Chelsea 2019 - All the world's a stage

More than once Mark Gregory, winner of The Peoples’ Award at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, said that all of Chelsea was about the theatre, the spectacle and putting on a show. And, as yet again, people ask “what is a garden?”, isn’t it time to stop worrying about definitions and practicality and just enjoy the performance?

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Of course the market for a canal-based garden design is very niche but the Peoples’ Award showed that the visiting and viewing public at Chelsea loved this show garden. And why is that? There’s the sheer ambition of building something as monumental as this and then the artistry of making it look like it’s always been there. And finally, the romance of the wild-meets-cottage-garden planting. As a piece of escapism it couldn’t be beaten, just like watching an episode of Downton Abbey at the end of a good weekend.

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Every garden at Chelsea needs a bit of drama, just so that we sit up and pay attention. Who can deny the unexpected fabulousness of these black oak spines running through Andy Sturgeon’s garden?

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Or the bright red bridge in Jonathon Snow’s Trailfinders garden? Much better in real life than on tv.

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However, one significant intervention is not neccesarily enough if the rest of the design can’t match it. The rather lovely David Harber sculpture was not enough to carry the rest of Andrew Duff’s somewhat lacklustre design.

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Not all the drama is man-made, as Chris Beardshaw showed with his charismatic Pinus nigra which cut an unruly dash across his otherwise impeccable garden.

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And of course, it’s important to make sure the garden isn’t all drama with no plot or character. It’s a fine balance, do you think Sarah Eberle pulled it off? The judges thought so.

As for the rest of the show gardens on Main Avenue, it wasn’t always possible to tell if there was any drama or not, if there was it was hidden away. In the case of Jo Thompson’s Wedgwood garden it was hidden in the shadows behind all the pillars and in Kate Gould’s Greenfingers garden it was either hidden in the sunken bit or on the roof. Maybe you could see it on tv but you couldn’t see it in the flesh. And as for the Duchess of Cambridge’s Back to Nature garden you could only see if you were prepared to wait in a very long queue and I’m afraid I wasn’t.

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Helen Elk-Smith’s design for Warners Distillery seemed to focus on product placement (bottles of gin liberally spread across the garden, but just out of reach of the viewing public) and kept the dramatic falls of water fairly well hidden. The tv cameras did a lovely job of picking them all out, particularly when lit at night, but many of them were hard to see with the naked eye from 10 metres away.

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And finally, sometimes the drama is not about the big idea but all about the small dramas played out in the foreground, like the interactions of the very fine planting in Tom Hoblyn’s garden. It may not be quite what he intended but sometimes it’s the minor characters that steal the show.

As ever, there were long queues for everything at Chelsea but at least the line for the ladies loos was fast-moving. It was crowded, the food and drink were expensive, but would I go again? Oh yes..

Gifts for gardeners

There’s no doubt that gardeners can be a bit of a challenge to find suitable gifts for. When I say suitable, I mean things they really want - not a notebook to write down when the cabbage seeds germinated, or cotton gloves that are good for nothing, or plastic tools or anything novelty, including Under Gardener tshirts or ironic gnomes, and definitely not wind chimes ….

It’s not a very high bar to get over is it? So here’s the Arthur Road Landscapes guide to suitable gifts for gardeners and you don’t need deep pockets for all of them. You won’t find any of these in a charity shop (except the ones at the end of course).

Coffee table books

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Pruning ladder - Henchman https://www.henchman.co.uk/

Pruning saw - Silkyfox http://www.silkyfox.co.uk/gomboy.php

Secateurs - Felco https://www.felco.com/uk_en/our-products/felco-4.html

Aged terracotta pots - DIY https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mrma_RCGaU8

Mower for striped lawns - Hayter https://www.hayter.co.uk/range

Money no object

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2018 - A good year?

Is 2018 - a good year to remember, or not? Maybe not for some reasons, but, politics aside, ignoring natural and man-made disasters, bad tempers and bad news in general, here is the good news round up of 2018 in the small corner of the world occupied by Arthur Road Landscapes.

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A new year, a new day and a new camera on the beautiful island of Barbados. Not too much in the way or horticulture here but when the landscape looks like this who needs a garden?

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But of course I couldn’t resist another visit to Hunte’s Gardens.

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Having cleverly avoided the Beast from the East, but running full pelt into the Mini-beast, I made a beeline for the Palm House at Kew for a bit of warmth and humidity.

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The cold winter and the sudden arrival of a very warm, but late, spring (who knew what was to come?) meant a very good year for bluebells. This little woodland of oak and ash was discovered by my parents in deepest Berkshire.

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May means Chelsea. This was my favourite garden, by Sarah Price. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but definitely mine, I’m just waiting for a commission for somewhere in the Med…

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At the end of May I visited Lukesland on the edge of Dartmoor. Spring was a little later here so this Wisteria was still in its full glory.

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June sees the climax of our native wild flowers. Driving around Surrey I love the road side verges covered primarily in ox-eye daisies. Parts of the M25 are quite spectacular, something to enjoy whilst sitting out a traffic jam. It’s quite tricky finding somewhere to park and photograph them (I haven’t stopped to take any photos on the M25 I hasten to add).

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The heat wave started around the middle of June I seem to remember. I went to Loseley Park before the weather began to take its toll and the White Garden here was looking splendid. Of course the thing about white gardens is that they’re not completely white.

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July and August seem to have been swallowed up in a blaze of sweltering heat and guilt about using a hosepipe (sorry/not sorry) but at the end of summer I went to The Homewood in Surrey. I hadn’t expected much of the garden but even I was charmed by the heather, Scots pines and rhododendrons.

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A very busy autumn meant little time for visiting gardens but I did manage to get the odd half hour or so on Wimbledon Common. Being outside in bright sunshine whenever possible is my way of dealing with short days and long dark nights.

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This is beginning to sound like I haven’t done much work in 2018. Well it’s been a funny old year, a mixture of feast and famine. This sweet little courtyard in Twickenham was completed early in the year. The owners are bird mad so hopefully this spring will see a few new residents in the bird boxes.

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A large back garden project which has taken a couple of years, was finally planted in October. There’s not too much to see plant-wise at the moment but I’m looking forward to seeing it develop next year.

Maybe not a vintage year but not a bad one either.

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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 2016 - The call of the wild

It 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.