My Thoughts – Chelsea 2013 The Gardens

As I mentioned in my last post, I hate leaving my own garden at his time of year but I am also lured by the temptation of visiting the Chelsea Flower Show.  This year partly because it was the centenary anniversary a trip to London won and I visited the show on Wednesday.

The show is watched over by this bronze statue of a Chelsea Pensioner.

The show is watched over by this bronze statue of a Chelsea Pensioner.

I enjoyed my experience more this year than on any other occasion; not because it was sunny and warm.  In fact the day was cool, bordering on cold with a very grey sky, actually meaning that it was much better for taking photographs.

Not because the show gardens were wonderful or inspiring, more about this in a moment.

Not because I was with good company, this year I was actually alone.  I’m not sure if the RHS had made a decision not to sell so many tickets (I haven’t heard that this is the case) but this is the first year I have been able to walk around in comfort.  I could see the gardens without having to push and shove (yes I have had to do this in the past I’m ashamed to say).  I could step into the main pathways and walk at the pace I wanted to; in the Pavilion it was easy to walk around without feeling that you were part of a queue.

So what about the show itself?  In some ways it was a bit of a disappointment and this wasn’t due to the difficult weather conditions exhibitors had had to endure this year.  Certainly different plants than those listed on hand-outs were used in many gardens and many plants were in bud rather than in flower, but this was positive rather than negative to my eyes.

Iris sibirica 'Tropic Night' in the garden UN GARREG Crafted from one stone

Iris sibirica ‘Tropic Night’?  in the garden UN GARREG Crafted from one stone

I’ll begin with Fleming’s nursery’s The Australian Garden, gold medal winner and controversial winner of the best in show award.  Designed by Phillip Johnson and based on his philosophy of creating landscapes that can mitigate extremes of drought and flooding, harnessing and managing water to guard against fire and storm and to create sustainable environments for both wildlife and people. “Bio-mimicry” is a word that comes up a lot: reproducing the processes of nature to solve human problems. “We need to bring Mother Nature back into our urban environment,” he says, “to cool and heal our cities.”

This was the only garden that was really different from all the others; that wouldn’t be a reason in itself for it to be awarded best in show but the planting was superb, evoking an Australian landscape most of us have never seen, with lush and luxuriant planting.  Its theme of how to sustainably harness rain and floodwater in a residential garden was given a glamorous interpretation involving a billabong, waterfalls and a rock gorge.  The billabong, a natural swimming pond is fed by rain water harvested from around the Chelsea site, which also supplies the creeks and waterfalls that flow into the pool.

A series of microclimates are created around the garden, allowing Phillip to use a wide variety of plants from all corners of Australia, including some never seen at Chelsea before. And for extra authenticity, he plays recordings of Yarra Valley frogs, made at night in his own garden.

This garden deserved to win; for the first time ever I think I agreed with the judges.

The  Australian Garden, Fleming's Nursery

The Australian Garden, Fleming’s Nursery

Phillip Johnson praying for a little sunshine for his photo shoot (not with me of course)

Phillip Johnson praying for a little sunshine for his photo shoot (not with me of course)

Phillip Johnson

Phillip Johnson

Phillip Johnson in his garden

Phillip Johnson in his garden

The  Australian Garden, Fleming's Nursery

The Australian Garden, Fleming’s Nursery

Laurent-Perrier always sponsors gold medal gardens usually with minimalistic planting but with hard landscaping to die for!  This year Ulf Nordfjell was tipped by many magazines to win the coveted best in show award but visitors to the show were underwhelmed by the subtle planting, travertine marble steps and pool and the copper backed pergola.  I didn’t dislike the garden but perhaps the combination of Nordic cool and Mediterranean heat just doesn’t quite come together.  His inspiration Nicole de Vésian’s clipped Mediterranean plants were confused by some planting that obviously needed rather more water than the Mediterranean supplies.  I did love his choice of Iris ‘Sugar Magnolia’ and I. ‘Beverly Sills’ and the very unusual Quercus fastigiata.

