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Chelsea Flower Show: What to Watch on TV (Beyond the Royal Wedding)

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Chelsea Flower Show: What to Watch on TV (Beyond the Royal Wedding)

May 18, 2018

Hot on the heels of tomorrow’s royal wedding, the Chelsea Flower Show should see British bonhomie soaring, especially if the weather holds. Television coverage starts on Sunday on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship channel; prepare to see a nation besotted by gardens.

A weeklong commentary on flowers, Chelsea is a cheerful thing to have on in the background, like Wimbledon. But this annual event is more than the wallpaper of early summer: it has a unique glamour. It’s the show gardens themselves, the theatrical perfection, the sheer plantsmanship that make Chelsea special, and it is happening next week.

If you’re in the US and are perplexed by the fever pitch excitement that accompanies coverage of, say, irises, you may find it helpful to follow our play-by-play guide.

Photography by Jim Powell for Gardenista.

Rock Star Garden Designers

Wildflower appreciator Sarah Price in her gold-medal garden, Chelsea \20\1\2.
Above: Wildflower appreciator Sarah Price in her gold-medal garden, Chelsea 2012.

Several heavyweight designers return after what seems a lengthy absence. Tom Stuart-Smith was arguably too successful for too long and thoughtfully moved out of the way. This year he will be setting out his stall in the Grand Pavilion, while Sarah Price makes a comeback after six years of family life in Wales. Back in 2012, weeds were more unusual but now it is in bad taste to appear artificial. Price will be looking toward the Mediterranean for easygoing plants, with structure provided by “rammed earth” walls. Watch this space.

Iris, Iris, Iris

Iris is the iconic show flower, being showy and guaranteed to be in bloom during the third week of May. Shown here, Iris x robusta &#8\2\16;Gerald Darby&#8\2\17; from Charlotte Harris&#8\2\17;s show garden in \20\17.
Above: Iris is the iconic show flower, being showy and guaranteed to be in bloom during the third week of May. Shown here, Iris x robusta ‘Gerald Darby’ from Charlotte Harris’s show garden in 2017.

A selection from the plant lists of Sarah Price and Tom Stuart-Smith is available through Crocus, who have been phenomenally successful at Chelsea during this century. Every garden furnished by Crocus has had a gold medal attached, including eight golds for Tom Stuart-Smith. Pioneers of online plant shopping, Crocus always has had a transparent process. In offering récherché show plants, the simple instruction to “Shop the garden” turns an unusual choice of flower into a mass-market trend.

Beth Chatto’s Legacy

Euphorbia and Centranthus ruber in James Basson&#8\2\17;s Mediterranean-inspired garden from \20\17.
Above: Euphorbia and Centranthus ruber in James Basson’s Mediterranean-inspired garden from 2017.

The influence of legendary plantswoman Beth Chatto (who sadly died this week at the age of 94) has been brilliantly illustrated in the most recent gardens that have won Best in Show. Last year a quarry in Malta was served up in exquisite detail by James Basson; two years before we had a segment of Chatsworth in Derbyshire, courtesy of Dan Pearson. Growing and showing plants in an environment in which they might thrive naturally will—probably—be evident this year in the garden of Tom Massey (for the Lemon Tree Trust). It is inspired by the gardening ingenuity seen in refugee camps in northern Iraq.

Small Gardens

Fern-mania, ripe for revival?
Above: Fern-mania, ripe for revival?

Away from Main Avenue and the bigger show gardens, ideas will be on offer for compact gardens, including a new category, Space to Grow. The New West End garden (designed by Kate Gould), is inspired by London garden squares and is itself shaped in a square. Being set at a 45-degree angle, it appears larger from the outset.

Shopping is a huge part of the Chelsea experience and the best thing that anyone could take away, arguably, is a glasshouse. Hartley Botanic is celebrating its 80th anniversary as the top person’s glasshouse maker, with several structures that are inspired by an epoch before conservatories became glazed house extensions that are either too cold or too hot. Besides an orchid house and another for alpines, the Victorian Lodge glasshouse will be filled with ferns and promises to be a good escape from the crowds. As does the Ikea garden office in the Grand Pavilion, which will have Wi-Fi.

Plant Hunters

Miss Willmott&#8\2\17;s Ghost, the eryngium that will live up to its name E. giganteum later in the season.
Above: Miss Willmott’s Ghost, the eryngium that will live up to its name E. giganteum later in the season.

The idea of explorers climbing the Matterhorn or peering through jungle undergrowth in search of new plants is a cartoon of Britain that Chelsea is happy to accommodate. However, they do still exist, though without the pith helmet in the case of Sue and Bleddyn Wynne-Jones of Crûg Plants. The best known modern-day plant hunters in the British Isles, the Wynne-Joneses have designed their stand in the Grand Pavilion around the image of Miss Ellen Willmott. A well-connected and initially wealthy gardener, she spent too much on plants and staff. Her garden at Villa Boccanegra on the Italian Riviera is explored here, along with its effect on neighboring properties. So it is probably safe to say that “Mediterranean” will be a theme of next week, and beyond.

Have the show gardens at Chelsea inspired you to design your own? See our Garden Design 101 guides with ideas for planting our favorite Perennials, Annuals, and Ground Covers.

Follow our coverage of this year’s Chelsea Flower Show as Kendra reports on the behind-the-scenes drama and makes the rounds of the show gardens.

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