Chelsea Flower Show is a circus and a fantasy, a wonderful technicolour tour of our ability to manipulate the natural world. There are plants that should be in flower and plants that should be long gone or only just waking up; there are ancient trees and new beginnings and so many hopes and dreams and leaves (that are genuinely polished before they go on display).
This preoccupation with teasing nature into perfection is nothing new. Some of the earliest evidence we have for ornamental gardens can be found in Egyptian tomb paintings of around 16th century BC. If you were to compare these frescoes to pictures of the Chelsea Flower Show garden, you’d instantly see similarities. These frescoes, depicting central ponds surrounded by beautiful flowerbeds filled with poppies, roses and garlands of vines, could be a description of many a show garden. We have, it seems, always loved a pleasure garden.
Still, there are moments every year where I chuckle at our fascination with this game. At the very front of the Visit Yorkshire Garden designed by Mark Gregory, is a stinging nettle and, not far from it, a buttercup. It’s a perfect nettle, not a blemish on it, fat and healthy, and the buttercup waves its golden cups grown – no doubt – in fine, nursery compost. Two humble weeds plucked from ubiquity and elevated to the front row.
The Visit Yorkshire garden is quite something, it embodies all those romantic notions we have about a simple life: a small stone building nestled into the hillside, surrounded by wisteria and rows of pretty vegetables, with a babbling brook running between oneself and the rest of the world. It’s the stuff of Beatrix Potter and childhood holidays. It very deservedly won a gold medal and I’d happily take up residency in the stone cabin to write the hours away.
This is not the first garden to include weeds and wildflowers; nearly all the show gardens have some nod to the wild about them these days. While these weeds and long grasses could be viewed as just authentic details, they symbolise something far more important: we are finally recognising that we cannot be so selective about what we choose to create. For it is the wildflowers and the weeds that do the hard graft in feeding our pollinators and insects, which in turn feed the rest of us. If just a fraction of the Chelsea visitors return home decide that nettles are now charming, then that’s a hell of a win alongside that gold medal.
I always think that Chelsea must be akin to a fancy street food fair for the local pollinators – they get to sample wares from around the world. And in Sarah Price’s exquisite and painterly Mediterranean garden there are plenty of delights on offer. I loved this garden and it was the one I kept returning to, as its subtleties unfolded over the day. It’s a garden composed of soft colour – the warm hues of the rammed earth walls, the gentle burnt orange of new pomegranate leaves and the wispy annuals in pink and white – but it is brought to life by the punctuation of piercing, intense colour (it is perhaps unsurprising that she trained in Fine Art). And it’s a garden that’s not afraid of negative space, of allowing the plants to breathe – a rare thing in a Chelsea garden, where everything is usually so tightly packed.
Over in the woods, I much enjoyed The Viking Cruises’ Wellness garden by Paul Hervey-Brookes. This is inspired by a solitary sauna retreat that centres around a magnificent, aged Mulberry tree. It is filled with Nordic herbs, from lemon balm to Angelicas. It’s a very clever garden for a small space with floating decks and such a chic, pared down sauna and a tiny plunge pool. It works, in part, because this is a dream you might just be able to shoehorn into the bottom of your average terrace garden, without it looking out of place.
Likewise, Kazuyuki Ishihara’s garden was – as it always is – perfection. Ishihara is known for his tiny, meticulous, often moss-filled gardens at Chelsea and they never fail to surprise and charm. This year the garden is inspired by the Japanese culture of ‘omotenashi’ (wholehearted hospitality) and has a perfect formed azumaya (summer house).
Certain palettes dominate Chelsea. Purple is always strong and it seems we are still in love with burnt umbers and coppers (mostly in the form of flag irises and orange Geums). Lupins are the new alliums (the slugs will be pleased) and everyone was instagramming Beth’s poppy, Palaver dubium subsp. lecoqii var. albiflorum, a delightful annual poppy with delicate pink flowers on tall stems, named after the late and very great, Beth Chatto.
For me though, the real treat this year was the Floral Pavilion. Chelsea started life as a showcase for nurseries and growers and this huge tent at the heart of Chelsea still displays some of our best growers doing phenomenal floral feats. Ashwood Nurseries put on a resplendent display of hellebores and I even saw a 178-year-old bonsai.
One of the real delights – and something that will certainly stay with me – was Tom Stuart-Smith’s flawless garden for the Garfield Weston Foundation, unusually inside and not outside the tent. It’s packed with endless, lovely planting combinations in every shade of green and all manner of beautiful leaf shapes. Now and again you see hints of the palest blue or pink and the darkest purple. It is a true masterclass in how to do shade.
Words by Alys Fowler. Images by Roo Lewis. Alys wears the Stripe Cotton Linen Jumpsuit.