Hampton Garden Festival review: 'as richly planted as ever, but understated in ambition'

·4-min read
Felicity O’Rourke’s gargantuan ‘Extinction’ garden: a crashed full-sized plane with the words ‘Homo Sapiens’ on the side - Heathcliff O'Malley
Felicity O’Rourke’s gargantuan ‘Extinction’ garden: a crashed full-sized plane with the words ‘Homo Sapiens’ on the side - Heathcliff O'Malley

At the RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival this week there has been sunshine and showers (more of the latter, it’s true), men in crisp new panamas, ladies in swishy flowery dresses, Pimms and champagne – even fish and chips, if you want it. And given the outdoor nature of the event, it was also largely maskless (even in the marquees).

So – everything back to normal? Nearly. But not quite. As might have been expected, there is a slightly muted feel to this year’s show. The show gardens are as richly planted as ever, but also a trifle understated in their horticultural ambition.

Across the board, the look was determinedly traditional-English, with plenty of white flowers and gentle pastel tones – most notably in the impossible-to-pronounce Viking Friluftsliv Garden, which was self-confessedly designed by Will Williams in a ‘neutral palette’.

Tom Stuart-Smith zipped things up with bright spikes of Kniphofia ‘Mango Popsicle’ (what a name!), vivid Eryngium zabelli ‘Big Blue’ and droopy-petalled Echinaceae pallida in amongst the more familiar ‘new-naturalistic’ plantings in his ‘Iconic Horticultural Hero’ garden (rather a cringe-worthy accolade, perhaps).

The Viking garden, designed by Will Williams (pictured), seen during the build up week of Hampton Court Flower Show - Clara Molden
The Viking garden, designed by Will Williams (pictured), seen during the build up week of Hampton Court Flower Show - Clara Molden

Bumping into him in the floral marquee, Tom said he was delighted at the quality of the plants grown by the Sunnyside Rural Trust, a charity for people with learning disabilities with which he is involved. They fully deserved the plaudits.

The show-stopper was supposed to be Felicity O’Rourke’s gargantuan ‘Extinction’ garden, which features a crashed full-sized plane with the words ‘Homo Sapiens’ emblazoned on the side. RHS show gardens are not exactly renowned for the subtlety of their symbolism, but a metaphor this clunky was simply never going to fly.

We were promised some interesting plantings of ferns, but they were barely visible on a mound in the centre of the plot, most of which was a field of barley.

This was one of three ‘Global Impact Gardens’, as the RHS continues its habit of over-elaborating its categories – this year there are, in addition, ‘Lifestyle Gardens’, ‘Get Started Gardens’ and ‘Feature Gardens’, as well as good old ‘Show Gardens’.

Elsewhere, there was a refreshing emphasis on growing your own fruit and veg, with a broad range of allotment examples. In the main floral marquee, there are rather fewer nursery exhibitors than usual, to the point where it felt a little sparse.

The Rose Marquee features just two substantial displays, with Peter Beales coming through strongly, while David Austin Roses has opted for an outdoor display.

Strictly Come Dancing winner Bill Bailey was at the Canal and River Trust Message in a Bottle Global Impact Garden with garden designer Tracy Foster - Maureen McLean / Shutterstock
Strictly Come Dancing winner Bill Bailey was at the Canal and River Trust Message in a Bottle Global Impact Garden with garden designer Tracy Foster - Maureen McLean / Shutterstock

One nurseryman explained that some of his colleagues in the industry have stayed away because so many of them are small, often two-person operations. If one of the pair tested positive or had to isolate during the show period, it would leave just one of them (and possibly neither) to pack up the stand and get it home. That prospect proved too daunting for some.

Having said that, several of the exhibitors who have made it to the show have pulled out all the stops, with Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants (this year’s ‘master grower’) presenting an immaculate display; a superb show of penstemons from Green JJam Nurseries and bulb specialist Jacques Amand providing a much-needed sense of height with an explosively dramatic traditional showing of foxtail lilies and alliums.

I found myself next in the queue behind Simon and Yasmin Le Bon, as they bought packets of foxglove seeds from specialist grower The Botanic Nursery, who have concocted a splendid display. Vanessa Feltz and her daughter, resplendent in floral numbers, were among a sprinkling of other celebrities who came out for press day.

One’s reaction to the Hampton Court Show brings to mind Dr Johnson’s appraisal of a dog which can walk on its hind legs - you marvel not that it is being done superlatively well, but that it can be done at all. So ‘Bravo!’ to the RHS and all the exhibitors, and let us look forward to this year’s unprecedented September Chelsea Flower Show.

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