RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2014: plants
by Rhiannon James
City gardeners have done well in the The Great Pavilion this year with Birmingham City Council’s garden commemorating the start of the First World War winning the President’s Award and receiving a visit from the Queen. If you’re keen to keep the side up, we’ve picked the best of the small garden-friendly plants at Chelsea which should attract more than a few admiring glances.
Lack of sun is a perennial problem in small urban gardens but it feels like a positive advantage when you’re surrounded by a stunning array of plants that thrive in shade. Tale Valley Nursery’s (stand F15) woodland garden is full of unusual options from around the world and well worth a visit. “There are no big blousy flowers here but you do have all the different leaf textures and leaf colours which give a shade garden its relaxing atmosphere,” says Chris Birchall who runs Tale Valley Nursery with his wife Lorraine. There is the beautifully ethereal Roscoea cautleyoides, which despite its fragile appearance is frost hardy in the UK. For structure, there’s an unusual species of Solomon’s seal, Polygonatum stenanthum, which can grow to six feet and is great for adding height to shady borders and Diphylleia cymosa, which has dinner plate-sized, deeply cut leaves.
There are also a host of interesting groundcovers including the sweetly delicate Vancouveria hexandra and the starry-flowered Ellisiophyllum pinnatum, which spreads but is easily contained. And although many grasses can struggle to thrive in darker gardens, Chris recommends Milium effusum ‘Aureum’, which is happy in partial shade and which, along with Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’, is useful in bringing a warm golden glow to shady areas. Most of the plants prefer what Chris calls a woodland soil, with lots of organic matter so it retains moisture but also drains freely and doesn’t become water-logged.
Across the aisle, Brookfield Plants (F6) showcases the versatility of that shady garden classic, the hosta. There are the big, sculptural plants such as ‘Sum and Substance’ and ‘Niagara Falls’, every kind of variegation including the pale and interesting ‘Lakeside Ninita’ and unusual forms such as the upwardly-lifted ‘Praying Hands’.
Culm View Nursery’s (D5) display by contrast, shows just how vibrant a partially shady garden can be with dazzling drifts of candelabra primulas. There are also some nice planting combinations such as Polemonium reptans with Aquilegia v. ‘Clementine White’and Campanula ‘Pink Octopus’ and Astrantia major ‘Roma’ with Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Pom Pom’. “They come from seed, and when you sow some, you always get quite a variation both in colour and form but they’re all at least double or going right into a pom-pom,” says nursery owner Brian Jacobs.
Shade-tolerant perennials is also the theme of Primrose Bank Nursery’s charming display (G15) which allows you to get a closer look at some of the plants playing a starring role in the show gardens outside such as Lychnis flos-cuculi (ragged robin), Trollius x cultorum ‘New Moon’ and Verbascum ‘Clementine’.
There’s hope for even the tiniest, drabbest container amongst the stands in The Great Pavilion this year with plenty of small plants that are big on drama. The saxifrages on Kevock Garden Plants’ stand (D9) may only be tiny cushions of foliage but they produce the most astonishing sprays of delicate white flowers. Look out for ‘Anneka Hope’, Brynhyfryd hybrid and the new ‘Starlight’. “The saxifrages make such an impact and what’s good about them for a city garden is that the foliage looks good all year round. Quite a lot of alpine plants will have a dormant period but the saxifrages keep these beautiful blue grey rosettes all through the year so you’ve got something to look at in winter even when the flowers are over,” says owner Stella Rankin.
For a darker sort of drama, Hewitt-Cooper Carnivorous Plants (B2) has a stunning collection of sarracenias, many of which are in flower, to add a slightly sinister glamour to a tabletop or even a sunny windowsill indoors.
For larger pots, Raymond Evison(G7) has two new additions to its Boulevard Collection of clematis that have been bred specifically for growing in containers. ‘Sally’ is covered in delicate pink blooms while ‘Edda’ has rich purple flowers streaked with claret – both are repeat flowering from late spring until autumn and grow to four or five feet.
Spires of flowers are a great way to add structure and height to loose, naturalistic planting, making them a show garden favourite and you can pick the perfect pinnacles for your own plot in The Great Pavilion. The Botanic Nursery (G1) has foxgloves in candy store shades of lemon, pink and white. Digitalis x mertonensis, a perennial for part shade, is a particularly beautiful example with flowers the colour of pink sherbet, edged with cream and lined with dark speckles. Blackmore & Langdon’s (E4), may have been growing delphiniums commercially since 1901, but this year’s display is right on trend in Chelsea terms with shades of blue and purple while Westcountry Nurseries (F23) has given its lupins a psychedelic spin.
While the combination of blue, purple, yellow and white is an oddly ubiquitous colour scheme in the show gardens this year, the exhibitors in The Great Pavilion seem to have conceived a darker passion. Five of the shortlisted entries for the 2014 RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year are black or deep purple. There’s a black and white iris, ‘Domino Noir’ from Cayeux, a double-flowered black petunia called ‘Black Night’, the deep purple Aeonium ‘Du Rozzen’, a zantedeschia, ‘Memories’ with almost-black flowers and purple leaves and even a tomato, which may be healthier because of its higher level of antioxidants. You can find out more about how to use dark plants in the garden here.