RHS Chelsea Flower Show, 2017

Oh my. Does it get any better than Chelsea? It’s hard to put into words the pure joy and exhilaration I feel when I’m here.

A pair of elephants greets you at the entrance to the Chelsea Flower Show

It’s like being wrapped up in a (rather large) cocoon of plant-fuelled love. You experience the absolute height of horticulture anywhere in the world. And if there’s one thing better than experiencing the absolute height of horticulture anywhere in the world, it’s experiencing the absolute height of horticulture anywhere in the world alongside the absolute height of passionate horticulturists anywhere in the world.

Stunning planting by Sarah Raven

There’s something about Chelsea that makes you feel a strong bond with each and every other visitor. Like you are all in on the same secret. Perhaps it is the secret of the power of plants and gardening. We all know just what they can do for us humans. We have all quite literally had our lives shaped by plants. We would be quite different people without them.

Tamara Bridge (RHS Young Designer of the Year 2015) and Kate Savill’s Scent Garden

Chelsea brings us all together in a big, planty, lovefest. You know everyone there is on a high. It’s the enormous buzz that is most incredible. A combination of the recognition of such dedication, skill and hard work along with the excitement of being amongst the result of this. The designers and nursery owners all beaming with pride, matched by the smiles of delight of those drawn in. There’s just nothing like it. I even overheard one lady saying, ‘I first came to Chelsea in 1933’, and it didn’t sound like she’d missed one since (being in a wheelchair certainly wasn’t going to stop her).

Chris Evans live on Radio 2 from amongst the plants in the Great Pavilion

This year brought Chris Evans to the show, broadcasting his morning programme live on Radio 2. What a complete star he is. And what a remarkably loud voice he has! I’m sure most of west London could hear him without the need for a radio. But he was singing as he went, and that was just the off-air sections. He really did bring the flower show to a very lively start and seemed the most genuinely ‘as on TV’ full-of-life character. As he said, “we’re going al fresco and gardening bonkers”.

Jon Wheatley’s Taste Garden is both beautiful and functional (with a bit of plastic water butt reality thrown in)

Chris popped up everywhere, but seemed especially (if that’s possible) animated amongst the BBC Radio 2 Feel Good Gardens. These were a new idea for 2017, aimed at “uplifting the senses and encouraging people to lose themselves amongst a feast of sights, scents, sounds, flavours and textures to feel happier, calmer and generally better about the world”. Well, they certainly worked on me.

The Jeremy Vine Texture Garden, by designer Matt Keightley – Jeremy was enthusiastically learning all the plants from Matt at 7am this morning!

With the back drop of the magnificent Grade I listed Royal Chelsea Hospital, these five senses gardens had the crowds transfixed. They really had it all. World-class designers paired with celebrity garden ‘owners’, clear but unrestrictive themes with the aim of making people feel good. They were simple rather than showy, down-to-earth rather than try-hard and as they weren’t being judged, seemed to be all about having fun and not taking life too seriously.

Sarah Raven’s Colour Cutting Garden – my photos don’t do it justice, but it made me want to take a seat and remain here all day

Of all the gardens this year, the Anneka Rice Colour Cutting Garden, by Sarah Raven, was my standout. A traditional cottage garden, in theory nothing you haven’t seen before, but it was just exquisite. This was the garden that just kept bringing me back. There was so much to see, just wonderful planting combinations and the most joyful space imaginable. I wouldn’t have picked it in a million years from the pre-show literature, but how wrong a girl can be.

A little of the planting detail from Sarah Raven’s garden – it was such a happy place

There were also two stand-out show gardens for me. Both standing-out for standing-out. I really believe Chelsea is about trying something new. It’s the opportunity to be brave and bold, away from any site or client limitations. It’s the place to showcase the future of garden design; inspiration for lesser mortals to take away, chew over and use to enhance creativity in their lives.

Darren Hawkes’ Linklater’s for Maggie’s garden could only be seen from above the 9 foot hedge but proved the perfect party venue

Darren Hawkes’ was the first of these gardens. Most seemed to completely miss it first time around; it’s hidden behind a nine foot high hedge. But a small pathway takes you up and behind the garden, to look out over it from above. It was beautifully done, even the pathway edge had roses rambling through the hedgerow and by 10am champagne was flowing and all the good and the great from the gardening world (including Andy Sturgeon, Chelsea’s 2016 Best in Show designer, and Matthew Wilson who designed this same plot last year) seemed to be having a party there with Darren.

