It’s back. It’s back. Oh, what a wonderful thing!
After two empty, Chelsea-less Mays in a row, at 7am on the dot this morning, I was there on the Embankment, patiently, and oh so excitedly, awaiting my turn to collect my pass. A voice said, ‘excuse me please’, as I turned to see Monty Don edge past me.
Horticulture is back!
It’s hard to describe the feeling I get at the flower show. The joy of seeing plants creatively combined and displayed at their absolute best. The excitement shared with like-minded people. The buzz in knowing that there is nowhere else in the world with such concentrated excellence in all things plants.
The show gardens are my favourite. Plants excite me most when I’m lost in a landscape. It’s the feeling of being utterly absorbed within a garden, as the rest of the world disappears, and all that is left is peace, calm, delight and a serenity like no other, that most appeals to me about plants. The holistic atmosphere, rather than the individual specimens on display in the majestic Great Pavilion.
Whilst I’m there, weaving in and out of the show gardens, I’m in my own little world. I’m sure many go by who I know, but don’t notice today. But as I walk away, my mind starts to race. Why? Why are they so good? Why do they take me somewhere else? What is it exactly that works its magic on me? I want to analyse and learn and take knowledge back in to my own garden.
So here are the 13 show gardens of 2022. And some of my racing mind’s thoughts on them so far.
1. Sarah Eberle’s ‘Medite Smartply Building the Future’
Sarah’s garden was the one that first stood out for me. The bold, lush planting; the water falling from way way up in the sky; the soft, natural colours of the hard landscaping pulling it all together.
Only big budgets (and big plants) can create something that looks quite as established as this, but it takes a lot more than money to develop a garden so convincingly real. The planting is hugely complex and yet not fussy; nothing jars in this space at all.
And there’s a great innovation behind it too – the corten steel-like structure is actually made from wood off-cuts. I do love something that’s made from nothing – I think my grandmother passed on to me her loathing of all things waste.
2. Ruth Willmott’s ‘Morris & Co.’
After my second and third walk around the gardens, I realised it was Ruth’s William Morris-inspired garden that kept bringing me back for more.
I was quite transfixed by the colourings of the plants, by the beauty of the ‘Willow Bough’ pavilion and by more bees than I have ever before seen in central London. Just such beautiful forms and textures, combined just perfectly – not too bitty, not too blocky, full of interest and presented with rhythm in a wonderfully sing-songy style.
3. Andy Sturgeon’s ‘The Mind Garden’
I’m an enormous fan of Andy and there is no doubt that this, supposedly his last ever Chelsea offering, is another wonderful piece of art.
Yet it’s my least favourite of his show gardens I’ve seen. There has been talk of there being just a few too many walls contained in this small space, but I don’t think it’s that that bothers me. I think it’s the colours. Colour’s such an important element in the garden for me. I’m sure that makes me very unsophisticated, but it just didn’t quite hang together to my eye. Lots of different foliage colours, some very electric flower colours; it just didn’t quite sit as his usual gardens do.
4. Richard Miers’ ‘The Perennial Garden ‘With Love”
I’m such a huge supporter of Perennial, the charity who helps anyone in the horticultural industry experiencing difficult times. It’s not an easy industry in which to earn a living and I love what they do with such passion.
So I’d love to say that the first Main Avenue show garden for Perennial was my very very favourite, but alas, that wouldn’t quite be the truth. It’s beautifully executed, with soothing colours and a very charming mix of plants, but the neon sign is so not me and the formal lines too rigid for my taste. It’s a garden you can see in one go; no hidden corners or tall, opaque planting.
Luckily, my taste isn’t what counts, so let’s hope the judges are in awe of the technical skills on display here.
5. Chris Beardshaw’s ‘The RNLI Garden’
In a similar vein, Chris Beardshaw (and his wife!) is one of the nicest people in garden design and he’s an extremely talented man. But I do struggle to get my heart fully into his style. I think I’ve gone too far down the naturalistic route now to come back to his more traditional herbaceous border-themed planting, with it’s bold mounds and limited repetition.
It’s beautiful, there’s no doubt, but it feels far from nature and hence I can’t quite get lost in it in the same way I do others. Again, a great garden, just not quite ‘me’.
