RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2012: the plants
by Rhiannon James
“The Best of Birmingham” by Birmingham City Council © RHS/Andy Paradise
The city is right at the centre of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show’s Great Pavilion this year. Birmingham City Council has an unmissable display that recreates the landmarks of the Midlands in foliage and flowers; urban greening is the theme of the RHS Environment zone and there’s also a wide range of inspiration for city gardeners across the different nursery stands.
Cleve West’s Daleks have become the most famous shrubbery in this year’s show gardens but topiary is a popular choice all over Chelsea. Arne Maynard’s garden includes three pieces of Buxus sempervirens ‘Rotundifolia’ that have taken 100 years to reach their current size, while clipped balls are a feature in both Andy Sturgeon’s and Tom Hoblyn’s gardens. The place to really talk trimming though is the Topiary Arts stand (GPC5) in the Great Pavilion. James Crebbin-Bailey is an expert in the art and has created a display that includes a mad mix of helter-skelter shapes, peacocks and onion domes. James runs courses on topiary and is a mine of information on how to get started with the shears. He suggests that when starting from scratch with a small plant, it’s best to put it in the ground where it’ll grow more quickly than in a pot. Then while forming the shape, it’s important to squeeze in two cuts a year: in the south east, this might mean one in March or April and another in May when the flush of new growth appears. Just watch out for cold weather though– the new growth is frost tender. But how to go about choosing the final form? “I always let the plants suggest what they want to be, although I’m lucky, I’ve got 1,500 of them in a field. If they’ve got a bit of lateral growth, you just give them a little snip to encourage that. It’s not until three or four years later that you might decide on the final shape, perhaps when you’re driving along and just happen to see something that inspires you,” James says.
If you’ve got a small garden, thinking big is usually best. One exception to this rule though is alpine plants which can make a gorgeous addition to the garden, particularly if you put them near eye-level, perhaps on a table or on top of a wall. Harperley Hall Farm Nurseries’ stand (GPF12) really shows the potential of these tiny plants. Created entirely in containers, the display includes all sorts of different styles from the chic minimalism of a pot of Scleranthus uniflorus to the exuberant, airy blooms of Saxifraga ‘Monarch’.
According to nursery owner Gary McDermott, alpines are perfect for high-up balconies and roof terraces because they can cope with weather extremes. “Alpines grow at high altitudes and in very poor conditions so they can take intense heat, low temperatures and blasts of wind. The only thing they don’t like is to be too wet in the winter, so mix plenty of grit with the compost,” he says. If shade is the problem, not blazing sun, the other side of the display has all sorts of inspiration for combinations using small woodland plants such as the striking Arisaema sikokianum, hardy orchids and primulas.
At the other end of the scale, Norfield Nurseries (GPG4) has a beautiful display of acers, many of which will live happily in a pot – one tree on the stand has been in a container for 47 years.
Pools are a great way to add a cool, calming presence to the garden and even if there’s no room for a full-sized feature, it’s still possible to create a pond in a pot. Waterside Nursery’s stand (GPG8) has some rather glamorous options for urban gardens such as a granite-style container planted with a single variety of water lily (‘Perry’s Baby Red’). There are also some extremely elegant irises including I. laevigata ‘Variegata’; I sibirica ‘Sparkling Rose’ and ‘Tropic Night’ and I. Pseudacorus ‘Berlin Tiger’. “We were thinking there weren’t going to be any irises about three weeks ago and then suddenly they started coming to life,” says nursery owner Phil Smith. “My wife Linda runs the business with me and she was panicking like mad!”
Although edibles were everywhere in 2011, fruit and vegetables are notable by their absence from the show gardens this year, unless you count Cleve West’s wild carrots. In the Great Pavilion however, there’s plenty to please grow-your-owners. The RHS Environment section is full of ideas and inspiration for growing food in small spaces but it’s worth paying a visit to some of the other stands too. Edulis Nusery (GPC13), which is exhibiting at Chelsea for the first time, is showing plants that are perfect for small gardens because they’re not just edible, but beautiful too. There are plants that fit the native, naturalistic look that’s so popular at the show, such as Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’, the purple cow parsley, which has edible leaves. But there’s also plenty of exotic options including wasabi and Rheum acuminatum – a giant-leaved plant from the Himalayas that has edible stems like rhubarb. Pennard Plants’ display (GPB13) shows different ways to train fruit to make the most of a small space. Trees have been shaped into cordons against the walls whilst a bed is edged with stepover pears.
The sun is back in a blaze of glory so it’s time to start worrying about water restrictions again. Todd’s Botanics (GPB5) is based in an area of Essex that gets very little rain and so their stand is the place to go to find out more about drought-tolerant plants. The display offers suggestions for loose, naturalistic planting on one side, mixing plants such as nepeta, geums, salvias and grasses, and for more architectural, exotic planting on the other. Julie Haythorn, the designer of the stand, says that the majority of the plants would thrive in cities. “There are some more tender varieties here, such as the agave and the chaemerops, which we might sometimes struggle with in the country, but which would do well in London because it has such a mild microclimate. Echium candicans, from Madeira, would also be fine in London or Cornwall but where we are, it’s also a little bit tender,” she says. Daisy Roots nursery (GPC15) has created a tiny gravel garden to show off a range of water-wise possibilities. With a cool, calm colour scheme of blues, silvers, pinks and whites, plants include Sicilian chamomile, artemisia, aquilegia and the delicate Corydalis ophiocarpa along with thalictrum and verbascum for height. “The theme was inspired by my own garden that I re-designed last year,” says nursery owner Anne Godfrey. “There are plenty of evergreen plants in there so there’s interest for all seasons.”
The urban microclimate means that a wider range of plants can be grown in cities – and one stand that shows off the scope of the possibilities is Trewidden Nursery’s (GPC25). The owners, Claire Batten and Jeff Rowe, specialise in exotic plants so along with two new aeonium varieties bred at the nursery, the stand has intriguing options such as Isoplexis canariensis which has flowers in the shades of a good sunset.