Gardens and plants possessing powers to enhance our mental and physical well-being, improving our lives, are the primary themes of this year’s show at the 2018 Chelsea Flower Show. Mark Griffiths looks at this aspect through a selection of key exhibits.
A theme runs, like a golden thread, through anthologies of garden writing: whoever plants a garden plants happiness. It takes many forms, this happiness, moving different authors in different ways.
From John Milton to Thomas Jefferson to Rudyard Kipling and beyond the garden has been celebrated as a companion for life, while the power of plants to enhance our mental and physical well-being has long been acknowledged.
The RHS quite rightly believes that the happiness brought by gardening is a serious matter – a force capable of changing lives for the better. Making, tending and frequenting gardens are all of proven therapeutic benefit in psychiatric disorders, whether mild or acute, and in many bodily ailments. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, ‘All my hurts/ My garden spade can heal.’
It is this power that is the theme for this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, a festival richer than ever in floral epiphanies and leisurely pleasures. Mark Griffiths analyses some of the highlights, while we’ve also got pictures to show what you can expect of the other show gardens.
The RHS Feel Good Garden by Matt Keightley
The key exhibit – and along with the Weston Garden (below), one of two feature gardens at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show – is the RHS Feel Good Garden. Designed by Matt Keightley, it’s the most striking of several gardens at Chelsea that break with recent convention by dispensing with straight lines.
After years of the ruler’s rule, we’re back among amoeba, kidney and island beds, serpentine paths, contours and pools, and other sinuous and asymmetric forms of the kind that attracts that overworked term ‘organic’.
To these, Mr Keightley has brought the light, purity and restraint that typify the most successful rectilinear Modernism. The marriage is a triumph.
The garden (perhaps it would be fairer to call it a perfect pocket park) is a small, sun-pervaded grove of widely spaced honey locust trees. Beneath their feathered canopies are mixtures of aromatic pastel-flowered perennials and subshrubs, graceful grasses and clipped evergreen hemispheres.
These plantings occupy island beds, some of which are on the level, as others rise in dramatically contoured mounds, the stonework strata of which serve for stepping-up, sitting and surveying. Broad paths snake between them, in the same bright stone.
Immersive, serene and engaging, this garden is a world-apart, a green sanctuary that achieves its aim of inspiring happiness (read: ‘enhancing well-being’). Commissioned by the RHS to mark the 70th anniversary of the NHS, it will be relocated after the Show to the Highgate Mental Health Centre, part of the Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust, one of 39 NHS Mental Health Trusts that competed to acquire it. Meanwhile, as part of the redevelopment of the RHS garden Wisley, Mr Keightley is designing a similar scheme devoted to health and well-being, which will open in 2020.
The Lemon Tree Trust Garden, by Tom Massey
This is a beautifully precise and vibrant modern interpretation of Middle Eastern Islam’s time-honoured design motifs and plant palette. It was inspired by the Domiz Camp in northern Iraq, where, despite unimaginable losses and privation, refugees have planted plots, finding solace in their beauty and sustenance in their produce.
Their efforts are a moving example of horticulture’s power to heal – power that the Lemon Tree Trust harnesses by promoting cultivation among displaced people.
The LG Eco-City Garden by Hay-Joung Hwang
The people least likely to enjoy gardening’s benefits in future are in nations such as ours, where millions will have little prospect of living in a house, let alone in one with a useful amount of ground attached. Designed by Hay-Joung Hwang and sponsored by LG Electronics, the Eco-City Garden offers a solution – in this case, for more affluent citizens, but capable of being applied across society, had we determination enough.
An elegant terrace with trees, hedges, herbaceous borders, wildflower assemblages and falling water, it imagines the garden space that might project from, and belong to, each of the many households in a new high-rise residential development. The idea – soaring in up-take in some countries – is that tower blocks arrayed with these giant green balconies should constitute vertical forests, improving life for their residents and for the city.
The M&G Garden by Sarah Price
Some of the exhibits at Chelsea are explicitly conceived to heal or ameliorate. Often, however, the gardens that succeed best in making us hale and happy have no such agenda, or none, leastways, that’s obviously stated. One such is the M&G Garden, designed by Sarah Price, lovingly built by Crocus and commissioned by the show’s sponsor M&G Investments.
Its aim can be plainly stated – evoke the Mediterranean’s sultriness and radiance. Its impact, too, is direct – a big hit of beauty that makes one want to bask, breathe and behold. But in conception, detail and execution, this informal garden-cum-landscape is a technical masterpiece, as well as a heavenly homage to the maquis and mezzogiorno.
Its soil and stone harmonise perfectly with the terracotta reds of rammed earth walls and a massive clay pot. Their tones are echoed in turn in the rusty trunks of crepe myrtles and pomegranates. Throughout, impeccably judged but natural in effect, run silver-leaved subshrubs, perfumed thyme, asphodels, poppies and pinks.
If happiness can be a blend of relaxation and jubilation, this, I’d say, is it.
The Weston Garden by Tom Stuart-Smith
A greener and more evidently gardened bower of bliss is the Weston Garden, designed by Tom Stuart-Smith to celebrate 60 years of the Garfield Weston Foundation and co-sponsored by the foundation and the RHS. In yet another of this year’s Chelsea innovations, this richly textured and supremely romantic haven forms the centrepiece of the Great Pavilion.
All around, as ever, is a world of plants displayed by the world’s best growers. These are the raw materials, or roots, of the happiness that gardens bring us. One debutante is earning affectionate smiles and admiration all round, as has its dedicatee every week for the past quarter-century. It is a glorious golden rose, new from David Austin, which goes by the name Rosa Tottering-by-Gently.
The other Show Gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show 2018
The Trailfinders South African Wine Estate Garden
The Welcome to Yorkshire Garden
The Morgan Stanley Garden for the NSPCC
The VTB Capital Garden – Spirit of Cornwall
The Wedgwood Garden
The Wuhan Water Garden
The RHS Chelsea Flower Show runs from May 22 to 26 at The Royal Hospital, Chelsea, London SW3 – www.rhs.org.uk/shows-events/rhs-chelsea-flower-show
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