Show garden highlights
The M&G Garden, more austere and stylised than the wonderful Mediterranean vignettes we’ve seen here from James Basson over the past few years. Taking as its inspiration a disused Maltese stone quarry, it looked quite stark under a grey morning sky, the many square cut limestone blocks interspersed with wildflowers endemic to the island lending a sombre, almost memorial-like quality to the space. But in the sun, the stone began to glow, and the several areas of zoned planting, each representing a different Mediterranean sub-ecology – the cliff top on two vast stone monoliths and the side walls, the shrubland of the hills, the low-growing, fragrant herbs of the garrigue – brought life to the ‘abandoned’ site, showing how nature reclaims the ground we exploit and then discard as spent. I think I’d have preferred to have seen more plants – just as many as some of the concept sketches had suggested, with the stone blocks emerging from a green tide, rather than dominating, but that’s probably a personal niggle, as I found myself challenged by the expanse of white stone. This garden was the winner of the best in show award, and on balance, I think deservedly so, for the artistry of its vision and its realisation upon the ground.
The Morgan Stanley Garden, designed by Chris Beardshaw, was for me one of the high points of the show, with a sinuous path leading first through lush woodland planting with a canopy of field maples and an understory of unclipped box and yew, with the bright green leaves of Matteucia ferns making a vibrant backdrop for pink primulas. From here to a stone and timber loggia, and on into more mannered and colourful planting, in a style we’ve seen before from Mr Beardshaw, but nonetheless welcome for that. Here were lupins in many colours, irises and geraniums, all rubbing shoulders with orange geums, violet salvias, pale blue campanulas and deep red paeonies, with contrasting green textures introduced by dwarf pines and fennel foliage, presided over by tightly clipped yew topiary. The whole garden took as its inspiration the complex fractal geometry so often found in nature – which is one of those things that’s interesting to discover when hearing about the design concept, but not particularly obvious when experiencing the garden as a visitor. I just liked the verdigris sculptures by the artist Craig Schaffer which were sited through the planting and against the wall of the loggia, also apparently influenced by fractals. It felt a very English garden, put together with competence and attention to detail and a gentle nurturing spirit – the kind of place that would feel good to spend time in. Perhaps that sense of comfort and familiarity was what did for it in the eyes of the judges, who awarded it only a Silver Gilt – who can tell? The smart money has to be on it for the People’s Choice, though – as always with this designer, it’s exactly what I want from a garden, and it gets my vote.
The BBC Radio 2 Feel Good Gardens were left out of the judging, sponsored as they were by the RHS, but they were a delight, and must be considered an unqualified success. The smallest gardens in the show, put together in the shortest time, with the celebrity radio presenters working with established garden designers and their teams to achieve some really cracking results.
The Anneka Rice Colour Cutting Garden, designed by Sarah Raven, was all you could want from a cutting patch. A ramshackle shed in one corner, and several colour coded square beds with rustic willow wigwams and plant supports, and plenty of cottage garden style floral magic.
The Zoe Ball Listening Garden, designed by James Alexander Sinclair, reminded me of one of my favourite YouTube videos on Cymatics, which exploits the phenomenon of a the patterns created in thin layers of a solid or liquid by wave forms. Music from the playlist history of Radio 2 played on subterranean speakers, inaudible, but tangible to observers through the rumbling of the bass, which caused the gravel in the paths and the water in the three COR-TEN steel water troughs to dance in time to the beats. Fabulously original stuff, and also beautifully planted with the verdant, lush green tones harmonizing perfectly with the rusty metal.
The Chris Evans Taste Garden, designed by Jon Wheatley, was a celebration of Grow Your Own, a traditional take on the kitchen garden or allotment space, and should have won the award for the most original rope to keep the public hoardes at bay.
The Jo Whiley Scent Garden, designed by Tamara Bridge and Kate Savill, with Jo Malone, featured a beautiful sweeping grey rendered wall featuring a line of text which appeared to illustrate the powerful effect that the sense of smell can have upon the memory. The planting featured foxgloves in a woodland area, transitioning through to box balls and angelica, with white alliums, silver stachys and artimesia, and cullinary herbs such as fennel, oregano and mint, with deep berry accents from poppy Papaver ‘Black Peony’, Lysimachia atropurpurea ‘Beaujolais’, and Rosa ‘Munstead Wood’ and ‘Night Owl’.
