For the first time in a decade, a major design trend has emerged at the Chelsea Flower Show. Given the year, it could hardly be more appropriate. The idea at its heart is Englishness, taking lessons from the land that Shakespeare called a ‘sea-walled garden’. Designed by Sarah Price, The Daily Telegraph Garden (MA20) samples Britain’s landscapes in idealised form. Birches and boulders surround a shoal of pools in Chilmark limestone. Informal and largely native, the planting re-creates water margin, meadow and woodland. Despite its naturalism, this is a highly calculated design.

Preserving its elegiac beauty would require at least the vigilance demanded by more conventional schemes. The same goes for A Rural Muse (MA3), designed by Adam Frost and inspired by the landscapes beloved of John Clare. If these gardens are the way of the future, we will have to acquire a talent for maintaining rigid control and the appearance of utter carelessness.

Designed by Patricia Fox, the Rooftop Workplace of Tomorrow (RHW37) shows that English natives don’t necessarily say ‘English’. This chic roof garden includes pleached field maples and wildflowers such as yarrow, candytuft and campion. And yet it seems spectacularly Kennedy Era and Madison Avenue. One could imagine a martini-sodden account executive tumbling from it in the opening credits of Mad Men. The sense of life on the edge is somehow heightened by the fact that this garden is sponsored by RBS.

Andy Sturgeon doesn’t confine himself to native plants; nor does he imagine that the way to make a garden English is to simulate the landscape. He describes his M&G Garden (MA18) as ‘New English’, Modernist in architecture but drawing on such masterpieces as Hidcote and Sissinghurst for its furnishings and atmosphere. Here, billowing, soft-toned perennials temper monolithic slabs of Purbeck stone. Clipped holly and yew impart that chambered quality of Arts-and-Crafts gardens so memorably termed ‘nookiness’ by Henry James.

At Chelsea 2012, Mr Sturgeon’s New English hybrid is the best of several responses to this question of national character. That the question is being explored illustrates the most striking feature of this year’s show: it is a test-bed or a bulletin board for innovation. This is nowhere more evident than in RHS Environment, a new category that displays developments in science and design and relates them to social amenity. This year’s focus is urban greening. As they’re not Show Gardens, I fear these exhibits may receive little coverage. But planting cities is one of the most beneficial ways of tending our sea-walled garden, and it’s splendid to see the RHS championing the cause.

Another new category, Fresh Gardens, encourages experimental design. One exhibit, the Climate Calm Garden by Nicholas Dexter (FR/24) is literally groundbreaking, with stepped and riven surfaces that mimic drought-cracked soil. These gulleys direct rainfall to a pool and a water butt, sustaining an oasis. Its planting is modelled on Eastern Europe’s plains, a beautiful floristic carpet that copes with freezing winters and baking summers. Even if the rain fails, this should be no dustbowl.

Mr Dexter’s Fresh Garden has just one flaw-its sponsors Southern Water, Thames Water, South East Water, and Sutton and East Surrey Water. It is, we’re told, ‘a response to the effects of climate change in the water-stressed South-East’. Surely the only proper response, so far as these companies are concerned, is to stop invoking climate change as an excuse, mend the existing supply system, and invest in sourcing water from the North and West? But no-they prefer to dictate our behaviour. Other European regions face down far worse drought without renouncing their hosepipes and gardening habits. They’re certainly not persuaded that there’s some virtue, like rationing in wartime, to going dry.

Why should we fall for this nonsense when we’re the great gardeners and have most to lose? There’s no sin in irrigating, or in transporting water over large distances: the gardens and agriculture of southern California would be impossible without the rainfall of northern California. Artificial irrigation is, quite simply, civilis-ation. We pay these companies to provide water, not self-exculpating counsels of despair dressed up as lifestyle advice. Their presence at Chelsea this year is worse than ‘fresh’-it is an affront to the countless amateur gardeners and horticultural
professionals whose lives and livings they have already disrupted in this rain-lashed (sorry, drought-stricken) spring.

At the centre of the Great Pavilion, an exhibit staged by Plant Heritage (GPC6) commemorates Sir Harry Veitch (1840-1924), nurseryman, patron of plant-exploration, horticultural mastermind and an Edwardian giant who could have bowled out W. G. Grace in the beard stakes. It’s a century since Veitch organised the Great International Horticultural Exhibition in the grounds of the Royal Hospital. Although the RHS didn’t make the event its own until 1913, this year is the 100th birthday of the, or a, Chelsea Flower Show. All around Sir Harry’s stand are plants that would have delighted him.

