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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