RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2011

Posted on Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

Dating back to 1913, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show is a firm favourite in the gardening calendar. This year’s exhibition has done nothing to dim the gardener’s enthusiasm for this annual display of horticultural glamour, showmanship and innovation.

This year there are 32 gardens to entice and inspire, over 100 growers and nurseries and almost 250 stands where you can buy an almost unimaginable array of tools, ornaments, furniture and other gardening accessories.

This is my third year visiting Chelsea and I was greeted by many familiar things; the carnival atmosphere around the bandstand, gaggles of onlookers hanging around the BBC film crews, the almost overpoweringly sweet smell on approaching the strawberry display in the Great Pavilion and the occasional boom of aircraft passing overhead.

However there were plenty of new trends and ideas on display this year. Much focus was made on informal, almost wild planting schemes and re-use of materials in gardens. Many gardens displayed mixed, multicoloured, cottage style planting; sometimes contained within more formal structures such as raised beds and topiary constraints, sometimes seeming to run free through the plot. Natural and re-claimed materials were also featured in many gardens, for example in the use of re-claimed wood to create structures or the placement of moss to soften the edges of paths.

The planting used was quite varied between the gardens, although the use of Cornus kousa was common to several gardens and, as often as not, it was this plant that I heard people asking the garden designers about. The colours were softer than last year, with a lot of focus on pastels of blues and pinks.

The positioning of structures such as sheds, offices and seating areas seemed more fluid in many show gardens this year. Several designers chose to almost hide the seating area behind a mass of planting, giving the garden a sense of privacy and enticing you to wind your way through the garden to take your seat.

Below is a quick overview of each of the gardens at the show and some of my favourite highlights from the Great Pavilion.

Show Gardens

The B&Q Garden

Designer: Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins
Award: Gold Medal

Claiming its place as the tallest ever garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, this self-sufficient garden aims to address the idea of creating sustainable food growing spaces in urban areas. A nine metre high tower is the keystone to the garden, which incorporates rainwater harvesting/storage, a thermal chimney and the capability to harness wind and solar energy. Plants are also included in the tower, with one side of it dedicated to growing produce.

At ground level raised beds of crops line up alongside rills storing rainwater, in beautifully neat, weed free rows (which may be alien to most gardeners!). Pleached limes gave height to this lower section of the garden, although I couldn’t help but wonder whether, given the overall theme, the elegance of pleached limes should have been replaced by more practical fruit bearing trees.

Overall a very effective and innovative look at ‘grow your own’.

British Heart Foundation Garden

Designer: Anne-Marie Powells
Award: Silver Medal

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the British Heart Foundation, this garden quite literally took this as its theme. Blood red tubes (the veins and arteries) wound around the garden, creating corridors and arching over the seating area. At ground level, large, rounded, red stepping stones (the blood cells) provided passageway across the central pool. On the more subtle side, heart shaped planting was used, including Tilia cordata, and a nod was given to the treatment of heart disease in the form of Salix caprea, which was fundamental to the development of aspirin.

While the red structures were a little brash for my liking, the surrounding planting was very effective. They restrained themselves to a mainly green palette (with some hints of red) which worked well against the very man-made backdrop.

The Cancer Research UK Garden

Designer: Robert Myers
Award: Silver Gilt Medal

A wonderfully calming garden, this year’s contribution from Cancer Research UK represents the process of surviving cancer through a garden which starts low and takes you on a steady climb, both up the subtle terracing and also to taller, lusher, plantings, until you reach the summit seating area. The seating area is covered by a, what is for Chelsea almost ubiquitous, green roof.  The plants have been chosen to reflect a couple who have previously lived near the sea and love coastal landscapes, which is also referred to in the gentle use of water in the garden.

The result isn’t the most spectacular or glamorous garden at Chelsea this year, but it is one which I felt I could quite happily, and peacefully, live with.

Trailfinders Australian Garden

Designer: Ian Barker
Award: Silver Gilt Medal

This garden is inspired by the voyage of Captain James Cook and Joseph Banks (the renowned botanist and joint founder of the RHS) to Australia in the 18th century. A nod to their journey is found in the sail-like white covering of the seating area. The hard landscaping in the garden is subtly curvaceous, with pools of water and meandering paths. The whiteness of the stone and cobbles sets of the predominantly green and white planting which has splashes of red and blue to brighten it up. Plants have been chosen to reflect those ‘discovered’ during the voyage, many of which are now common garden plants throughout Europe.

In many ways the garden appears typically English, which makes the story of its origins even more intriguing – you start to wonder how many of your familiar garden plants are in face Aussie immigrants from that journey of discovery?!

