Experts hail Chelsea as a celebration of horticulture

Formulaic planting of past shows replaced by diverse range of styles and cultural influences, say landscape professionals.

Morgan Stanley Healthy Cities Garden: designer Beardshaw hailed a return to ‘a celebration of horticulture’ at this year’s show  - image: HW
Morgan Stanley Healthy Cities Garden: designer Beardshaw hailed a return to ‘a celebration of horticulture’ at this year’s show - image: HW

This year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show saw a return to a "celebration of horticulture", according to landscape professionals.

Designers have sometimes been accused of "playing it safe" but this year saw formulaic planting replaced by a diverse range of styles and cultural influences.

Association of Professional Landscapers president Mark Gregory of Landform Consultants said designers were more ambitious, "throwing the colour book out the window and mixing plants up that don't really go together".

Orange and yellow featured frequently, often with a blue base, but pink, white, and purple were also popular. Bigger specimen trees and an increased use of technology suggested sponsors were more willing to pay for big-ticket items, said Gregory.

Unusual combinations seen in international-themed gardens, such as the pleached oak and proteas in Australian Charlie Albone's garden "The Time In Between" (silver gilt, built by Conway Landscaping), might not be feasible in the UK but would give people ideas for their own planting schemes, he added.

Landscape architect David Dodd of The Outdoor Room said he hoped the new "risk-taking" style signals a move towards individual flair in home gardens as well.

"People have stopped playing it safe because of the criticism that they weren't taking enough risks," he added. "The gardens are becoming a lot less formulaic, and I like that. I think it can only be good for the industry."

He noted an increasing emphasis on high-end construction, from the marble expanses of the "Beauty of Islam" garden (silver gilt, built by The Outdoor Room) to his favourite, the Brewin Dolphin garden (gold), featuring floating slate platforms built by Bowles & Wyer with Wheelbarrow.

But despite these expensive pieces, show judge Andrew Fisher Tomlin said there was no big jump in spending, except on the trade stands. As well as an increase in rural, naturalistic and "shabby chic" gardens, there was also "plenty of sexy decking" such as that in the Royal Bank of Canada (silver gilt, built by Clifton Nurseries), Sentebale (silver gilt, designed by Matt Keightley, built by Rosebank) and Cloudy Bay (gold, designed and built by Harry and David Rich with Big Fish Landscapes) gardens.

Designer Chris Beardshaw, who created the Morgan Stanley "Healthy Cities" garden (gold, built by Keith Chapman Landscapes), said the show is returning to a "celebration of horticulture", with "sublime" planting such as that in Dan Pearson's Laurent Perrier garden (gold and best in show, built by Crocus). "There's no kiddery there. It is exactly as it would occur if it was planted in a real garden. That's how it should be at the premium horticultural show in the world - we should be showing the best horticulture."

Pearson said he was pleased to see old-fashioned favourites such as Sarah Cook's Morris irises returning and found the public equally excited by the native and less trendy plants he used. "We had a lovely Mahonia 'Soft Caress'

- people really admired it and wanted to know what it was. It's new in the trade and it's a lovely thing. Then we used things like Enkianthus campanulatus that people were really delighted by. "We wanted to use things that were perhaps a bit out of fashion, like laburnum and Rhododendron luteum, and people were delighted to see them again."

Hillier Nurseries managing director Andy McIndoe agreed there was a greater focus on planting, noting the profusion of Camassia, the return of Cirsium and a wide range of geum varieties.

Popular plants - Geums, irises and more

A wide range of geums were seen, with the reliably popular 'Totally Tangerine' from Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants serving the craze for orange flowers.

Iris sibirica was everywhere - not surprising because it is a reliable performer in late spring.

The starlike blooms of Camassia were popular. Chris Beardshaw used the blues of Camassia leichtlinii and Camassia cusickii, grown by Hare Spring Cottage Plants, in his "Healthy Cities" garden.

Cirsium rivulare 'Atropurpureum', wildly popular at Chelsea a decade ago, seems to be making a comeback.

Verbascum, foxglove and lupin spires provided height in many gardens. The Pure Land Foundation's use of Digitalis Illumination Series 'Apricot' is worth special mention. Thompson & Morgan scoured Europe for flowering specimens after none could be found in the UK. Some were found in Barcelona at the last minute.

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