Gorgeous planting combinations, inspired by the flora of Malta, by James Basson

The other was James Basson’s Maltese quarry-inspired design. This was certainly brave; James himself described it as “stark and monumentally brutal”. But inspired it was. James wanted to show how beauty can come from wasteland and his incredible ability to replicate nature clearly shone through.

James Basson in his M&G garden, showing the enormous scale of his quarry garden

The M&G stand (his sponsor) on the other side of Main Avenue had the same stone columns but denser planting and I have to say I craved the extra colour and life. It was a struggle to really see the show garden as a true garden and it wasn’t straight forward to view such a small site as a quarry either. But none-the-less, James – always seemingly smiling and understated – has once again shown us his remarkable talent and translatable ideas, whether I’d personally like a Maltese quarry garden or not.

I seemed to find myself very drawn to fruit this year. Just perfect tomatoes, peppers, strawberries…perhaps even more attractive, in their own way, than the flowers they develop from?

Which leaves me with just one other garden that’s sticking there at the front of my mind. And it’s another that I thought I’d walk past without too much ado. Nigel Dunnett’s RHS garden was another garden of detail. It wasn’t so much the overall effect that got me, but the sheer number of pockets of innovation and authenticity. Nigel’s ‘modern meadow’ planting style is designed for ease of maintenance alongside maximum, long-seasonal interest; certainly a philosophy that doesn’t need selling to me.

Nigel Dunnett’s RHS Greening Grey Britain garden, with bin storage roof gardens, green bicycle racks and an enormous number of bees!

And his planting was beautiful, reminding me that I need to get up to the Barbican this summer to see – in the flesh – his talents there. But he also made this a garden for everyone. A practical, real garden that we can all take ideas from. My absolute favourite was the teeny tiny balcony, reflecting the reality of so many city dwellers, with the odd plant tucked into the corner in its original plastic pot and a diverse range of tomatoes, corn, roses, conifers…. It looked like a keen gardener’s collection of best loved plants, including a few there wasn’t really space for. Isn’t that the reality (and joy) of life as a gardener for most of us?

Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliam’s Breaking Ground garden was applauded for its sophisticated planting, with ribbons of Salvia interspersed with a whole range of umbellifers

I’m back at the show ground tomorrow for more, so will share with you as much as I can, as soon as I can, in between mad panics about my dissertation which I’d had all good intentions of finishing prior to Chelsea, along with the million other things that seem to come along at this lovely, but scarily frantic time of the year.

Steady Eddie Chris Beardshaw in his Morgan Stanley garden – always done well, but just a little like the one before

Until then, I hope you’ve enjoyed a taster of Chelsea. Do let me know which bits appeal to you best of all…

And a little bit of my beloved Australia…lupins and bird baths from Victoria’s Willie Wildlife

21 thoughts on “RHS Chelsea Flower Show, 2017

  1. Deirdre says:

    You’ve captured it all so wonderfully and you took me back instantly to the time I visited the show in 2013. I loved the celebration of gardening and the atmosphere perhaps even more than the gorgeous gardens and displays. Good luck with the thesis!

    • jannaschreier says:

      That’s such a lovely description, Deirdre: ‘a celebration of gardening’. I feel I’ve soaked up so much atmosphere in the last two days. Just feeling a bit frustrated there aren’t enough hours in the day right now; I now want to live through my photos and capture my thoughts but all will have to wait. Fingers crossed another couple of weeks and the biggie will be out of the way at least!

  2. Steven Wells says:

    Oh thank you Janna for your delightful taster of Chelsea. So nice to see lots of flowers and I must admit that I do like seeing the gardens that look like liveable gardens. Were there as many main gardens this year compared to previous years?
    All the best for day 2!

    • jannaschreier says:

      No there were only 8 ‘show’ gardens this year, although more fresh and artisan gardens and then the new five senses gardens which were such a huge hit with everyone. Two of the show garden designers you saw last year are exhibiting at the Chatsworth Flower Show in a couple of weeks’ time…which isn’t really going to help me get my thesis done any quicker!!

    • jannaschreier says:

      How about we meet up there in 2019…give you plenty of time to plan it? You’d so adore it. Really not a bad time to jump ship and pretend winter isn’t coming in Canberra, too!

