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.

Chelsea 2017 - the best bits

I don't quite know when the RHS knew that some of it's most constant sponsors had pulled out of the 2017 show, but there was no attempt made at reducing the ticket prices. However, it was still sold out.

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In theory this should have been a good year for some designers as arguably there was less competition. There was only one really big gun in the world of tv horticulture - Chris Beardshaw. But even though his was clearly the most popular garden with the public he could only garner a silver-gilt. I didn't see enough of the tv coverage to find out why but if I had to guess I would say the planting was a bit "busy". Though this is precisely what a lot of people liked about the garden - the sheer range of colour, texture and form.

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It was a garden of two halves, one bright and colourful, the other more textural and green. It was impossible to get a photo of the garden as a whole, mainly because the crowds here were the deepest and most constant through the whole day I was there.

Best in Show went to James Basson, a designer based in the South of France. In the well-known game, I have only two degrees of separation to James Basson as he is designing the Provence garden of one of my London clients.

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His gardens are rarely everyone's cup of tea as they are based on Mediterranean plants put together in a sustainable way that requires very little in the way of soil improvement or irrigation. This is precisely what my client wants for her new garden, but it's not exactly traditionally "English". This garden rekindled the debate about where gardens end and wild landscapes begin. In an era of increasing awareness about sustainability in general and the effect our changing climate is having on gardens in particular this is a trend that is likely to continue and develop.

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One garden that combined traditional English with a wild landscapes was the Welcome to Yorkshire garden. I've not been to the bit of the coast, Whitby, that this garden represents but I find it hard to imagine how this would survive some typical "northern" weather. I loved the boat but the mural in the folly was quite naff.

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Newcomer Charlotte Harris's garden for Royal Bank of Canada was also based on an interpretation of a wild landscape. I really liked this garden (even though it was difficult to photograph) and it would be easy to imagine it sitting well in parts of Scotland that have brief but intense summers with very long days.

One of the key plants in the Royal Bank of Canada garden was the Jack Pine and 2017 was surely the year of the pine in its many forms. The Radio 2 gardens were a welcome addition to the repetoire at Chelsea and helped fill some of the gaps left by fewer main show gardens. I particularly liked the Texture Garden designed by Matt Keightley.

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One of the most regular designers at Chelsea is Kazuyuki Ishihara. Ths was another garden that was really popular with the Chelsea visitors. It is an exercise in the minature with each detail exquisitely crafted, demanding close attention.

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I'm no expert on Japanese gardens other than knowing they are usually a stylised representation of nature and man's place in it. This garden was one an increased number of Artisan's gardens, demonstrating the combination of traditional skills with horticulture.

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i thought the overall standard of the Artisan gardens was higher than usual and some of them were entertaining. Some of my favourites included Dr Catherine MacDonald's garden for Seedlip. The copper piping weaving through the planting was fun.

The metal work continued into Graham Bodle's reclammation of an industrial site into a garden. I love a bit of rusty metal... and look, more pines.

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'm normally a big fan of Sarah Eberle, a former winner of Best in Show. This Viking Cruises garden didn't do much for me but I did like some of the plants, particularly this cactus.

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For my final garden there is only one degree of separation. The Breaking Ground garden was designed by Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliam; Andrew was my tutor when I studied garden design. The duo finally won a gold medal with this garden after several near misses (somewhat painful for Andrew who is a former head judge at Chelsea). It just shows what you can do with a lot of experience, a loyal sponsor, determination and ambition. And, what is that tree in the background?

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Chelsea 2016 - The call of the wild

t started last year with Dan Pearson's "barely there" garden based on a real trout stream and has continued at Chelsea 2016 with a slew of other show gardens drawn from nature.

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Cleve West's evocation of his childhood on Exmoor is a natural extension of the idea of bringing the wild into the garden. Although Dan Pearson's garden was literally drawn from Chatsworth, Cleve West's garden is slightly less literal. The fabulously atmospheric and architectural trees are Quercus pubescens or Downy Oaks, natives of southern Europe rather than the south-west of England.  The stone, however, is from the Forest of Dean, not so very far from Exmoor.

The garden moves from a wilder feel with rough stone paths and native plants on the outskirts to a more designed feel with sawn stone and more exotic species in the centre of the garden.

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James Basson has drawn on the landscape of his home in the south of France as the inspiration for his show garden. It is designed as a wild garden on the edge of a lavender field with plants typical of the garrigue of haut provence.  Some of the visitors to Chelsea found it hard to understand as a garden, thinking it scruffy and unfinished. The judges thought differently though and apparently it was a close runner-up as best in show.

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Other gardens, such as Hugo Bugg's garden based on the geography and flora of Jordan, have been slightly less literal in their interpretation of the idea of wild. His main aim was to draw attention to the scarcity and sanctity of clean water, the wildish landscape is the carrier of the idea rather than being the idea of wild itself.

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Rosy Hardy's first show garden was based on the fragility of our chalk streams.  I got the bit about dried up stream beds but not the bit about printing money. What are all those metal things?  This garden seemed quite a long way from wild, despite its message.

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One garden that I really thought had a wild feel was Sam Ovens garden for Cloudy Bay. The theme. the garden as a retreat, would probably have had more success if the site hadn't been on the busy triangular plot at the end of Main Avenue. However, the native pine trees and grasses, with the still water felt pretty wild and ungardened.  What a shame the heathers didn't quite come off...

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And the complete antithesis to all this wildness? Jo Thompson's Chelsea Barracks garden featured, of all things, a large and neatly manicured lawn. Described as a rose garden for the modern day, it didn't even have a whiff of the crematorium about it. It is a very calm, elegant and spacious garden - proof that a garden doesn't have to be wild for you to feel at one with the world.