The Homebase Cornish Memories Garden

Designer: Thomas Hoblyn
Award: Silver Gilt Medal

Inspired by the designer’s childhood holidays in Cornwall, the planting scheme in this garden should be familiar to anyone who has visited the Southwest. Ferns jostle for position with rhododendron, pines tower above and an assortment of seaside perennials in pinks and blues complete this Cornish look. Shrubs were selected to mimic the dome shaped boulders of Bodmin Moor and the coast is represented by trickles of water winding down from the seating area (like rivulets of water running through sand back to the sea) through the granite hard landscaping to trickle into the large, oval pool.

The seating area is covered with a simple pergola with three striking red-streaked screens behind it and a small ’shadow’ pool underneath to reflect the surrounding foliage. The overall effect is of calm, relaxation and the distant memory of summer holidays by the sea. All it was lacking was the flag of St Piran flying above it!

The Green Poem

Designer: Kazuyuki Ishihara
Award: Silver Medal

This is inspired by the mountains of Nagasaki in Japan and aims to “heal visitors’ hearts and recall nostalgic feelings sleeping within.” A simple stone path leads you through a garden of trickling water, attractive mounds of moss (yes, moss can be a good thing!) and Japanese-themed plants including acers, Cornus kousa and Iris sibirica. The planting is very naturalistic and the terracing of the garden gives the impression of layers and layers of plants on a mountainside.

At the pinnacle of the garden is a white carved stone shelter which, while beautiful in its own right, is a rather uncomfortable juxtaposition to the otherwise natural feel of the garden. However it does make a lovely spot to rest a while and appreciate the garden cascading down beneath you.

The Laurent Perrier Garden

Designer: Luciano Giubbilei
Award: Gold Medal

This garden combines a modern, minimalistic, restful area with three large boulder-like sculptures (commissioned from British sculptor Peter Randell-Page) and a bamboo pavilion (by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma) with an informal garden area consisting of two long borders either side of a rectangular pool. The borders are filled with frothy plants in pinks and creams, reflecting the colour of Laurent Perrier’s rosé champagne. Along the length of the borders, and continuing past the pavilion, Parrotia persica have been planted, pruned to show their bare, twisting stems, and they (along with the pool of water which extends under part of the pavilion) provide a level of unity between the whimsical planting and elegant seating area.

The HESCO Garden

Designer: Leeds City Council, Parks And Countryside
Award: Gold Medal

This year’s display by Leeds City Council highlights the importance of water-power in the city’s industrial past – and this isn’t done subtly…the centrepiece of the garden is a 6 metre high mill house, fully equipped with a spinning water wheel! To give the building a feeling of permanence, Thuja plicata trees tower over it at a majestic 9 metres high, though this would have been further enhanced had the stonework and mortar of the building been aged a little, as it did look a little too new for the age of the accompanying trees.

The planting around the mill is very natural in feel, with cultivated plants near the building (to show that the building is still ‘in use’) and native species nearer the boundary of the garden, giving the appearance of the mill gradually merging with the natural surroundings. A pastel colour palette gives a calming effect and adds to the naturalistic feel of the garden.

The M&G Garden

Designer: Bunny Guinness
Award: Silver Gilt Medal

Taking a modern view of a kitchen garden, the M&G Garden cleverly combines produce and pretty within a maze of raised beds built from willow and topped with cedar coping. The aim of the garden is to show that separate vegetable plots aren’t necessary – you can grow to eat and have an attractive garden in even the smallest space. As well as the raised beds, large terracotta pots contain trees including lemons and medlars. Clematis trip over lettuces nudging up against marrows in this busy, cluttered, stuffed to bursting, wonderful garden! I can understand why the judges marked Bunny Guinness’ design down for the over-crowding of plants into each of the raised beds, but equally I can see that this is a garden everyone aspires too; full to bursting with fun and colour.

At the end of the garden, barely noticeable beyond the cornucopia of plants, is a very smart seating area. An open fire warms a snug seating area while, above it, a glass platform provides an open air dining area with views down onto the garden. A great design, I would just worry about wearing a skirt if I were walking over that glass floor and people were sitting below!

The Monaco Garden

Designer: Sarah Eberle
Award: Gold Medal

Inspired by the architecture and landscape of Monaco, this garden brings a very clean, modern design to Chelsea. The classic, tiled pool at the front of the garden represents the Monaco harbour, and gradual terracing of the garden from the pool to the rear reflects the topography of the Principality. A long strip of smooth wooden decking reaches back from the pool, with stylish recliners and a vibrant planting scheme either side to create an almost-symmetrical view. At the pinnacle of the garden a partly glazed structure sits underneath a wood-clad, lavender lined roof garden. I can just see myself enjoying a glass of champagne up there before an evening at the casino or a trip on my yacht…in my dreams I can anyway!

