RHS Chelsea 2016

Ideas to use without spending a fortune

The Chelsea Flower Show is a funny old beast and I really think familiarity breeds contempt.

I won’t say I didn’t enjoy this year’s show – I did – I just look at things with a more critical eye now, compared with my early visits, where I was like a kid in a toy shop.

Late May is an odd time for plants, so you tend to see the same things every year – foxgloves, foxtail lilies, alliums, fennel, cow parsley. This year, you’re hard pressed to find a garden without Geum or Angelica.

It’s good to see designers who have stepped away from the over-used varieties. I’m also immediately turned off by ridiculous gimmicks like spinning topiary or pleached trees (you know who you are).

My top 5 gardens

Here are my top five gardens (without the benefit for the judges’ awards). Interestingly, these gardens didn’t appeal to me that much in the artist’s impressions, so have an open mind:

1. Winton Beauty of Mathematics Garden, by Nick Bailey (silver-gilt): The garden I fell in love with, its planting echoing my love of succulents. There are mostly Mediterranean species with shapes that form mathematical patterns, with a mature framework of Pinus sylvestris glauca with a high seating area overlooking Aloe polyphylla and other drought-tolerant plants and succulents.

Ideas for home: Use strong, architectural shapes in containers or borders instead of bedding.

2. RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden for Health, Happiness, and Horticulture, by Ann-Marie Powell: Part of the campaign to encourage people not to concrete over their front gardens. Absolutely teeming with flowers, fruit, veg – even a recycled shipping container as a summer house.

Ideas for home: Not much space is no obstacle to growing – tomatoes were fruiting on the roof of the container (first find, transport and do up a shipping container…).

3. The Telegraph Garden, by Andy Sturgeon (gold, Best in Show): More use of drought-tolerant plants – semi-arid to be precise. Design effects achieved by leaf form, shape and scale and not flowers. Unsure about the ‘mountains’.

Ideas for home: Very similar to the Winton Garden, if our summers get drier, we will have to change the type of plants we grow.

4. The M&G Garden, by Cleve West (gold): Based on the oak woodlands of his youth on Exmoor, Cleve has done it again – and used some out-of-fashion stalwarts to achieve a very cohesive, peaceful design. Good to see London Pride, bugle, dead nettle and plain old green ivy in the mix.

Ideas for home: Ground cover – get the right ‘understorey’, like a natural wood, and those plants will take care of most of the weeds for you.

5. St John’s Hospice: a Modern Apothecary, by Jekka McVicar (silver-gilt): Her first Show Garden, but her overall experience tells. I’ve always had a fascination for medicinal plants and herbs and this one is spot on – mixing form, shape, and colour brilliantly.

Ideas for home: Make your own herb garden but include edible plants such as Calendula and Nasturtium, used to great effect as slashes of colour.

Garage Artisan Garden by Kazuyuki Ishihara
Garage Artisan Garden by Kazuyuki Ishihara

On the downside, the Artisan Gardens weren’t up to their usual standard in my opinion, which is a shame, as their small size makes them most applicable to real gardens. However, @SodShow told me off for this on Twitter – for dismissing them in one paragraph.

To be fair, I really like the Senrei Sentei Garage Garden (gold) by Kazuyuki Ishihara, which is an excellent concept – but I’m looking for things that ordinary folk can grow in NE England and the Japanese style is labour intensive and Acers get really bad wind burn here.

Marble and Granite Centre Fresh Garden
Marble and Granite Centre Fresh Garden

The Fresh Gardens are there to polarise opinion, which one certainly did – especially The Marble and Granite Centre’s Antithesis of Sarcophagi by Martin Cook and Gary Breeze, which won Best Fresh Garden. It’s a garden set inside a giant 2.5m granite cube. It’s supposed to be a representation of a world turned inside out – a garden inside a sculpture, viewed through peepholes. It reminded me of the Barbican.

The Great Pavilion looked very different this year, with Hillier’s display moved off to one side (it used to in effect split the space in two). It seemed far airier than before and strangely bigger. Once again, lots to see from the specialists, including a full railway carriage from Bowdens Hostas.


RHS Chelsea in numbers

Dalefoot Composts
Simon from Dalefoot Composts at the company’s trade stall

Attendance: 165,000.

Exhibitors: More than 500, including Show Gardens, Artisan Gardens, and Fresh Gardens. There are more than 100 exhibits in the Great Pavilion and about 270 trade stands.

Number of people involved in building the show: Approximately 800 people take 33 days on site to create it.

Number of Show Gardens: 17

Number of Artisan Gardens: 6

Number of Fresh Gardens: 7

The Great Pavilion: 12,000 m2, more than the size of two football pitches and big enough to park 500 London buses.

