And so. The biggies. Ten this year. Here they are, in the order presented in the RHS Show guide:
1. Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins’s Wuhan Water Garden, China
This garden “conveys a journey though the contrasting natural landscape of Hubei Province”. I don’t know, try as I might, I just can’t engage with it at all. There are some pretty plants, for sure, but it just feels so alien, and really nothing like the China I’ve (admittedly, not in any depth) ever seen. Despite some lovely pockets, the planting as a whole doesn’t hang together for me and the columns are too jarring…but I’m sure it works for some. Enlighten me if you are one of them!
2. Jo Thompson’s The Wedgwood Garden
I loved it. Pure and simple. Jo’s garden is designed as a modern interpretation of an 18th century secret garden, where people can “socialise, enjoy nature and drink tea”. I know I’d like to do all three things here. It’s no exaggeration to say that I adored the planting, and isn’t this really what it’s all about? Jo has struck a wonderful balance between being pretty, but not too pretty, being colourful, but still calm and green, having structure, but subtle structure; it’s just hard to find any fault at all.
The landscaping has been implemented to true Chelsea standard; the pavilion ‘thing’, well, it manages to be soft, it seems to embrace you, it creates little windows that frame the plants beyond, whilst all the time being almost completely transparent (probably more so than my photos suggest). And to have the huge trees, the woodland plants, the stream, the floriferous border and the seating area packed into one small space, without feeling forced or cramped; it’s just a dream.
3. Sarah Price’s The M&G Garden
I was so sure I was going to love this. And I definitely liked it a lot. But I felt disappointed, too. Tim Richardson, whose Telegraph article from the weekend is hugely good value as always, forecasts this as Best in Show, and he’s picked the last four Bests in a row. But I’m just not sure. I feel the planting just isn’t quite right. The plants themselves are perfect, gorgeous, but they are very uniformly sparse. I feel they should either be more dense and garden-like, or they should reflect nature, where density varies with the various microclimates and soils across a site.
And I still can’t get my head around the layout. There must have been a lot of thought put into it, but from where I was standing, it seems like lots of random pathways and part-walls with no particular rhyme or reason. I love Sarah’s rationale, that all you need is a basic wall, tree and seat, in order to create a “beautiful place of repose”, but I feel muddled by this garden’s structure. It’s also extremely similar to James Basson’s garden last year, for the same sponsor in the exact same site, almost as though little new thought has gone into it (although clearly this isn’t the case). I really like it, it’s very beautiful, but I just don’t think it’s as good as it could be from this extraordinarily talented lady.
4. Hay-Joung Hwang’s LG Eco-City Garden
I loved the colours and flowers in this garden, which represents a single roof garden within a vertical forest apartment block. They were such cheery colours and the odd pop of clashing pink broke the rhythm, bringing joyful spontaneity. But a huge TV screen in the garden? Just a little commercial and a little non-relaxing for me. And I’m never going to get overly excited about quite so many straight lines and boxy pavilions, or about something you can pretty much capture in one photograph.
5. Nic Howard’s The David Harber and Savills Garden
This garden represents “mankind’s evolving relationship with the environment”; from wild and naturalistic at one end to controlled formality at the other, all of which can be seen through a huge “wormhole” created through a series of sculptural forms. I must admit, I struggled somewhat to see this story play out: I couldn’t particularly see an evolution from wild to formal. I may have been a bit dazed by the bright colours of the sculptures, which didn’t quite sit right for me. But on the other hand, the planting was pretty and the foxgloves growing beneath the peeling bark of the birch trees was one of my favourite combinations of the whole show.
6. Chris Beardshaw’s The Morgan Stanley Garden for the NSPCC
This garden represents yet another journey…that of a child finding the path unclear at first, whilst with support, finding a more clam, tranquil place. I could follow that, but the garden did seem a little disjointed, with an imposing pavilion cutting the site in two. There is no question that Chris is a talented designer, but I feel he is stuck in his ways, always planting 80cm by 80cm mounds of each specimen, to create an incredibly same-y look each time. I never dislike his gardens, I’m just always left feeling he needs to shake his style up a bit and bring something different to the party. This is Chelsea, after all.
7. Jonathan Snow’s The Trailfinders South Africa Wine Estate
Jonathan’s garden was a real treat and all the more meaningful to me, having relatively recently spent a couple of weeks exploring the flora of South Africa. The only problem is, the Cape’s natural fynbos landscape is so extraordinarily beautiful and so vast and so magnificently set by towering mountains, it was a little hard for Jonathan to beat the real thing. However, he certainly chose some wonderful plants, the old Dutch homestead was really authentic and he managed to blend a wide variety of planting types (even a recently burnt area of fynbos and a small vineyard) into one holistic garden. I liked it, it was fun, it was definitely Chelsea standard, but perhaps, sadly, just not quite Chelsea Best in Show standard.
8. Mark Gregory’s Welcome to Yorkshire
This is the third Chelsea garden I’ve seen for Welcome to Yorkshire and the third time the northern team have lifted my spirits. Smartly sporting their matching blazers, the Yorkshire representatives are so friendly, so proud, and just so, well, not London. We sadly get used to the reserved, heads-down, if-anyone-speaks-they-are-probably-a-nutter nature of London, and the Yorkshire team are so refreshingly different. They managed to pull off a trickily elaborate scheme, with a vegetable garden, cottage garden (and cottage), stream and a bank representing the hills. Just as with the South African garden, this was laid out beautifully, but just as with the South African garden, I feel the execution wasn’t quite up there with some of the others. I wonder if this was purely a budgetary issue?
9. Stuart Charles Towner’s VTB Capital Garden – Spirit of Cornwall
It’s always great to see some lush, pseudo-tropical planting to remind us of our holidays, and it’s certainly what comes to mind when I think of Cornish gardens. I really liked the planting, with lots of interested textures, well woven together, but there just wasn’t enough planting full stop. It’s funny how, just like the M&G garden, this reminds me of the garden in this spot last year, which also had a bit too much reliance on hard landscaping and brightly coloured structures. I wonder if I’m forming views that are overly influenced by their location?
10. Tom Massey’s The Lemon Tree Trust Garden
Tom’s garden is all about showing the ingenuity of refugees in Northern Iraq, taking a cue from the types of plants and materials Tom has seen on the ground there. There are aspects I love, particularly the old, gnarled pomegranate trees with their colourful, yet understated underplanting, but I do wonder if he’s tried to incorporate a few too many ideas into a small site. To me, it felt a little disjointed, despite the individual elements being so delightful.
So, that’s it. The ten show gardens this year. But don’t let me go on talking to myself…I’d love to know what you think!