Chelsea 2018 - First impressions count

Did you enjoy the tv coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show this year? There was certainly a lot of it. I try not to watch too much before I to go as I like to be surprised and make up my own mind about the garden designs.

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As I walk around I hear lots of comments as people see the gardens for the first time. Many people have Marmite reactions when they come across the gardens, they seem either to love them or hate them.

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Mark Gregory's Welcome to Yorkshire Garden got a definite "love it" reaction, as did Hay-Joung Hwang's LG Eco City Garden. The former is an idealised version of the countryside where the garden is just a light touch (although a Yorkshire farmer told me you'd never see Wisteria like that on a farm building) and the latter is an aspirational outdoor room.

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Nic Howard's garden for David Harber and Savills Garden rather got the opposite reaction. Apart from enjoying the view through the rusty structures visitors didn't really get it as a place to spend time. The same was partially true of Jonothon Snow's Trailfinders Garden. Visitors were immediately attracted to the cottage garden part of the design, but it was only those who'd seen the tv coverage explain the burnt appearance of the native fynbos who appreciated the garden as a whole, as part of the wider South African landscape.

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The back story is an important element of the design brief for each garden, and a major part of what the judges are looking at. For many of the gardens this design intention is pretty complex and one that escapes the casual glance. For example, Charles Stuart Towner's Spirit of Cornwall garden included metal screens reflecting the sound waves of music composed in the pavillion, and the water features echo the sea views from Barbara Hepworth's studio in St Ives. Did you get that?

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One garden that made almost no impression on me was Chris Beardshaw's best in show garden for the NSPCC. It may well have represented a metaphor for an emotional transition through the actions of the NSPCC but the way it was designed meant visitors had a very poor view of the garden. The pavillion was huge and the tall and dense planting along the boundaries. coupled with a wall in the middle meant you couldn't really see into the garden. Mind you it looked great on tv.... but what's the point of building a show garden that just looks good on tv?

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The brief for Jo Thompson's Wedgewood Garden was refreshingly uncomplicated - a garden for taking tea. Who can't relate to that? However, it was only as I was writing this that I found out the garden was designed for women. Any men out there with a view on that?

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Some gardens are just a joy to see, on first glance and with further study. One of these was David Neale's garden for Silent Pool Gin. Following the disappointment of realising there was no free gin on offer there was plenty of delightful detail to enjoy.  I think most people get that gin is made in copper stills, what more do you need to understand here?

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In contrast, Tom Massey's garden for the Lemon Tree Trust didn't make much of a first impression. A combination of concrete, recycled metal, old plastic bottles didn't make for the most appealing garden. However, I was drawn back to it several times during my visit, intrigued partly by the ingenuity of gardeners working in adversity, in a refugee camp, and also by the planting. It featured a recycled lemon tree (used in a Chelsea 2017 garden) and a pomegranate tree, which I'd never seen before.

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Even the most bonkers garden, the Wuhan Water Garden by Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins, had some sublime moments. The hi-tec fountains and mist spray created an atmosphere of mountainous forest, but you had to get down on your hands and knees to appreciate it.

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And finally, my favourite garden, Sarah Price's garden for M&G. Again the premise is simple, a garden is a haven which just needs a wall, a seat and a tree. It looked great on first sight and with each time I looked at it there was more to see. The detail of the construction and the sparse planting plus, another pomegranate tree added up to a gold medal. This was my best in show.

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The food and drink on offer has improved somewhat over the years Ive been going to Chelsea. The food courts though are always hugely busy, often with long queues and it's hard to find somewhere to sit. Take a picnic and treat yourself to an icecream.