Food and drink in 2015: 7,720 glasses of Pimms; 28,447 cakes, pastries, and cookies; 10,823
glasses of champagne; 64,144 hot drinks.

Great Pavilion First timers: Hogarth Hostas, Tom Smith Plants, Love the Plot You’ve Got and New Covent Garden Flower Market, with a design of the Queen’s head in flowers.


North-East exhibitors

There weren’t many North East exhibitors at RHS Chelsea this year – only four registered, all from County Durham. Here they are:

Harperley Hall Farm Nurseries: alpine and unusual perennials nursery from Harperley, near Stanley. They added to their three previous Chelsea golds and 2015’s President’s Award by winning a fourth this year in the Great Pavilion. here’s a look at their display below… website: www.harperleyhallfarmnurseries.co.uk.

The National Chrysanthemum Society: based in Peterlee. Website: www.nationalchrysanthemumsociety.co.uk.

Carryon Clothing: from Beamish, took a trade stand again this year. Website: www.carryonclothing.co.uk.

The Moorland Rug Company: of Frosterley, is the only rug company endorsed by the RHS and appeared on one of the trade stands. Website: www.moorland-rugs.co.uk.


Greening Grey Britain

Garden for Health, Happiness and Horticulture
The artwork for the RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden for Health, Happiness and Horticulture

Last year, the RHS Greening Grey Britain campaign was launched in response to the trend of paving over front gardens.

The growth of grey space, and decline of green aggregates, a range of environmental challenges, while the domination of grey, hard surfaces has been shown to have a negative impact on our health and wellbeing.

The RHS teamed up with award-winning designer Ann-Marie Powell to champion the health and wellbeing benefits of horticulture.

The charity believes everybody should have access to a garden and the joy and happiness it brings.

Ann-Marie’s garden celebrates the wide range of plants and tactics gardeners can use to promote health and happiness.

Her garden includes: cacti, fruit and vegetables, wildflowers, fruit trees, herbs, a bug house, a kitchen garden, a compost bin, hanging baskets, houseplants, seedlings and many more ‘take-home’ ideas.


8 tips for a better Chelsea

Thinking of going to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show? Here’s eight tips that will make your visit more enjoyable – learn from my mistakes!

1. The Chelsea Cough: caused by a mix of pollen from the plane trees and pollution. Reached impossible levels for me in 2014 and the best thing for sale on site was a tin of commemorative boiled sweets. Be prepared with proper cough sweets and a bottle of water – and antihistamines if you suffer from hay fever.

2. Hotel: In my first year, I made the mistake of trying to stay as close as possible to the Chelsea Hospital site. This is a bad idea – hotels are extremely expensive. The nearest I could afford was a basement dungeon in Pimlico, a good 20-minutes’ walk away. Consequently, to be there at 7am on press day, I used a lot of cabs, both to the site and back to King’s Cross. Stay close to your rail station and make sure you get a full breakfast (or even cheaper, seek out a local cafe, which will be half the price). You’ll be right next to the transport hubs and hotels are competitively priced.

3. Transport: My station is King’s Cross and it’s an easy tube ride to Sloane Square tube station (on the District and Circle Lines).
There’s one change: King’s Cross St. Pancras-Victoria, then change train at Victoria to Sloane Square. Estimated time: 22 mins. Sloane Square is an easy (and flat) 10-minute walk from the showground.

4. Food and drink: obviously, it’s expensive. Make sure you have a cooked breakfast to set you up for the day – It’ll save money in the long run – and you’ll walk off all those calories. If you’re using the Sloane Square tube, there’s a lot of reasonably priced restaurants near the Saachi Gallery just off the King’s Road – Comptoir Libanais is my favourite, in Duke of York Square, www.comptoirlibanais.com.

5. While you’re there: the Saachi Gallery is on the way back to Sloane Street tube station, www.saatchigallery.com.

The National Army Museum, next door to the RHS Chelsea site on Royal Hospital Road, is closed until spring 2017 for refurbishment, www.nam.ac.uk.

The Chelsea Physic Garden – a marvellous garden next to the Thames, a few minutes’ walk from the site with Tangerine Dream, a really good cafe and excellent gardening bookshop. For prices and full details, log on to www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk.

6. Oyster card: buy one online with an automatic top-up well BEFORE you go – it’s much cheaper and more convenient.

7. Clothes: Forget restrictive fashion and leave that to the celebs on press day. Choose VERY comfortable shoes that function just as well in hot weather or cool. Be adaptable – in 2013, I ended up buying an emergency cardigan – in 2014, a sun hat. Put on sun block before you set out, whether it’s cloudy or not.

8. Other essentials: blister plasters; painkillers; over-the-body shoulder bag; spare strong fold-up bag for purchases.