Laurant-Perrier garden by Ulf Nordfjell

Laurant-Perrier garden by Ulf Nordfjell

Laurant-Perrier garden by Ulf Nordfjell

Laurant-Perrier garden by Ulf Nordfjell

Iris 'Sugar Magnolia'

Iris ‘Sugar Magnolia’

I loved the emotion evoked by Chris Beardshaw’s garden for Arthritis research.  As you we have come to expect from Chris, the planting was immaculate and his interpretation of dealing with the diagnosis of Arthritis and learning to live with it is heart-felt.  The glass structure which is ‘glued’ together was one of the most interesting structures in the show (one that was, I’m afraid impossible to photograph well).

Chris Beardshaw, not in his own garden

Chris Beardshaw, not in his own garden

To the Limit by Anna Gillespie

To the Limit by Anna Gillespie

Chris Beardshaw's wonderful planting

Chris Beardshaw’s wonderful planting

I think I was one of the only visitors to really like the Daily Telegraph’s garden designed by Christopher Bradley-Hole.  Formal clipped Box, Yew and unusually Beech or Hornbeam combined with a small formal pool and a wood uprights that would have looked better had they been allowed to age before being used in the garden show how simple planting can create a sophisticated space.

Christopher Bradley-Holes's clipped cubes

Christopher Bradley-Hole’s clipped cubes

Roger Platt’s ‘The Centenary Garden’ for M&G investments the sponsors of the show left me completely cold.  Yes the planting was well done (I imagine that is what earned the gold medal) but the design could have been switched with several others he has produced over the last few years and no-one would have noticed.

Window's through time by Roger Platt for M&G investments

Window’s through time by Roger Platt for M&G investments

Window's through time by Roger Platt for M&G investments

Windows through time by Roger Platt for M&G investments

I did like this sculture in The Windows Through Time garden by Roger Platt.

I felt many of the designers were playing safe in this Centenary year, and this is sad.  Better that 50% of visitors hate a garden and the other 50% be truly inspired than the majority be bored by the garden.  If you can’t be cutting edge at Chelsea, where can designers show us what is possible, what is inspiring, what takes the breath away?  This year none of the gardens took my breath away.  There was nothing to hate except perhaps Jinny Blom’s garden for Prince Harry which I overheard someone say she had had to design in only 3 days (and looked like three hours).  But the cause is good so I will say no more.

Sorry this is too long a post.  I’ll report on the pavilion and smaller gardens on another occasion.

If  you’d like to learn more about how the prizes are organised please read Wellywomans post here.

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36 thoughts on “My Thoughts – Chelsea 2013 The Gardens

  1. I absolutely love the inspiration and ideas that flow from any flower show. Your post is so enjoyable and the photos are wonderful. I have to agree with you that I always enjoy attending events like this when the crowds are thinnest.

  2. I’ve never visited Chelsea and I really enjoyed your analysis and pictures of the gardens. I caught only a few fleeting glimpses of the gardens in the news as I am in the UK but the bits I saw did not give me enough of an impression of what it was like. The post is not long, on the contrary, I’m still left wanting more so I shall look forward to the smaller gardens (and as much detail as you’ve got).

    • Thank you Amelia, I am never sure how much to write. There was I lot I wanted to say. I did enjoy my visit but I was very dissapointed by most of the show gardens. Christina

  3. So good to read your comments Christina, the coverage by the BBC has all been so positive about everything they were talking about, I was left wondering, was it just me that was so uninspired! There were some lovely gardens but for example, Prince Harry’s garden hasn’t been mentioned apart from day one before medals were distributed. Surely the public needs telling why gardens don’t get a gold, not just wondering why some did. How can we expect Jo public to introduce good design into their gardens, if they aren’t told what not to do? The coverage has been a lot better in the big marquee, I will look forward to your post about it. I think the sculpture To the Limit by Ann Gillespie is wonderful, that is how I have been feeling in the garden this week with the wind coming from the north pole!

    • I agree about the tv coverage. I saw Sunday, Monday and Tuesday’s and although most most positive as you say, it didn’t really show anything in any detail. Yesterday my garden was like the sculpture too, but this morning is calm thank goodness. The person on Chris Beardshaw’s garden was amazing when I was there; she explained exactly the thought behind the garden to anyone who hadn’t heard the tv coverage, she deserved a medal herself. Christina

  4. You were not alone Christina, I liked the Telegraph Garden very much- precise lines and plants and water caught in them like jewels. Can’t share your joy in the Australian one tho!

