Whizzing Around Chelsea

My favourite show garden (for The Daily Telegraph by Andy Sturgeon) which I picked out during the build and certainly didn't disappoint on the day. It's the judges' favourite too :)

It's a couple of days since I went to Chelsea and like Patient Gardener my head's still in a whirl. There's so much to see and we packed it all into a mere afternoon. I thought my visit during the build would dilute the wow factor of the final reveal, but I needn't have worried. It's a vintage year, so there's even more top quality stuff to talk about and less of the ho hum which can be filtered out straight away. I suspect some of the things I'm bursting to tell you about will remain unsaid because the show will be over soon and hence the moment will pass.

Gardens which showed such promise at the build stage didn't fail to deliver, like Jo Thompson's garden for Thrive in the Urban category (another deserved best in show winner)...

My liking for all things box increased. The curvaceousness of Tom Stuart-Smith's box hedge was still there to covet, but at last I could get up close and personal to Robert Myers' geometric version which I saw previously being slotted together like a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle...

My worry that the building in Paul Hervey-Brookes' biodiversity garden would be too dominant wasn't realised, but I thought the planting - no matter how attractive to the wildlife documented as having visited - needed to be simplified*. I'm kicking myself that I forgot to ask Paul if his building was influenced by his proximity to Painswick Rococo garden (he has the nursery next door)...

The hot weather of the last few days of the build ensured that the lush green meadow I saw being slotted together on the Leeds garden burst into a riot of colour and was being visited by a stream of bees and other insects. Another very deserved gold and it was heartwarming to see such civic pride in evidence when we were there as well as a Chelsea garden which will return to Leeds as quality public planting in Roundhay Park.

In the Great Pavilion there were many new exhibitors: this one from Thailand overcame that country's recent troubles and was one of many notables...

Old hands - possibly retiring ones - from Barbados gave an indoor, more colourful flavour of the tropics...

...And Medwyn Williams made a welcome return after retiring from exhibiting in 2005 and picked up The President's Award for best Great Pavilion exhibit in the process. His son and grandson were there to commence taking on his mantle.

There's more to follow, but in the meantime you might like to see my illustrated response to Anne Wareham's discussion on ThinkinGardens about themes and show gardens.

* = There's been quite a debate in the comments on this point, which is a worth a read in its own right.


  1. How beautiful! And how lucky we are to get to have a peek through your lens!

  2. Great pictures - thanks.
    A really good year I think.

  3. Still in love with the floral meadow esp after watching a short interview with the chap from Leeds on the red button last night. Trying to find somewhere to have one in the garden!

  4. What a time you must have had, VP, visiting gardens, staying at the Victoria Lodging House, writing about Chelsea. I love seeing the winning gardens and hearing your opinions. How exciting that the Leeds planting will be installed for real! Wouldn't it be nice if all of the show gardens were actually planted and built somewhere? What do they do with the stuff after the show, anyway?
    x x o o

  5. The planting in paul's garden was simply stunning, any less and the portico would have dominated the whole space.
    I found the finish to the floor on thrive slightly scruffy but the garden did have a mellow feel to it.

  6. Sheila and Jana - thank you :)

    Hermes - a vintage year in my opinion

    PG - I love the Leeds garden for its boldness, reusability AND the wildflower meadow. Such a great idea to give away seeds to. Take home Chelsea at its best.

    Frances - today's the last day and many of the plants from the gardens and exhibits will be sold off to the very happy bargain hunters at the end of the show. The TV always shows great pictures of people trying to get enormous spires of things like Delphiniums home on a packed tube.

    Some of the gardens will be used again: the biodiversity garden has been won by someone in Hemel Hempstead and will be moved to their garden. I believe the Thrive garden will be recreated elsewhere too.

    Mark's garden (featured in the next post) is up for sale with the proceeds going to charity. If it remains unsold, then the plants will be sold off for charity, the trees are going to Kew, the stone will go back to Marshalls to be sold elsewhere, the garden building will be reused on another project and the grille over the firepit will go up on the wall of Mark's office as an artwork. There's a lot more thought going into making sure the gardens and exhibits aren't just thrown away post show anymore and the BBC and RHS websites both say what's happening with the gardens post show.

    Stuart - welcome and thanks for sharing your opinions. I wish we were party to the RHS judges' comments to see how well our opinions match with theirs.

  7. I agree with Stuart and the huge crowds who seemed to love the Biodiversity Garden. The planting was simply, not a meadow but in feel rich and herbaceous, as you would think from a plantsman like Paul. The building was in keeping with his style which we have all seen grow since 2008. Many of my Chelsea going friends found this garden to be among their favorites. Tell me, will you be creating a garden to measure your observations of others against?

  8. Ben - welcome!

    I think you and Stuart have misinterpreted what I'm saying about Paul's garden. His plantsmanship isn't in doubt and speaking to Paul during the build I thought the research he did into the most suitable plants for the garden was admirable. I was expecting so much for this garden but felt a bit let down when I actually saw it because it looked more of a jumble than naturalistic. Last year I spent a lot of time looking at the meadows and landscapes close to my home and came to the conclusion that we have to go a long way to beat nature. I think I was expecting Paul's research and plantmanship to have come closer (and it was very close) to what I was studying last year than what was delivered at Chelsea.

    Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to talk to Paul again on the day to see what he thought of the final result.

    If you look at my piece on the build you'll see why I was worried about the building being too dominant BTW.

    As for doing my own garden, I'd love to, but it's a long way off yet!

  9. VP
    From my understanding the garden, as described to me (by Paul at Chelsea) was not a naturalistic garden but a celebration of what gardeners already do in creating biodiversity, this is the number of different species in a given space. He said this on BBC TV, also his research was about native vs non native and colours which attract insects therefore it was always a garden of rich planting. I have not misunderstood the meaning of his garden or what he was doing. Its a pity that like other plantsman who are genuinely passionate about plants that he is criticized for creating a garden over a statement. I also think to describe it as a 'jumble' is insulting. However we are entitled to our opinions and my is very much opposed to yours on this garden.

  10. Ben - thank you for coming back and replying to my response to you. Paul's passion, research and plantsmanship is without question and it was great pleasure to have the opportunity to talk to him at Malvern, Chelsea and also via his blog. I still think it's a fine garden and in my opinion one of the most important gardens at Chelsea, but having seen it at the design and build stages, I was expecting it to be even better in my mind's eye to what I saw on show day. Hence my expression of disappointment because I was very excited indeed about this garden prior to showtime.

    I am still interested in Paul's opinions on his final result and what if anything he would do differently if he was designing and building again. I also hope we get to see how this garden transfers to its final destination in Hemel Hempstead.

    We will have to agree to disagree I believe.

  11. BTW my criticism about the planting needing simplification doesn't necessarily mean less species in my view. I was thinking that the way the planting is put together could be a little more streamlined. The planting as it stands is very busy, so there's nowhere for the eye to rest and I found my gaze going around the garden in circles.

  12. VP, stop criticising and get creating! So easy to say what YOU think about this and that but much harder to get up and create something. I used to really enjoy reading gardening blogs but now they seem to be full of opinionated no-body's. Always try to take something positive from a garden even if you dislike the overall effect and design, these people work so hard to create these show's for us.
    A now ex-reader, Sally.

  13. Sally - sad you won't see this reply as you're now an ex-reader. However, if you came here regularly you'd have seen how much I am creating and improving with my own garden and allotment and also how positive I've been in general on what I saw at Chelsea.

    If you'd read the comments here you'd also see that overall I thought Paul's garden was a fine one, but it's the overall planting which in my view let it down. On further reflection I believe it's because I recognised something that I feel can be improved in my own garden (too busy and confusing on the eye) which I'm working hard to improve upon whilst not compromising the biodiversity I have already. I think that's using what I see to learn from, help to improve and continue to create my own space, which is what my blog's about. If that means being critical at times, then so be it.

    I'm also very happy to have a debate about what I've said, just as Ben and I have been doing here.

    Sadly, you'll also be missing my take home ideas piece later on today - the next stage in what I'm creating here at home.

  14. Thanks muchly for a wizard whizz VP . Great to have other views of Chelsea from those of us who could not get there this year.

  15. I think it's a shame that some people think that you can't critically analyse a garden without thinking of it as a criticism of the person who made that garden.

    I realise that because gardening is so personal, it can be hard to separate critical discussion of a garden from how the creator feels about it, but with something in the public arena (such as a show garden), one must expect people to discuss the work.

    Can only qualified garden designers pass comment on a show garden? I will never have the imagination and inspiration to design a show garden. So does that mean that I have no right to comment on what *I* find works well or doesn't work so well (to my mind) in a garden?

    When I spend some time really looking at a show garden, there will always be things that I may not think are perfect. At least not for me. A dozen different people stood in front of that show garden will have a dozen different views. But by looking at that garden, looking at what *I feel* works, what *I feel* could be done differently, I am helping myself understand that garden. I might not understand it how the designer does, but I understand it how it relates to my own experiences, what *I* can take away to use. Is that not the whole point of a show garden? Or are we to mutely look in awe at what we mere amatteur gardeners will never achieve. And if we want to write about what we have learnt, what we have taken away, to share with others? Not everyone who reads what we write will agree with what we say, but at least we have caused them to think about it a little more deeply, too.

    Not everyone can design a show garden. But we can all look, we can learn, and as someone who teaches (though nothing to do with gardening) and learns, I find critical analysis a very powerful learning tool. So, when I read about garden shows on people's blogs, and they comment on how *they* feel about a garden, it makes me think. What do *I* feel? And that is good.

  16. This is the first time I have read this blog, and I don't know this guy Paul. I did visit Chelsea and I went back to his garden 3 times as it was just wonderful. I agree with you Happy that everyone is entitled to an opinion however I don't agree that the comparison is between a bit of 'looking at nature in my area and what appears to be research in detail on colour, and flower structure etc. I have to say if the garden was never about nature gardening then to compare its style with naturalistic plantings is at best odd and at worst short sighted. If the criticism is based on style preference then be honest about, we don't all like the same thing. I have to say to me it was a garden I would want to live with and by the way the green foils made for more than enough rest for me, not to mention the sunk area which was predominately green foliage plants.

