That most quintessential of English events, the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show, is now in full bloom and, as England continues to bask in the warm waves of romance emanating from last weekend's royal wedding, it is entirely appropriate that "love" is the theme adopted for this year's show.
For many, Chelsea is viewed as haute couture of garden design, and I caught a whisper that one show garden this year cost £750,000, or Dh3.7 million, to create – a sum that shocked the seasoned designers and sponsors discussing it (figures are never disclosed, but you learn things if you listen closely).
The show has long provided inspiration and take-home ideas for gardeners visiting the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. This year, tall floral forms of lupins (Lupinus) and foxgloves (Digitalis) were being used in abundance by the designers. A number of the gardens wove sustainability messages through their designs by utilising water-saving, drought-tolerant plants, and selecting flora to feed and delight bees and other pollinators, as well as employing environmentally positive technology and energy harvesting systems. The importance of horticulture and green spaces for mental health, air quality and general wellbeing was picked up in a large number of the design briefs – especially among those with a specific urban or small city garden focus. Here's our pick of this year's best offerings:
The New West End Garden by Kate Gould – Space to Grow Garden, gold medal
Kate Gould’s New West End Garden offers a modern take on the traditional London garden square, a shared public and private space set among a group of houses. “London has a huge history of parks and gardens, but we don’t have so much of that space any more. We’re living much more on top of each other,” says Gould, whose design includes a nod towards traditional British Georgian architecture (from the period 1714 to around 1840), with a black-and-white chequered floor and window spaces, but reinterprets it for a modern urban setting, to create “pockets of breathing, and docks for wildlife and bees – as well as people”.
The mechanics of the structure of the living wall are Gould's invention and include plenty of soil, as well as irrigation, which gives the plants greater longevity. The planting in the central outdoor room of the garden is cool green and white, and provides a sanctuary away from London's busy West End, which is where the garden is to ultimately be located. In the wider garden, which goes to join a much larger space which is what might be expected of parks and squares, Gould selected planting which is much more colourful and vibrant with the aim of drawing in from outside.
The Lemon Tree Trust Garden by Tom Massey: Show Garden, silver-gilt medal
The Lemon Tree Trust Garden by Tom Massey provided a little slice of the Middle East in the heart of Chelsea. The sponsors for the garden support refugees “to build gardens, grow food, create wellbeing, community and belonging”. Massey travelled to northern Iraq to meet refugees living in a camp in Domiz and he has drawn many references from the materials he found being used there to create gardens, such as steel, corrugated iron and concrete. Massey believes in the power of plants to heal and make people feel better. “This garden is about the beauty, determination and resilience of refugee gardeners, and trying to tell their stories. People need to think about refugees being people like you or me, and how there are lots of different people thrown together and put in this really difficult environment.”
The designer has observed at first hand how these refugees use gardening as a way of improving their personal space at the camp and to restore a sense of order into their lives. The garden includes references to traditional Islamic design with its star fountain and cut-out screens, but overall it feels very unstructured.
People in the camps have limited space and so tend to garden vertically, using whatever they can find to contain and nurture plants. Massey has created his own living wall with planted pre-cast blocks, tin cans and plastic bottles, to reflect this.
The planting in the garden is inspired by the plants cultivated by the refugees, such as lemons, figs, pomegranates and herbs; things that they can eat and cook with at the camps.
“Roses are very popular with Syrians; the Damascus rose, jasmine, figs, herbs, thyme and sage are all plants that remind people of home and transport them…. Horticulture really does have the power to improve lives,” Massey says.
The David Harber and Savills Garden by Nic Howard – Show Garden, bronze medal
This tells the story of man defining his place on the planet and his evolving relationship with the environment. It provides a vehicle for these big esoteric themes to be explored through striking forms by the award-winning sculptor David Harber and designer Nic Howard.
Harber took us on a walk through the garden, where he explains how their thinking is represented. “When we were nomads, we made no real imprint or mark on the planet, but as society progressed and we began to manage agriculture and farm, man shaped his environment.”
The large metal panels of the garden begin where the planting is loose and open, but as progress is made through the space, the colour palette becomes more muted, and the garden becomes more formalised.
“While we think we may be masters of our world and our environment, we are flawed and there is a consequence to pay for all our activities,” Harper says. To illustrate that nothing is perfect in this world, he created a small inbuilt break in the uniform patterns of the garden panel.
A curved seat at a mid-point provides cause to pause, sit, talk and look, before a water feature that reflects views to the left and right, both backwards and forwards in time, simultaneously.
The panels are representative of layers of time, and provide a means for the eye to travel through the garden and through time itself, and on to the garden’s most striking sculptural feature, a Harber bronze with a gold finished orb at its centre – a representation of the beginning of time (and potentially the end), the Big Bang. The large orphus has an estimated price tag of £100,000 (Dh492,000).
Designer Howard kept planting simple for the beginning of time and deployed block planted Hostas and a Equisetum, a type of plant that has been around since the era of the dinosaurs millions of years ago.
At the start of the garden, planting is feathery, light and naturalistic, with lupins, digitalis and architectural euphorbia, in contrast to the mono-block planting that signifies later period. "I love my plants," says Howard, who wanted to use the design of what is his first show garden to illustrate the diversity of plants and demonstrate that "you can achieve a meadow with garden plants, and then transition through to something that's more controlled".
The M&G Garden by Sarah Price – Show Garden, gold medal
The M&G Garden by Sarah Price expands on the idea that a wall, a tree and a seat are elements from which an intimate place of sanctuary can be created.
Price’s garden evokes the dusty heat of the Mediterranean, with rammed earth walls, clay, red aggregates and terracotta, and while the forms and structures of her hard landscaping are modern in design, her use of materials make the space feel established.
“I was given free rein, and completely imagined the kind of garden I would love to have in a warm, sunny climate. It stems from the idea that when I design I try to create a space with atmosphere from the simplest of materials,” says Price, who loves modern architecture and design, but finds that the gardens which really move her are the ones that have texture and a sense of history about them. “Some of the oldest buildings in the world are made from ground earth, which is just clay and aggravate mixed up, and some of it has lime in to strengthen it. “
The garden space features pomegranate trees, succulents, euphorbia, poppies, natural grasses and scented herbs – mostly drought tolerant planting that would not be out of place in a Middle Eastern setting.
The Pearlfisher Garden by John Warland and the Pearlfisher team – Space to Grow Garden, gold medal
Plastics polluting the sea is an issue Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, has highlighted during local dive and clean-up operations. It is alleged that out of the 78 million tonnes of plastic that are produced annually, as much as 32 per cent of this finds its way into the ocean. The Pearlfisher Garden by John Warland and the Pearlfisher team has been created to draw attention to this important issue. A pearl fisherwoman diving for a pearl is presented as a 3D printed sculpture made from recycled plastic. This is the overhead focal point of the garden, which touches at the point of the sea's "surface" to access the world of teeming life below.
The garden itself is a representation of the “largest gardens in the world”, those found under our seas. Bubbling aquatic tanks stocked with fish are a reminder of the effect that plastic is having on the food chain, and the use of cacti, succulents and suspended air plants creates a feeling of submersion in a watery world.
The result is surprisingly convincing. Warland believes it shows “both the positive and the negative aspects of the relationship man has with nature, and the plastic bottles embedded into the perimeter wall are a reminder of that”.