Hillier Nurseries (GPD13) introduces Choisya × dewitteana Aztec Gold, an evergreen shrub that combines the best features of Choisya Sundance and C. Aztec Pearl-slim-fingered, bright-gold, balsamiferous foliage; almond-scented, pure-white flowers. Aptly, this surefire bestseller is the creation of that alchemist among breeders Alan Postill, who celebrates his golden anniversary as Hillier’s plantsman this year.

Thanks to years of breeding at Penhow Nurseries (GPC1), Diascia has gone from being a genus of all-too disposable bedders to half-hardy perennials that one hates to lose. In tubs and window boxes, plants in their Maritana Series gladly fill the shoes of pansies when, as they must, they give up around now. Here are pastel cultivars that can be combined with marguerites, pelargoniums, and silver foliage to produce summer displays that are not in the least beer-garden. New from Penhow, Diascia Bluebelle is unusually dark, a cascade of cobalt. I plan to use it with the luscious lilac-magenta daisy Osteospermum In the Pink, launched this year by Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants (GPE 16).

But in a year when Cayeux Irises is launching six French irises, newly minted but vintage in spirit, we mustn’t forget our own horticultural treasures. Whetman Pinks (GPB14) is introducing two cultivars that improve on antique favourites. Dianthus Supernova produces single, dark-eyed, carmine flowers edged and streaked with white. It has all the piquancy and charm of the clove-gillyflowers that became so popular under our first Queen Elizabeth, but it is sturdier and longer-flowering. Double white Dianthus Memories is that pink-lover’s ideal, a repeat-blooming and compact version of the Victorian D. Mrs Sinkins. Fittingly for a plant that recalls and revitalises the past, royalties from its sale will be going to the Alzheimer’s Society. These pinks would be perfect for carpeting the feet of two shrub roses that are making their debut.

The Queen’s Jubilee Rose from Peter Beales (GPD16) bears quartz-white goblets that contain a ravishing muddle of smaller peach petals. David Austin (GPF10) presents Royal Jubilee, cassis-scented and with crimson-pink petals packed like a peony’s (below). This year, The Queen will grace the Chelsea Flower Show for the 48th time. Like Her Majesty’s 12 UK Prime Ministers, it’s one of those statistics that astonish by encompassing so much change in continuity. The rose has certainly evolved in that period. Gone are the characterless hybrid Teas of the 1960s. Breeders have looked to older varieties for inspiration, and to new introductions for bloodstock. In the eyes of the world, all this mixing and modifying has resulted in roses that are lovelier and more English than ever. In 2012, the monarch’s centuries-old emblem has much to tell us.

Bulbs
In the pavilion, make the most of the cornucopia of spring’s loveliest flowers, including tulips,
fritillaries, narcissi, irises and muscari at Christine Skelmersdale’s 40th and final Chelsea display for Broadleigh Gardens (GPG 6). She’s sure to go out on a high. Avon Bulbs (GPF 7) returns with its traditionally vast spread of species, arranged with a florist’s eye, in its 25th Chelsea. Bloms Bulbs (GPD 11) casts its net back 400 years to arrange the striped and flamed flowers of the earliest tulip-fanciers’ tulips, along with the most recently bred cultivars, in a tiered display of some 180 varieties. Walkers Bulbs @ Taylors (GPF 3) brings a pool of brilliant sunshine to the pavilion with more than 70 different daffodil cultivars. Stupendous scent will waft for yards around the blooms of J. S. Pennings de Bilt’s hyacinths (GPF 16) grown in every conceivable colour available to this surprisingly versatile genus.

Charities
For Arthritis Research UK, designer Thomas Hoblyn draws inspiration from the great Renaisssance gardens of Italy (MA 17). Mr Hoblyn’s show garden last year, based on rustic Cornish themes, was his best to date; will this more formal, pared-down design match it for appeal? The unimpeachable Rainbow Children’s Hospice (FR 1) is coming to the show in the new ‘Fresh’ category of gardens the RHS launches this year. Contrary to Chelsea traditions, ‘Fresh’ exhibits may ‘combine sculpture, video, sound and smell with ambitious planting’. Rainbow’s therefore includes the effects of nocturnal silhouettes against sheets of frosted acrylic. The Teenage Cancer Trust (MA 16) is a ‘dry modern garden’-one of a number focused on saving water. How could anyone know, when these gardens were conceived last year, that 2012 would produce one of the wettest springs on record? Children’s charity World Vision (RHW 34) uses the imagery of ripples to get its touching message across.

