At this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, the field is strong, and fiercely competitive. Lined up along the Main Avenue are Luciano Giubbilei’s romantic, cuvée rosé-tinted bower for Laurent-Perrier (MA18), and Bunny Guinness’s elegant potager-cum-parterre for M&G Investments (MA15). There are memories of the Cornish moors from Thomas Hoblyn (RHW24), and of the mountains of Nagasaki from Ishihara Kazuyuki (TR/1). Two botanical titans have entered the lists-the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne (MA17), and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (MA21).

Even the humbler exhibits are going head to head. Among the Artisan Gardens, two recycled shacks are in a Mexican stand-off. One, Hae-Woo-So (SEW5), is Jihae Hwang’s painstaking re-creation of a traditional Korean outdoor privy. From Heronsbridge and Ysgol Bryn Castell Schools and Angela Guthrie, the other, A Child’s Garden in Wales (SEW1), is a simulacrum of a pit pony’s stable, complete with a vintage doll’s pram for conveying scavenged coal. My vote goes to the Koreans, with thanks for an invaluable new euphemism: the translation they offer for Hae-Woo-So is ‘clearing one’s mind’.

With such competition, it’s a rare show garden indeed that can leave all others standing. That is exactly what The Cancer Research UK garden (MA20) does. Designed by Robert Myers, it explores the theme of survival and the idea of the garden as a journey. My apologies if that makes it sound rather solemn. Mr Myers design evokes sunlight and salt air, elation and relaxation. Its symbolism is mainly expressed in the garden’s structure, a Modernist interpretation of life’s primal journey, from sea to land.

Chelsea garden

The only direct message lies in some verses by Leo Vroman, an inspired choice for the charity this garden represents he is a great poet and an eminent haematologist. His words have been beautifully carved on three stone panels by Annet Stirling of Incisive Letterwork. An absolute pleasure to be in, this garden is about life being for living-just as its sponsor would wish. It occupies four broad and gently rising terraces.

The lowest (the foreshore) is transected first by broken lines of rocks and then by linear pools and beds. The latter are filled with coastal wildflowers such as thrift (Armeria) and sea holly, forming vibrant bands of colour amid the shingle. Beyond this littoral beginning, gravel gives way to sandstone paving and the rectangular borders widen to admit more luxuriant plants. The seaside spirit continues, however, in Pinus nigra Maritima and in superb specimens of Tamarix tetrandra, an undervalued shrub that comes here into its fountain-like own.

Towards the rear of the garden, the planting forms a crescendo of height, density and colour, before finishing in a dais with a slatted pavilion. Slender-fingered shade comes from mature Chusan palms (Trachycarpus fortunei), an exotic that has valiantly withstood the past two winters. The garden’s ranked progression, from slim pools and planting strips at the shore to broader beds on higher ground, is a deeply satisfying main motif. But its brilliance lies in the way these bands are bridged by decking paths and offset by empty spaces.

The eye’s navigation of these contrasts and connections is the most rewarding of all the journeys offered by this outstanding garden. Before the current Depression, British horticulture had become a trifle depressing. Much cant was spouted about gardening for the environment and community, as if gardeners hadn’t always benefited both by pursuing an interest that is Green, inclusive, and a large component of our national character. Pleasure was out, and something called responsibility was in.

The problem worsened when the money ran out and it became smart, in both senses, to grow vegetables instead of ornamentals. But things are changing. Suddenly, sales figures indicate that the only thrift gardeners want is Armeria. There is a new desire for the beautiful and fragrant, the rare and unusual. And so the most important feature by far of Chelsea 2011 is the Great Pavilion. It becomes a celebration of our rediscovered belief in planting for plants’ sake and for our pleasure.

To mark its 160th anniversary, Kelways Nursery (GPD10) has re-created its Somerset peony valley, thronged with the massive, silken-petalled Japanese tree peonies that this firm has been offering since its infancy. Among the herbaceous types, look out for a new (if somewhat belated) introduction, Paeonia lactiflora Moonstone, an American cultivar bred in the early 1940s. Straight-stalked and long-lasting, its densely double blooms shift from blush to luminous white. They make spectacular cut flowers, which was how I first encountered Moonstone-filling a dark New York apartment with its unearthly glow and seductive perfume. I’m delighted to see and smell it on English soil at last.

