Sunday, May 25, 2008

Chelsea Flower Show welcomes back gardening

    “I’m on a bubble” enthused Michael Balston, one of the Chelsea Flower Show judges I bumped into on the day the event opened. What had excited him was the sheer quality of the show gardens.
    It is definitely a good year for seeing quality planting at Chelsea. After years of ‘make-over’ gimmickry plants seem to be a focus again. Nearly all the show gardens had planting that had obviously been really thought through, and there was a refreshing lack of metal, plastic and concrete ‘features’. Green seemed to be the theme colour, with several gardens featuring rich tapestries of foliage. Tom Stuart-Smith’s garden for Laurent Perrier was almost entirely leafy, a ground layer of foliage given height by cloud-pruned hornbeams. Innovative training of the familiar was also a feature of Diarmaid Gavin and Terence Conran’s ‘Oceanico’ garden, where there was a backdrop of multi-stemmed Portuguese laurel. Much of this garden was green too, with a randomised pattern of box hemispheres of varying heights interspersed with low grasses and perennials – wonderfully simple and satisfying. My enthusiasm for this garden waned somewhat when someone pointed out the absurd metal daisies suspended over everything – a device apparently borrowed from a Westonbirt show garden of several years ago. Somehow I had completely failed to see them.
    Clare Agnew’s ‘Reflective Garden’ attracted a lot of favourable comment – cool greenery and white flowers set in geometrical blocks – simple but sophisticated, very restful, a good example of modernist-inspired formality. Shao Fan’s Chinese garden emerging from an archaeological dig proved very successful, and something of a Chelsea first for being a garden you looked down into – its diagonals and variety of spaces illustrates traditional Chinese  garden-making skills in getting the best out of a small space.
    This Chelsea was a bowing out of several veteran exhibitors: Jekka McVicar’s herb gardens will no longer be seen and George Carter will no longer be designed The Romantic Garden nursery stand. Good to leave on a high. A shame certain other designers don’t recognise the inevitable and recognise that they have run out of ideas – like Paul Cooper, whose stupendously ugly ‘garden’ looks like it has escaped from the atrium of a glitzy hotel in Dubai. Rhododendrons perched on stone columns do not make garden.
    Once a showpiece for gardening, Chelsea seemed to have been captured by the design profession for many years. Now there seems to be more of a balance, with a recognition of the importance of plants in garden design. Definitely a good year.

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