Native plants and trees, nettles, dandelions and a predominantly green planting palette are found in many of the 36 show gardens, along with salvaged and recycled materials. Elsewhere in the Grand Pavilion, there are still huge splashes of color, while first-time exhibitors include mushroom growers Caley Bros.
This year’s show is likely to spark controversy, says garden designer Andrew Duff, co-chair of the Society of Garden Designers and executive director of the Inchbald School of Design.
“It gives a clear message about sustainability and environmental factors in an aesthetic way. Are you clear about what a garden is actually supposed to do?” he says. “Throughout the show you come to the conclusion that nature is taking over… maybe it’s okay to let the weeds grow and let things get a little ruinous.
“But at the end of the day, people like a lawn, they like taking care of a space – that’s part of living in a garden – and it’s about time we addressed that controversy,” adds Duff.
Reflecting on the issue, RHS Garden Wisley Curator Matthew Pottage says: “We have a climate crisis. We have to work in the garden in an environmentally friendly way. Is this the right place to show that? It’s arguably the best flower show in the world so this is the place to be.”
Five highlight gardens from this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show
Love it or hate it, this garden is likely to turn heads with its partially demolished house, so-called ‘weeds’ and a fallen tree. Designer Cleve West has admitted it’s a “marmite garden” – people will love it or hate it.
“There’s a sense of abandonment, it’s so clever. Cleve West designed a partially demolished, ruined house with the idea that nature would prevail,” notes Duff. “He says it’s a metaphor for what it’s like to be young and homeless. There are nettle and dandelion seed heads. It’s really about what beauty is in a plant – and I think we need to have that discussion.”
Maintain the landscaped garden
If you have some plants to take home with you, be inspired by the gorgeous rich pastel and deep yellow Benton irises featured in designer Sarah Price’s Nurture Landscapes show garden, which was inspired by artist and plant breeder Cedric Morris.
Memoria and GreenAcre’s Transcendence Garden
Designers Gavin McWilliam and Andrew Wilson’s garden is intended to create an uplifting spiritual space that reflects the emotional experience at the end of life (it will be moved to a place of mourning after the show).
“What’s disputed is that they used concrete, but with the idea that that concrete will last for hundreds of years,” says Duff. “It’s not one-way concrete.
“It has a simple planting palette, is cool and calm and you feel instantly rested. The minimal use of materials and color palette was very special and a moment of calm throughout the show. It was a relief to have made it,” adds Duff.
Myeloma UK – A livable garden
Top designer Chris Beardshaw’s garden has a much more traditional garden feel, with a structured order in the colorful planting against a backdrop of clipped yew trees, including peonies and salvia, as well as inspired woodland plantings.
Charlotte Harris and Hugo Bugg (Harris Bugg Studio) placed wheelchair access at the heart of their design, creating the eighth garden for the eponymous charity, which builds gardens to improve the lives of people with spinal cord injuries.
The wheelchair-accessible space, influenced by the view from a bed or a wheelchair, features a tactile cairn and bottled water feature to encourage wildlife, while a garden capsule provides a cocoon for physical and emotional protection. After the show, it will be moved to the Princess Royal Spinal Cord Injuries Center in Sheffield.
“There’s incredibly deep planting that’s stunningly beautiful, and warm-cut stone beehives that sort of replace topiary—they made topiary out of stone,” says Duff.
These are some of the key garden trends emerging from this year’s event.
“Not surprisingly, awareness of wildlife-friendly planting will increase,” says Pottage. “There are many habitats in gardens, but hopefully it can also be nice to show them.” There are lots of tree trunks, lots of water, lots of native plants, but also lots of horticultural plantings.
Recovered and reused
Crushed concrete, piles of rubble, bare sand, reclaimed bricks, and other recycled material dominate many of the show garden’s pathways and form decorative elements in several gardens. There is a message to encourage gardeners to think about how they could reuse materials that used to end up in the dumpster.
“All gardens have a purpose that’s really important,” says Pottage — all show gardens are moved after the show.
Award-winning designer Tom Massey, who designed the Royal Entomological Society’s garden this year, predicts: “Reusing waste materials is going to be a big deal.”
In his show garden, he uses crushed construction waste, including crushed brick and concrete, along with deadwood to create a textured, aesthetic backdrop for the planting. “These waste materials are a really good habitat for insects,” he points out.
People are encouraged to grow native plants, from hazelnut to cow’s parsley, while those seeking color might opt for irises, which are a common sight at this year’s fair. There is also a resurgence of the yew tree (Taxus baccata) and other well-known plants including cloudy pine, Eleagnus ‘Quicksilver’.
Drought-tolerant plants are also encouraged – about 55% of the perennials in the show gardens are drought-tolerant, almost double the number from last year, including fennel, sage and rockrose.
Dandelions and other weeds grow in some gardens. Chelsea gold medalist Cleve West notes, “People worry about weeds, but they’re the pioneer plants that tie it all together.”
“It’s just to make people realize that all the things that we kill with herbicides and pesticides can look very beautiful,” West adds. “Just be more tolerant, and if you have a space to let nature take its course, it has to be good for wildlife and insects.”
Massey adds: “Dandelion is an early source of pollen and nectar for bees – and insects are in decline, so we need to be more considerate in managing and maintaining our gardens.”
“We see nature becoming a sculpture,” says Duff, citing the Mediterranean misty pine from designer Sarah Price’s Nurture Landscapes Garden. There are yew pillows in the Memoria and GreenAcres Transcendence Gardens.
Allusions to the royal family abound, from the bronze bust of the king in A Garden of Royal Reflection and Celebration, which features some of the Windsor family’s favorite plants, including roses and camassia, as well as several crowns of flora and fauna.
At almost 7m tall, the largest driftwood sculpture ever displayed in Chelsea, a wyvern dragon perched in a tree, is the centerpiece of the exhibition by sculptor James Doran-Webb.
And paying homage to the unsung heroines of horticulture at The Monument is the Women in Horticulture exhibition, honoring the likes of Janaki Ammal, Beth Chatto and Gertrude Jekyll.
Enlarge small spaces
Guy Barter, chief gardener at the RHS, says people will likely be planting taller trees on their balconies and also using drought-tolerant species. “This year there’s a pollinator section, a wild pool, and drought-resistant plants.”