Come rain or shine, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show has been an institutional fixture in the British gardening calendar for well over a century, waylaid only – albeit reluctantly – by two world wars and a national worker’s strike. It is steadfast, though never stagnant: a comprehensive horticultural history may be charted across the show’s residency at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, from the 1920’s penchant for rock gardens, through 1960‘s orchid-mania, to the conceptual show pieces of recent decades. It is the stage upon which gardening fashions are elected, plant varieties unveiled and new talent is discovered, while royal delegates – ever greater in attendance – jostle among selfie-ing celebrities for a tour of the Great Pavilion.
So what are the definitive themes of 2019 at the world’s most prestigious flower show? We’ll begin with the obvious one: an undercurrent of environmental concern. Promoting environmental issues is certainly an increasing characteristic of Chelsea show gardens; one recalls James Basson’s Mediterranean quarry of 2017, an evocation of ecological fragility that won him ‘Best in Show’. This year, however, the subject unites many of Main Avenue’s prominent plots, from the recyclable construction materials of Chris Beardshaw’s Morgan Stanley garden to an experiment in urban farming by Tom Dixon (proudly titled, ‘Gardening Can Save the World’). The plight of Latin America’s over- logged forests is explored via Jonathan Snow’s ‘Undiscovered Latin America’ garden, while multi award-winning designer Sarah Eberle has teamed up with the Forestry Commission to publicise vulnerable woodlands closer to home. Celebrating the Commission’s centenary year, Sarah’s ‘Resilience Garden’ highlights the many new diseases threatening our native woodlands. ‘The important thing is genetic diversity’, she told me, standing beneath a beautiful Metasequoia redwood, ‘these trees have all been chosen for their uses: black walnut as a plausible replacement for the UK’s ailing ash; Ginkgo for its resilience to pests and disease.’
Into the woods
Indeed, trees and woods are another distinctive theme of this year’s event. Veteran Chelsea Gold winner Andy Sturgeon has elected woodland as the setting for his M&G sponsored garden, swapping out his staple contemporary elements for the softer character of charred wood. This is undoubtedly one of 2019’s show stoppers, an organic scene cleverly offset by exotics like equisetum and gunnera – attractive alternatives to traditional woodland underplanting. The garden is magnetic for show-goers with an appetite for shade-loving plants, gathering close to identify unusual forms of hosta, rubus and aralia. Delving yet deeper into the woods is designer Andrew Duff, whose Chelsea debut features a tranquil clearing between alder and hornbeam trees, in which bronze leaf sculptures (designed and created by David Harber) rise from a buttercup-edged pool.
Remaining below the canopy we come to the magnificent treehouse centrepiece of the much anticipated ‘Back to Nature’ garden. In creating one of this year’s ‘RHS Feature’ gardens, landscape architects Davies White Ltd partnered with the Duchess of Cambridge, who has taken up the royal horticultural mantle from Chelsea regular (and medal-winner, of course), Prince Charles. Once again employing a woodland framework, the garden weaves themes of childhood wellbeing and elementary development through a palette of hard-wearing British natives: guelder rose, field maple, hazel and asplenium fern.
The densely planted space is intended to encourage early outdoor experiences: children may paddle in their first stream, clamber over logs, pick a wild strawberry and encounter the sweet scent of pine needles. The treehouse itself takes the shape of a giant birds nest, furnished with offcuts of coppiced hazel. On a rock below sits a discarded bow and arrow, as if its owner has just now scampered off into the alluring undergrowth. The Duchess’s focus on ‘wild nature’ is echoed among the smaller Artisan Gardens, where Walker’s Nurseries’ Graham Bodle depicts rampant geums reclaiming a disused industrial site, and designer Sue Hayward exemplifies a garden ‘gone to seed’ for the good of its resident wildlife. Facebook – first time Chelsea sponsors – have also thrown their hat into the ring with the ‘Beyond the Screen’ garden, forcing a somewhat contrived parallel between social media dependence and the ‘connectivity’ of natural landscapes.
So conceptually amplified are this year’s show gardens that, mildly fatigued, one enters the Great Pavilion for a little light relief; flowers simply for flowers sake, uncomplicated and beautiful. A happy hour may be spent under cover, drifting idly between astonishing displays of gladioli, irises, roses and alliums. Hot coloured lupins draw the eye towards the Stihl Hillier display, as do the pastel petals of Raymond Evison’s impressive clematis exhibit. A highlight for me is Daisy Roots’ Drought Tolerant Perennials & Grasses stand, dotted with bright yellow Verbascum ‘Cotswold Queen’ and dainty Persicaria ‘Superba’.
Returning to the gardens, then – via an obligatory pitstop at the Pimms tent – which are the plants that will mark 2019, and form feverish queues during Friday’s end-of-show sell-off? Among the regular stalwarts (foxgloves, geums, bearded irises), a handful of new favourites recur throughout the show ground. Big leaves are certainly doing the rounds: Gunnera manicata and Rodgersia aesculifolia, in particular, with their palmate curves and tall floral sprays. The drifts of rodgersia running through Tom Stuart Smith’s RHS Bridgewater garden will no doubt influence future planting schemes of many visiting designers. Echium russicum will also make an impression this year for its subtle red flower spikes. Larger scale favourites are natural-form natives like hornbeam, pine and guelder rose, the latter decorating at least three of Main Avenue’s show gardens. These popular plants all sit neatly within the wider picture of Chelsea this year: plants that might be found either side of the garden fence.
Given the show’s steady evolution of styles and trends its transformation can be difficult to decipher. However, with the recent shift towards naturalistic planting categorically ‘bedded-in’, the change is now strikingly evident. Show gardens of years past treated visitors to a spectacle of ornate, often innovative back gardens; inspiration that, at a push (and with money to burn), might be applied back home. Currently presented among the grand plots are depictions of yet wilder scenes, natural landscapes skilfully mirrored with light, sympathetic embellishment. Commendable or wildly off-brief, the Flower Show has responded in its own way to the current environmental conundrum, lamenting a paradise-increasingly-lost through Arcadian motifs reminiscent of 18th Century romanticism. Whether the old Chelsea staples of polished concrete and clipped hornbeam are gone for good remains to be seen. We’ll have to wait and see what happens next year.