A move away from formality and a move to embrace nature underpins many of the gardens at the 2019 Chelsea Flower Show. Mark Griffiths takes a look at the Show Gardens you can expect to see, and picks out some new flowers not to miss.
The Show Gardens
All genuine gardens are, to some degree, autobiographical, but The Laskett is extravagantly and brilliantly so. Created by Sir Roy Strong and his late wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman, this Herefordshire paradise became their shared memory palace, replete with features that relate to their professional lives and celebrate the life they made together. It’s also a place of extraordinary beauty, drama and fascination, born of the Strongs’ love not only for each other, but for gardens and gardening.
Now, it’s given rise to one of the best exhibits at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Designed by Colm Joseph and Duncan Cargill in consultation with Sir Roy Strong, The Perennial Lifeline Garden in the Great Pavilion translates The Laskett’s enchanted chambers and galleries into a Modernist idiom. I suspect that its main device, the enclosed flowery meadow planted with roses, will be much copied.
As for its inspiration, in 2015, Sir Roy bequeathed The Laskett to Perennial, the charity that, for more than 180 years, has been assisting gardeners in retirement and hardship. What future could be more fitting?
Flower-spangled long grass is also much in evidence among the Show Gardens on the Main Avenue, but as glades set in lovingly re-created passages of woodland. Designed by Andy Sturgeon, the M&G Garden is a monumental composition of stone platforms and immense burnt-timber sculptures that represent rock formations. These surround a succession of plant-fringed streams and pools and the whole is enclosed and canopied by trees, their greenery and dancing shadows revitalising the rugged terrain. It’s a magnificent design, a quintessence of wildness that cries out to be installed in some quiet corner of a densely built, inner-city area.
For a more sparkling treatment of the same theme, visit the splendid Savills and David Harber Garden, designed by Andrew Duff. It reimagines natural woodland and water for an urban setting and is suitably urbane, with sitting areas beside a pool that’s skirted with irises and punctuated by a shard sculpture.
In fact, it’s hard not to take a walk on the wild side at Chelsea this year. The naturalistic combination of woods and water also manifests itself in The Family Monsters Garden, The Facebook Garden, The Greenfingers Charity Garden, The Manchester Garden, The Morgan Stanley Garden, The Resilience Garden, The Welcome to Yorkshire Garden and Viking Cruises’ The Art of Viking Garden. Forgive me if I’ve forgotten any.
It’s remarkable to see so many talents approach the theme in so many ways. It’s also, frankly, a very welcome relief from the woeful visions (climate wrecked, no water, trees and perennials reduced to arid scrub) that Chelsea exhibitors have conjured in recent years.
These sylvan scenes are largely for pleasure and contemplation. Two others serve different purposes. Designed by Jonathan Snow, the Trailfinders Undiscovered Latin America Garden re-creates a montane forest, complete with cascades, from temperate South America. It aims to illustrate the astonishing diversity of plants found in such places (among them, many species beloved of British gardeners) and to draw attention to the loss of these ecosystems to deforestation — devastation that is once more rampant.
I’ll end this tour of the Show Gardens with an exhibit that’s more optimistic. Designed by The Duchess of Cambridge with Andree Davies and Adam White, the RHS Back to Nature Garden is a joyous ramble-cum-adventure playground. Here, children can experience woodland and wetland, let off steam and, in calmer moments, watch the comings and goings of flora and fauna.
After the show, much of the planting and landscaping will go to an NHS Mental Health Trust as part of a national competition run by the RHS, but that seems far too selective to me. Her Royal Highness and colleagues have created something that should be made available to all children nationwide.
The Great Pavilion this year throngs with exhibits that show a long-overdue revival of interest in certain major plant groups. Of these, the bravest has to be the display from McBean’s Orchids of East Sussex (GPF228, www.mcbeansorchids.com) — brave, that is, in both its renaissance sense of exceptionally beautiful and in its presentday sense, as a magnificent example of courage and endurance.
Founded in 1879, McBean’s is Britain’s oldest surviving orchid nursery and the most pioneering. A few years ago, it looked doomed finally to close, but Rose Armstrong saved the business and resolved to support the continuation of its work in breeding and growing award-winning plants (Country Life, January 16, 2019).
The nursery has exhibited at every Chelsea, but never before can it have been so welcome a sight as this year. Not only does the McBean’s stand vividly illustrate what we very nearly lost, it also points the way to a future in which superb British-grown orchids, in all their variety, supplant the so-so, samey mass of EU imports that are as cheap in looks as in price.
Cacti and succulents
As a fancy, cacti and succulents were scorned as old-fashioned and oddball until recently. Now, however, they’re more popular than at any time since the 1960s. Back then, they were considered good beginner’s plants for child gardeners. Today, young educated adults form their greatest following, a demographic that’s doing wonders for the plants themselves, in that many of their new devotees wish and are able to take them seriously.
In the Great Pavilion, exhibits from three nurseries show why anyone of any age might develop first a fondness and then a passion for these prodigies of adaptation and survival: Craig House Cacti (GPC160, www.cactuscouple.co.uk), Ottershaw Cacti (GPB114, www.ottershawcacti.com) and William’s Cactus (GPE193, www.williamscactus.co.uk ).
Rhododendrons and azaleas
Rhododendrons and azaleas (all, botanically speaking, members of the genus Rhododendron) were declining in popularity until a few years ago. They continued to flourish in some of our greatest gardens and to be loved by some of our most distinguished gardeners, but they were shunned by followers of a succession of design fashions, from the Rosemary Verey manor-house look through prairies full of New Age perennials to Modern Minimalism. Now, happily, all that is changing.
