At last! After a wait of two years and four months, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show finally took place in late September, the first time ever that the show's not been held in May. Happily the weather was kind, visitors were delighted to be back, and the garden designers clearly revelled in the challenge of using an autumnal planting palette, giving a very different feel to the spring and summer gardens more usually on show.
With so much to choose from, how on earth would we see it all? At 11 acres (or around eight and a half football pitches, to use the conventional measure!), the showground isn’t an especially huge site. It’s packed with interest though, from the show gardens to the Pavilion exhibits, from the bandstand entertainers to the fabulous shopping. Progress can be slow when there’s gardening gorgeousness everywhere you look…
But we managed it! Here are our favourite things from this unique autumn Chelsea Flower Show.
Finding our way: an NHS tribute garden
This was one of the Sanctuary Gardens which featured at the show this year, highlighting the healing power of nature. And as we emerge from the pandemic, what could be closer to all our hearts than the vital work of the NHS? Designed by Naomi Ferrett-Cohen, this garden depicted a journey from the abrupt uprights of the wooden canopy, representing the boxed-in feelings and fear of early days of the pandemic. Through this, water flowed, finding its way through towards lush planting and a more peaceful ambience, with bright colours representing a hopeful future. It’s a story we’ve lived collectively over the last 18 months, and this beautiful garden made a fitting tribute to all those - in the NHS, its supporting sectors and in research – who have worked so tirelessly to keep us safe.
‘Air Quality’ Installation
Created by Paul Hervey-Brookes, this installation tucked away on the Serpentine Walk was educational, as well as beautiful. It was filled with joyous late-summer colour, including rudbeckia, heleniums, asters and grasses. But more importantly, the plants and trees were selected for their ability to counteract air pollution, both in terms of absorbing carbon dioxide (an estimated four tonnes over their lifetime, according to the signage), and in terms of trapping fine particulate matter suspended in the air, which can cause both cardiovascular and respiratory problems. As Paul says, the basic rule for choosing plants to reduce air pollution is furry foliage – and lots of it! Just imagine if pocket planting like this was a common sight in our urban spaces.
Bodmin Jail garden
On the imposing Rock Bank site at the end of Main Avenue stood the Bodmin Jail garden, ‘60 degrees East – a garden between continents’, designed by Ekaterina Zasukhina and Carly Kershaw. Expertise in steel being one of our passions, our eye was first drawn by the sculptures by Penny Hardy, created using scrap metal and highlighting the industrial heritage of the area around Yekaterinburg, close to the Ural mountain landscape which the garden aims to recreate. Topiary being another love, we were also captivated by the cloud-pruned mountain pines, which we learned were 32 and 50 years old respectively. This garden covered some big themes, and it was certainly created on an ambitious scale – we couldn’t help but be drawn in.
We found this incredibly detailed installation in the ‘Beauty of Nature’ section of the Great Pavilion absolutely captivating. Rooted in a pile of old medical notebooks, a twisted tree grows through an explosion of colourful planting, every plant having medicinal importance. The trunk becomes the spiral of a DNA double helix, and the fruit it bears is a wide range of fresh and dried medicinal plants. Brilliantly conceived and meticulously researched, this creative display by Trudie Easton of Thistle and Sprout Flowers highlighted the age-old use of plants for healing, their incorporation into modern medicine, and – with Nigella Satvia currently being trialled in treatments for Covid-19 – also their potential for cures yet to be discovered. A worthy winner of its gold medal and Best Floral Installation award.
Footnote: we loved the detail in this installation. One of these tiny bottles was labelled 'Blood, Sweat and tears of Florist'. We can well imagine...!
Parsley Box garden
Another of the Sanctuary gardens, this garden, designed by Alan Williams was both extremely appealing to look at and carried the important message of championing and empowering the over 60s. Designed to be accessible for all ages, it felt like a place to gather and spend time with friends and family. Edibles and fragrant herbs weaving through with the planting gave a sense of a foraging adventure and eating well. An outdoor kitchen gave ideas on preserving this bounty to enjoy in the future, while the aged brass and wood planters aimed to spark conversations around aging with grace and beauty. It felt like a happy place, and we could happily have stayed there all day!
Green Sky Pocket Garden
The Balcony Gardens were new at Chelsea for this year, reflecting the movement towards urban apartment living, and highlighting that limited outdoor space doesn’t mean you can’t be a gardener – and how a meaningful space for wildlife can be created too. Created by new-to-Chelsea designer James Smith, the lush Green Sky Pocket Garden caught our eye as it was simply packed with plants, creating an oasis of calm in the sky. All planted in just 15cm of substrate, the 5m x 2m space had a wild feel, different textures, scents and edibles tumbling together with an air of elegantly returning to nature. A perfect antidote to the stresses of urban life – in the smallest of spaces.
So that was our top six favourite things. To be honest, we could have picked our top six dozen. If you were lucky enough to go to this exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime autumn Chelsea Flower Show, we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!