Exquisite plants and flowers are just as plentiful as you'd imagine at the Chelsea Flower Show, but there are hundreds of other things on show that will define the garden trends to come, and defy your expectations. Here's our pick of the best of the 2021 show. Pictures by Andrew Sydenham for Country Life.
Being indoors when you’re outdoors is the new being outdoors
Endless garden rooms and über-sheds were in evidence at Chelsea this year, with these pod capsule things among the most interesting. We loved these ones, which look have a chic wood-smoked glass-stainless steel vibe, but look like a cross between a giant eyeball, and the escape capsule that R2-D2 and C3PO use to escape Darth Vader in Star Wars.
And what’s better than a garden room? A garden room which doubles as a tiki bar, of course.
And for something a little more traditional, this hobbit house which looked like it had been plucked straight from middle earth and plopped down in the heart of the grounds of the Royal Hospital.
Garden sculptures are better than ever
Horticultural traditionalists will argue that the plants should be the stars of the show, and that garden sculptures don’t have much to add.
Several of David Harber’s designs were shown off to spectacular effect, in particular:
The driftwood-sculpted dolphins and deer by jamesdoranwebb.com outside the main pavilion were a huge hit with the crowds — easy to see why he has previously won the ‘best trade stand’ award at the show:
Intricate carving in cleverly-finished metal was on show in many places.
One of our favourites below, turned out to be a fire pit:
And finally Stephen Myburgh’s stand was full of extraordinary objects — none more so than this copper-finished metal garden sofa that was so convincingly created that you could have sworn it really was made of leather from afar.
The search for post-industrial chic is still ongoing
This year’s M&G Garden incorporated the neatest, cleanest, shiniest and most intricately curving ‘industrial’ piping we’ve ever seen, bringing an aesthetic that owes a lot more to vintage video game Pipe Mania than it does to actual factories that one day may be reclaimed by nature.
That said, a look at the intentionally-chilling COP 26 Show Garden went to the other extreme, with all the beauty and grace of an abandoned building site — is the Chelsea Flower Show the time or place for this sort of message?
That said, the garden was split in to four zones, of which the ‘building site’ was merely one — this area then merged into beautiful flowers and shrub displays, with the process moving from decline to adaptation, mitigation and finally balance.
Interesting stuff, and essentially an optimistic message.
We can’t help thinking, though, whether the designers simply dump the stuff and leave, or if they spend hours placing each lump of smashed concrete ‘just so’, in the perfect position? We’ll have to ask one day.
The Saatchi garden brought something different to the party that sat somewhere half-way between the two: a ‘crashed’ minibus that had been exquisitely worked with patterns of nature that were only really visibly after an initial glance.
There’s a darker message here, though: this is about our headlong rush towards the decline of civilisation, with recycling and carbon offsetting portrayed as ‘patching a potholed road’ rather than finding a truly new way. Artist Dan Rawlings described his piece as a ‘utopian Atlantis — the spectre of a world that could be free.’
Everyone loves Chelsea Pensioners
Everyone. The visitors, the drag queens and even the miniature Shetland ponies.
Downton Abbey is still the biggest draw in town
Chelsea is full of celebrities, particularly on Monday’s preview day — it’s like wandering through an episode of Extras, so many are the famous cameos. But the one man everybody seemed most excited by was Jim Carter, better known as the silky-voiced butler Carson from Downton Abbey.
Monty Don was probably a close second, though.
City gardens are big business
Both the balcony gardens and the container gardens were a hit at Chelsea — the former sized and designed to sit on a balcony comfortably, the latter with all the plant life in pots that can be moved to a new place without disruption.
Our undisputed favourite was this Warhol-inspired pop art garden, the sort of outdoor space that could inspire anyone to get potting and weeding.
The peaceful balcony gardens were equally lovely, especially this one with a swing-seat (just out of view here) and an ancient Japanese-style gate, as well as trompe l’oeil paintwork.
You could get all your Christmas shopping done in one swoop…
…from the man selling Silky shears and secateurs…
…to the artist creating in front of the passing crowds…
…to the most extraordinary brush collection we’ve ever seen…
…to pretty solar lanterns…
…to steam-bent garden benches…
…and obviously nothing says ‘Happy Christmas’ more than giving someone three pairs of metal boobs to hang on the side of their garden shed.
Plants are still part of the appeal
The main marquee was a shadow of its usual self at Chelsea this year, with a fraction of the normal number of stands — yet the quality of what was on display was glorious as ever.
We’d expected to see dahlias stretching all around SW3, but few were around — chrysanthemums were almost ubiquitous, though.
There were also the usual displays that make you despair of your own paltry efforts in the garden:
And finally, you must always expect surprises
There were topiary elephants…
…double decker buses hosting performances of Gilbert and Sullivan classics…
…bored-looking buskers who’d made a wrong-turn at Sloane Square tube (okay, he was probably meant to be there)…
…and even Country Life photographers! This is Andrew Sydenham at work, who took over 1,000 pictures on the day — including almost all the ones you’ll see on this page.
The 2021 RHS Chelsea Flower Show is the first ever to be held in Autumn — here are all the medal