Sunday, May 22, 2011

First impressions of Chelsea

To the Chelsea Flower Show today for a sneak preview. The show doesn't open until Tuesday, and official press day and judging is tomorrow, so you'll have to forgive the odd untidy edge, or gardener person, or television camera skulking in the background.
I often spend so much time gossiping on press day that it's quite useful to go to the show on Sunday. That way, when people ask you what you think of a particular garden, you have actually seen it. These days, however, you bump into lots of people on the Sunday as well, so I've already done more than my fair share of Chelsea chat.
I thought on balance the general standard of the show gardens was good. The photographer Derek St Romaine said he thought it wasn't a vintage year, but it's not a bad year either. Some of the gardens I thought I'd hate, but I found I rather liked them. And despite all the doom-mongering about the bad winter, the dry spring, the heat and - today - the wind, the plants were in the main very good quality.
Here are some first impressions of the show gardens.

The M&G garden by Bunny Guinness. She describes it as a modern kitchen garden, but to me it seemed more of a romantic take on a potager. Vegetables planted in raised beds, with a colour scheme of purple and crimson.

I think this garden will be popular with the public, because at first glance it looks very pretty, but I found it too cluttered. There were so many elements - raised beds, ornate cloches, trellis obelisks - it was difficult to see what was going on.

Nigel Dunnett's design for the Royal Bank of Canada's New Wild Garden. The wonderful oak and stone benches are by Henry Brudenell-Bruce and his Dartmoor Bench Company.

Professor Dunnett is Britain's green-roof pioneer, so as you'd expect, this garden ticks all the environmental boxes. According to Mark Gregory, whose Landform Consultants were the contractors on this garden, the habitat walls were a labour of love, involving hours and hours of meticulous work. I loved the colour scheme - the orange of the geums and the blue of the container shed - and the sempervivums planted in the tops of the walls.

Diarmuid Gavin's Irish Sky Garden was one I had mentally filed under B for Bonkers, but I found myself first intrigued by it and then rather liking it. Diarmuid was kind enough to let us on to the garden, and into the flying pod, although we were unable to get airborne because of the high winds. The pod is suspended from a huge crane, which winches it in to the air. Because of the crane, the garden is big and has a great sense of spaciousness.

The pink pod - Wonka pink, as Diarmuid described it - contains two Lutyens benches fitted with seatbelts and carved with the names of his father and mother-in-law, who have both passed away. The pod is the most flowery bit of planting, with pale pink peonies picking up the "Wonka pink". Diarmuid said the idea was to try to make people feel relaxed and comfortable in case they were nervous when it came to lift-off.

The rest of the garden is almost entirely green, apart from this Zantedeschia aethiopica. It's a very cushiony garden, composed of topiarised yew and box, and hummocks of grasses. I loved it, especially the way the path threaded you through the planting and up to the pod.

There are a series of pools in the garden, some of which are inky black, like the pools you see in bogs, while others have pebbles in them. Diarmuid says that by tomorrow, there will be fountains playing from pool to pool.
I'm wondering whether being a city dweller influenced my view of the Irish Sky Garden. In London, you tend to be grateful for any cool, green colour that comes your way. My colleague Anna Pavord said she thought it looked like a topiary catalogue. Anna lives in the middle of the Dorset countryside, so the idea of being surrounded by green is probably less of a novelty. And I rather like topiary, although I know a lot of people don't.

Perhaps it's just that I have a bit of a weakness for foliage, because I also liked Ann-Marie Powell's garden for the British Heart Foundation. The design is supposed to represent heart strings and corpuscles, and the only two dominant colours in the garden are the green of the leaves and the red of the arbour and stepping stones.

I like things in the garden to be useful as well as decorative, so I'm a bit allergic to structures for the sake of it. But the "heart strings" act as a pergola, or corridor, around the garden before arching up into an arbour that shelters a seating area. It felt like a lot of thought had gone into the concept.

I knew I'd like this garden. Here's a master at work - Cleve West, for the Daily Telegraph. Gorgeous planting in quite a subdued palette, lifted by the silver centaurea and pale yellow achillea at one end of the scale, and the vibrant red of Dianthus cruentus and valerian (Centranthus ruber) at the other.

