Chelsea Flower Show: Designer Kate Gould on inspiration for urban gardens

by Kate Gould

The Magistrates’ Garden, designed by Kate Gould

Kate Gould designed The Magistrates’ Garden in the urban garden category at Chelsea Flower Show this year, which won a Silver-Gilt Flora medal. She has previously won two Gold Medals and Best Urban Garden and Best Chic Garden awards at Chelsea. Gould formed her own garden design consultancy, Kate Gould Gardens, in 1998 and is also the Design Champion for the Gardening Leave charity, which works to improve the mental and physical well-being of ex-service personnel using horticultural therapy.

The Chelsea Flower Show opened its doors to the public on Tuesday this week after a build-up plagued by the added difficulties of a hot and exceedingly dry spring.  This not only caused havoc for the plant growers, who were struggling to hold Iris, Allium and Aquilegia – stalwart Chelsea favourites which perform year after year – back from flowering too soon but also for the landscapers and contractors, when the site eddied with dust clouds as the wind became increasingly strong towards the end of the build.  Typically for Chelsea, when a light shower and balmy, calm conditions would have been ideal, wind and dust hurtled its way through manicured planting and coated water features with pollen from the London Plane trees that enclose the site.  It was a stern lesson that although as gardeners, designers and contractors, we tweak and manipulate nature to our benefit, we really are powerless against Mother Nature when she wants to make her presence felt.

Even through all the climatic difficulties, the urban gardens at Chelsea were constructed in the eleven days allocated and this year they are as varied and interesting in design as always.  These 7 metre x 5 metre plots are always a favourite of the show visitors as they epitomise small town spaces and are achievable in terms of scale as well as, in many cases, budget.

This year, the stars of the urban gardens are definitely the trees and the larger the better.  Three beautiful Zelkova serrata ‘Green Vase’ add height and create dappled shade in Adam Frost’s ‘Lands’ End Across the Pond’ garden and a multi-stem Acer palmatum in the Worcester, Bosch Group ‘The Power of Nature’ garden forms a focal point and a full stop to a sweep of brightly coloured perennials.  In many of the gardens this soft and naturalistic planting style is offset by stronger hard landscaping materials such as stone clad and rendered walls, concrete and paving. For once the eddying wind is helpful, rustling through the planting and creating movement against the static stone surfaces.

It is also pleasing to see that many of the gardens, both large and small, contain ideas that help us to think of harnessing power in different ways, such as the use of wind turbines and ground source heat pumps. If these ideas can be squeezed into the 35m² footprint of the urban gardens then there is absolutely no reason why larger spaces cannot employ that same technology with ease.

The B&Q Garden designed by Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins has many things going for it, not least its height.  It is tall, in fact the tallest garden ever at Chelsea, and has window boxes planted with edible plants and fruit up the vertical face of a 9 metre high structure. It shows that no matter how small an area you have available, by using vertical space, it can be turned into a productive and rewarding place.  Large conventionally pleached Lime trees and umbrella pleached Mulberry add more impact and again are under-planted softly for contrast but this time with vegetables and herbs.  The overall effect is one of fruitful abundance against the skyline of the city.

Designing and constructing a garden for Chelsea is never without its dramas and The Magistrates’ Garden that I designed was no stranger to this.  The umbrella pleached Platanus x hispanica, better known as London Plane, that we had reserved didn’t come into leaf in time, even with the favourable warmer weather, so with just days to spare a lorry was packed with six new trees and sent on the 800km journey from Pistoia in Tuscany to Chelsea.  I have never been so pleased to see a lorry arrive on the showground.  The trees were eventually set in place last Tuesday with only six days to go until Her Majesty The Queen officially opened the show.  This is the closest to the wire we have ever come at Chelsea and for the sanity of the contractors and everyone else involved I never want that to happen again!  So perhaps in our case it wasn’t the trees that were the stars of the show; it was the haulage driver who brought them all the way safe and sound.



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