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Pining for Chelsea: Weeds and Conifers at the Chelsea Flower Show

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Pining for Chelsea: Weeds and Conifers at the Chelsea Flower Show

May 24, 2019

During the three week build for London’s Chelsea Flower Show (on until Saturday), the only person who was exempt from wearing a hi-vis jacket was the Duchess of Cambridge—since she is so highly visible. Royals have quietly collaborated with designers in previous years but this year’s partnership (with landscapers Davies White), has been more hand in glove. The garden’s name reflects the theme of the whole show: “Getting Back to Nature.”

Duck under the ropes with us, and on to the show gardens:

Photography Jim Powell, for Gardenista.

Campion, ragged robin, crimson clover, and other meadow flowers/weeds on The Resilience Garden at Chelsea.
Above: Campion, ragged robin, crimson clover, and other meadow flowers/weeds on The Resilience Garden at Chelsea.

Every year at this fêted and fabled show, an unlikely piece of hard landscaping becomes its symbol, partly because the Chelsea Flower Show is shown on TV twice a day during Chelsea week, and strange objects are difficult to miss. A couple of years ago, James Basson’s cuboids of limestone depicting a Maltese quarry caused puzzlement and delight in equal measure, which is what is happening with Sarah Eberle’s repurposed silo in her gold medal-winning Resilience Garden.

To revisit James Basson’s Best in Show quarry, see: A Rich Seam: Quarry Gardening at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Dame Judi Dench and the silo of Chelsea.
Above: Dame Judi Dench and the silo of Chelsea.

The Resilience Garden is the sum of many parts, including the Forestry Commission and the William Robinson Trust, the latter person being an iconoclast of Victorian gardening—whose ideas are only now becoming mainstream. Bring the wilderness into your garden, he advocated, tirelessly; stop fighting it. Several of the show gardens this year demonstrate an optimism about the future—if only we would be more imaginative, and better informed. This gold medal-winning garden is colonized by weeds and more refined flowers, with tough trees that offer alternatives to Britain’s small selection of woodland natives that are generally beleaguered. Bog plants merge into agaves, while the silo is simply a repurposed structure, and was used by designer Sarah Eberle as an office during the show build.

A wigwam on the Back to Nature Garden sponsored by the Royal Horticultural Society and co-designed by Duchess Kate.
Above: A wigwam on the Back to Nature Garden sponsored by the Royal Horticultural Society and co-designed by Duchess Kate.

Keen to impart the message that gardening makes you feel better about life, the RHS approached the Duchess of Cambridge to team up with Davies White, landscapers who have done well with children’s play areas. It has paid off better than any previous celebrity gardener—ever—with two visits and two sets of clothes on Press Day, and a play session with her children and Prince William on the day before that. She has got people talking about Nature Deficit Disorder, which we all probably suffer from.

Arthur Parkinson with his poppy arrangement on Sarah Raven&#8\2\17;s stand, opposite the silo.
Above: Arthur Parkinson with his poppy arrangement on Sarah Raven’s stand, opposite the silo.

Part of the joy of Press Day at Chelsea is to see one’s Instagram life turning into real life, at seven in the morning. Who could miss grower, florist, and writer Arthur Parkinson, providing contrast and accent to Sarah Raven‘s seed stand. Arthur’s other passion besides flowers is chickens; he was pen pals with Debo, Duchess of Devonshire, from the age of seven, and he keeps the same kind of fluffy-trousered, garden-respecting bantams that she did.

For more Debo intel, see: A Dowager Duchess’ Glorious Masterpiece.
For current Chatsworth flower culture see: Flowers for the House: The Cutting Garden at Chatsworth.

Mark Gregory&#8\2\17;s Welcome to Yorkshire Garden. Incredibly, it is the 99th garden that he has been involved in at Chelsea.
Above: Mark Gregory’s Welcome to Yorkshire Garden. Incredibly, it is the 99th garden that he has been involved in at Chelsea.

Never mind that he is a professional garden builder with Landform; Mark Gregory’s planting is increasingly poetic. The vignette above is a view from a lock keeper’s cottage (complete with fully operational dam), which includes wild lupin, foxgloves, and wild carrot. The plants around the building are cultivated cottage garden plants and are just as lovely but more traditionally proper. At the foot of solid Yorkshire walls and earning pride of place next to the visitors are nettles, thistles, and Jack-in-the-hedge, all treading a very fine line between weeds and wild flowers. There is a lot of campion at Chelsea this year, as well as ragged robin and good old cow parsley, in all its forms.

Awarded Best in Show, Andy Sturgeon&#8\2\17;s garden of regeneration.
Above: Awarded Best in Show, Andy Sturgeon’s garden of regeneration.

Andy Sturgeon’s memories of the woods of his childhood have given his garden a higher canopy than his show gardens of the past. The verticals are cut through with black, horizontal slabs of charred oak, providing the kind of structure that he is renowned for. They represent ancient rock formations, within a verdant and lush setting. The garden has a primordial beauty, with design details such as giant crazy paving of English ironstone, which are utterly contemporary. The M&G Garden won Best in Show.

King of the small gardens, Kazuyuki Ishihara is no stranger to conifers, or rocks, or moss.
Above: King of the small gardens, Kazuyuki Ishihara is no stranger to conifers, or rocks, or moss.

Conifers large and small are difficult to miss at Chelsea this year, although they have long been part of the tool kit of Japanese Anglophile Kazuyuki Ishihara. His gold-medal winning Artisan garden is a showcase of texture: conifers give an extra dimension not only in a sensory way but for shape and character. If you are lucky enough to be visiting this sold-out event, head to Lime Cross Nursery inside the Great Pavilion. They provide conifers to gardens such as Great Dixter, and were a magnet to the Queen when she was doing her rounds on Monday evening.

American dogwood mixes with Chinese varieties on Tom Stuart-Smith&#8\2\17;s garden, with no sign of conifers.
Above: American dogwood mixes with Chinese varieties on Tom Stuart-Smith’s garden, with no sign of conifers.

Tom Stuart Smith’s pink-tinged American dogwood is not seen in the UK as much as the Chinese version, since it requires long, hot summers. Anyone from Connecticut would think it quite an ordinary tree: “Not to me, it isn’t,” says Tom, whose expert planting celebrates a new RHS garden on the outskirts of Manchester, called Bridgewater. This is a walk-through garden, with wide paths and signature master planting that for visitors is one of the pleasantest garden experiences at the show this year.

Tom Raffield&#8\2\17;s hanging planter with orchids arranged by Sheila Jack.
Above: Tom Raffield’s hanging planter with orchids arranged by Sheila Jack.

Charred black is everywhere. And it’s not surprising on the trade stands, where it complements every texture and the predominant color: green. Tom Raffield makes planters, lampshades and curved, slatted trellis from his studio in Cornwall, near the Helford River. Newly minted garden designer Sheila Jack has responded to the Cornish idea with sub-tropical vegetation at ground, mid- and upper-story level.

The Resilience Garden once again, clearly a favorite on many levels.
Above: The Resilience Garden once again, clearly a favorite on many levels.

Best hardcore takeaway: Sarah Eberle’s rough and free-draining pathways on the Resilience Garden. In theory, they cost nothing, except the hire of a roller to flat any building rubble you happen to have, infilled with aggregate.

For more reporting from UK-based garden writer Kendra Wilson, see:

• Can This Garden Be Saved: “My Garden is Too Big”
• Le Jardin Plume: A Modern Impressionist Masterpiece in Normandy

And be sure to buy her recent book:

Required Reading: The Problem with My Garden

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