Bud Wiser: five gardens to know about at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show
There’s much to delight and inspire at the preeminent petal fest in London, but who’s really coming up roses? Medals notwithstanding, we pick the best of the bunch in our books
A squarish structure of steel and woven willow frames a larger pavilion. A bench is scattered in exquisitely embroidered cushions. A pool sploshes and grasses swish. This is a place that inspires creativity. Could there be a nicer spot to sit and draw, paint, write or sew?
But there’s more to it than that. Peaceful it may be, but it’s powerful too: that metal structure is, it transpires, exactly the same size as the cells that British prisoners occupy – the ones that, during lockdown, they were kept inside for 23 hours a day, with little or no recourse to the employment that is so important to rehabilitation when it comes to life on the outside.
Among these diversions is the needlework taught to prisoners by Fine Cell Work, a charity that then sells the inmates’ beautifully embroidered cushions to raise funds and awareness. The company commissioned designer Frederic Whyte to design the Stitchers’ Garden, with its theme of regrowth, as a metaphor for the beauty that can come from creativity, the colour of its planting representing the colour that embroidery can bring to prisoners’ lives.
Not only is the garden impressive, its legacy is too: after the Flower Show is over, it will move to one of the UK’s prisons to continue to provide calmness and inspiration to those that might need it, while the garden’s sponsors, Nina Campbell and William Yeoward, will release ‘Regrowth’ product collections with Cath Kidston for the charity, raising funds in perpetuity.
Given that Chris Beardshaw’s design for the RNLI Garden is all about celebrating history in a contemporary context, it’s no wonder we’ve included it on this list. Named for its co-sponsor the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which has been saving lives at sea for 200 years, the garden features a neoclassical loggia inspired by the charity’s Georgian roots, hewn in green oak and flanked by sharply contemporary slatted arcades – a splendid splicing of old and new.
And all around are fronds and flowers – flecks of purple perennials punctuating the sea of green. (In fact, there’s a fair amount of the regal hue on show at Chelsea this year; Inigo wonders whether it’s in honour of a certain royal visitor ahead of her Jubilee celebrations.)
One thing we particularly liked about this garden, which has also been sponsored by Project Giving Back, was the height of the planting. While other designs have kept things quite close to the ground, the beds here – split by winding Purbeck stone paths – spill over sumptuously. They ripple, wave-like, in the wind – giving pause to think about the wonderful work of the RNLI.
William Morris was the master at taming nature into print and pattern, with an eye for the arc of an acanthus leaf nonpareil. When he first saw Kelmscott, his home in the Cotswolds, it was the patchwork of plants, parterres and trees, “fenced from the outside world”, that convinced the father of the Arts and Crafts movement to buy the place, as much as the 16th-century manor house itself.
In the rambling path behind his Hammersmith home, Morris planted a “most beautiful” array of shrubs and plants, creating an oasis from the smog and noise of urban London. His long lawn was as good for bowls as it was for laying out and surveying his carpet designs.
Who better, then, to inspire a garden at Chelsea than a man so inspired himself by the goodness he found growing in his own? The patch afforded to Morris & Co at this year’s show, designed by Ruth Willmott, reimagines two of Morris’ most recognisable patterns. ‘Willow Boughs’, conceived in 1887, finds its sinuous shapes rendered as a pavilion of rust-red metal, casting brindled shadows on the decking beneath, while ‘Trellis’ of 1862 has been translated into the cross-cross layout of beds and paths.
Plants include cultivars from English cottage stalwarts woven between species immortalised in Morris’ historic prints. This is a commingling of utility and beauty that the designer would doubtless have admired.
The path that runs its way through the middle of Pollyanna Wilkinson’s garden, framed by a solid-looking cloister-like structure, is cracked. The jagged black rupture speaks of brokenness. But here, doom meets blooms – beside it, tall beds offer solace in their fullness and colour. At first, the planting is contained, quiet almost, before it starts to spill, becoming increasingly joyful.
Whites and greens become pinks and oranges, while trees – those eternal symbols of growth – stretch overhead. Yes, the ground may be fissured, but there’s consolation: filled with pebbles, it becomes almost whole again, kintsugi-like.
The entirety of this contained design, subtitled ‘This Too Shall Pass’, is a metaphor for motherhood and how, in those early days, it can feel like both a sanctuary and a cage. Along with Project Giving Back, this design has been sponsored by Mothers for Mothers, a charitable support network of those who’ve suffered depression, anxiety or isolation during pregnancy or postnatally.
With this in mind, the design – a representation of a transition from despair to hope – holds a quiet power that’s worth a moment’s contemplation.
“Titivating” is how one fellow visitor described the Rewilding Britain Landscape, which has won this year’s best in show. Both that Flower Show-goer and the judges are, we can confirm, pretty spot on.
The design, conceived by Bruton-based Urquhart Hunt, is a garden but not a garden: a glade-like depiction of the countryside as it should be (according to those in the pro-rewilding camp). A brook wends through hazel, hawthorn and field maple, past a stone wall and a flurry of wildflowers. A beaver-dammed pool is dotted with the debris left by the creatures, the greatest of nature’s architects: wood chips, sticks and branches.
While perhaps a little contrived in its manmade-ness, this ‘wild’ garden is a poetic evocation of the potential richness of Britain’s countryside – albeit from one perspective. But wherever you sit on the rewilding debate, you can’t deny the prettiness of this creation. Go for the perfectly imperfect planting, not the politics.
Chelsea Flower Show runs at Royal Hospital Chelsea, London SW3 until 28 May