Natural look and relaxed planting back at Chelsea

Key themes emerge at top show despite reduction in number of sponsor gardens.

M&G garden: demonstrates use of stone structures - image: HW
M&G garden: demonstrates use of stone structures - image: HW

An increasing focus on natural landscapes, natural stone, relaxed planting and industrial structures were themes of the Main Avenue show gardens at this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Despite there being only eight show gardens compared to 17 last year, some themes did emerge. Aspirational designs were out, in favour of a more relaxed, natural style, in what has been dubbed "the Brexit Chelsea" after a number of sponsors pulled out. Of what remained, three were gardens linked to a specific landscape - M&G, Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and Welcome to Yorkshire.

In addition, the M&G-sponsored RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden, designed by Nigel Dunnett, had a specific focus on practical and creative solutions for urban gardening to cope with and mitigate climate change. The focus for these gardens not only limited their palette but increased the feeling that the plots were chunks of landscape rather than individual gardens in their own right.

Breaking Ground: Wellington College show garden

Garden inspiration

Best in show and gold medal-winner James Basson was inspired by the many quarries in Malta when designing his garden, a limestone quarry with exposed walls, scattered stone blocks and monolithic limestone structures, with internal metal support. He says his garden, built by Crocus, which also took the best construction award, is also a comment on how to vegetate urban spaces, a theme also covered by Dunnett in the RHS Greening a Grey Britain garden.

Basson says his garden was characterised by "fringe vegetation", places people often try to tidy up but are where plants grow really well, such as where walls meet the ground. "It's about the ability of nature to come back even with very limited results. Only specific plants can survive in that landscape, it's a really tough spot."

Chelsea designers are increasingly creating gardens that are less artificial, says Basson. "Every year it's getting more natural. We're all becoming a bit mindful about what we have less of. You have less wild spaces, less nature. We are trying to re-engage with it and our gardens are getting more about that. It's not something you can just plant."

At the Wilson McWilliam gold medal-winning Wellington College "Breaking Ground" garden, built by The Outdoor Room, 20% of the planting represents the heathland landscape of Berkshire, where Wellington College was established in 1850s. It is now one of the most threatened in the world with more than 80% of lowland heaths having been destroyed since the 19th century. Chelsea designers have "got a voice to talk about environmental issues such as loss of heathland," says McWilliam. "It's more in danger than rainforest."

Charlotte Harris had a completely natural environment in mind - ancient and untouched boreal forest - when she designed the RBC garden, built by Landscape Associates, which also won gold. She and business partner Hugo Bugg insist on working with any existing landscape rather than trying to radically transform anything. "You can only ever influence nature, you can't control it. The M&G garden is such a good example. It will always come back, it will always take over."

Harris says she can see a lot of things driving a more natural approach to gardening in general, not least an increased awareness of the needs of wildlife. "I think it's influenced by people's increasing environmental awareness and understanding about improving their gardens for that and being more relaxed about it."

Darryl Moore, who is working on a hanging installation for the RHS's new show at Chatsworth and curating the society's second Urban Garden Festival at Lawrence Hall on 11-13 July, says: "Relaxed planting has become more prevalent over the last few years. The one that stands out in terms of not being like that is Chris Beardshaw's. It looks very forced. It's an old-fashioned style of planting.

"This time of year it's more realistic than forcing flowers that aren't normally out a month-and-a-half early. It's an unrealistic impression to give the public. We do need more realistic expectations." Beardshaw's Morgan Stanley garden won silver-gilt.

The Outdoor Room managing director David Dodd picked up on the natural stone theme, praising the "beautiful stone" crafted by artisans from Harrogate for his Breaking Ground garden. Gavin McWilliam of Wilson McWilliam, which designed the Wellington College garden, said natural stone, walling and pine trees, which featured in his design, were themes.

Harris used both natural stone and Pinus banksiana (Jack Pines) in her design. Her Welsh granite boulders, including a mossy one she has been carefully watering for eight weeks, give "a raw natural beauty" she said.

Expert stonemasonry was on view at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Centenary Garden, which aimed to highlight the work of its horticulturists, gardeners and also craftspeople. Moore saw a lot of "discombobulated paving," non-regular use of stone, such as that in Harris and Wilson McWilliam's gardens, that could translate into the consumer market. "It's bigger and bolder than square paving" as well as the use of sculpture.


Designers noticed a departure from grasses and "over-sophistication". Basson said: "Shrubs were coming in last year and it seemed like grasses were going on forever. Now people are shouting out for a bit of colour, a bit more punch. I see more guts coming back into gardens. People have got a little bit bored of the over-sophistication."

Basson said annuals are coming back in, another potential influence on retail. "You can put a spike in your garden, bring in this block of colour. You add a touch of colour at the right time of year." Andrew Wilson also said annuals were back. "Nurseries have gone from selling seed from annuals to selling them in two-litre pots," he noted.

The Wellington College Breaking Ground show garden was marked for its massive airy metal sculpture referencing synaptic activity and a series of transparent steel walls - representing "disappearing walls" when scholarships allow children of all backgrounds to attend the independent school.

A number of the smaller gardens also had industrial sculptures or detailing. Basson said industrial steel, or "the hipster style thing", is popular. Wilson noted "hot metal engineering".

Charlotte Armer, who runs Surrey-based Spruce, said: "Lots of the standard Chelsea plants aren't around, like alliums. I haven't noticed prairie planting, partly because lots of the main gardens represent different environments, so they're not planting for a UK palette."

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