RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2012: the gardens

by Rhiannon James

Workplace for Tomorrow Garden designed by Patricia Fox

It wouldn’t be Chelsea Flower Show without a weather-related crisis – last year it was the wind and this year of course, it’s the cold and the torrential rain. Chelsea designers and nurserymen are made of stern stuff though and have battled through floods and frosts to deliver an array of gardens with plenty of inspiration for urban spaces.

High jinks

Competition to create the tallest tower has drawn in cities all over the world and Chelsea it seems now has its very own race. Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins’ nine-metre vertical allotment achieved a record high for the show in 2011 but has been comprehensively trumped this year by Diarmuid Gavin’s prodigious 24-metre, seven-storey pyramid (RGB12). With space in cities (and showgrounds) at such a premium, it seems the only way is up, for both buildings and greenery. From the outside, Diarmuid’s take on the theme is a Bosco Verticale-style tower with trees shooting out at crazy angles from each storey. Instead of dwellings at each level though, there are gardens – each is meant to offer a different idea for a small space. The planting on the ground floor is a (necessarily) shade-loving mix of hostas, ferns and clipped box balls, interspersed with trees and groves of bamboo. On the second floor there’s an oriental-style sitting area and garden; on the fourth, an allotment complete with greenhouse, compost bins and a water butt, and the fifth storey is a tropical garden with an outdoor shower.

The Westland Garden designed by Diarmuid Gavin

Down on the roof

While some gardens at the show have shot skywards, others have headed back down to earth. Patricia Fox’s and Alan Gardner’s designs are both urban roof gardens on the ground. Rooftop Workplace for Tomorrow (RHW37) highlights the potential for space on top of buildings to be used as the offices of the future. The garden is a place to be intellectually stimulated but also serene. So while there’s plenty of high-tech gadgetry including an outdoor LED screen, there’s also a cool, calming colour scheme and a wall of herbs for making tension-busting teas.

Workplace for Tomorrow Garden designed by Patricia Fox

Usually just an intriguing glimmer of green overhead, living roofs can be seen in all their glory at the Out of the Blue garden (FR10). Three mounds show three different possibilities for semi-intensive planting: a simple grassy slope; a mini wildflower meadow and a lusher, more vibrant mix of drought-tolerant grasses and perennials. The garden is topped off by a rather natty windbreak. “I’m waiting for a revolution in blue string,” Alan says and he must be convinced one’s coming – he’s dyed his hair to match.

Out of the Blue Garden designed by Alan Gardner


Water, water everywhere . . .

Although the torrential rain of the last few weeks has made talk of drought seem a little bit silly, there are still water shortages in the south and the east and the long-term outlook is also a dry one. One of the most innovative solutions to this fraught situation is Tomaz Bavdez’s futuristic Humko garden (FR5) which focuses on greywater recycling.

Humko Gargen designed by Tomaz Bavdez

The garden, the house and its inhabitants make a virtuous circle – water is released from baths, showers and washers, and pumped into the garden’s filtering units by pedalling on an exercise bike. Bog-like beds planted with a vibrant mix of primulas and trollius assist in the cleansing process, after which the water can be pumped back to the house or released. Tomaz says he deliberately avoided the traditional eco look. “We always think of sustainable gardens as being semi-wild but I want to create ecological gardens that look good too – almost like a piece of art or an installation,” he says.

RBC Blue Water Garden designed by Nigel Dunnett

Nigel Dunnett’s RBC Blue Water garden (MA21) is so subtle in its sustainability this year that the eco-element is almost invisible. The bioswales, (“a fancy word for ditch” according to Nigel), which capture and filter rainwater, are hidden by planting – what can be seen is a modern interpretation of a ‘paradise garden’ in breezy blue and white. “I’ve done other gardens here that have been a bit more radical in terms of the ecological message, but this one’s saying you can do all of that but still be very formal, very geometric – sustainability can be the basis for any sort of garden,” Nigel says.



What’s past is prologue

Historic styles have inspired many designers this year but the gardens wear their learning lightly. Thomas Hoblyn’s garden takes the essence of Italian Renaissance gardens and turns it into an elegantly modern design that could work well in a city space (a good-sized bank balance and back yard allowing).

Arthritis Research UK Show Garden designed by Thomas Hoblyn

Ruth Willmott and Frederic Whyte’s APCO garden (SEW6) in the Artisan section – usually the home of cute cottage plots – has an even more radical take on classic Italian design. The ‘water table’ at Villa Lante at Bagnaia has been transformed into a raised pool containing three Thuja occidentalis trees, positioned to give the illusion they are floating. The same species is used for the hedging “but we left it a little bit looser to create a velvety, sumptuous feel,” says Frederic. Andy Sturgeon has found his inspiration a little closer to home – his M&G garden (MA18) plays on the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement. “At the simplest level, everything here has been handmade on a small scale – nothing’s been mass-produced,” says Andy. Favoured materials, such as copper and English oak, make an appearance while William Morris’ wallpaper motifs have become an abstract pattern on the wall. There are subtle references to Arts and Crafts gardens too: “They created hedged ‘rooms’ around the house so the idea here is that you go through the doorway and discover a different atmosphere,” he says.

The M and G Garden designed by Andy Sturgeon


Small spaces

The Fresh and Artisan gardens are tiny compared to those on Main Avenue and it’s always instructive to see how designers respond to the limitation on space. Caroline E Butler, this year’s Chris Beardshaw Mentoring Scholar, has gone big and bold in the Bradstone Panache garden (FR7) with a twirling sculpture and colourful planting.

At the other end of the scale, Kazuyuki Ishihara’s garden(SEW8) is full of delicacy and detail. The design is inspired by the Satoyama, the humid region between the lowlands and the mountains in Japan in which Kazuyuki grew up, and it sings with the vibrant green of precision-placed mounds of moss and the textures of carefully-arranged pebbles. There is a simplicity about the garden too though: “Western design crowds in lots of plants and that is part of its appeal, but in Japan, we focus on minimising the selection of plants to emphasise the beauty of each individual,” says Kazuyuki.

Satoyama Life Garden designed by Kazuyuki Ishihar

For practical tips on gardening in small spaces, the RHS Environment area is well worth a visit. The Writtle College stand shows how to turn plastic bottles into a hydroponic garden for growing herbs indoors while Sparsholt College’s display has tips for maximising the productivity of small spaces using techniques such as Square Foot Gardening.

The Bradstone Panache Garden designed by Caroline E Butler and RHS Environment Area


And for something a little bit different . . .

Quiet Time: DMZ Forbidden Garden designed by Jihae Hwang

Jihae Hwang’s garden (TR3) is inspired by the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Created after the Korean War, this strip of neutral land has remained untouched for almost 60 years, allowing nature to repair the ravages of the conflict. Layers of detail tell the story: there’s a guard tower; barbed wire and rusting metal but also bullet casings on the floor; a clock stopped at the hour the war started and an abandoned binoculars case hanging from a branch. Twining over and around these symbols of war, the plants, which include some of the rare specimens that have flourished in the DMZ, mingle with a wild kind of beauty.






Leave a Reply