Chelsea Flower Show 2015: city garden inspiration

by Rhiannon James

Royal Bank of Canada Garden

A design for a rather larger-than-average back garden, in the shape of Dan Pearson’s showpiece for Chatsworth, might be dominating the headlines at Chelsea but there are still some exciting ideas for urban gardens at this year’s show.

Top of this list is Matthew Wilson’s Royal Bank of Canada Garden. He has taken some familiar garden staples – Mediterranean planting, decking – even grow your own, and turned them into something fresh and different in his sustainable, drought-tolerant design.

Take the fruit and vegetables – probably not anyone’s immediate choice for a water-wise garden. But Matthew’s design shows it’s possible, just with a rather more unusual selection of crops. The fruit trees are pomegranates, just bursting into flower in time for Chelsea, while the hedge is pineapple guava – which has both edible flowers and fruit. Other crops are predominantly perennials, which need less water once established, including pignuts and seaside plants such as trendy sea kale and rock samphire. Everything edible in the design can survive just on water harvested within the garden.

Although the ostensible style of the garden is Mediterranean, there is not a red geranium or jolly terracotta planter in sight. The essence is there – the gnarled wood, the sun-bleached silvers splashed with vibrant colour, the warmth of wood and stone – but, in Matthew’s curvaceous design, it has a cool, contemporary feel. The olive, more sculpture than specimen tree, is a bold presence right at the front of the garden brought down to earth by the cheery presence of Eschscholzia californica. “When I started to plan this garden, that was one of the first plants I had down on the page just because I love it so much,” says Matthew. “You can’t help but smile when you look at it.” The planting continues in a surprisingly lush sweep to a grove of multi-stemmed cork oaks at the back of the garden, with plants that are both shade and drought-tolerant – such as euphorbias and a little umbellifer called Meum – below.

And then there’s the deck. Gone is the slightly slimy grey slab that many of us have lurking outside our back door and in its place is a sinuous sweep of western red cedar, topped by a lovely swirling bench. “I wanted to show that decks don’t have to be tedious – they can be things of incredible beauty in their own right,” Matthew says.

The Rich brothers’ ‘shack on a track’, which will travel from one end of the garden to the other three times each day is the innovation guaranteed to draw a crowd to their Cloudy Bay Garden in association with Vital Earth, but it’s also interesting to see how they’ve moved on from their Brecon Beacons-inspired garden at Chelsea last year, giving their naturalistic style a tougher, urban edge at this year’s show. The billowing, gauzy planting is a counterpoint to the strong lines of the concrete track / paving and the vertical oak slats, backed on the wall by galvanised steel weathered with hydrochloric acid. It’s just one of many contrasts in the garden – of dark and light, rustic and modern, textured and smooth. “This garden probably sums us up more than last year’s,” says Harry Rich. “It’s that contrast between the contemporary and the natural – it’s lovely to see rustic stone walls but topped with a really crisp concrete slab.” Holding the garden together is a matrix of three grasses – Deschampsia cespitosa, D. flexuosa and Briza media. “They create a flow and rhythm that runs through the whole garden so you feel like you’re in the same bed as you walk around,” explains Harry. Through this framework, drift delicate swirls of white ragged robin, astrantias (‘Shaggy’), geraniums, Heuchera cylindrica and aquilegias, representing Sauvignon Blanc and, representing Pinot Noir, the darker clarets and purples of verbascums, thalictrum and the more unusual Baptisia australis – a first for Chelsea.


Cloudy Bay Garden


As community gardens flourish in towns and cities across the country, designs for these spaces are slowly making an appearance at Chelsea. Chris Beardshaw’s Morgan Stanley Healthy Cities Garden has been designed as the centrepiece to a new community space which is to be created in Poplar in East London, an area of high deprivation, where it will be surrounded by raised beds for food and flower growing, meadows and a wild play area for children. “In working with the community, we realised there was a great appetite for growing. You only have to walk into that space [where the garden will be] and look back at the flats that surround it and everyone seems to be growing something off their balcony,” Chris explains.  “This garden will be the central hub and is there as a catalyst to draw people out.” The garden is filled with references to Poplar’s past and present – the pollarded Acer campestre trees refer to the area’s history of charcoal production while the steel on the walls echoes both the ship-building industry of the past (the seven degree angle of the steel is a reference to the gunnels of the ships) and the modern developments springing up in the area.  But it is the planting that really catches the eye –rich even by Chelsea standards, lupins, irises, salvia, verbascums and geraniums burst out of their box walls in an explosion of jewel-like colours shot through with the vibrant orange of Geum ‘Prinses Juliana’. “We decided to use a very eclectic range of plants in terms of colours, textures, forms and geographic origins so we’ve got quite vibrant planting where colours that you might think wouldn’t necessarily go are actually bonded together because of the way their neighbours work in harmony,” Chris says, explaining that the planting is also intended to convey a message about community. “It’s really trying to express that diversity applied in the right way can bring harmony,” he adds. It’s the quieter Camassias that hold the garden together though, he explains. “It’s not the plant that you’re immediately drawn to, because it’s quite subtle, but it allows the eye to drift through the planting and it harmonises with all the other plants, creating the essential glue in the community.”


Morgan Stanley Healthy Cities Garden


Inspired by the Bauhaus movement’s ideal of community, Adam Frost has created a design for a shared city space which celebrates modernist ideas and architecture for The Homebase Urban Retreat Garden. The striking cedar-clad pavilion is based on a Marcel Breuer (of tubular steel chair fame) building, which sits behind a sunny, open garden for both people and wildlife to enjoy. The pollinator-friendly planting includes Verbascum (‘Cotswold Queen’), Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ and geraniums (‘Samobor’) in warm tones to chime with the cedar, set against the cool blue of Iris ‘Tamberg’. The trees are Cercidiphyllum japonicum (katsura) whose leaves are flushed with bronze when young and turn spectacular shades of orange and yellow in autumn and when they smell of candy floss.


The Homebase Urban Retreat Garden


The interwar period is also plumbed by Marcus Barnett for The Telegraph Garden, which is based around blocks of bold colour, green and white inspired by the work of artists in the De Stijl movement such as Mondrian. Each block is built up using several plants which each bring a different tone, texture or height, making the garden a distinctly different experience from looking at Mondrian’s flat planes.


The Telegraph Garden


And finally, even if a trout stream and columns of delicately-balanced boulders are unlikely additions to your garden, the Laurent-Perrier Chatsworth garden is still the spectacle of the show and worth a visit, not just for the planting but also for the sheer theatricality of a country estate remade in the centre of a bustling Chelsea show.

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