Edibles
Edulis Nursery (GPC 13) brings an assortment of unusual edible and medicinal plants. Jersey Farmers’ Union (GPG 1) promises a community effort of vegetables, heritage varieties and herbs ‘grown by Islanders from all walks of life’. Pennard Plants (GPB 13) concentrates on trained fruit trees among companion plants for pollinating insects. Writtle College (site tbc) includes a hydroponic ‘bottle garden’ and best food plants for growing in tiny spaces.

Faraway places
Ginger lilies, heliconias, orchids and other lovely tropical spices are all part of the Caribbean flair cheerily presented by Grenada (GPB 11) and the Horticultural Societies of Barbados (GPG 5)
and Jamaica (GPE 14). Ishihara Kazuyuki Design Laboratory (SEW 8) brings an evocation of Satoyama, ‘the Japanese term that describes the space between the lowlands and mountain’, with acers and moss. Nong Nooch Botanical Garden (GPD 12) has established a reputation for crowd-pleasing tableaux of Thailand from the petals of thousands of orchids and other tropical flowers. This year’s includes an elephant and a scaled-down version of the Royal Thai Barge. An Amazon rainforest habitat inspires the Bromeliads exhibit from Every Picture Tells a Story (GPB 8). Exotic insect-eaters predominate at Hampshire Carnivorous Plants (GPF 2) and Hewitt-Cooper Carnivorous Plants (GPH 4). Birmingham City Council (GPE 11) promises ‘a dramatic floral visualisation of the city’s landmarks’.

Green sculpture
Cleve West (designer of last year’s Best Show Garden garden) for Brewin Dolphin (MA15) imports large yew topiaries in traditional forms among beech hedging. Laurent Perrier’s garden (MA19), designed by Arne Maynard, arranges topiary and sculptures among pleached copper beech. Topiary Arts (GPC 5) displays its verdant shapes among herbaceous plants in the pavilion.

Meadows
There’s been no recession in the fashion for shabby-chic planting; this year, a huge number of exhibits, large and small, include sections of wildflowers and bucolic pasture. Capel Manor College (GPJ A) expands the idea, bringing sample strips of exotic meadow grown from worldwide flower species. Also, intriguingly, there’s a meadow of night-flowering plants for bats-which possibly looks at its best when the night watchman is taking a stroll.

Microbes
The pathology of plants affected by fungus pathogens such as Phytophthora ramorum (the ‘sudden oak death’ scourge) is explored by the Food & Environment Research Agency (GPJ 1). Hay-fever sufferers, always under siege at the show, should beat a path to The Royal College of Pathologists (site tbc) and its exhibit of hypoallergenic plants, such as geraniums and pomegranates, although it’s set beside another area of reliable allergens, including grasses.

Pereginations
Jo Thompson’s garden for The Caravan Club (MA 6) ‘evokes the very best of what a break in Britain means’-doubtless with lots of rain included. Another moveable feast is at the Plankbridge Shepherd’s Hut garden (SEW 7), with a take on the Dorset countryside of Thomas Hardy. The Scottish Agricultural College’s Plant Explorers Garden (SEW1) showcases plants collected by botanical explorers, including the monkey-puzzle tree of our times: the now-ubiquitous Woollemi pine.

Retail therapy
The adjacent Ranelagh Gardens and the perimeter lanes of the showground all provide endless opportunities for Britain’s other great hobby, shopping-from soaps to strimmers, via swinging-seats and summer houses. Just before the show opens, the Garden Product of the Year 2012 will be announced from a shortlist that includes two quite spectacularly useful gadgets: the Keo Cordless Garden Saw from Bosch, and the newest chapter in a long Chelsea history of robotic mowers, the Tango E5 by John Deere, which will coast itself round the lawn, grazing here, there and everywhere, before taking itself back to its docking station to recharge. One of these is certainly on my wishlist.
Kathryn Bradley-Hole

This year’s Chelsea Flower Show takes place on May 22-26 (RHS members only on May 22 and 23), at The Royal Hospital, Chelsea, London SW3. All tickets must be booked in advance. There are no sales on the day. For details, telephone 0844 338 0338 or visit www.rhs.org.uk/chelsea

* Subscribe

to Country Life
and save £40%