    • Glad I wasn’t the only one. I liked the Australian garden not because I liked the individual plants but that they were all ‘right’ for the situation. So many of the gardens had drought tolerant species mixed next to thirsty ones; I know in much of the UK this common practice but it still doesn’t make sense. Plants needing similar conditions usually look good together too, you only have to think of Beth Chatto’s gardens to understand how this works. Christina

      • This was my first year at Chelsea and I didn’t think I would like the Telegraph garden from photographs. However, after seeing it in person I loved it. I liked the clean lines, too.

        There was such a rush of people around the Australian garden, I wasn’t able to view it very well. I’m hoping to get a Chelsea post out soon. It won’t have the evocative commentary of your posts, probably only musings from a first timer.

  5. I enjoyed your pictures and commentary and would love to be able to replicate the Beardshaw planting. The other gardens also are interesting to me–it would be a great experience to attend this show. Looking forward to your next post on Chelsea.

  6. Anche io ho gradito molto gli accostamenti di Chris Beardshaw. Quelli che spuntano sullo sfondo sono eremurus bianchi? Sono incuriosita da questa bulbosa, all’orto botanico di Viterbo un espositore ne aveva di colore albicocca chiaro, ma mi ha detto che sono piante difficili.
    Anna Maria

    • Il giardino di Chris Beardshaw era emozionato perché lui soffre da artriti, però prima di quando lui ha progettato il giardino per l’associazione di beneficienza per chi soffre con artriti, non ha mai detto a nessuno nel modo di giardinaggio. Ho un Eramurus albicocca nel giardino ma quest’anno è solo la seconda fioritura in 3 anni. Sono d’accordo che qui è una pianta difficile. Christina

  7. Thank you for a peek at these beautiful gardens ‘across the pond’ and thank you for visiting my little farm and garden blog! I will add your’s to my list of other places to visit and check back with you. I am actually a member of a ‘secre’t gardening group on FB and most of the members are over ‘your way’. It’s so interesting to see what grows well in both places and various climates and elevcations.

  8. If the crowds are less overpowering at Chelsea then I will reconsider going; I just got fed up with the struggle to see the exhibits, even on ‘members only’ day.
    I agree with you re the Australian garden. On BBC they interviewed the designer in his own garden in Victoria which was essentially the same thing, quite magical and with its own billabong for swimming. He is promoting no-chemical pools and of course I support him entirely!

  9. And the thin attendance allowed you to get wonderful, seemingly representative shots to tell the stories of these gardens, along with your excellent commentary.

  10. Really interesting post Christina. I’ve loved hearing your response to the gardens. I felt they played safe this year too. I think because it was the centenary they didn’t want any one garden, say a Diarmuid Gavin design, stealing all the publicity. Just my theory. I felt it was such a pity that it wasn’t easier to get up close to the Australian garden. It was very difficult to appreciate the planting when I was there. There was an interesting comment on my blog from an Australian saying she hated it and wished they didn’t resort to cliched native designs so much. It is fascinating to hear all these perspectives and it shows how hard it is to please the many. Still Chris Beardshaw managed it again. I love how he is so talented and yet so unassuming with it. A well deserved gold and people’s choice award.

    • Yes, I agree, the designs were safe. But don’t you feel that Chelsea is such an amazing showcase for designers that it shouldn’t ever do that. It is interesting what you say about the Australian comment, because apparently at the show some Australians said that it wasn’t like any Australian garden they’d ever seen. I think some of the problem is that the designs aren’t explained well enough at the show (who read’s the handouts while they are there?). How many people realised that the billabong was a natural swimming pool? or understood how water collection was an integral part of the design. Maybe the breif is too wide and each year the gardens should have 2 or 3 themes to design for. As much as I liked them some weren’t gardens they were an interpretation of a landscape which isn’t a garden in my opinion. Christina