To settle any lingering doubt that they deserve to be in the resurgent, take in the exhibit by one of our finest specialist growers, Millais Nurseries (www.rhododendrons.co.uk, GPC171). It displays the most notable of the vast number of rhododendrons and azaleas bred and selected by Lionel de Rothschild and his heirs at Exbury, their great Hampshire garden, which celebrates its centenary this year.
Many of the plants on show are classics, but there are also new introductions, among them the outstandingly lovely Rhododendron Jessica de Rothschild, a compact shrub with handsome foliage and rounded trusses of large, bell-shaped flowers in primrose yellow with tints of chartreuse and rose.
David Austin’s newest offerings
The exhibit from David Austin Roses Ltd (GPE216, www.davidaustinroses.com) is always a highlight of the Chelsea Flower Show. This year, however, it seems more sublime than ever, as if in floral tribute to the nursery’s late founder.
The newly introduced cultivars include the exquisite Rosa Eustacia Vye, named for the heroine of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. Bushy and upright-growing, it’s massed with delectably scented flowers on red-flushed stems.
Each bloom opens as a shallow cup, dense with a swirl of petals in peachy coral, before it expands in a ruffled rosette of pure palest pink. I’ll offer no superlatives for this heavenly rose — they’d all be painfully inadequate. It is a masterpiece worthy of the old and much-missed master.
Peonies, lupins and more
Val Bourne’s superb article in Country Life on November 7, 2018, on Itoh peonies won many converts to these hybrids between herbaceous and tree peonies — not least in showing that, for all their glamour, they’re remarkably easy to grow well. For physical proof of their wondrousness, and a first-rate supplier, visit the exhibit by the Bedfordshire nursery Primrose Hall Peonies (www.primrosehallpeonies.co.uk, GPE197).
One of its highlights is Paeonia All That Jazz, an Itoh hybrid that’s new to UK cultivation. Although immense, its delicately scented flowers appear to be in no need of staking. Rather than jazz, they bring antique silks to mind — ruffled, palest peach to light buff-pink, and shot with streaks of crimson that spread across the petals from the blooms’ dark alizarin centres. Chic has characterised these newcomers so far. I doubt anyone could ever say the same of lupins. Their lack of sophistication and smartness is precisely why they’re so appealing. Lately, they’ve been enjoying a revival, in no small part due to West Country Nurseries in Devon (www.westcountrylupins.co.uk), where Sarah Conibear is breeding some outstanding cultivars.
This year, one of the loveliest yet makes its debut on the nursery’s stand (GPA108): Lupinus Bishop’s Tipple, with 6ft towers in soft lilac-mauve and creamy yellow.
Cultivars such as this one look better in colour-coordinated borders than in the informality of the lupin’s traditional haunt, the cottage garden.
The cottage garden is evolving fast. It’s no longer simply a rustic jumble of familiar garden swaps and hand-me-downs, but also a place for experimenting with the rare, novel and remarkable.
Of the nurseries driving this transition, the most energetic is Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants in Hampshire (www.hardys-plants.co.uk). Its exhibit (GPF205) features three noteworthy introductions.
The first has a pleasingly antique air: Dianthus Cherry Burst, a tough little pink with deliciously scented flowers that are rose with maroon eyes and ruby flakes and borne on short stalks all summer.
The other two are more avant-garde. A surprisingly hardy, perennial hybrid between our native foxglove and its Canary Islands cousin, Digitalis x valinii Firebird produces 3ft flower spikes that glow in cerise, saffron and apricot.
Salvia Amethyst Lips, similarly, is more long-lived than one might expect, if given sharp drainage and a sunny, sheltered spot. It makes a bush about 3ft wide and across, that will be covered from summer into autumn in white flowers, with rich purple lips.
Plant of the Year and Garden Product of the Year contenders
Dianthus Cherry Burst , Digitalis x valinii Firebird and Salvia Amethyst Lips have all been entered in the RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year competition, a contest settled by popular vote and thus notoriously hard to predict. In 2019, all of the entrants look like winners to me, which is more than can be said of their inanimate counterparts in the RHS Chelsea Garden Product of the Year competition.
That said, among the shortlisted items, I’m impressed by the Tressa Planter from Tom Raffield (MA330, www.tomraffield.com), a splendid, if unshowy and natural-seeming, receptacle for indoors or out, all spirals of steam-bent oak.
I’m also taken with Grand Plant Belles from Plant Belles (AR539, www.plantbelles.co.uk), metal frames, elegant and bell-shaped, for lanky and unruly perennials and shrub roses. I’d like them to go grander still: tall and wide enough to support a climbing rose and/or clematis and give space for sitting inside.
However, I suspect that victory in the products competition will go to Haxnicks (EA494, www.haxnicks.co.uk) for its range of pots and seed trays that resemble plastic, but are made from biodegradable bamboo, rice and natural resin. These are excellent, but they’ll have to become cheap enough to be standard in the nursery trade if they’re to make the difference that’s needed.
Haxnicks products score highly on sustainability, though tor domestic gardeners, a return to clay pots is surely the solution — they’re healthier than plastics not only for the environment, but also for plants. The Swan Indoor Watering Can from Husk (www.madewithhusk.com) is, likewise, plastic-free and proudly biodegradable.
Sustainability is, of course, no laughing matter; far be it from me to mention the chocolate teapot, inflatable dartboard, waterproof teabag and other great inventions brought to mind by this disintegrating douser. Instead, I will recall the time when all watering cans were like the ones that I, and many others, still use today: made of metal. As with ‘Which plants shall we grow?’, the answers to ‘How shall we grow them?’ are often to be found in the not-so-distant past.
The RHS Chelsea Flower Show runs from May 21 to 25 at The Royal Hospital, Chelsea, London SW3 – www.rhs.org.uk/shows-events/rhs-chelsea-flower-show