6. Lulu Arquhart and Adam Hunt’s ‘A Rewilding Britain Landscape’
I admit I overheard a past Chelsea gold winner singing this garden’s praises and so revisited the garden for a slightly longer look.
Of course, I should love a ‘rewilded’ garden and there is much about it which draws me in. I think perhaps the wild (ish) English garden with some water and an old shed has perhaps been done a few too many times at Chelsea – it feels a little like I have seen this before.
There are pockets I love, like the foxgloves under the multi-stemmed tree, but some of the planting just feels a little loose. It perhaps needs a little more substance and structure to hold it together but there is really little to fault aside its slight familiarity.
7. John Everiss’s ‘The RAF Benevolent Fund Garden’
Tim Richardson, who each year gives early betting odds on the Chelsea show gardens, marked this one way down at 22-1 for winning best in show.
Perhaps we all like to support an underdog, but I quite like it. I admit that the central area, around the statue of a young pilot, is a little stark and devoid of plants, but I thought the woodland planting to the side was really beautifully done.
And its story is great; designer John’s RAF father was shot down during the war, eventually walking to freedom over the Pyrenees.
8. Paul Hervey-Brooks’s ‘Brewin Dolphin Garden’
Paul is a very talented garden designer, but I’m not sure this is him at his best. Some of the soft planting is really exquisite, but the overpowering walls, symbolic of a brownfield site having been rehabilitated, are all you really see as you approach this garden.
It’s another, that to me, is better at its margins; the skill and the beauty is all there, but sadly it is lost a little in the overall presentation.
9. Tayshan Hayden-Smith and Danny Clarke’s ‘Hands Off Mangrove by Grow2Know’
I admit, that any garden starting with the name, ‘Hands Off’, has a little way to go to pull me back in. To me, plants, nature and gardens bring such wonderfully innocent escapism in a world full of problems, that I feel disheartened when gardens are used politically.
I find the corten steel roots structure does anything but relax me, yet the planting is soft and lush and proportioned brilliantly for the scale of this slightly smaller show garden.
And so each to their own. Tim Richardson gave this 6-1 odds, so I’m sure there’ll be plenty of support for it.
10. Joe Perkins’ ‘The Meta Garden: Growing the Future’
I have enormous admiration for Joe, who some years back, proudly displaying his first show garden, at Chelsea no less, explained to me how he cold-called Facebook and sold them his idea for a Chelsea sponsored garden.
It certainly meets my ‘wild’ criteria, but it doesn’t quite seem to have the depth or complexity of planting to really pull me in. And perhaps the timber structure is just a little too alien for me, particularly for a garden which Joe describes as ‘intended to be an immersive experience’. Where are my hidden nooks and crannies to slowly explore and hide within?!
11. Juliet Sargeant’s ‘The New Blue Peter Garden – Discover Soil’
Juliet’s garden has some interesting features, such as a clear drum of composting matter, highlighting the importance of soil.
I couldn’t agree more on the wonders of soil, but you’ve probably guessed that jarring orange walls and telling off messages aren’t necessarily going to win me over at Chelsea.
I’m all for education though, so if we put a different hat on, we can see what this garden brings to its onlookers.
12. Howard Miller and Hugh Miller’s ‘Alder Hey Urban Foraging Station’
There was no lack of creativity in the development of this garden, with an enormous concrete picnic blanket taking centre stage, interwoven with a mix of edible herbs.
Again, it is wild, but I think the planting really needs to be seen from within – as a show garden the detail is lost from its boundary. The hedgerows were also intended to be full of blossom, which the weather perhaps sadly didn’t allow.
13. Darryl Moore and Adolfo Harrison’s ‘The St Mungo’s Putting Down Roots Garden’
I’m afraid this is a little psychedelic for me. Perhaps I’m too frumpy, but I just can’t get past the bare diagonals of cerise and orange screaming out at me. The circular planters seem disjoined and bitty, but I guess if you appreciate the energy and fun in the colours they may appear differently.
But it’s good to have a mix at Chelsea; if we loved them all it would be very boring, uniform and unchallenging!
Which do you like best? Are you a naturalist nut like me? Or do you enjoy a garden with a keen message or which jolts you out of your slumber? I’d love to hear. Let me know over the next 18 hours – before we hear the results of the official judges – and I’ll look at a few of your favourites in more depth.