Rhododendron specialist Millais Nurseries of Farnham, Surrey (GPH10), is launching several new cultivars, among them the dark-freckled, cardinal-red Rabatz, and a series of deciduous azaleas such as shell-pink Helena Evelyn and vermilion Thomas David. The nursery’s most revolutionary introduction is harder to spot, for the simple reason that it’s near or below the ground. Millais is offering a range of splendid varieties that have been grafted on to Inkarho, a rootstock developed from a rhododendron found flourishing, to general astonishment, in a German lime quarry. Succeeding in soils with a pH as high as seven, these shrubs break all the rhodo rules.

The most notable newcomer is Crûg Farm Plants (GPG19). The owners of this North Wales nursery, Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones, are fast joining the ranks of our most celebrated plant-explorers, having collected seeds of more than 15,000 remarkable finds in the course of some 50 expeditions. The nursery’s first Chelsea display includes specimens of Schefflera, a genus that, before the Wynn-Joneses went east, was known chiefly for its tropical members, sold by the million for homes and offices. Majestic evergreen shrubs or small trees, and hardy in milder spots, the new Crûg Farm introductions couldn’t be further from all those long-suffering pot plants.

The leaves of Schefflera macrophylla are giant’s hands 3ft across and gloved in ginger velour. With blackcurrant-tinted new shoots, S. alpina is smaller and slimmer, but no less striking. Both hail from North Vietnam, a botanical El Dorado put off-limits until recently by decades of conflict. Taiwan, however, is home to the best species for beginners-S. taiwaniana, its foliage fans gracefully tiered and fingered with blades of dark, glittering green. Plants such as these amount to the materials for an entirely new look.

A thing of jungly excitement, filled with strange shapes and enigmatic colours, it’s suited equally to city gardens and to sheltered country enclaves. A few Crûg Farm specialties will turn the under-storey of an arboretum, a shrubbery, or a bamboo grove into a place of fascination. To their beauty, we can add the factor that has made British gardens the richest in the world-the pleasure of pioneering, of knowing that you’re among the first to grow these new arrivals.

Since 1988, when Rob and Rosy Hardy established Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, their nursery’s name has become a very English understatement. This Hampshire emporium now offers some 14,000 varieties of perennials, with something suited to every garden location. Its 2011 Chelsea exhibit (GP9) uses about 3,000 individual plants, twice as many as last year. Among them is Anemone Wild Swan-for my money, the best new perennial at Chelsea this year.

An accidental cross of mysterious parentage, it seems to combine the delicacy of the Himalayan alpine Anemone rupicola with the unkillability of those border stalwarts A. hupehensis and A. × hybrida. Large and bowl-shaped, its flowers have brilliant white faces and lavender reverses. Between late spring and autumn, they nod on stems around 16in tall. Such is its ethereal refinement that I plan to keep Anemone Wild Swan away from other blooms.

It will be a marvel in semi-shade, perhaps massed under Crûg Farm exotics and near the house, where it can be admired at leisure on a summer evening. ‘The fragrance is pure myrrh’, says David Austin Roses (GPC1) of William and Catherine-and what better perfume for a princely nosegay? The alabaster outer petals of this ravishing cultivar embrace a heart that resembles swan’s down. By any measure, this Musk hybrid is perfection, but Mr Austin can also conjure bewitching imperfection. His new Leander hybrid, Fighting Temeraire, bears far larger and looser flowers than most David Austin English Roses.

Outspread and pleasingly irregular, their petals are flame-fringed apricot and gold-a sunset painted by Turner. Like many of the exhibits in this year’s Great Pavilion, these roses evoke romance, reverie, and riches of the sensory and spiritual sort. It seems we’ve had quite enough austerity and responsibility (whatever that was). We’ve remembered the most important thing about a garden: it’s the last place on Earth where you have to be down to earth.

The Chelsea Flower Show 2011, sponsored by M&G Investments, runs from Tuesday, May 24 to Saturday, May 28 (Tuesday and Wednes-day are reserved for RHS members). Venue: The Royal Hospital, Chelsea, London SW3.
To book tickets, visit www.rhs.org.uk/chelsea or
telephone 0844 338 7528. 
For pre-recorded RHS show information, telephone 020-7649 1885