Chelsea Flower Show 2023

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.

The Garden Press Event 2023

Swapping my secateurs for a notebook and pencil two days ago, I headed east to the Business Design Centre in Islington to attend the Garden Press Event where companies showcase innovations in garden tools, machinery, accessories and materials to the garden media. This was my third GPE if I don’t count the two virtual events held during the pandemic. As well as tracking trends it’s a great opportunity to meet up with fellow members of the Garden Media Guild be they bloggers like myself, journalists, podcasters or social media influencers.

It was refreshing to see the huge emphasis on sustainability throughout the show and I’m highlighting some of the initiatives in this direction in this blog post as well as a nifty way to stop garden hose connectors from leaking and a collaboration between the National Trust and a garden centre chain.

I chatted to as many of the stands as I could identify promoting growing media free of peat. By 2024 no compost can be sold containing peat. This is not a moment too soon to protect unique habitats such as the Somerset Levels, which we’ve plundered for decades to produce potting compost for amateur and professional gardeners alike.

I buy masses of peat-free compost throughout the year for myself and for clients, for use in containers as well as for propagating plants so it was interesting to see the well-established brands and some newcomers. The RHS endorsed Sylvagrow peat free range is made by Melcourt who this year celebrate 40 years in the industry. Cumbria based Dalefoot is gaining a reputation for high quality (and expensive) peat free products based on bracken and the wool of Herdwick sheep. Two exhibitors use compressed coir (coconut husk) in compost blocks: Eazy Grow Compost from Eazy Gardening Ltd and Coco & Coir from Southern Trident. Once soaked in water these relatively light blocks transform into all purpose potting composts. It would certainly save lugging 40 and 50 litre bags of compost around. Southern Trident has also blended different nutrients into 9 litre blocks specifically for orchids and houseplants respectively. New Leaf peat free compost made in Northern Ireland is endorsed by garden designer and TV personality Diarmuid Gavin.

I was very taken by the attractive designs of the 100% recycled plastic bird feeders from Dutch company Singing Friend. They have developed a way to recycle the plastic lining of Tetrapak-type drinks cartons, making it into lightweight bird feeders in a neutral khaki shade retailing for less than £10. I love the story of this family company, now run by its third generation, being founded in 1951 by a man with a passion for birds. Their mission statement sums up the company philosophy well: We build a bridge between design and nature, and stimulate the creation of new living environments for birds, by people. 

Continuing the sustainability theme, it was good to meet Chris Wiley of the Sustainable Plant Store, a new company selling eco-friendly alternatives to popular plants and garden products. I particularly liked the 8cm coir pots bound with natural latex as an alternative to the ubiquitous plastic flower pot. Another exhibitor proposing a substitute for plastic pots was Wool-Pots whose minimalist ecru coloured knitted ‘socks’ approx. 12 cm long can be filled with compost and stood on a terracotta saucer or stood en masse in a seed tray and used for potting on seedlings or growing cuttings and can then be planted straight into the ground. The wool will biodegrade in time and leaving the ‘lip’ proud of the soil is said to deter slugs and snails. At the moment the product is manufactured in Egypt in a factory which is SEDEX* certified and plants two trees for every order under their ‘plant one get one tree’ initiative. Wool-Pots ambition is to start its own factory in the UK.

I can’t be the only gardener to waste frustrating time each summer trying to fix a connector back on the end of a hose after it’s shot off under pressure. Qwickhose from Rivendale products have created a universal hose connector using a wing-lock system instead of the plastic teeth used in conventional connectors. Their starter set consists of two connectors, a tap connector and a nozzle spray to be stored in a neat wall mount which I shall fix to the shed wall this week. Unlike their competitors’ trademark yellow plastic, this product is a distinctive shade of blue. I got a pleasant surprise when I opened the carton to find it included a strip of recycled cotton embedded with tomato seeds!

One of the largest stands at the show was occupied by Blue Diamond Garden Centres which in 2022 began a five year collaboration with the National Trust. Naturally, as a garden volunteer with the Trust I was keen to find out more about this project. So it was fun to chat to Andy Jasper, National Head of Gardens and Parklands for the Trust. A fellow South Cornishman, he of course knows NT Osterley’s head gardener, Andy Eddy. The Blue Diamond/National Trust collaboration has resulted in several new lines including a collection of more than 60 flower seed varieties inspired by the Trust’s gardens, at least 10% of the retail selling price of which will be given to the Trust. The beauty of the Trust’s gardens is reflected in several ranges of bulbs, the collection of naturalising bulbs such as crocus and species tulips to be launched later in the year.

My favourite product on this beautifully designed stand was the box containing 14 herbaceous perennials in various sized pots inspired by the herbaceous border at NT Nymans in West Sussex. The cover of the container includes a plan of the planting scheme and a description of each plant. This bespoke collection includes Heuchera Lime Marmalade (which I love despite a client having told me after I planted it in his garden that it reminded him of lettuce!) and Rudbeckia Goldsturm. Close inspection of the plant descriptions revealed that they were all describing a Crocosmia, possibly Lucifer, but I think the exhibitors can be cut some slack for displaying a prototype containing placeholder text. The collections, which will also include the herbaceous border at Hill Top in Cumbria, the White Garden at Sissinghurst and the Red Borders at Hidcote will go on sale in April. These would be brilliant presents for someone moving into a brand new house with a blank page of a garden to plant up.

Another clever initiative arising out of this collaboration is the propagation of a limited number of specimens from two iconic trees at Trust properties: Isaac Newton’s Apple Tree from Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincs and the Ankerwyke Yew from the banks of the River Thames opposite Runnymede. The young trees are being raised in The National Trust Plant Conservation Centre based in a secret location in Devon and will be for sale in exclusive auctions in 2024. Blue Diamond is already selling a collection of the roses which can be seen in the rose garden at Powis Castle in Wales and is launching a new rose this summer: ‘Mottisfont’ is named for the home in Hampshire of the National Collection of old roses. From the photograph this new rose looks to be a beautiful multi-petalled rich deep pink.

My final shout out is to Niwaki who as always displayed their beautiful garden tools and accessories on a stylish stand. They displayed endless patience in answering my questions. The hori hori Japanese trowel remains my favourite garden tool and it was interesting to see a demonstration of its blade being sharpened with a diamond file. I also found out I’ve not been using the Crean Mate tool cleaning block properly: I should dip the tip of it in water before use. Thank you Niwaki for the selection of Japanese salad and vegetable seeds.

I’ve only scratched the surface here of what was on view at the GPE: makers of ladders, machine tools, plant foods were all there in force. It was a hugely enjoyable show and I’m only sorry there were a few Guild members I didn’t get to chat to on this occasion. Roll on next year’s show!

23 February 2023

Kew Gardens

*SEDEX stands for Supplier Ethical Data Exchange, an online system that allows suppliers to maintain data on ethical & responsible practices and allows them to share this information with their customers.

Points make prizes

On 27 August 2022 I won a silver cup! For the first time in my life! At the Kew Horticultural Society’s 77th Flower & Produce Show. (Cue the Archers’ theme tune).

Always held on the Saturday of the August bank holiday weekend, the show is a Kew institution and takes place on the smaller Kew Green, across the South Circular Road from St Ann’s Church. As detailed in the ‘Rules for Exhibitors’ I staged my three entries on the evening before the show. I was only the 3rd exhibitor to enter the large marquee furnished with white paper covered trestle tables. I was given one card per entry on which I wrote the number of the class of the entry and my name. I then found the relevant section of the tables and set out my exhibits, the card name side down. My original intention had been to enter the ‘Montello’ plum tomatoes which cropped really well in this summer’s heat. But I realised when I inspected them earlier that week that I’d already picked and eaten the largest and juiciest! Reading through the rules on the Society’s website, I identified some categories to enter and spent an hour or so on the Friday afternoon assembling my offerings. Which were:

Class 34. GRAPES 2 bunches grown outdoors. In 2020 I planted a grapevine (Vitis vinifera ‘Lakemont’) in a large terracotta pot and trained it across the south facing fence at the back of the garden. This is a seedless dessert grape and this year, like the tomatoes, it soaked up the sunshine and produced a couple of dozen bunches of rather small but intensely sweet grapes.

