At the Chelsea flower show, foliage is in. Which bodes well for small gardens

<span>Ula Maria’s Muscular Dystrophy Forest Bathing Garden reflects a shift at Chelsea towards ‘greenery over bombastic colour’.</span><span>Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer</span>
Ula Maria’s Muscular Dystrophy Forest Bathing Garden reflects a shift at Chelsea towards ‘greenery over bombastic colour’.Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The biggest hoorah of the horticultural year is coming to an end, and if you listen closely you might hear tiny sighs of relief from the industry. The Chelsea flower show is a bun fight: glorious, indulgent, exhausting, complicated and messy in its perfection – but a huge source of inspiration for the rest of us, even those with tiny gardens.

Beyond Main Avenue and the big show gardens lie the smaller container and balcony gardens, categories introduced in recent years in a bid to make the show more accessible. This is an important nod to the fact that terraces, balconies and little courtyards are just as valid as gardens the size of a basketball court.

They are also a more reliable source of inspiration than whatever is named best in show. I can marvel at a rare species of climbing rose or the canopy of established hazel trees – as Tom Stuart-Smith brought to Chelsea this year in his escapist National Garden Scheme garden – but the back-garden inspiration from these smaller plots filters down more swiftly.

Keeping fuss to a minimum in a smaller garden will make it more cohesive and relaxing

Take the clever use of slim pergolas on Michela Trinca’s La Mia Venezia balcony garden: they are a great way to create an escapist enclave on a balcony and can mask an ugly view while offering more growing space. I also loved the clever planter in the Raines Repurposed balcony by Thomas Clarke. His curved corner created more room for plants – large containers are crucial in a small space – and cosier seating. Meanwhile, Addleshaw Goddard Junglette Garden by Mike McMahon and Jewlsy Mathews had tropical takeaways – including tree ferns and Fatsia japonica (false castor oil plant) – for urban gardens rarely bothered by frost.

What is striking from these small gardens is the reliance on greenery over bombastic colour. It reflects a broader shift across all of the Chelsea gardens – notably in Stuart-Smith’s NGS Garden but also in Ula Maria’s Muscular Dystrophy Forest Bathing Garden and the Octavia Hill Garden by Ann-Marie Powell. Showy rainbows of colour are out and a kaleidoscope of verdant foliage is in.

This bodes well for those of us with smaller gardens. Keeping fuss to a minimum in a small space makes it more cohesive and relaxing. Sonja Kalkschmidt’s Sanctum was a case in point: the textures of all-green plants tumbling from a striking black wooden structure were a fine lesson in minimalism.

Gardens that emphasise foliage over the intensive cycle of flowers are also far lower-maintenance. The understated beauty of green gardens has been overlooked for too long.