The Australian Garden

Designer: Jim Fogarty
Award: Gold Medal

Contrasting wonderfully with the subtle pinks and blues which have filled many Chelsea gardens this year, the Australian Garden stands out by combining the vibrant red sand of the outback with with tough plants which have grown to survive these arid conditions. The wavy-lined walls represent the sand dunes of the outback with a water cascade providing vital water as do the inland water gorges. A pebble path running through the garden symbolising a dry river bed and a large boomerang-shaped pool provides a blue coloured oasis; the colour of a cloudless Australian sky.

Plants include eucalypts, Kangaroo Paws (Anigozanthos hybrids) and Grevillea ‘Forinda’. At the summit of the garden sits a large pavilion and a green lawn, representing the populated areas of Australia, containing immense, stone-like seats.

The SKYshades ‘Wild Office’

Designer: Marney Hall
Award: Silver Medal

This garden-office design epitomises the naturalistic look which has been common at this year’s flower show. A wood and glass constructed office sits in the corner of the garden, which is informally planted to be reminiscent of a English hedgerow and meadow. The garden is designed to encourage wildlife and solar power for the office continues this environmentally friendly theme. In the centre of the garden two hare statues are jumping and, behind them, a small path winds off into the distance, hinting at the countryside beyond.

The Daily Telegraph Garden

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

This sunken (albeit shallowly) garden was inspired by the designer visiting the Roman ruins at Ptolemais, Libya. The Roman influence is most clearly seen in the pillar sculptures around the garden, one of which lies on its side to symbolise the age of the structures this design is based on. The planting is constrained by the paving, created from reclaimed Cotswold stone, but within these constraints is very naturalistic, many plants being self-seeders/colonisers which would allow the plants to move and change over time.

Tall Sophora japonica trees help to balance out the artificiality of the columns in this ‘best in show’ garden. The overall effect is strangely private, as if stumbling across a hidden garden in a faraway mediterranean country.

The backdrop to the planting is a mustard-yellow wall with water trickling smoothly from thick metal pipes into a sunken trough. While I adore the planting of this garden and the statuque pillars I have to confess that the colour of this wall really ruins the garden for me. I’m sure I just don’t appreciate the reasoning behind this choice (after all the RHS judges don’t seem to be put off by it at all), but from a layman’s point of view I’m afraid I just don’t like it!

The RBC New Wild Garden

Designer: Dr Nigel Dunnett
Award: Silver Gilt Medal

This garden includes a very clever piece of re-use – it’s centrepiece is an office constructed from an old shipping container. Part of the side has been removed and replaced with glazing and the roof has been planted with a green roof and this, along with the striking blue paint, makes it a very inviting place to work. Outside the room, dark reflecting pools capture rainwater for use in the garden and reflect the planting scheme.

Beyond the office is a small seating area (perfect to escape your desk for a few minutes on a sunny day!) surrounded by crab apples and ‘wild garden’ planting made up of mainly herbaceous plants, mixing wild flowers and grasses with cultivated garden plants. Cutting across the beds are dry stone walls with insect retreats built in a sedums planted along the tops.

Times Eureka Garden

Designer: Marcus Barnett
Award: Silver Medal

Created in association with the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, this garden aims to demonstrate the importance of plants. The structure of the garden mirrors the structure of plants, with paving symbolising capillaries leading out from a cellular-formed pavilion. The planting is chosen to show that plants are both beautiful and useful. Specimens include foxgloves and geraniums (used in medicine) and roses (used in cosmetics and drinks manufacturing).

The beds reflect the wilder theme of many of the gardens at the year’s Chelsea, with a riot of plants vying for position. The cell-like pavilion structure was a little too literal for my liking, and I heard quite a few similar comments, seeming to be better suited to a biology lecture; perhaps a more abstract interpretation of a plant cell would have better suited a garden site?

The Tourism Malaysia Garden

Designer: David Cubero and James Wong
Award: Gold Medal

This design takes a Malaysian jungle stream and wraps it neatly around a simple sunken seating area with smooth, clean lines which are almost Conran-esque in design. The use of water and lush planting which is found in this scheme harps back to the modern design used in many homes in Kuala Lumpar, where it acts as ‘natural air-conditioning’. The tropical, green plants crowd over the water, the surface of which is virtually covered by waterlilies. The crowding of the foliage gives this very open garden a strangely intimate feeling.

The simplicity of the stonework used for the seating area and to contain the borders, combined with the almost entirely green planting scheme, at first makes this garden seem a little dull. But the more you look at it and image sitting in the centre enjoying the cool of the water and serenity of the foliage, the more you realise that this is actually a very detailed and clever garden.

