Chelsea Flower Show: plants for city gardens

by Rhiannon James

Scabiosa caucasica ‘Perfecta Blue’ on the Todd’s Botanics stand (GP C6)

The Great Pavilion at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show is a brilliant place to see a vast array of plants from nurseries all over the country and there’s no shortage of both flowering and foliage plants on show which will suit city gardens, whatever their size or situation.

If you’ve got a sun-baked city garden or roof terrace, then Todd’s Botanics’ stand (GP C6, is a good place to look for inspiration, as the display this year is focusing on drought-tolerant plants. Sun-lovers such as Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’, Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’, and Scabiosa caucasica ‘Perfecta Blue’ feature but owner, Mark Macdonald, says it’s a normally overlooked plant, Phlomis tuberosa ‘Bronze Flamingo’ which has attracted the most interest. “For us it’s a plant which gets completed ignored in the nursery but now it’s in context on the stand, it has probably been the most asked after plant,” he says. It grows to around four feet, and has red stems with whorls of pink flowers stacked up each one.

At the other end of the scale, Harveys Garden Plants (GP G21, specialises in shade and woodland perennials so their display has an array of ideas for a city garden overshadowed by buildings or big trees. Trilliums, Ranunculus and Trollius are just some of the choices on show along with Speirantha convallarioides, which is an unusual evergreen plant from China with tiny, star-shaped flowers that are also scented. There’s also a new plant, Erythronium ‘Hidcote Beauty’ to see, which has attractive leaves and delicate, soft mauve flowers. Meanwhile, on the Kevock Garden Plants stand (GP H5, ) there’s a dazzling display of Primulas, which enjoy cool, moist conditions, including a new black-flowered introduction, Primula euprepes. “If you plan it out, you can have a succession of flowers over several weeks, just using Primulas,” says owner Stella Rankin. Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants (GP F9, ( have also arranged their display so you can easily find plants which will suit your particular conditions and you can get a look at Anemone ‘Wild Swan’ which won RHS Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Year 2011.

To make a big impact in a small space, Crûg Farm Plants (GP G19, ), which won the President’s Award this year, has some showstoppers on their stand. Schefflera macrophylla is a popular choice with London gardeners, according to Bleddyn Wynn-Jones who runs Crûg Farm Plants with his wife Sue. Found by Wynn-Jones in North Vietnam, it’s a striking architectural plant with leaves that can reach a metre across, which when young have a rusty glow from ginger-coloured indumentum. “It’s certainly got the wow factor, especially when the stem gets to a couple of metres high,” he says. A dramatic option for a large container is Curculigo crassifolia. It has giant, sword-shaped leaves, which are pleated and have a silvery-white indumentum on their undersides. “This one likes it really dry and it’s great in a container because you hardly need to water it,“ he says. There’s also some interesting options for shade ranging from Araiostegia pulchra, a beautifully delicate fern for moist conditions to Maianthemum gigas which has big panicles of scented white flowers in spring / summer.  

However much you like scale, it’s unlikely you’ll fit a standard Rhododendron in a city garden but if you want to get in on the expected revival of interest in these plants, then Millais Nurseries (GP H10, ) has a selection of compact Rhododendrons suitable for a smaller garden or even a container. Rhododendron yakushimanum, is an ideal plant for pots, according to David Millais, owner of the nursery. “It’s a plant that’s going to get up to about three feet in ten years and it’s as tough as you can get, so it’s an ideal container plant. It also forms a lovely dome shape,” he says. It’s also a plant with year-round interest, as in addition to a mass of pink buds opening to white flowers in May, it also has interesting foliage, which is silvery when young, turning dark, glossy green by the winter, with woolly brown indumentum underneath the leaves. The plant will take full sun or full shade but dappled shade is ideal. Another good foliage choice is Rhododendron sinogrande, which has big, architectural leaves and will reward patience with flowers after a period of about six years. “Its foliage is impressive and then in six year’s time when it starts flowering bright yellow in a huge truss, what a bonus,” says Millais. It’s a woodland tree so it prefers some shade for part of the day.

For some more, interesting foliage ideas for containers, have a look at Knoll Gardens stand (GP F4, ) which specialises in ornamental grasses. Their new release, Hakonechloa macra Samurai, which has white variegated leaves, forming a lovely fountain shape and Carex Dark Horse, which has draping, dramatic-coloured foliage in shades of darker greens and olive  would both look great in a container. For a long season of interest, there’s also Eragrostis curvula ‘Totnes Burgundy’. “The foliage starts green and turns more and more red as the season goes on, so you’ve got interest from now right the way through until November, it’s lovely to watch,” says Neil Lucas, owner of Knoll Gardens. Grasses can also work well in smaller gardens, as long as you keep it simple. “The secret is not to have too many different plants. Two or three Carex, or four or five Briza, will be far more effective than having one of each.  In a small garden, you have to be even more disciplined than in a large garden to get the best effect,” says Lucas.



Leave a Reply