  3. Suzanne says:

    What a great description of the Chelsea atmosphere; so tangible and graphic. As for the best bits from your pics that grabbed my attention, hmmm: Tamara’s the Scent Garden really appealed. I think it is elegant and refreshing even without being able to appreciate any scent. Most of the other pics, for me, had some sort of jarring element, and flowers are not so exciting when they are always available throughout the year in little world. As always, an enjoyable post thanks Janna.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thanks Suzanne, glad you enjoyed it. The scent garden wasn’t actually that scent-y from where I was standing, but I agree it was beautiful. I’m just back from there now and it looked stunning in the soft evening light. It’s funny, I’m sure my tastes are adapting to the UK gradually. I don’t think I’ve lost the love of Australia-ness but I think I’ve gained one for bright colours and flowers. Winter here just makes you crave life and greenness. I wonder if that’s how you are viewing it (through a ‘life’s pretty lovely all year round in Perth’ lens), or whether your eye is just sharper at picking up jarring? Interesting.

      • Barbara says:

        Ah, I just have to put in my two penny worth from Perth. It is not “pretty lovely all year round” here ;), hot as hell in summer with light so harsh that you spend most of the time indoors. YES, we also crave greenness and life returning rafter the beige and brown of summer. We are getting it now and the smell of wet earth and decomposing leaves is just heaven… so I absolutely understand your reverting to seasons in UK.
        Keep them posts coming, they so lift ones soul.

        • jannaschreier says:

          Barbara, I’ve been trying to think if I’ve been to Perth in summer, but I believe it’s always been lovely, mild spring or autumn. Having just been through the most horrid winter I can remember, you have to forgive me for having rose-tinted glasses about your sunshine over there. But of course I do remember that oppression of heat and not wanting to go outside. We all want what we can’t have! Lovely to hear your joy of the wet earth now…always the simplest things in life are the best.

  4. Adriana Fraser says:

    I felt the excitement Janna in your description – in fact I got excited myself! I thought the Jeremy Vine Texture garden looked a bit ‘Australian’ maybe the textures? More so than the Australian contribution at the end. It is all gorgeous Janna and really world class, whatever that means. Perhaps second to none would be a better description. I think here in our Melbourne version we run short – for me it lacks that atmosphere you describe so well for Chelsea. Maybe one day when we get that really big one up and running (still a work in secret progress) and things might change. I hope so. In the mean time ‘Chelsea for the win’ by all accounts.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Interesting about the Texture Garden. I hadn’t seen Australia in it, but now you say it… There are lots of small leaved/needled plants and then all the grasses. And also sandy and burnt red colour highlights with quite a bit of dark green foliage. It would work really well I think.
      Sorry about the jargon, I’ve obviously worked in jargon-y places in a past life! And to be fair, the atmosphere on press day (which is also ‘very serious horticulturists’ day) is different to the public days. Both are amazing in their own right, but today was more like MIFGS. On press day, everywhere you look you see faces you know (at least, of!) but I don’t think MIFGS have an equivalent. But it’s not supposed to be a comparison. You know me, I love anything green!

  5. Louise says:

    Oh my indeed! No words to describe the abundance of colour and plant arrangements in those small amount of photos. I want to see more……. I can’t wait for the day I attend Chelsea. Agreed, I felt excited reading your blog…..I could just hear you describing this. I would love to see more photos of the Sarah Raven garden and scent garden. What a wonderful distraction from your dissertation……must get that done!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Louise, I’ve got photos of so much more! Bear with me and I’ll sort and post them. Just overwhelmed with my to-do list right now. I’m already looking forward to Chelsea 2018 and not having a dissertation deadline looming concurrently! I could write full time for a month about all I have seen. I’ll prioritise the Sarah Raven and Scent Gardens then (as well as the Best in Show). And I hope the bike fork comes back soon…I’m feeling for him!

  6. alisteningheartblog says:

    A lovely captivating post. Sadly, I’m unable these days to visit gardens and the Chelsea Flower Show. I have to be content with reading about them and enjoying my own. I too am impressed by the Sarah Raven garden. I’m another fan of her informal style. Thank you for taking me to Chelsea!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thanks for your comment, Richard, and I’m glad you enjoyed your virtual trip to Chelsea. I’m exceedingly lucky that I literally live across the road from the show. But it seems – if not gardens – you have beautiful countryside around you, which I am sure is equally heartwarming in its own way.

  7. Anita says:

    Oh I would love to go this flower show one day! I live in Australia so a little far away for me!! I love the purple salvia’s which I have recently started growing in my garden too. In general I love the pops of colour. Thanks!

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