RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2012

Posted on Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Chelsea is always a big event on my calendar and this year, in brilliant sunshine, it did not disappoint. From Diarmund Gavin’s determination to pour every ounce of his imagination into designing an innovative and bizarre garden, to the cooling colours and rustling grasses adorning many other show gardens, the internationally famous flower show provided another great day out and horticultural inspiration from around the world.

The predominant theme this year has been naturalistic planting, with grasses in particular being given a higher profile than in recent years. Woodland themes have featured in many gardens and the focus seems to be on calm, soothing gardens – perhaps an antidote to the harsh economic times? This is echoed in the RHS’s choice of a foxglove, Digitalis ‘Illumination Pink’, as its plant of the year. If a plant doesn’t self seed freely then it appears that it simply isn’t ‘in vogue’!

Judging by this year’s gardens, geums, irises, alliums and grasses are likely to be popular purchases this year.

Of course there are always exceptions to the rule. More exotic planting schemes and architectural foliage could be seen in some gardens, often used to great effect. And many of the ‘Fresh’ gardens brought technology to Chelsea with vibrant ‘techno’ colours and the integration of technological devices such as ‘QR’ patterns.

Here are a few of my particular highlights from this year’s show:

Show Gardens

The Brewin Dolphin Garden

Designer: Cleve West
Award: Gold Medal, Best Show Garden

With his garden celebrating the 250th anniversary of Brewin Dolphin, Cleve West is celebrating another Chelsea Best Show Garden with this year’s triumph, which focuses on the our continuing love of topiary in all forms. The garden epitomises the use of topiary forms to provide structure and formality to a garden, restraining the flowing herbaceous planting within its borders. Stone paths and low walls provide a backbone to the garden, and draw the focus onto the stone sculpture against the far wall.

Homebase Teenage Cancer Trust Garden

Designer: Jo Swift
Award: Gold Medal

The bold forms and urban theme of this garden brought a refreshingly vibrant air to an otherwise rather laid back, chilled out, Chelsea. Large ceder frames bestride Jo Swift’s garden, drawing the eye through the garden and create separate, yet joined up, spaces. The planting reflected the vibrant theme with a warm colour scheme of rusts and burgundies, while evergreen shrubs and trees provided structure and interest for the winter months. While not always a fan of the dramatic, I did love this garden for its strong themes and colours.

The M&G Garden

Designer: Andy Sturgeon
Award: Gold Medal

This design by Andy Sturgeon, inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, echoed the calming blues and violets seen elsewhere at Chelsea, but incorporating striking stonework and a dramatic copper sculpture flowing through the large water channel through the centre of the garden. A ‘floating’ oak bench at the far end of the garden provides the perfect spot to sit and enjoy the simple yet effective lines of this space.

The Laurent-Perrier Bicentenary Garden

Designer: Arne Maynard
Award: Gold Medal

This year’s champagne-inspired garden combines elegance and structure with, rather ubiquitously this year, flowing herbaceous plantings. The mainstay of the structure is a pleached copper beech corridor running the length of the garden and forming a seating area at the far end. In addition, tall topiary structures punctuate the less formal planting scheme. The herbaceous borders are coloured in delicate mauves and pinks, which contracts perfectly with the deep red of the hedging.

The Telegraph Garden

Designer: Sarah Price
Award: Gold Medal

Not quite equalling its ‘Best In Show’ title at the last three Chelseas, this year’s Telegraph Garden still managed a worthy gold medal thanks to a design evoking the beauty and romance of the British countryside. Natural stone is used throughout the garden, creating pools, boulder-seats, stepping stones and paths. Copper is also used, reflecting the mineral rich areas of North Wales and Dartmoor. The planting is meadow inspired, mixing wild flowers with cultivated herbaceous perennials and grasses. Height is provided by birch trees which frame the garden.

Land’s End: A Rural Muse

Designer: Adam Frost
Award: Gold Medal

This garden is inspired by the Helpston countryside, near Peterborough, which was home to the 19th century poet and green campaigner John Clare. Local stone underpins the design of the garden, including stepping stones, a fire pit and a dry stone wall with integrated wine bottle storage! Green oak is used to create a shelter at the far end of the garden with a clover-planted roof to attract birds and insects, which echoes John Clare’s love of nature in all forms. A field maple hedge surrounds the site while hornbeams provide shade for the woodland inspired planting below. In the background a deer sculpted from wire peaks out, giving the feel that there is a deeper woodland beyond.

The use of calming blues and violets against the creamy stone gives the garden a relaxing feel and draws you in to meander along its paths and stepping stones, perhaps perching on a boulder or helping yourself to a glass of wine under the shelter. I would certainly drink to the health of Adam Frost, who has created a garden which it’s hard not to enjoy.

L’Occitane Immortelle Garden

Designer: Peter Dowle
Award: Gold Medal

Sponsored by the up-market cosmetics company, this garden brings to Chelsea a little of the Corsican countryside where L’Occitane grown the Immortelle flowers which provide oils for their skincare collection. These eponymous, bright yellow flowers are blended with other local species which thrive in the rocky landscape which extends up from a small, sandy pool. At the summit of this gently sloping garden sits a stone cabin with an outdoor seating area. This garden perfectly illustrates that a sloping site can be an asset as much as a issue for gardeners.

