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The Maestro’s Return: Tom Stuart-Smith at the Chelsea Flower Show

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The Maestro’s Return: Tom Stuart-Smith at the Chelsea Flower Show

May 21, 2024

This week, as the Chelsea Flower Show goes viral on every media outlet, we take a look at Tom Stuart-Smith, the comeback—after an absence of 14 years. A  super-heavyweight of British garden design, Stuart-Smith’s show resumé describes his work as combining “naturalism with modernity, and built forms with romantic planting,”  before reminding us that one of his clients was HM the Queen. And just to recap: He has now won nine gold medals at Chelsea, including three Best in Show. Stuart-Smith’s gardens caused such a stir in the 1990s that their legacy is still very much with us: water-filled tanks of Corten steel, peeling river birch, cloud pruning, and strongly disciplined color all come to mind.

Stuart-Smith has implied during his long absence that he didn’t have a compelling reason to do another garden on Main Avenue. He was lured by Project Giving Back, a private funding collective (who last year bagged the reluctant star Cleve West). One of PGB’s conditions for funding—that a show garden must be permanently re-sited afterwards in a place where it can do good—is also part of its attraction to garden designers. They make a garden for a charity of their choice, then Chelsea’s publicity machine puts it under a giant spotlight. Tom Stuart-Smith’s show garden for the National Garden Scheme is about the joy of garden visiting and garden making. It’s that simple.

Photography for Gardenista by Jim Powell.

Above: Seasonal favorites, foxgloves and cow parsley make the grade on Tom Stuart-Smith’s Chelsea garden.

The National Garden Scheme is a staple of summer for British gardeners, allowing them to look in other people’s backyards, while having a bit of tea and cake—all for a nominal fee. Since this is a transaction that takes places all over the British Isles, from spring until autumn, the NGS makes a lot of money, which is donated to nursing and health charities. It is also inherently “good for you” to be out in a garden, gazing at plants and listening to birds singing, so the benefits are exponential.

Stuart-Smith is a reliable purveyor of unusual plants in his gardens but also, the very, very familiar, which are the elements that will be reproduced all over the world: towering white foxgloves in a sea of cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), almost shockingly “common” since it’s found on every wayside and, now that the Royal Parks allow unmowed areas, in every park.

Above: A stone sink is filled with rain water, which works its way down from the roof (of oak shingles), funneled into a terracotta pipe and then fed from the bottom. It is surrounded by Farfugium giganteum.

Since we are talking about garden visiting, this is a good one to walk on, should you be so lucky; it is lightly shaded by three multi-stemmed hazels, which give an idea of coppicing, a practice which only real gardeners understand the value of, since hazel re-sprouts after cutting down almost to the ground, providing useful straight poles.

Above: Geranium pratense ‘Mrs Kendall Clarke’ with kinetic grass, Melica altissima ‘Alba’.

On describing his last woodland garden for Chelsea, Stuart-Smith said that he uses repeats of species, focusing on texture and form, over color. This still rings true, and in the 2024 garden he takes his restricted palette to the point of monochrome, and a slightly chilly, detached air. But if you look, and then look again, the garden reveals itself. The plant basics haven’t changed much either, with iris, umbellifers, astrantia and hardy geraniums also making a comeback.

Above: Maianthemum flexuosum, groundcovers Galium odoratum and shiny Hosta ‘Devon Green’, Kirengeshoma palmata.

A white garden that is almost all green, with yellow: palmate leaves of Kirengoshoma palmata (right) will bloom as yellow wax bells later.

Above: It’s in the exquisitely detailed combinations that this garden is very much alive; variations on a heart-shaped leaf come in small, medium and large, glossy and felty.
Above: Color moves between plants, repaying close inspection: dark red on the stalks of Gillenia trifoliata is picked up in the stems of more solid angelica, repeating in the waxy flowers of allium Nectaroscordum siculum.
Above: Rhodendron ‘Daviesii’, splashed with butter yellow, glow in sunlight.

There are also the azaleas (Rhododendron ‘Daviesii’). Plants in the rhodo family always raise a Chelsea eyebrow, but they are generally chosen by designers who are masters of their craft, and they don’t care. It’s worth accepting them for the textural volume and subtle color that they bring to this grown-up garden.

Above: The beech-clad and oak-shingled shed.

The shed was designed by Ben Stuart-Smith, the son of Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith (a psychiatrist and best-selling author of The Well-Gardened Mind). It is clad in beech from a tree that blew down and is intended as a place that you could use, complete with a Sunday roast-style meat plate next to the sink. One British celebrity, Joe Lycett, told the BBC, “It’s the most middle-class shed I’ve ever seen in my life. I love that.”

Above: A peek inside the well-appointed, middle-class shed. Not shown: A mini Aga.

See Chelsea Flower Show gardens from years past:

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