Irish Sky Garden

Designer: Diarmuid Gavin
Award: Gold Medal

When you hear that Diarmuid Gavin is doing a Chelsea garden one thing’s for certain – you’ll be treated to something controversial, extravagant and wonderfully fun. And he hasn’t failed to deliver!

His inspirations for the Irish Sky Garden are varied, to say the least. They range from the film Avatar, to the work of Capability Brown, to the concept of the Restaurant in the Sky. The centrepiece to the garden is a huge, eye shaped, magenta seating area which is lifted by crane to provide a view down onto the garden and out to the distant horizon. The seating area is planted both inside and out, with grass actually growing out of the bottom of it.

While a great crowd pleaser and, literally, the highlight of the garden, for me the real gem is the planting at ground level. Pines and grasses reach up to the skies and lessen the impact of the crane and below mounds of yew and box planted at differing heights roll across the garden, mimicking a Capability Brown landscape. Between the greenery 25 round pools of water reflect the overhead craft and throughout the garden a simple path winds, rather like Dorothy’s yellow brick road, making you desperate to walk down it and discover if there really is a wizard hiding behind the next conifer…or perhaps a little Irish leprechaun?!

Small Gardens – Urban Gardens

The Chilstone Garden

Designer: Heather Appleton
Award: Silver Medal

Doncaster Deaf Trust Garden

Designer: Graham Bodle
Award: Silver Gilt Medal

Winds Of Change

Designer: Jamie Dunstan
Awards: Gold Medal, Best Urban Garden

The Bradstone Fusion Garden

Designer: Maria Luisa and Chris Beardshaw
Award: Silver Gilt Medal

The Magistrate’s Garden

Designer: Kate Gould
Award: Silver Gilt Medal

The Power Of Nature

Designer: Olivia Kirk
Award: Gold Medal

Across The Pond

Designer: Adam Frost
Award: Gold Medal

The RNIB Garden

Designer: Paul Hervey-Brookes
Award: Silver Gilt Medal

Small Gardens – Artisan Gardens

The Basildon Bond Garden

Designer: William Quarmby
Award: Bronze Medal

Fever Tree House Garden

Designer: Stephen Hall
Award: Silver Medal

A Child’s Garden In Wales

Designer: Anthea Guthrie
Award: Silver Medal

A Postcard From Wales

Designer: Kati Crome and Maggie Hughes
Award: Gold Medal

A Literary Garden

Designer: Martin Cook and Bonnie Davies
Award: Silver Gilt Medal

Hae-Woo-So (Emptying One’s Mind: Traditional Korean Toilet)

Designer: Jihae Hwang
Awards: Gold Medal, Best Artisan Garden

The Art Of Yorkshire

Designer: Gillespies LLP (Kate Dundas, Tom Walker and Esther Kilner)
Award: Silver Medal

The Great Pavilion

In many ways, I think the large marquee area within Chelsea (often bypassed by many visitors) contains more ideas which are easily accessible to the average gardener than the show gardens do. While the show gardens provide a dramatic ‘make over’ for your humble yard, the harsh reality for most gardens with restricted budgets and/or gardening ability is that the show gardens just aren’t achievable. This doesn’t mean that elements of them can’t be extracted and re-used, but you have to look carefully to seek out the ideas. Within the Great Pavilion, however, there are numerous smaller displays and stalls that either provide ideas for particular cultivars to grow (without prescribing any specific arrangement) or exhibit small scale arrangements of plants which are clearly labelled, giving the average gardener a ready made ‘design’ to follow.

A few of my favourite displays from the Great Pavilion this year include:

  • The ‘Fantastic Thailand’ exhibit, inspired by symbols of that country, which included a huge pagoda, elephants, fish, lanterns, dragons and more – all created with thousands of tiny flowers pressed into the statutory.
  • Dibley’s wonderfully colourful display of streptocarpus and begonia plants.
  • The South African ‘Botanical Landscapes’ planting scheme with a huge, panoramic shot of Table Mountain in the background.
  • The Sparsholt College stand celebrating the arts, with petite gardens each representing a different artist or poet, cleverly using photographic backgrounds to extend the perceived size of the exhibit. One poppy-filled section was dedicated to ‘In Flanders Field’, a World War I poem by John McCrae.
  • A mountainous (literally!) exhibit highlighting the plight of gorillas, which included two gorillas, a waterfall and a host of bright crimson and pink tropical plants.
  • The annual RHS Chelsea Florist Of The Year competition; this year taking a ‘horse racing’ theme with each entry being a floral jockey’s jacket.

Here are a few images from within the Great Pavilion: