Chelsea Flower Show 2011

I’ve just come back from two days at the show – lucky me!  You can catch my Monday morning broadcast for BBC Somerset during the next week on their website’s Listen Again feature (see ‘things I like’ for link).

This is my 11th successive visit to Chelsea and one of the most interesting things over the years has been seeing the changes in fashions that subtley echo the mood of the times.  For the last few years the gardens have been quite subdued, concentrating on texture rather than colour, so it’s refreshing to see this year to see so much colour about.  However, while some of the colours are strong, with a lot of yellow in particular, the planting is on the whole very light and airy; lots of diaphonous plants like fennel and Cleve’s parsnip flowers, lots of soft whites flitting between it all, so that the effect is never heavy.


This is Cleve West’s Daily Telegraph Garden (above and below) which was my favourite and deserved winner for Best in Show.  Cleve is the master of the understated space, never too fussy, quality detailing, perfect proportions but above all a knack of seeing things just differently enough to come up with something fresh.  Here he’s created a sunken garden inspired by visits to ancient ruins in Libya, but the twist in the garden is to exchange old for new with textured concrete pillars in place of ancient columns – some standing, some ‘fallen’.  This, to me, is what Show Gardens should be about – a fantasy, theatre, a story.


His planting, too, is perfection – there is a rythym created in the planting through the unifying use of yellows and plants with similar tones such as the whites of Camassias and silver artemisia; all linked by the perfectly understated form but strong colour of the magenta Dianthus Cruentus that runs through the garden.


For the two days I was at the show, the light was very bright and unforgiving.  However, for once, for many of the gardens this was an asset.  The cleverly chiseled water channels in Tom Hoblyn’s Homebase Garden sparkled; the contrast between the dark backdrop and trunks of the tree ferns highlighted interesting textures and accentuated the contrast between the solid mass of the rhododendrons against the lightness of the pale blue Corydalis.


The light benefitted Nigel Dunnet’s garden too – highlighting the light catching properties of his planting, and defining the textural contrasts between rough stone and smooth wood in his wonderful benches.


And finally Diarmuid Gavin’s garden, where the sharp light accentuated the different forms of topiary and grasses to great effect.  He’s played around with these ideas before at Chelsea, with contrasts between clipped and soft forms, but I felt he had mastered the art this time, perhaps by having a larger scale to play with.  It helped that his conical hornbeam trees were exceptionally beautiful!


The small gardens were excellent this year, with lots of good ideas to be inspired by.  I particularly liked the textures of the hard landscaping in the RNIB garden designed by Paul Hervey-Brookes (below)


and Olivia Kirk’s rough/smooth textures and clever detailing over water in her Power of Nature garden (below).


The use of textured and sleek stone and meadow-style planting are not the only naturalistic trends at Chelsea.  I was intriuged to see several gardens featuring shallow water channels with stones in their base – as if stylising a natural stream bed.  Admittedly this was something that Ulf Nordfjell used in his 2009 Chelsea garden, but this year many gardens have risen to the theme.  I believe this more naturalistic approach, and the inspiration from natural features, stems from a need to be more in tune with nature – reflecting perhaps a shift towards more traditional values as the recession has taken its toll over the last few years.  These naturalistic water channels replace the trend for using black dye in water (to maximise reflections) which has been de rigeur at Chelsea for such a long time that it’s surprising to find it suddenly looking out of date.


Chelsea is always a spectacle and I’m fascinated by the number of innovative ways people find to celebrate flowers.  One of the most extraordinary features I’ve ever seen has to be a Thai temple, recreated from 100,000 orchid flowers.  The sight of so many perfect orchids is exciting enough in itself –


but just look what they’ve made from them…


And by contrast, at the same exhibit, I watched as this gentleman made scultpures from bamboo leaves.


I’m going to end this very personal reflection with what I think is the cleverest idea that I saw at the show.  Looking at first like blocks of white stone offset from each other, I realised – because they were moving – that the blocks were paper.  I’m surprised to see that this garden only won Bronze – but I hope the designer, William Quarmby, is not deterred from entering again – novel ideas such as this (yes, I know, a terrible pun!) should be celebrated and encouraged!