The columns, inspired by the Roman ruins at Ptolemais, in Libya, have a wonderful texture, while along the creamy yellow wall, a series of plain, chunky spouts pour water into a rill.

Just gorgeous. Pass the gold medal, please.

Here's another garden I didn't expect to like. It's the Monaco garden, designed by Sarah Eberle. I really admire her work, so was determined to keep an open mind, despite the fact that I found the sketch of her design a bit "meh", as my kids would say.
I was glad I did, because the more I looked at this garden, the more I liked it. I loved the colours - the exuberant orange geums and purple salvias, with the spikes of yuccas breaking up the straight lines of the hard landscaping.

You must walk down the side of this garden, because otherwise you'll miss this "wow factor" interior, which gives on to the stair to the roof terrace.

This is a very confident, hedonistic garden, and I could imagine sitting in it and feeling rather pleased with life.


Susan in the Pink Hat said...

I dunno about West's garden. I'd have to see more of it. The planting is all about texture isn't it?

Too much red in the British Heart Foundation Garden. Doesn't mean you should paint your feeder a shade of it though. Still waiting to see that one.

Zoë said...

I was going tomorrow, but am not now. I think I shall miss seeing Mr Gavin's and Mr West's Gardens in the flesh though.

In all the photos I have seen of the Irish Sky Garden, I have loved it. Then again, once you remove the bonkers bits from most of his gardens, they are beautifully planted and designed. Don't tell anyone I said that though.

Just know Cleve's garden will be fab.

The Bunny Guinness garden like most gardens I have seen her do, interprets the theme too literally, I like pretty, I love fussy gardens, but that is overkill. Some nice nickable ideas though.

petoskystone said...

the m&g garden is rather overwhelming in a victorian-seating-room sort of way, to me. i like the british heart fondation structures...they remind me of rhubarb. are all of the gardens more decorative than functional (vegetable/fruit or flower)?

Candace Trew Camling said...

When I was in England last year about this time I remember seeing television footage of this show. I really wanted to go, but being a tourist with a mom and an itinerary it didnt work out. lovely lovely lovely!!!!

Dobby said...

From the ones I have seen so far on TV, it is the British Heart Foundation and the Irish Sky Garden. Saw the interview with Gavin where he explained his ideas and the interpretation. A restful place to take a glass of wine and a good book.
So many good ideas to take note of in many gardens. Oh I wish I had more space!

Grace said...

Cleve West's garden is my favorite. Great photos.

Susan in the Pink Hat said...

After seeing the other gardens on the RHS site, I'm hopping on the Daily Telegraph bandwagon. And thanks for having the best photos I have found of it yet!

Benjamin Vogt said...

Oh my my my. There's a lot I like here in the way of walls, water, fountains, pillars, architecture..... screw the plants.

scottweberpdx said...

The Cleve West Garden is astounding...what a deft hand with a surprisingly effective palette, I would never have thought the yellow would work with all the shades of mauve/purple/burgundy...but it does, somehow. I love the smoky Fennel...such a nice foil to the other foliage.

Anonymous said...

Cannot understand how Cleve West's garden could be Best in Show or raved about here and there - wasn't even my third best. Perfectly pleasant, but in such tedious good taste. Of course if my back garden looked like that I'd be thrilled, but was it wow? Was it exciting? Was it special? Special enough for Fulham perhaps, but for Chelsea? No, no, no.

The Irish Sky garden now - I could rave about that one for hours. Or if that one was too OTT for you then then the Malaysian Tourish Garden was equally show-stopping.

I even prefered the Monacco Garden which afterall is not much more than a pool show-room. Though serious points deduction for the flowered glass from woolworths.

For me the genius of the Gavin's garden wasn't the imaginative execution of his 'Sky' idea, but the exuberance with which he made green blobs exciting, varying a narrow pallette of colour through form and texture. And this from someone who likes a flower or a hundred - completely won me over. Mysterious twists and turns, water and different views from every angle. Towered, in every sense of the word, over the rest of the show.

Will said...

After going to the show for about 30 years I decided to take a break this year. Its great having such good coverage on TV, though there is nothing like the sight and scent of actually being there! Oh well, I think next year is the 80th so will make a big effort to go…

La Vie Quotidienne said...

Lucky you to get to go to the Chelsea Show. What interesting display gardens you shared with us ~ thank you.