The RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival is one of the most popular events of the gardening year. Summer’s finally here, the setting on Long Water is sublime and the atmosphere is upbeat yet relaxed, just like the music on the bandstand.
However, this year will be a little different because uncertainty over Covid has been a nightmare for exhibitors when it comes to planning. You can’t pull plants out of a top hat – unless you’re a member of the Magic Circle.
Matters haven’t been helped by this year’s weather, with the coldest April on record followed by an unseasonably cool May. Plant growth stalled and lockdown led to a plant-shopping bonanza online – so many nurseries are in short supply.
But fear not! Plant people are extraordinary and the nurserymen and women at Hampton are pulling out all the stops, helped and encouraged by Helen Boem, the floral marquee manager. She’s committed to the exhibitors because “their specialist displays make the show”.
The Floral Queen
One exhibitor, Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, has attended every Hampton Court flower show since it began 30 years ago. Rosy Hardy is ably assisted by her secret weapon, aka husband Rob, and this year she’s the Master Grower, with a large exhibit right in the heart of the Floral Marquee.
Rosy brings a wealth of plant material and assembles her display spontaneously by examining the detail within each flower, like an artist at work. Orange stamens, on a pink plant, are positioned within sight of an orange or peach flower. A white flower, with purple veins, sits close to a cool stunner, but there are always a few clear reds too, because this anchors the colour palette.
Rosy’s creating a rainbow of colour, a very apposite theme when you consider the contribution NHS staff have made over the past year or so.
Garden classics include Phlox paniculata ‘Bright Eyes’, a fragrant pale pink phlox with a dark pink eye. This will pick up a fully double, vibrant magenta campion named Lychnis coronaria ‘Gardeners’ World’, a plant I always associate with the late and much-missed Geoff Hamilton.
The exotic-looking flowers of Digitalis x valinii ‘Firebird’, a hardy isoplexis x digitalis cross developed by John Fielding, hover between pink and orange, rather like the robes of a Tibetan monk.
‘Firebird’ will chime with a recently released yellow-streaked red Crocosmia named ‘Firestarter’, part of the Firestars series. This Isle of Wight creation was raised by Paul Lewis, who’s deliberately selecting for wet-winter resilience. Touchpaper blues will include Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’, surely one of the most useful summer verticals, and a spiky sea holly favourite, the electric-blue Eryngium x zabelii ‘Jos Eijking’.
Floral Marquee newcomers
Right at the other end of the spectrum when it comes to the Hampton experience are Lincolnshire Pond Plants. They’re here for the very first time, displaying waterlilies and a whole range of aquatic plants. It’s a nod to Hampton’s past, when water gardens featured heavily, and I predict that a dragonfly or two will be lured in from Long Water.
Bean Place, a Kent nursery run by husband-and-wife team Tim and Anita Waters, are also in the marquee for the first time, although they’ve exhibited outside for 20 years. Previously, these experienced horticulturalists sold their nursery-raised perennials at flower shows, so the pandemic called for some urgent restructuring. “We’ve had to adapt by selling online and we now open the nursery three days a week.”
The lockdown hiatus allowed them to carry on developing the nursery’s display garden, which is on heavy clay, a project that’s been ongoing since 2002. Anita’s “waiting on the weather”, but she’s definitely going to have a range of heleniums and asters on her stand.
The well-named Symphyotrichum laeve ‘Glow in the Dark’, a tall seedling from ‘Calliope’ found at Avondale Nursery near Coventry, is her favourite plant at the moment because the pinkish-purple flowers look iridescent as night falls.
New stars in the Floral Marquee
A family-run Welsh nursery specialising in shade-loving streptocarpus and indoor begonias, Dibleys has four new plants to show off. Streptocarpus ‘Mabel’ bears lots of medium-sized primrose yellow trumpets, etched and veined in violet. ‘Faith’ is showier, with a white-throated red-purple flower. Both will flower for nine months on north-facing windowsills.
Foliage can be equally impressive, and Dibley’s Super Rex begonias have luscious foliage when given a bright position that gets moderate sunshine.
The deeply serrated leaves of ‘Merrymaker’ are black and red, and this eye-catcher was raised on their nursery. ‘Green Gecko’ has red-edged green leaves, dappled in silver and partly shaded in purple. The foliage spirals round as it develops, as though it’s cartwheeling.
Hoyland Plant Centre is a family-run, Yorkshire-based nursery specialising in agapanthus, tulbaghia, clivia, nerine and amarine, and will finally be able to release its new pink tulbaghia named ‘Hoyland Pink Beauty’, originally destined for Chelsea 2020.
Although subtler in form and colour than agapanthus, tulbaghias produce flowers from May until November. This one’s hardy, with weather-resistant pink flowers. Tulbaghia ‘Chameleon’, perhaps a Marmite plant, hovers between pink and yellow.
Steve Hickmans’ agapanthus flowers have been pinned back by Yorkshire’s cold spring, but there’ll be plenty of well-grown plants on offer including the new ‘Elaine Ann’, named after his wife. It has darkly striped, sky blue petals and is super-hardy in garden or pot.
Specialist growers Priorswood Clematis could provide the perfect clematis for a climber or rambling rose. However, I’m drawn to their display of herbaceous clematis, the ones that produce fragrant tubular flowers in late summer.
The rare ‘Mrs Robert Brydon’ (nothing to do with Gavin and Stacey) has soft violet flowers from late-summer on. This tall, non-climbing clematis arose as a spontaneous but complicated hybrid in the garden of Mrs Elizabeth Prentiss of Cleveland, Ohio, back in the 1930s.