      • I’m not sure about the show gardens. I think it’s difficult for the RHS. The vast majority of it’s members and visitors are quite conservative and generally like a ‘nice’ garden. That’s why I think Chris Beardshaw is so clever. His gardens aren’t cutting edge but they never look like the more ‘corporate gardens’ which often leave visitors cold. His gardens always look beautiful, a space you would want in your own garden. Planting and not hard landscaping is always the focus for his designs. I also think CB’s garden worked without needing an explanation which was important. Some of the gardens have too many hidden messages which are going to pass most people by. I think the problem really is what people want from a show garden. People interested in design want to see that and be challenged but if the comments on my blog are anything to go by many want to see something they can relate to. My problem is often the big gardens look like they would fit happily in the grounds of a city bank. This is no surprise as often they have been sponsored by these large corporate institutions but there is a coldness about them. I think some of the designers play it safe. Chelsea is the perfect stage to boost your client base and a gold medal is a ticket, I imagine to a very good income. That in itself will create problems after a while as designers become comfortable with a particular style that they know their potential clients will like.

        I’d love to see Cleve West, Joe Swift and Diarmuid Gavin all there next year and the young Rich brothers given a chance to do a large garden. Maybe we’d see something different enough to please everyone then.

        • Here, here to your last sentance. I loved Joe Swift’s garden last year and Diarmuid Gavin always has something interesting to contribute. I don’t think gardens have to be controversal but should look ‘real’. Reproducing a natural environment isn’t a garden, it can be the inspiration for one (e.g.The Australian Garden this year); last year’s ‘no-go zone was a collection of weeds (not really even wild flowers) with rubbish scattered about – that definately wasn’t a garden. I agree about some of the very corporate looking gardens although from a design point of view they do at least show what can be achieved in a small space. One thing I hate is the planting that is impossible to reproduce because it has been started one end and just mass filled; and will have to be removed in reverse because you just couldn’t get in. If the gardens were all different then everyone would have something they really loved and the others would be talking points. Sadly the talking point this year seems to be how boring they all were. Christina

  11. Hi Christina, I’m so envious you go to Chelsea every year! I’m glad you had your time to visit the place comfortably, it is very important to ave the time to watch and enjoy what you are visiting. However I agree with you, many nice things but nothing really charming, maybe budget cuts and ‘crisis’ had crept into Chelsea too?

    • Not every year Alberto, I went this year because it was the centenary and I thought it would be the best ever, but it wasn’t. Maybe budget cuts had their effects and maybe everyone was just playing safe. Christina

  12. Interesting review. Your thoughts are similar to the impressions I formed from the limited media coverage that I’ve seen so far. I’ve never been to Chelsea, but suspect that I would spend most of my time in the marquee trying to juggle more plants than I could carry!

      • 🙂 Safe then.

        I was really disappointed with Ginny Blom’s garden, it seemed so empty and a poor reflection of a wonderful landscape. I’m sure it would be better if the brief was allowed to evolve between its initial submission and the garden creation…

        • I thought Ginny Blom’s garden didn’t even deserve a place in the show, it was a disaster. Disjointed ideas. Maybe one problem was that she designed the garden and then the BBC took her to see the county. She kept saying things like “oh! I’m glad I’ve seen this because I put it in the design”, rather than being inspired by the actual landscape. the money would have been better spent going directly to the charity as I don’t think the garden really helped awareness of the problems. Christina

  13. I was fascinated to read this post Christina, my garden-loving sister-in-law was here while Chelsea was on, and we started out avidly watching the coverage, becoming more and more disheartened and disinterested as time went on. The only things that got us excited were the Australian garden, Chris Beardsahw’s planting, and the lovely Roger Platt sculpture. I really wanted to like the Jenny Blom garden but it was a mess, and I think the comment about most of the show gardens looking as if they belonged in front of a large corporate building is spot on. With the exception of excellent profiles of both the Aussie garden and CB’s – which I think might have really helped more people engage with at least the first – the tv coverage was even more disappointing than normal, with the detailed garden tours relegates to the Red Button, and so not recordable. Still, I am glad you didn’t have to elbow anybody in the ribs to get a good view!

    • The lack of crowds made such a difference. I hate crowds. I didn’t want to sound so negative in my post but I was disappointed with the show gardens. Christina

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