Andrew Fisher Tomlin reviews the world’s greatest flower show.
This is the best week of the year for British horticulture. It’s not that you are necessarily seeing the best nor the most cutting edge but it is the week when the global horticultural spotlight focuses on a small patch of land in central London and we show the world what we are made of.
The RHS Chelsea Flower Show has been in existence for just over 100 years of which around 80 have been on this heritage site. Developments at the Hospital mean that the show is likely to change from 2016 but this year we have a show that, if you’ve visited, will be pretty much the same layout as for previous years. Over 30 gardens predominate but the show is best loved for the nurseries at the top of their game and the 600+ specially selected trade stands.
I’ve been coming here since I was a teenager (37 years!) and have exhibited everywhere. My first foray was on the “rock bank” where once it was all rockeries on display. I’ve exhibited in the Grand Marquee and along Royal Hospital Way but these days my most important task is to select the large show gardens that are the big draw for the TV and media.
This year we have 15 large gardens and another 17 smaller gardens in the “fresh” and “artisan” categories. We selected those gardens last August from an open list (anyone can apply) and exhibitors have been busy preparing themselves for a relatively long build of just under 3 weeks (Most shows are just 10 days maximum) for the large gardens. Some gardens stand out for the sheer scale of endeavor whilst others shine for smaller details that show a sophistication and style beyond their boundaries.
Chief amongst the stars of the show this year is M&G’s garden “The Retreat” designed by Jo Thompson. It includes a beautifully crafted planting around a huge dipping pond and traditional oak framed building resembling a heritage grain store. This is a remarkably confident garden, built to a very high specification and leading the field of rural gardens at this year’s show. Jo consistently has some of the best planting design at Chelsea, a unique eye for plant combinations that has won her many admirers.
The rural theme is picked up by others at the show this year including L’Occitane, Cloudy Bay and Laurent Perrier. The former from designer James Basson is reminiscent of the fragrant perfume plantings of the Grasse region of France and plays with the senses. Definitely one of my favourites. The Cloudy Bay garden designed by the Rich Brothers is a little more fun with a moveable wine shack on rails that changes the dynamics of the garden simply and effectively through the show.
Amongst other notable gardens this year is Adam Frost’s Homebase garden. Adam has been creating gardens for the DIY and lifestyle retailer for the past three years and this year will see his last for them as he takes a break from exhibiting. Adam has taken inspiration from the work of modernist architect Marcel Breuer and presents a garden showing the balance of nature and the manmade. Unlike the M&G garden it’s a much more traditional Chelsea layout but has a twist with it’s use of structural lines that pulls off a perfectly balanced garden.
Chelsea of course has seen gardens from Australia over the years and often these have promoted an idyll of the Australian garden style whether it was an Aussie back yard or a billabong. This year there is a departure to something much more conceptual and we see the debut of Charlie Albone with a garden that tells a compelling story. It was perhaps the best opening line of a brief that I have ever seen and Charlie has worked some magic with both structure and planting. It’s Charlie telling his father, whom he lost when he was young, what he has done with his life. This is a confident garden that tells a real story with integrity.
Of course Chelsea is more than just the large gardens and I’m lucky enough to Chair the assessment of the Artisan gardens each year. These are perfect tableaus and a huge Chelsea crowd pleaser. This year the standard is even higher and gardens from Graham Bodle for Walkers Nurseries and Serena Fremantle and Tina Vallis for Future Climate info both impressed. There’s a craftsmanship in these gardens that sometimes outshines the big show gardens and work by stone walling expert Andrew Loudon in The Evaders Garden designed by John Everiss is witness to that.
Being Chelsea, we have so many gardens that a third section was added some 3 years ago and this is the Fresh category that encourages designers to think differently, use new materials and play with what a garden might say or do. This year for the first time exhibitors could opt to complete a show garden or a conceptual garden brief. This is the description of the garden that the exhibitor will be judged against. The National Schools Observatory Project garden by Howard Miller is stunning and received almost maximum points in judging. It tells a compelling story and is sure to impress the visitors.
So that’s Chelsea 2015. Of course there’s much more to it than just gardens and the floral marquee, the floristry and the educational exhibits complete the world’s greatest flower show. Tom Harfleet who exhibited with me at the first Australian Garden Show Sydney in 2014 and is now the Chelsea Show Manager said “I’m thrilled with the Show this year, the great variety of gardens and an even higher quality of exhibits. We’re looking forward to more of the same in 2016”. So, if you can, put a date in your diary for the third week of May and come and see us.
Andrew is Chairman of Selection for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, these are his personal views and not those of the Royal Horticultural Society.