The flora of China, which has for so long enriched our gardens, and a new link-up with Radio 2 are just two of many commendable developments in this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, demonstrating that the event’s continued success lies in its readiness to adapt and innovate in unexpected ways, finds Mark Griffiths.

Some months ago, it was announced that the Chelsea Flower Show this year would have just eight major Show Gardens, nine fewer than in 2016. Ever since, commentators have been construing this news as yet another sign of Brexit-related financial uncertainty and prophesying that, deprived of corporate irrigation, Chelsea would wilt in 2017, perhaps never to recover.



As the show’s construction nears completion, it becomes clear that they are wrong, and massively so. But their projections were never safe, being based on the false idea that Chelsea’s success depends on the number, flash and dazzle of its Main Avenue extravaganzas. It was only in the 1990s that these exhibits came to dominate the show. Prior to that, Chelsea had enjoyed decades of glory without them.

chelsea flower show

The Walkers Wharf Garden, designed by Graham Brodie, depicts a derelict industrial space transformed into a useable outdoor area

In the years around the start of the 21st century, some great and ground-breaking Show Gardens established design trends of enduring importance, but the Next Big Thing is not an annual occurrence in any artform worthy of the name, let alone the garden.

Latterly, the Main Avenue has been taking stock, offering us more re-creations of wild landscapes, revivals of traditional styles and variations on the Modernism and Naturalism that were launched there a decade or so ago. For innovative brilliance, meanwhile, there are other exhibitors, not least the nurseries.

Chelsea never is what it was. That is its great attraction and the secret of its longevity. Whether or not the cause was Brexit blues, this year’s slimmer Main Avenue is a positive correction that had been coming for a while. A reduction in one area has turned attention back to some unfairly neglected aspects of the event and stimulated new ideas and there is appreciable wealth in the Show Gardens that remain.

Chengdu Silk Road Garden

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The Chengdu Silk Road Garden, designed by Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins

Of these, the most spectacular is the Chengdu Silk Road Garden, designed by Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins and sponsored by the Government of Chengdu, the great Chinese city that was once the gateway of the Silk Road and the capital of Sichuan. In plan, the garden resembles a slender sinuous island.

Along its midline runs a series of soaring triangular partitions that grow taller towards its centre and deepen in colour from white to peach to lacquer red. These simultaneously conjure a mountain range, a deconstructed pagoda and the stegosaurian spine of a vast recumbent dragon.

Between them, intervals of plain and vale are landscaped with plants from Sichuan Province, floristically, one of the world’s most diverse regions and the source of so many of our garden favourites.

At first (and for centuries), these botanical riches were carried west along the Silk Road. In the Chelsea exhibit, the route is re-created by a bridge of connected platforms that runs the length of the design.

Midway along it lies the garden’s heart and rationale: a circular platform, golden and decorated to represent the symbol of Chengdu City and of China’s cultural heritage, the 3,000-year-old sun and the Immortal Bird. Much as one might hesitate to re-create it at home, this exhibit is important in terms of design, horticultural history and diplomacy.

It’s high time that China, which has enriched our gardens for so long, should be present at Chelsea and presenting its own plants.

The M&G Garden

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Nature strikes back: a piece of Malta comes to Chelsea in the M&G Garden 2017 designed by James Basson, which re-creates a landscape repairing itself after human activity

A very different terrain, that of Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, provides James Basson with inspiration and materials. The M&G Garden 2017 re-creates a quarry in Malta in which Nature, gracefully but irrepressibly, has reasserted herself despite traumatic human activity. From its two tower-like monoliths to its terraced flanks and block-checkered floor, all is parchment-coloured limestone shipped from Malta and an absolute tour de force.

Also Maltese are the plants that colonise and soften its hard surfaces. Among them are endemics such as Euphorbia melitensis, a spurge whose sulphur-green domes dot the islands’ garrigue, and Matthiola incana subsp melitensis, a stock with succulent silver leaves and lilac flowers. This sparse and sun-soaked space is native-plant gardening taken to the level of an extreme sport. It’s an extraordinary re-creation of a landscape, but it also works as a garden, containing intricate walks, an enticingly placid pool and places to shelter and sit.

