23 May 2023
For the last three years I’ve treated myself to a ticket to the Chelsea Flower Show. The long suffering friends I go with are primed for an early start and late finish so as to squeeze maximum value from the day. Having said that I always come away knowing I haven’t covered every single inch of the place but I really think you’d need to be there for three days to see everything.
Inevitably I bring back dozens of photographs and leaflets from most of the show gardens. The plant lists in the latter and the BBC’s comprehensive coverage help me to identify which garden is which when I sort through the images. I’ll try in this post to give an overview of my impressions of this year’s show and to pick out some of my highlights.
Sustainability was a recurring theme in the show gardens, with for example a reduced use of cement in concrete mixes and some walls constructed from hay bales. The grant-giving charitable fund Project Giving Back has financed the creation of 15 of the gardens at the show. It’s a proviso of a successful application for funding that the garden has a life beyond the show and this year several of the gardens are to be re-located to hospitals, community gardens and health support centres.
The importance of attracting wildlife to the garden was also apparent with several gardens featuring wild flowers or, as some would have it, weeds! It was refreshing to see bees already foraging amidst the many single petalled flowers in many of the planting schemes, despite show gardens having been planted only up to three weeks before the show.
It’s always intriguing to spot plants that recur from garden to garden. The umbellifer Orlaya grandiflora recurred several times as did the shrub or small tree Cornus kousa. Plus another white-flowered shrub which I couldn’t identify: it had Viburnum-like flowers but leaves resembling a flowering currant. Another white flower, sweet or dame’s rocket, featured too: Hesperis matronalis.
The RHS featured horticultural heroines in the Floral Marquee with portraits of women who have made their mark in the history of gardening: Gertrude Jekyll, Ellen Willmott, Vita Sackville-West and Beth Chatto; in conservation: Wangari Muta Maathai* in botany: Janaki Ammal and botanical artist and intrepid traveller Marianne North.
Dozens of inspirational growers exhibit in the huge marquee including the three biggest names in roses: Peter Beale, Harkness Roses and David Austin. I loved the delicate species rose Rosa cymosa with its tiny white flowers. Hedgehog Plants’ exquisite Epimediums were another highlight along with Taylors Bulbs’ daffodils and the peonies and irises on the Claire Austin stand.
The balcony gardens are a good source of inspiration for small-space and container gardening. I enjoyed the plant theatre and shelving for pots on the timber-shingled wall of The Restorative Balcony Garden plus the ingenious shallow water feature or ‘water table’. The gentle colours of the planting in this garden were very appealing as well: a soothing space after a busy day at work. Warmer shades were used in the containers in The Platform Garden, contrasting with the backdrop of green tiling.
I always have to stand inside the posh greenhouses on display in the retail areas and fantasise about having a garden large enough to accommodate one!
Finally part of the fun of Chelsea is seeing the crews filming segments for the extensive BBC coverage of the show and watch the presenters going through their paces, seemingly unperturbed by the crowds massing around the show gardens. And then to catch up with the programmes later in the week to see the show gardens from the inside out.
Kew, 27 May 2023
*When I worked in the visitor information team at Kew Gardens, the then Prince of Wales planted a tree in commemoration of Wangari Muta Maathai (1940-2011) on a small mound near the Elizabeth Gate. I shall have to take a look to remind myself of the species of tree.
Here are more of my photos from the show
Cleve West’s Centrepoint Garden. This is one of the gardens funded by Project Giving Back.
Horatio’s Garden designed by Charlotte Harris and Hugo Bugg. Another Project Giving Back garden, this will be re-located to a spinal injuries unit in Sheffield.
The Biophilic Garden designed by Kazayuki Ishihara. Wonderful moss.
The Nurture Landscapes Garden designed By Sarah Price. Inspired by Benton End in Suffolk, home of artist Cedric Morris. Its muted colours reflect the irises bred by Cedric Morris.
The designers use inspiring plant combinations: here featuring Salvia Caradonna
Or individual plants stand out
One of the Sanctuary Gardens, The Boodles British Crafts Gardens featured my favourite water feature from the show. The surface ripples as though raindrops are falling into the water.
Even before you reach the show ground, the shop windows are decorated and The Sloane Club displays a tableau. This year it was Eliza Doolittle’s transformation from Covent Garden flower girl to a grand lady at Ascot.