“The most glorious bit of quintessential Englishness you could possibly find,” is how British sculptor and Chelsea medal winner David Harber describes the Royal Horticultural Society's Chelsea Flower Show, where he has been exhibiting for a quarter of a century.
The flower show was held in September rather than May for the first time in its 108-year history, after the pandemic caused the live event’s postponement in 2020.
A visit reveals that all the elements that make Chelsea one of the top events of the English social calendar are present, complete with women donning their floral finery, albeit with an extra layer for warmth this year under the autumnal sun. Garden designers have embraced new palettes for their work and the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea are in resplendent autumnal bloom with fruiting apple, pomegranate and fig trees, along with the rich colours of seasonal foliage.
Another first in the show’s history is the introduction of two new design categories – for balconies and container gardening, in keeping with the practicalities of cultivating plants in urban environments with limited space. The balcony garden brief is delivered on a footprint merely two metres wide by five metres long, and the container gardens are designed for environments where planting directly to ground is not possible.
While many displays presented at Chelsea include plants that may not thrive in the UAE, the size and structure of the balcony and container designs can be easily adapted to incorporate low-maintenance and drought-tolerant indigenous species. Case in point: Martha Krempel, designer of the Arcadia balcony garden, incorporated containers with both Yucca aloifolia (dagger plant) and Punica granatum (pomegranate) trees in her design to add height, and both plants can be cultivated in the UAE.
“This category shows what you can do with a tiny bit of space and how plants are important to the environment; it’s entirely possible to create a haven or oasis even when space is limited,” says Krempel. Her scheme incorporates a rope strung across a reclaimed Jarrah timber swing seat with rich-toned cushions, along with a cafe table and chairs.
London artist Timna Woollard was commissioned to create a whimsical backdrop of a landscape scene in weather-resistant UV paint, which continues the feeling of plants beyond what’s physically present. Within this painted landscape is set an antique Indian carved wooden door, which acts as portal to the oasis outside.
A set-up by London garden designer Michael Coley, who was shortlisted for RHS Young Designer of the Year in 2016, incorporates a table and dining benches as well as a single rattan egg chair suspended from a metal pergola.
Contemporary in the true sense of the term, his balcony space has large steel planters, powder-coated in British racing green, and paired with a contrasting planter and a green and white wall panel backdrop. This has the look of stone, but is actually made with upcycled plastics by Welsh company Smile Plastics.
Three-dimensional interest is created at all points of the design by setting the planters at various heights and including the wall panel backdrop along with the verticals of the metal pergola. “All the proportions are human, it’s a property usable space,” explains Coley. “It’s important to remember that with a lot of show gardens the space is viewed from the outside looking in. With a balcony, it’s essential it works from the inside looking out and you have green elements in your eyeline straight away.”
Coley says he hadn’t really grasped the magnitude of designing a garden for Chelsea until he arrived on site. There’s really nothing else that really compares in the garden world, he says. It's the horticultural equivalent of the Oscars.
The Balcony of Blooms, by award-winning landscape designer Alexandra Noble from London, cocoons the interior balcony space, the floor of which is set with grey tiles interspersed with white arabesque stars.
A pair of container trees help to create a sense of enclosure along with a continuous green edge that is interplanted with scented herbs and other edibles – ideal to nibble on or add to a drink or salad while enjoying al fresco dining.
“I always want to pack my gardens with as much planting as possible and make them a sea of green,” says Noble. Yet, the abundant design is also a flexible garden space that can be adapted for entertaining. The bench opens up and can store cushions, and the table and chairs all fold away.
The Container Garden category is designed entirely by newly graduated garden designers selected by the RHS, and offers a window into their world view. For example, Anna Dabrowska-Jaudi’s submission, The Stolen Soul Garden, gives form to hidden human emotions. “The title is a metaphor for stolen opportunities that people who suffer with mental health can experience as they can feel disconnected from the world,” she says.
Three heavy recycled oak wood planters, inspired by the scalloped form of the Arca shell, were created in collaboration with Romanian artist Szilard Andreas Jakab. A rich and aged texture was induced by first burning the wood and then sandblasting it – giving it the appearance of petrified trees. The heavy containers rest on tiny platforms, giving the impression that they are lightly floating.
Planting across the scheme is echoed in different locations and the black rear wall is inset at its central point with natural amethyst crystal as a visual reference to the spiritual threads that connect the human soul with life. A long black pool mirrors and reflect the elements of the garden, providing a calming and tranquil note.
While the planting scheme for this garden of containers and a living wall is more suited for a UK climate, the hard elements could easily translate to an urban UAE environment with the introduction of drought-tolerant grasses and succulents.
Working to the same container garden brief, recent garden design graduate John McPherson’s Pop Street Garden shouts out loud. The riot of colour, shapes and imagery found in his design is positioned, says McPherson, to “jump-start the transition from lockdown to a long-awaited night out on the town”.
McPherson already works in the visual arts, and inspiration for his design was drawn from a painting by pop artist Peter Blake, fandom of Andy Warhol, as well as from street art observed during his time working in New York. The bright colours, objects and sculptures create a gallery-like space, which is sure to make people smile as they eat, drink and socialise.
The brightly coloured container planting within the space is designed to be elemental and can be moved around according to season and need. The back wall of the garden features a mural by artist Robert Littleford, who also created the complementary sculptural pieces for the project.
As the world gradually begins to re-emerge from the worst ravages of Covid-19, a deeper appreciation of the importance of green spaces for relaxing, well-being and connecting with others has emerged. Chelsea’s designers provide inspiration by the bucketload as they show that size is not a barrier to creating pockets of green oases, no matter where you live.