Linklaters Garden for Maggie’s

A more verdant and traditional sanctuary is offered by Linklaters Garden for Maggie’s. This is the first Chelsea exhibit in support of the Cancer Caring Centres founded by the late Maggie Keswick Jencks, who, through her own illness, found composure and solace in serene green spaces. Designed by Darren Hawkes, it is a secret garden, enclosed by high hornbeam hedges and glimpsed through slot-like apertures or entered through a wooden-gated archway.

Within, benches, paving, alcove, viewing platform and water features are all made of the same concrete and designed to conjure fragments that can be reassembled, so suggesting the process of rebuilding a life shattered by a diagnosis of cancer. Embracing and uplifting their basalt-grey solidity are informal plantings of rare delicacy, gentleness and perfume—in places, fixing one’s contemplative focus; overall, instilling calm. To those, usually non-gardeners, who maintain that novelty of design is the only measure of a Chelsea garden’s importance, this may seem a conventional scheme. However, its concept and purpose are innovative and important and I doubt anything less consolingly familiar could realise them quite like this perfectly planted haven.

Radio 2 Feel Good Gardens

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The Chris Evans Taste Garden by Jon Wheatley is one of the collaborations in the Radio 2 Feel Good Gardens to celebrate the station’s 50th anniversary.

As these three illustrate, the reduction in Show Gardens is one of number, not of standard. Meanwhile, other categories are flourishing in the light now that the Main Avenue has been trimmed of some of its overshadowing boughs. And there’s one entirely new class for 2017, the Radio 2 Feel Good Gardens. Created in celebration of the station’s 50th anniversary, these are five plots each devised to appeal to one of the senses.

Each has a starry different designer, or designers, and a muse-cum-patron who is a Radio 2 presenter: James Alexander-Sinclair (The Zoe Ball Listening Garden); Tamara Bridge and Kate Savill (The Jo Whiley Scent Garden); Sarah Raven (The Anneka Rice Colour Cutting Garden); Matt Keightley (The Jeremy Vine Texture Garden); and Jon Wheatley (The Chris Evans Taste Garden).

In my limited capacity as a Radio 3 sort of chap who takes horticulture rather seriously, I reckon that this unashamedly popular enterprise is tremendous. Hedonistic, playful and ingenious, these designs demonstrate that gardening is not only the purest of human pleasures but also one of the most exciting and sensual.

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The Viking Cruises Garden of Inspiration by Sarah Eberle channels Gaudí

The Great Pavilion

In the Great Pavilion this year, the display is one of the most exuberant and eclectic that I’ve seen in my 30-something Chelseas. The exhibitors are high in number and achievement, not least in presenting some outstanding new plants.

Introduced by Fibrex Nurseries (GPD157), Pelargonium Rushmoor Amazon is the first release in the Rushmoor River Series, a group of cultivars developed over the past three decades in Australia and the UK. They belong to a class known as Zonartic Pelargoniums, (crosses between Zonal kinds and P. articulatum), which have a low and compact habit, decorative foliage, tall and elegantly spoked inflorescences and showy flowers that are extraordinary in their range of form and colour.

In P. Rushmoor Amazon, the blooms are loosely double and coloured Naples-yellow tending to ivory with subtle carmine suffusions. It’s ravishing: there could be no better introduction to these exciting new hybrids.

To mark the centenary of the Papworth Trust, Peter Beales (GPF195) is releasing Rosa Papworth’s Pride. I’m not yet sure how its flowers—big, peony-shaped, summer pudding-like in their richly blended redness and irresistible scent —will fit into our borders here, but have them we must.

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David Austin Roses’ Dame Judi Dench

More obvious is what to do with Rosa Dame Judi Dench, from David Austin (GPD159). Mantling arching stems, its blooms are radiant apricot, densely double and charmingly ruffled. Their fragrance is a delicious blend of traditional tea notes, salad greens and exotic fruit.

Mr Austin, it seems, has striven to ensure that no rose by any other name would smell as sweet as his tribute to Shakespeare’s greatest living performer.

Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants (GPE163) has the very thing to set off Dame Judi’s rose. Salvia Crystal Blue is a selection of wood sage (S. nemorosa) with spires of sky-blue flowers that make it a must for herbaceous borders and for planting with roses white, pink and apricot. Although nemorosa means ‘woodland-dwelling’, it needs a sunny spot.

For similar colours in a shade-loving perennial, visit the Hillier Nurseries’ exhibit (GPE162) and see its new introduction Corydalis Porcelain Blue, a hardy and floriferous selection of the Chinese native C. flexuosa. Bronze-backed and filigree-fine, its founts of foliage emerge in spring.

The sweet-scented flowers come soon afterwards and continue through autumn—flocks of them, like the bluebirds that bear glad tidings in Chinese myth.

But the Great Pavilion is not just for novelties. It is a vast exhibition of the living treasures that we’ve collected, bred and nurtured down the centuries; of plants that have made ours the most richly varied and pioneering gardening culture of all. One of these, haunting in beauty, legendary in status, provides the centrepiece of the Hillier exhibit. It is Davidia involucrata, the ghost, dove or pocket-handkerchief tree, seeds of which E. H. Wilson sent from China to England in 1901 after a quest that almost cost him his life.

At Chelsea 2017, it acquires yet another name: the memory tree. In a joint initiative with Hillier’s charity partner, the Wessex Cancer Trust, visitors will be invited to record their cherished gardening memories in a book beside the Davidia and to sign tags that will be hung from its branches, joining its spectral white bracts.

I’m predicting that this souvenir volume will contain at least as many fresh impressions as it does distant recollections. After all, this promises to be a most memorable Chelsea, and for all the right reasons.

The Chelsea Flower Show is at the Royal Hospital, Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, London SW3 4SR, from Tuesday, May 23, to Friday, May 26, 8am–8pm and Saturday, May 27, 8am–5.30pm. All tickets must be bought in advance—visit www.rhs.org.uk for details

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A replica of a 900-year-old boat found in 2013 is the centrepiece of the IBTC Lowestoft Broadland Boatbuilder’s Garden by Gary Breeze, which celebrates the Norfolk Broads

Worth getting to know

chelsea flower showA remarkable newcomer, Clematis Green Passion (left) is exhibited by Thorncroft Clematis (GPA147). Large and double, its flowers appear twice a year, in early summer and autumn. In the first flush, the petals are packed and runner-bean green, with silver-fleeced reverses; in the second, they’re more open and grass-stained white. Many gardeners have little liking for green flowers, but it’s a taste worth acquiring. They work magic when paired with strong mauves and indigo-purples. I could see Green Passion held up on sticks in a terracotta pot growing with Salvia Caradonna; or in the ground, as a backdrop to Rosa Rhapsody in Blue or tangling with Rosa Veilchenblau.

Fringe benefits

The Chelsea Fringe, brainchild of gardening commentator (and former Country Life staff member) Tim Richardson, is now in its sixth year, growing from strength to strength with a host of projects both witty and worthy, across Britain and further afield. Event categories include art installations, community gardens, courtyards, edible displays, educational, floral and ‘muddy’—anything imaginative with a garden or planty theme. ‘The Chelsea Fringe is a true fringe festival, based on the Edinburgh model,’ says Tim, ‘in that nothing is commissioned or curated. If it’s on topic, legal and interesting, it can go in the Fringe, no matter how outlandish or odd it may seem.’ For up-to-date details of events nationwide, visit www.chelseafringe.com

Just what the doctor ordered

chelsea flower showHillier’s Nurseries introduces what will surely become the most widely planted of this year’s launches: Malus Crimson Cascade (left), a pendulous crab apple. In spring, its weeping branches are festoons of cerise blossom to vie with the boldest of ornamental cherries. What’s more, its new foliage is maroon-flushed and its fruits, although inedible, are garnet and bountiful.

Dr Alan Warwick, an 87-year-old industrial chemist and devotee of horticulture, spotted this prodigy in his garden among the seedlings that arose when he sowed pips of the popular (but upright to spreading) Malus Alden-hamensis. He approached Hillier, which lost no time in putting it into production—and quite right, too.