Quiet Time: DMZ Forbidden Garden

Designer: Jihae Hwang
Award: Gold Medal

Commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Korean War (1950 to 1953). The garden shows us an area of the demilitarised zone, strewn with the debris of war, including high barbed wire fences and a watch tower. The stream running through the site symbolises a defiance of this barrier between the two halves of Korea and the feelings of love and tension which designer Jihae Hwang believe still exist. The naturalistic planting shows the determination of nature to reclaim this area, including tall trees which partially obscure the watch tower and cheery orange geums, despite the destruction wrought by mankind.

The Arthritis Research UK Garden

Designer: Thomas Hoblyn
Award: Silver Gilt Medal

Taking inspiration from the Renaissance gardens of Italy, the Arthritis Research UK garden this year marks the charity’s 75th anniversary and its own ‘rebirth’ as it plans for its future. The garden is dominated by three main features, a large cork oak (Quercus suber) at the front of the garden, a long yew and box hedge flanking the far side with ‘leaping’ water along the length of it, and five tall Cupressus sempervirens specimens punctuating the far end. In between these features a long, restful pool runs through the stone landscaping and raised beds contain evergreen mounds and a selection of Mediterranean-inspired herbaceous plants.

The RBC Blue Water Garden

Designer: Prof. Nigel Dunnett and The Landscape Agency
Award: Silver Gilt Medal

One of a minority of gardens with a truly modern feel at this year’s show, the RBC Blue Water Garden provides an oasis of water management set in a garden inspired by the formal ‘paradise gardens’ such as at the Alhambra Palace in Spain. Water is conserved in bioswales (which capture and cleanse run off water) and reflective pools. The formal style, incoporating smoothly stylish paving and white walls, is offset by naturalistic planting in the borders which include dramatic highlights such as bright orange Turk’s Cap lilies. At the apex of the garden sits a stone pavillion which, unfortunately, rather reminded me of a house in a ‘Smurf’ village! But aside from that, the garden’s modern touches and bright colours were a refreshing antidote to the calm in many of the other Chelsea gardens.

A Celebration of Caravanning

Designer: Jo Thompson
Award: Silver Gilt Medal

Gardens containing battered old caravans are usually a eyesore in the neighbourhood, but Jo Thompson uses ‘Doris’ (the aluminium caravan which is the centrepiece of this garden) to great effect. Relatively formal, straight paths of sandstone and timber lead to the caravan and around the other parts of the garden, which is divided into sections using timber screens. A shallow rill provides a water feature come wine cooler and the family dog has his own kennel, complete with a planted roof and downpipe-filled water bowl. The planting scheme billows out from the beds and borders in feminine pink and cream shades, including roses, hostas, grasses and this year’s ‘obligatory’ irises.

The Westland Magical Garden

Designer: Diarmuid Gavin
Award: Silver Gilt Medal

Diarmuid Gavin continues to reach for the stars at this year’s Chelsea with his towering Magical Garden. Seemingly created from scaffolding poles (albeit posh ones!) this garden shows the potential for urban green sites where a small footprint can still provide plenty of planting opportunities. The shady spots provide a great opportunity for Gavin’s knack of combining plants such as evergreen shrubs, ferns and hostas to form their own curving landscape, dotting between them bright herbaceous perennials including allium lollipops. The height of the pyramid is also reflected in the height of the planting, with tall birches and bamboos shooting up through the levels and climbers twining around the structure. Magical touches add fun to the garden, including a swing and a helter skelter style tubular slide for a quick exit from the higher levels (there’s also an elevator for the less adventurous!)

Trailfinders Australian Garden presented by Fleming’s

Designer: Jason Hodges
Award: Siler Gilt Medal

With a tradition of bringing a bit of Aus to Chelsea, this year’s Trailfinders garden is no exception. With a focus on outdoor living, this garden provides plenty of spaces for relaxing, playing and entertaining, both in the sun and shade. With a plunge pool, barbecue, pizza oven and bath, you have to wonder whether you’d really need a house if you had this garden! The planting is typically lush, with huge palms providing light shade to the mix of Australian and European inspired, mainly monocot borders. I particularly liked the lighting, which was provided by overhead beams stretching out from the garden walls and containing down-lighters. If you’re having a party, this is definitely the Chelsea garden to choose.

Rooftop Workplace Of Tomorrow

Designer: Patricia Fox
Award: Silver Medal

As someone who has spent many years in offices, this garden really appealed to me. The ethos behind the garden is that office roof space is often wasted and could easily be used to extend the working space outside. An appreciation of the vagaries of the British climate is shown, with shelter provided to provide an all-weather meeting space, and shading for the workstations so computer screens can be seen. Having said that, the majority of space would be for a dry day, so how much use the garden would get in the winter is questionable. The planting is low key and in this year’s ubiquitous calming blue colours, and more relaxing seating areas are provided alongside the working environments. Trees are incorporated in the design, planted in large layered containers.

Fresh Gardens

Green With…

Designer: Tony Smith
Award: Gold Medal and Best Fresh Garden

The Bradstone Panache Garden

Designer: Caroline E Butler
Award: Silver Medal

Petra – Tranquility Set In Stone

Designer: Benjamin Wincott

Glamourlands: A Techno-Folly

Designer: Tony Heywood and Alison Condie represented by Vigo Gallery

The Great Pavilion

The plethora of horticultural delights in Chelsea’s Great Pavilion never fails to amaze. The perfection with which great swathes of plants are presented is awe inspiring, as are many of the more quirky displays. This year the presentations included floral chandeliers from the floristry competitors, a fairy tale castle bedecked with roses in the Peter Beales area, a Thai temple simply bursting with tropical flowers and fruits thanks to the Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Garden, a floral mini cooper (complete with racing stripes) courtesy of Birmingham City Council and much more besides.