The Jeremy Vine Texture Garden, designed by Matt Keightley featured two beautiful small multi-stemmed trees – a Prunus serula and Acer griseum – an underplanting of Pinus mugo with grasses, irises and verbascums in orange and red shades, lush ferns and rodgersias, divided by the clean lines of a light grey stone path leading to a geometric wall with inset panels of moss.
City Living, designed by Kate Gould, illustrated what can be done in an urban apartment building with very little outdoor space. A roof terrace, mezzanine seating level and basement space were capitalised upon with exotic shade lovers in the lower levels, while a tropical looking green wall clad the external surface. The hard landscaping on this garden was truly en pointe – fabulous detail with a grey and orange colour scheme, huge oversized orange angle-poised lamps, etched patterns in the steps and drain covers, and a beautiful geometric white brick wall to offset the trailing vine Aristolochia littoralis. Although being fly-pollinated and whiffing somewhat of dead meat, that’s probably not something you’d really want planted too close to your swish urban pad. Maybe one to give away as a present. To someone you don’t much like. Anyway, apart from that, I loved the space, though in all honesty probably for the hard elements and décor as much as the planting.
As always, the gardens in the Artisan section were hidden away, some rather more so than others, so I almost missed three of them, one being Gosho No Niwa No Wall, No War, designed by Kazuyuki Ishihara. This was planted with the accomplishment and expertise we’ve come to expect from a master of his craft, but this year there seemed to be something missing. Is it simply that there are a set number of elements to this style of Japanese garden, and familiarity can cause us to become blasé? If so, I am ungrateful so and so, because it was, as always, a truly beautiful garden, and one whose details it pays to linger over. But I’m still interested in my response to it.
The Seedlip Garden, designed by Catherine MacDonald, almost seemed to be the focus of all the orange and russet tones which are such a feature of Chelsea this year, with its contorting copper pipes and its planting dominated by Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, bronzy irises and the fern Dryopteris erythrosora, accented by the herbs that provide the source materials for the botanicals in the fictional, old-meets-new apothecary which tells the story of Seedlip, the makers of non-alcoholic drinks and herbal medicines.
Walker’s Wharf Garden, designed by Graham Bodle, was another garden that used an abandoned industrial site as a starting point. It’s a common trope at Chelsea, with James Basson’s garden this year, and the Dial-A-Flight Potter’s Garden of 2014. As a metaphor for how nature interacts with human activity, it’s effective and hardly likely to be going anywhere any time soon, and when it’s employed with such panache as it has been here, who can complain? A decked area complete with chairs, alongside a disused wharf complete with crane and bits of rusty ironmongery, the worn textures of the timber planks and the metal complemented by a planting of ferns and dwarf pines, grasses and verdant perennials – green, orange, and brown again, a magical space carved out of neglect. I could spend time here.
The Poetry Lover’s Garden, designed by Fiona Cadwallader, draws upon Coleridge’s poem This Lime Tree Bower My Prison, and I have to admit it’s an incarceration I wouldn’t complain about. A tranquil, shady retreat on the woodland edge, perfectly recreating the dappled light of the poem, surrounded by wildflowers and warm yellow Cotswold stone walls, and planted with ferns, herbs and herbaceous perennials in a limited palette of green and white with deep purple berry coloured accents. The darker colours are achieved with Iris ‘Sable’ and ‘Jurassic Park’, Geranium phaem ‘Lily Lovell’ and strikingly with spires of dusky, dark bell-like flowers on Fritillaria persica ‘Twin Towers’. Occasional spots of blue twinkle through from Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’, Anchusa azurea ‘Loddon Royalist’ and Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia. The raised seating area beneath the canopy of four beautifully trained lime trees boasted custom designed steel lounging chair, which in all honesty looked like it might have required a few cushions before a truly comfortable, romantic poet style lounging could have taken place, but I’m not sure that can be held against the garden. I lingered here for some time.
Are you going to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year, or are you following the coverage on the BBC? I’d love to hear what you make of the 2017 show gardens, so do let me know here in the comments below, or over on twitter.