  17. I've only just caught up with this debate. I thought your comments were absolutely fair - and I think the judges probably agreed. Perhaps that's why Paul Hervey-Brookes' garden only got a silver medal...
    I think designers like Andy Sturgeon and Tom Stuart-Smith (and Christopher Bradley-Hole, come to that) show that good garden design is sometimes about what you leave out as much as what you put in.
    I'm slightly puzzled by the implication that because the garden is about biodiversity, we "have" to like it. What is this, the new gardening Puritanism? I didn't particularly like the Eden Project garden - does that make me a bad person?
    As for the argument that thousands of people loved the garden, so you must be wrong - this is garden design as judged by the RHS, not Britain's Got Talent. (And if that's that case, why get so worked up about a couple of words of mild criticism?)

  18. A bit late with my comment but I have been giving this some thought and also HappyM and Victoria have more eloquently summed up what I would have said.

    When I go to Chelsea I deliberately don't read the write up in the Show Guide so that I can view each garden through my own eyes and not with some view that someone else, be it the designer or reporter, has imposed on me. I don't give a monkey's what the garden is supposed to represent - all I care about on first viewing is what the garden communicates to me. If I find it interesting then I may well read up on it to find out if what the designer was trying to express/achieve has come through.

    For instance, I immediately liked Jane Owen's garden because it reminded me of dens we used to build in shaded woodland when I was a child - that was my first fleeting impression. Curious I read more about it in the guide and was impressed at how the feel of a rainforest home had been recreated so beautifully at Chelsea. The story behind the garden was interesting but made no difference to whether I personally enjoyed it as a garden or not. What I liked was the shapes and texture of the vegetation and how it had all been placed to look natural and create a visual flow and balance.

    So wandering past what I now know to be the Biodiversity garden I dismissed it as I wasn't particularly drawn in by the structure or the planting. I never got as far as to whether it worked on a biodiverse level or not I wouldn't want that scheme in my garden because quite simply I didn't like it. I don't have to have a background in garden design or to have created my own beautiful space to feel that - it is my opinion, not right, not wrong, just mine.

    To answer Sally's comment about gardening blogs being full of opinionated nobodies...

    Like those people who work so hard to create a Chelsea garden a lot of us put a a lot of work into our blogs too without seeking any particular self-promotion or financial reward. Why do you find it so easy to diss them and yet feel that nobody should be allowed to express a personal opinion about a Chelsea garden?

  19. jeepers there is so much to take in at Chelsea that I am hugely impressed by your review - I was bedazzled by the stage show - all I could see were exciting ideas perched here and there - as I read your blog and all the comments I wished I looked a bit harder

  20. Anna - you're welcome :)

    HM - well said and just what I've been trying to say but not so eloquently

    Val - wouldn't the world be dull if we all liked the same thing? I'm glad you enjoyed Paul's garden.

    Victoria - good points. I think that having a biodiversity garden in an RHS show is always going to be a very tough brief. After all biodiversity is measured on the number of species and anything being judged from a design perspective is always going to come up against the 'less is more' school of thought. It will be interesting to see how this garden settles into its new home - I believe its destination is twice the size of the plot at Chelsea and I believe that will be better for this design as it will have room to breathe.

    Arabella - well said :) Opinions and debate are always welcome here as long as they're constructive and not personal.

    Garden Beet - welcome! I feel the same as you do about Chelsea. Blogging about the show helps me put my whirling thoughts in order.

  21. I'm just catching up with the comments here, having read this post a while ago on my akregator and not had time to post a comment myself. I'm sad to see the discussion has got quite so heated - and indeed so personal - I think it would be a very dull world if we all liked the same things, and I agree with HM about each of us looking at what we feel works for us.

    As it happens, the comment I was planning to make, is that I liked the biodiversity garden best of all the gardens at Chelsea this year, not despite but because of the amount and range of planting, the "jumble", if you like. I'm fed up with less-is-more gardens and ones which are based around hard landscaping. I liked Roger Platts's garden best of the big show gardens, because it seemed to have the most variety of plants in it, and the sculptures were discrete rather than dominant (though I'd have dispensed with the stone roses too - I'd rather have more real flowers). I thought Andy Sturgeon's and Tom Stuart Smith's gardens were spoiled by those huge metal structures - I want to see gardens with more plants, more flowers, more colours!

  22. Hi Juliet,

    Thanks for your constructive comments. I see a lot of people agree with you re Roger Platt's garden as it won the People's Award. I liked that garden too, but preferred Andy Sturgeon's because of the large structures!

  23. Ha ha! Looks like Chelsea is STILL capable of causing controversy!

    PS Relax. I'm saying nothing. ;-)

  24. Hi Soilman - knowing what you think of Chelsea, I can imagine! :)


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