compare-and-contrast will be hard to resist.
Nurseries are going conceptual: several are working with designer Kate Gould to bring a ‘more conceptual bent’ to exhibits in the Pavilion. The Mayan inspired temple pyramid at T3 Plants should be good…
You can wear a bobble suit with some kind of sensor system that lights up and tells you when you’re gardening badly. Have a go at digging on the stand and the team from the University of Coventry will tell you why your back always aches afterwards.
There are two new RHS Ambassadors: Young Hort Jamie Butterworth (is it me or are gardeners getting younger, like policemen and teachers?) and the redoubtable Jekka McVicar have both been recruited to the RHS cause. Both already do such a lot for the RHS we’ll be hard put to spot the difference, but it’s great that their huge efforts and achievements are being recognised.
Chelsea here we come!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s that time of year again…
Is it my imagination, or does the RHS Chelsea Flower Show come round more quickly each season? Maybe it’s just that I’ve been talking about it more, and earlier, than usual: I have the challenge of leading a tour group around the show for HF Holidays next year. Wish me luck. Fortunately it will be a small and select group and since I know Chelsea better than many – this will be my 10th year there – hopefully we’ll find a way around the crowds (as far as is possible anyway!)
Tickets went on sale to RHS members a few weeks ago and will be available to the public from 1 December. And to whet your appetite, the RHS has just released details of what you’re likely to see. It looks as if it’ll be a cracker of a show…
Cleve West is back with the sponsor’s garden, M&G. What a welcome return. It was nice of him to give Dan a go (wouldn’t it be a clash of the Titans to have them both at Chelsea at the same time) but he was missed. The garden is an homage to Exmoor: I am certain to fall in love with it as Exmoor is just a few miles from my front door and speaks to my heart like few other landscapes. There is a lot of oak.
Diarmuid Gavin is also back: love him or loathe him, he never fails to cause a stir. I interviewed him a while back and since I wasn’t a fan, was taken aback to be charmed sockless. He was absolutely delightful. Something to do with mischievous Irish twinkles. Anyway: the garden. Totally bonkers. When I say Heath Robinson inspired it you’ll get the idea. It’s not really a garden at all: more of a giant clockwork toy with added box balls. A bit of me is horrified: a bit of me can’t wait to see it.
Chris Beardshaw is the next in a bit of a star-studded line-up: always one to watch, perhaps a bit safe sometimes but assured, calm, and quietly brilliant. It’s a roof garden, with a Japanese-inspired pavilion and a woodland planting scheme: I will be taking notes as woodland is what I’m doing a lot of at the moment in both my own gardens and the ones I look after, and Chris is an inspired planting designer.
Andy Sturgeon is returning to the scene of former triumphs for the Daily Telegraph (he won Best in Show for them in 2010). Bronze sculptures as mountains (hmm…) above ‘gorges’ of meltwater I can take or leave, but the drought-tolerant planting inspired by the semi-arid landscapes of the Sierra Madre and the Andes sounds extraordinary. Maytenus, asphodelus, junipers and South African Bulbine frutescens… one for plantsmen and women everywhere.
Jo Thompson is also back on Main Avenue with her design for the Chelsea Barracks: I adore Jo’s romantic style of planting and have fallen in love with every show garden she’s ever done (and the list is lengthening year by year). This one looks like classic Jo: it’s basically a rose garden, with a nod to the Grade I listed Garrison Chapel via a stained glass window.
Matthew Wilson continues the who’s who list of designers. His bench last year was a work of art, more sculpture than seating area. Stained glass again (how does that happen? I’m sure there’s some kind of ley line operating between designers preparing for Chelsea): this time it’s York Minster, currently restoring its East Window and unveiling it just before the show, next spring. The garden is a bit of a love letter to Yorkshire, in fact: I think Matthew might be missing Harlow Carr…
And Rosy Hardy is making the leap from Pavilion to Main Avenue – and there couldn’t be a better person to do it. I’m really excited to see what she can do: her creations for Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, her nursery, are always breathtaking. Perhaps it gets boring, winning a gold medal every year (she has 20) and you need new challenges. Anyway, she’s taken the River Test in Hampshire as her inspiration: another place that’s dear to my heart, as bits of my family still live in that part of Hampshire and I’ve always loved the chalky, glass-clear Test meandering through the fields. Intriguingly, she’s ‘inviting visitors to take a walk through a dried-up chalk stream’; famously you’re never allowed onto Chelsea gardens, so this may be figurative, but we can hope…
There are 16 large show gardens in all, so I could go on further about Hugo Bugg’s Jordan-inspired arid garden, or James Basson’s perfumer’s garden (can’t wait for that one: I adore everything James does). But you’ll just have to go along and see them for yourself. I may yet have to write another post about what’s coming up in the Pavilion and indeed the artisan gardens as there are at least two things I’m jigging up and down on the spot about: but that’s for tomorrow. It’s going to be a great Chelsea!
As I wave goodbye, a little sadly, to the little bubble of dreams that is the Chelsea Flower Show for another year, it’s time to hand over the stage to the real stars: the wonderful, wonderful plants here in their thousands to amaze and enchant. Enjoy.
I have for the first time this year been involved in a tiny way with actually creating something at Chelsea Flower Show.
I haven’t mentioned this before, as I am a very clumsy gardener prone to breaking things at Chelsea (sorry Hillier – again – for that branch incident five years ago…). So I didn’t want to say anything in case it didn’t go too well.
But for some inexplicable reason the lovely Sue Beesley, former Gardener of the Year and owner of Bluebell Cottage Gardens and Nursery in Cheshire, agreed to let me within five yards of her stand. Not only that, but she let me tuck in moss and hold stuff and everything.
The whole thing was a huge step for Sue herself as she’s never done Chelsea, though she’s a veteran of other shows, notably Malvern. She stepped in with three weeks’ notice to cover a late cancellation (this spring has claimed a few casualties) and rose to the occasion with an awe-inspiring efficiency and calm.
I can’t believe quite how much goes into putting these stands together. Every plant position was agonised over, changed and changed back again. Tiny bits of polystyrene tip pots a little forward to show off a plant that bit better: a ten-degree turn to the left and every leaf is just where it should be. The camassias, stubbornly in bud on arrival, were ferried off to a friendly greenhouse display for extra warmth in the hope that they’d come good in time (they didn’t). The Paeonia tenuifolia was feverishly checked every ten minutes to see if that promising flowerbud was going to fully ‘pop’ (it did).
I spent a happy day sipping away brown leaves, getting intimately acquainted with the finer details of moss texture, debating plant combinations and drinking coffee. It is an odd thing to look at a stand in the Pavilion and know every leaf of every plant, where it is in the display and why. And – even stranger – I know what’s underneath.
It was the smallest of small contributions but I did feel a smidgen of entirely unwarranted proprietorial pride in the silver medal Sue took home with her. Well done Sue – and thank you. Same time next year?