TOAST Magazine

Alys Fowler at Chelsea Flower Show | 2019

LAND & GARDEN

Alys Fowler on Chelsea Flower Show 2019 and its distinctly dystopian feel...

Chelsea, like the rest of us, is having an existential crisis about what to do. The take home message was ‘garden, for pity’s sake!’, but in which way, it couldn’t quite decide. To a better future? To our inevitable demise? 

There was plenty of talk on regenerating ecologies and resilient plant communities and enough rusting metal and disused machinery to suggest that only the trees might be standing by the end...

So, there you are, wandering around all these beautiful gardens with all their important messages, wondering exactly what you're supposed to do with it all? 

Once you’ve flirted with the theatrics and the fact that this "planting of more trees" and "championing of biodiversity" lasts for less than a week – and is frankly unsustainable, even if vast bits of it are now recycled – you can at least, in shadier corners and away from the main avenue, find messages of true hope.

This year, I was deeply heartened to see that weeds have been re-branded as pollinator plants. It was a pleasure to discover narrow leaved plantains, Plantago lanceolata – the common wildflower of lawns and waysides – popping up in flowering glory here, there and everywhere. 

Ribwort (its common name) is a brilliant source of pollen for insects and a kind medicinal plant for us; there’s no better solution to stings, splinters and scrapes than taking a leaf and mashing it up so that it releases its beneficial juices. It’s far faster at healing than many a plaster and compostable with it. 

Dandelions, hawkbits, campions, clovers and herb Roberts also appeared in resplendent health, reminding us how handsome our common wildflowers can be.

The palette was subdued, dotted with the usual orange, pinks and purples of the season. There were multiple Geums and Californian poppies. Irises were everywhere in every hue, with plenty in purple to match the ubiquitous alliums and foxgloves. 

I left, however, with memories of green – shady ripples of woodland plants and the glaucous blue-green of poppy leaves and steel structures in the sun. This year, plants were celebrated as much for their leaves as for their flowers. 

There were also plenty of the small gardens, in the 'Space to Grow' and 'Artisan' categories, that you’d be delighted to open your back door onto. These were – in the best possible way – perfectly ordinary gardens, filled with foxgloves and herbs for the kitchen.

The Kampo no Niwa garden took its references from the Hokkaido landscape of northern Japan, where spring snow melts and brings minerals and pure water to healthful herbs and edibles, such as sorrels, mitsuba (Japanese parsley), shiso, and shuttlecock ferns, Matteuccia struthiopteris.

Crevices were another minor theme that appeared tucked in here and there. Nothing is more pleasing than a tiny alpine flowering its socks off between shards of rock, and their return to fashion is long overdue. 

They are a sensible choice for tiny-space gardeners, you can amass quite a collection of colour and shape and they will take the extremes of wind and the beating sun in their stride, and in a way that woodlanders and herbaceous sorts just can’t. Though it’s perhaps pertinent to note that they are one plant group that is very threatened by climate change – when you sit at the top of the world, there isn’t any higher you can go when the ice starts to melt.

There were plenty of gardens I loved. Andy Sturgeon’s garden for M&G was a masterclass in good planting, particularly if you were lucky enough to get to see the hidden pathways at the back of the garden.

Sarah Eberle’s garden exploring how forests and gardens can be future proofed to the challenges posed by climate change was diverse, charming and deliciously wild. Her repurposed grain silo/studio was ingenious and a joy to be in (I saw Chelsea from an entirely new perspective). 

I loved Tom Hobblyn’s curved rammed earth wall in bleached terracotta, and the subtle way in which it echoed his curved bent wood structure – the perfect place to take an afternoon nap, away from the sun. His planting was light and as playful as his water feature.

My favourite garden though has to be “Giving Girls in Africa a Space to Grow”, amongst all the metaphors and allegories, here was a message that was direct, heartfelt, optimistic and honest. It was designed around a Zimbabwean classroom, where climate smart agriculture is taught to young women so that they might be equipped to start their own businesses. 

The model is simple: teach girls to grow food in sustainable systems, then they can provide for themselves, their families, send their future children to school and sell good quality , nutrient dense food to their communities.

Supporting women to become farmers ripples out way beyond the gardens, helping to lift their communities out of poverty. It was a vibrant, soulful garden that really said ‘garden, for pity’s sake’ and offered a model of growth that we could all really get behind. 

Words by Alys Fowler. Photography by Roo Lewis.

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