Her gardener, Robert Brydon, named it after his wife following a 1939 mention in Horticulture, an American magazine. These late-summer herbaceous clematis are butterfly magnets, but I bet this paler flowered one is popular with moths, too.
Kell's bay house
Ferns are well-represented at Kell’s Bay House and Gardens, based close to the Atlantic coast of County Kerry in Ireland, which has the perfect moisture-laden climate for tree ferns.
Owner Billy Alexander will be exhibiting the black tree fern, Cyathea medullaris, found in the South Pacific from Fiji to the Pitcairn Islands; also the diamond-leaf fern Lophosoria quadripinnata, from the Americas.
Moore & Moore
Specialists in shade and woodland plants, Moore and Moore will have Carex ciliatomarginata ‘Treasure Island’ for sale, an American sedge discovered by Hans Hansen of Shady Oaks Nursery in Minnesota. It produces a spreading mound of wide, grassy-looking green leaves, edged in white. M&M is going green and offering customers the option of leaving plastic pots behind in favour of lightweight corn starch bags.
Heucheras were originally grown as cut flower plants, but specialist growers Plantagogo offers heucheras with fabulous foliage, in every possible shade. Heuchera flowers can be disappointing, but you can have the best of both worlds with the Dutch-bred ‘Timeless Treasure’. It combines silver-toned dark foliage and substantial strawberry pink bells on strong stems.
More floral newcomers...
Begonia ‘Merrymaker’ from Dibleys
Begonia ‘Green gecko’ from Dibleys
Steve Hickman's ‘Elaine Ann’ from Hoyland Plant Centre
The festival of roses
In the Festival of Roses marquee you’ll find two new roses bred by Norfolk-based Peter Beales. ‘Irene R’ is a bee-friendly shrub rose with informal, mid-pink flowers that fade to a softer shade. The glossy dark-olive foliage sets the flowers off wonderfully well and it’s waist-high.
‘Poetical Liz’ is a modern climber with fragrant, semi-double, amber-yellow flowers that fade to lemon. It’s bee-friendly too, once the golden anthers appear, with mid-green healthy foliage; this man-high rose is perfect for pergola or wall.
David Austin has opted for an open-air display, just outside the Festival of Roses, owing to Covid. They’re creating a rainbow of colour with English Roses in corten steel containers, as a tribute to the National Health Service. Their new rose, ‘Nye Bevan’, honours its founder; £2.50 from each rose sold will be donated.
The cupped flowers are soft yellow, but mature to cream, and the scalloped blooms have loosely assembled in-curved petals so it’s a very ethereal rose, with a light myrrh fragrance.
Plant Heritage marquee
You’ll find mainly native ferns on Julian Reed’s Plant Heritage display, because he’s one of those fern fanatics who spends his time hunting for long-lost ferns in Victorian gardens.
Athyrium felix femina ‘Plumosum’ was a popular plant in the late 19th and early 20th century, especially in Lancashire and Yorkshire. It was still listed for sale in the mid-1990s, but it’s proving elusive so far, although Julian believes it’s “still out there somewhere.”
Polystichum setiferum ‘Pulcherrimum Bevis’, a famous fern found by Mr Bevis in a Devon hedgerow in 1876, has endured and produced many sporelings, including ‘Green Lace’, my favourite lacy fern. Julian is also displaying a picture of the last surviving crown of ‘Gracillimum’, but his real life specimen is not at the show because it’s as rare as hen’s teeth.
Plant Heritage collection holder Philip Oostenbrink has gone aspidistra-mad and recreated a Victorian parlour, complete with aspidistra on an aspidistra table, a Victorian fireplace, chairs and William Morris wallpaper. Aspidistras were a status symbol for the Victorian middle classes and they’re making a comeback.
There will be a photobooth where people can do their own #aspidistrapose and there’s a competition for best image. The prize, of course, will be… an aspidistra.
Threatened Plant of the Year 2021 features 12 plants that are on the brink of disappearing and it’s possible to vote for your favourite at the show. Mine’s the red-tipped Euphorbia rigida ‘Sardis’, originally raised from seed collected by Plant Heritage founder member Christopher Brickell, on a visit to Turkey.
The Plant Heritage Seed Shop, which draws me in every year, will also be offering some Cedric Morris Benton End iris rhizomes from Sarah Cook, who holds the national collection.
In the spotlight: on-trend succulents
→ Succulents are red-hot favourites at the moment and Shropshire-based Plant Heritage collection holder Melanie Lewis is passionate about aeoniums from the Canary Isles. She goes “beyond the beach” in search of botanical hotspots. Two new species from Tenerife, Aeonium liui and A. boreale, have been found in the past couple of years and she’ll be displaying A. liui.
→ Cornish nursery Surreal Succulents, based in the Floral Marquee, are selling two of the rarest and most collectable aeoniums in the world: ‘Medusa’ has red foliage with a black vertical mark; ‘Superbang’ has red foliage with a hint of cream and a twist of lime. They’ll both add a touch of molten lava to a sunny patio.
→ W & S Lockyer, known for its auriculas, is displaying a wide range of succulents in the Floral Marquee, some never seen here before. It may be a bit warm for the Lockyers’ trademark bowler hats and, so far, the family haven’t found one small enough for their third-generation helper, Jodie Skye, aged two. She’s already handling plants like a professional.