Today would have been the start of RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2020 had it not been cancelled due to the coronavirus. I had been looking forward to it for months. As in 2019, I would have gone straight to see the show gardens. Last year the M&G Garden at the beginning of Main Avenue had been designed by Andy Sturgeon. Lush foliage poured from gaps between artfully charred wooden blocks. Green was the first and lasting impression. The black of the giant, rock-like sculptures by Johnny Woodford formed the perfect backdrop. Paths of reddish stone and gravel completed a design which won Andy Sturgeon ‘Best in Show’.
This garden was my instant favourite. It reminded me of walks along lush hedgerows in Devon. However, the plants in this garden came from all over the world. Andy Sturgeon chose pioneer species from the temperate zones. Next to an umbrella plant (Darmera peltata) I noticed a favourite of mine, winter horsetail (Equisetum hyemale) with its elongated stems. I was slightly surprised that the information leaflet, which was so diligently distributed to visitors, did not mention anything about the invasive tendency of Equisetum hyemale, but that was my only complaint. Although this garden was not the first in a naturalistic style it was one that stringently followed its own design concept, and fresh green in front of black was magnificent.
Past a dramatically leaning pine (Pinus nigra Austriaca) a path wound between the luxurious blooms of various perennials to a seating area in a lavish pavilion. The Morgan Stanley Garden, designed by Chris Beardshaw combined the manicured asceticism of Japanese conifers with the laissez faire of a classic cottage garden to create contemporary urban elegance.
The planting of this garden was loose and confident, the colour palette muted. Between the tightly clipped shapes of dark green conifers, each of the exquisitely chosen perennials was shown off to perfection. The focus of the design was a circular copper sculpture on the back wall of the garden building. Its shape was repeated in a glittering spherical sculpture in the middle of the garden and its copper colour picked up again in the flowers of iris ‘Kent Pride’.
The leaning pine was supported in the Japanese style. One of the staff giving out information brochures told me it was only there because of safety regulations; the tree didn’t need it. Yet aesthetically I thought it added subtle perfection.
By contrast, the Dubai Majlis Garden, designed by Thomas Hoblyn, was loud like a 1970s photo wallpaper. The cool blue of a shallow pond contrasted with clay walls in deep orange-ochre. In terraced beds plants from hot and dry areas glowed in blue-green and yellow-orange but there were also quieter details. The grey-blue of the water was repeated with incredible accuracy in the furry leaves of the appropriately named lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina) while the small yellow pompoms of the Cotula hispida danced in front of it.
I loved that this garden dared to go against the trend of temperate green which dominated so many of the other show gardens. It celebrated exoticism and created the dream of an oasis in the cool english spring.
A little further on, signal red bridges emerged from dense green foliage. They led through a mountainous landscape inspired by Chilean temperate rain forests: delicate fuchsias (Fuchsia magellanica), dramatic gunnera (Gunnera manicata) and monkey puzzle trees with their spiky scales (Araucaria araucana). This was ‘The Trailfinders Undiscovered Latin America Garden’, designed by Jonathan Snow.
There were obvious parallels to Andy Sturgeon’s garden: a strong contrasting colour to set off the green foliage combined with the use of exotic plants. But the result was completely different; a shade darker, a rougher feel. There was a strangeness and at the same time a familiarity about this garden. It was subtly different plant mix I hadn’t seen before.
These four gardens were my favourites at the RHS Chelsea 2019. Some of them were also highly rated by the judges, others weren’t. But I guess my criteria for what I consider outstanding show garden design are different as I don’t have to keep to a strict rule-based system like the RHS judges.
For me a show garden has to have a concept, a strong, innovative idea. By that I don’t mean a charity pledge or a corporate message. Gardens are spaces where humans interact with plants. Therefore their design should evoke and shape emotions. I expect this to work without the need for explanations. The intended feel of the garden should be immediately and intuitively accessible to the visitor. Viewing a show garden which manages this is pure delight. I hope the Chelsea Flower Show will be back in 2021.