Class 44. PERENNIALS hardy, 3 or more different kinds in a vase or bowl. Opting for the informal look, I picked a couple of stems of five different flowers and popped them into a half pint milk bottle from the 1960s, embossed with ‘Lord Rayleigh’s Dairies’, which I keep on the kitchen windowsill and use for roses and sweet peas or cuttings waiting to be potted up. These are the flowers I picked:

  • Anaphalis margaritacea var. yedoensis: ‘Yedoan pearly everlasting flower’. I bought this in May 2021 from the wonderful nursery at Great Dixter. It is also grown in the cutting garden at Osterley. In the sunny position where it’s planted at the far right hand end of my garden, its foliage blends really well with the similarly greyish leaves of the late summer flowering shrub Caryopteris × clandonensis, whose mid blue flowers are just emerging this week.
  • Salvia x jamensis Nachtvlinder. The velvety deep purple flowers contrasted well with the white everlasting flowers. This plant came from Kew Gardens about ten years ago whilst I was working there, when they dismantled the planting of the outline of a giant man which had been created at the foot of the Pagoda as part of a summer festival.
  • Salvia uligonosa. ‘Bog sage’. Sky blue flowers top 2 metre high stems. Arguably too tall for my tiny garden, but at this time of year it flowers profusely and helps create a slightly jungly, overgrown atmosphere.
  • Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ or Hon Jobs as they’re referred to in the nursery trade. I mentioned in my last blog that they’ve struggled a little to reach their usual 1-1.5 metre height, but thankfully there were plenty of the creamy white flowers to spare for my arrangement.
  • Verbena bonariensis added to the cottagey feel I was aiming for.

Class 61. FUCHSIAS a vase of mixed varieties or one variety. I picked several sprays of Fuchsia ‘Burning Embers’ which I’ve grown in a medium sized pot for about four years after buying it in a plant sale at Osterley. I cut it down to a low framework of woody stems after it finishes flowering and for months it looks as if it will never recover until during April new shoots appear and by midsummer it’s developed into a neat dome covered in a mass of dainty maroon bells.

I returned to the show marquee the following afternoon with a friend, Liz, a fellow local gardener. Naturally, I was curious to see if any how my entries had fared under the judges’ scrutiny. Nul points for the grapes: the top three entries were wonderfully plump and juicy. But I was awarded second prize for the hardy perennials (3 points)- I was delighted, even when I noticed there were only two entries on display! The winner’s arrangement of Salvia Amistad was stunning. Turning to the table where I’d placed the vase of Fuchsias the evening before I was so excited to see a red rosette to indicate that I’d won First prize (4 points).

It was fun looking at all the beautiful fruit and vegetables entered in competition, as well as cakes, bread and crafts. Leaving the marquee, we walked around the stalls representing local organisations and selling crafts and plants and had tea and cake. And lovely chats with our respective clients, several of whom were enjoying the show and the sunny afternoon too. About to leave the show ground, I heard my name announced and was just in time to be presented with a handsome silver cup by Giles Fraser, the new vicar of St Ann’s. I had won the Kew Challenge Cup ‘for the first-time exhibitor gaining the most points in horticultural classes 1-64’.

The cup is in pride of place on the mantelpiece for the next 12 months and naturally I’m already planning which classes to enter into the 78th show in a year’s time.

The Kew Challenge Cup