Ecological themes and ‘wild gardens’ have become increasingly popular at Chelsea over the past decade. The difference this year is that almost everybody is at it. Of the 13 main show gardens, ten of them are planted up in the style of dappled woodland-edge moving towards wildflower meadow.
And now — finally — the beavers have taken over Chelsea Flower Show. It has been brewing for some time, the trend for habitat replication and a generally ‘rewilded’ feel among the show gardens. Somerset-based designers Lulu Urquhart and Adam Hunt have triumphed with their best-in-show garden on the theme of the re-introduction of these industrious rodents to British rivers.
Before the judges’ decision was announced, the Urquhart-Hunt 'Rewilding Britain Landscape' was certainly widely admired among the press and horti-cognoscenti for its extraordinary attention to detail (authentically gnawed sticks!), while the designers talk a good talk. But no one thought it had a serious chance of winning.
After all, this is not a ‘garden’ by any stretch. Neither has it been ‘designed’ — at least not in a formal way. It’s quite a departure for Chelsea’s judges to give the top award to a space which essentially recreates a wild scene where no human being — let alone garden designer — has ever trod.
An emphasis on native (or ‘native-like’) planting has led to a certain sameiness. Previously I have joked about Chelsea cow parsley show, so ubiquitous have those plants become in the show gardens. This year it is more like Chelsea hawthorn show. These sturdy hedgerow staples are everywhere, either contorted into shapes — cloud-pruned, multi-stemmed, hedged, ‘umbrella’, ‘flat-topped’ — or else presented in their naturally ragged state.
There are a few splashes of colour and pizzazz in the form of brightly coloured planters, but little of the horticultural sophistication which has hitherto made Chelsea stand out internationally. Hardly any of the designers have included unusual or rare plants in interesting combinations in their designs. Gone are the lavish set-piece borders which act as showcases for the art of planting design, something for which British designers are still renowned — even revered — around the world.
The do-good rather than feel-good tone extends to other parts of the show. The great marquee feels more denuded than ever, with fewer grand nursery stands — though Raymond Evison’s clematis display has drawn deserved plaudits, not least from the queen herself. But overall there is little evidence of the decadent, over-the-top horticulture-as-showbiz indulgence which has always made the show such fun.
Well done to the beavers and all that, but for most of us, that’s not what summer in the garden is all about. Where is the romance of a gorgeously super-abundant herbaceous border, or roses and honeysuckle curling round a cottage door? Those are real English summer garden pleasures — and the world’s greatest flower show (clue in name) ought not to forget it.