RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2014: the gardens

by Rhiannon James

In a year when Chelsea has seen an unprecedented influx of new, young designers, it’s a bit of a surprise that  the Show is so grown-up. There are no twitter-operated panels, no tower blocks of vegetables and there are certainly no flying pods in a daring shade of hot pink. Instead, the gardens are pleasant, polished and restrained. 2014 it seems is the year of the nice young(ish) men.

DSC_0375Take the RBC Waterscape Garden (Main Avenue 13), for example, designed by Hugo Bugg, 27,  RHS Young Designer of the Year in 2010 and a first-timer at Chelsea. It’s an urban rain garden, but it certainly doesn’t shout about its eco credentials. Instead of quirky wildlife habitats and turf roofs, there is just a river of Juncus and Iris x robusta to absorb excess rainwater surrounded by a design of muted planting and intriguing angles. “The garden prevents storm water from entering urban drainage systems by giving it the opportunity to slow down, store and infiltrate back into the ground. It’s quite a simple process really but it happens in a garden that uses very contemporary, geometric forms, lines and materials,” says Hugo.

DSC_0146The Vital Earth The Night Sky Garden (Royal Hospital Way 1) meanwhile, designed for a college for young people with autism in Barry, by brothers Harry and David Rich, 26 and 23 respectively, sounds a bit whacky on paper with its Milky Way-inspired planting and fallen meteors. But in fact, it’s just a beautifully planted garden that owes more to the Brecon Beacons than to Brian Cox. Amidst the suitably ethereal planting of cow parsley, and astrantias, mixed with the occasional rocketing verbascum or eremurus are subtle references to the cosmic theme as Harry explains. “The footprint of the garden is based on constellations – the walls are all constellation lines. Then we’ve got the pools which are dyed black to reflect the night sky, and the  benches have holes drilled through them which lights will shine through at night time,”he says.

Perhaps the pinnacle of this new age of understatement though is The Laurent-Perrier Garden (Main Avenue 18), designed by Luciano Giubbilei. Boldly bald, a blank wall is a focal point of the garden, echoed by a pool fed by two rills. Two quadrants of the garden have the quiet poise of a zen garden emphasised by a mountain-like cedar sculpture, and are balanced by two areas of planting in dreamy blues and lemons.

DSC_0356That’s not to say however, there’s no drama to be found in this year’s gardens. After the light touch of the last few years, Chelsea designers have discovered their dark and brooding side, using black backdrops and monumental sculpture as a counterpoint to airy and vibrant planting. Matthew Childs, another newcomer to Chelsea, has heavy archways of patinated copper and a chunky western red cedar pavilion in his urban Brewin Dolphin Garden (Main Avenue 19) to contrast with the frothy abundance of the woodland planting. “I looked to a spring morning for inspiration, when it’s all fresh and a bit mysterious and there’s a sense of anticipation and energy that is about to erupt,” Matthew explains. “The idea of the archways is to divide the garden up into rooms so you have this feeling of intimacy but they’ve also got very big, wide openings which provide windows through to the garden and to a focal point that entices you in. So there’s this idea that around every corner there’s a new possibility as you explore the space.”

DSC_0342Meanwhile, in the Cloudy Bay Sensory Garden (Main Avenue 3), designed by Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliam, colossal planks of charred and blackened oak intensify the impact of swirls of richly-coloured blooms. “Often in London gardens, you have different fences and other surfaces but when you treat them with a dark colour, visually you lose where the boundary is. The dark background also brings the colours out whereas white often washes out colour. So if you want to use colour and get more atmosphere then the dark tones are really good but often people aren’t brave enough to do it,” Andrew advises.


DSC_0311Treating the small garden as an outdoor room is now a classic precept but designers have had lots of fun playing around with the idea this year. Chris Deakin and Jason Lock have created a kind of funky highland shooting lodge complete with tartan wallpaper, cosy armchairs and neon pink antlers for their Fabric garden for House of Fraser (Fresh 36). It’s an off-the-wall idea but Chris is keen to point out that it’s also eminently practical. Every element in the garden is tough enough to use outdoors including the wallpaper and flooring which are both printed vinyl.


DSC_0386 Sarah Eberle has a different take on the indoor/outdoor  idea, filling her Flora garden (Fresh 21) with cut flowers to bring Gucci’s classic Flora motif to life. “The bouquets on the scarf are very loose and there’s a very fine line between charm and chaos. I talk about the bouquets as being armfuls of flowers as if you’d walked into your garden and cut flowers to take into the house – they’re kind of loose groups of flowers which is much more charming,” says Sarah.


Cave PavilionSophie Walker has taken the opposite approach, using her 21st century evocation of an enclosed Wardian case to bring the untamed wilderness to the middle of Chelsea (Cave Pavilion, Fresh 20). A self-contained world with its own sunshine and rain, it contains only wild origin plants in their uncultivated form, grown from seeds collected by acclaimed plant hunters Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones. “It really serves the design to use these plants because I want it to feel foreign but in a confused, unfamiliar, disorientating sense,” Sophie says.

While Cave Pavilion explores unknown landscapes, other designs this year celebrate some iconic city gardens. To celebrate the 75th anniversary of Kensington Roof Gardens last year, head gardener David Lewis has created a tiny homage to the 1.5-acre pleasure ground that sits on top of what was once Derry and Tom’s department store on Kensington High Street (75 Years of The Roof Gardens in Kensington, Serpentine Walk 5). Modelled on The Spanish Garden designed by Ralph Hancock in the 1930s, which itself borrowed ideas from the Alhambra and other classic Iberian gardens, the design includes original features used by Hancock and some suitably hot planting. Back in the Fresh Gardens, Jo Thompson has created a restful corner for a London garden square, with a coolly elegant collection of white roses and a rather spectacular steel bench (London Square, Fresh 7).

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