Kathryn Bradley-Hole presents our guide to the highlights of the 2021 RHS Chelsea Flower Show, the most eagerly anticipated edition in decades.
What a difference 20 months make. For the first time in its 108-year history, the Chelsea Flower Show will be a September event, signing off the season, as it were, instead of ushering in the freshness of May.
After the necessary cancellations of spring 2020 and again in 2021, the RHS made the brave and interesting decision to host an autumn edition of its most prestigious show, still in the Royal Hospital grounds. This means there will be a few adjustments — and several new exhibitors. For some familiar nurseries and growers, the late season could not work with their ranges of plants; others have bowed out after a long and distinguished innings — notably, Hillier Nurseries has called time on its appearances, having exhibited for half a century. But change is good and an autumn show is inevitably interesting.
Why the Autumn show probably saved us all from a disappointing Chelsea
As it turns out, the four-month delay this year has been helpful, after one of the chilliest spring seasons on record. Despite its sunshine, the crucial month of April was the coldest for a century and many plants remained hunkered down, unable to unfurl new leaves and buds in a spring that for months continued to feel very much like winter. Notwithstanding modern glasshouse technology, a May show would have been somewhat lean this year.
Expect pastel flowers of Spring to make way for purples and golds
Instead of the lovely pastels and English flowers of a typical Chelsea, expect to be plunged into the full-on, deep golds of rudbeckias and sunflowers, the marmalade hues of heleniums, the imperial purples and ocean blues of half-hardy salvias and muscular mounds of miscanthus grasses.
There will be echinaceas, with starburst petals encircling a glowing-ember volcano of pollen and nectar, irresistible to bees and butterflies. Together with dahlias and gladioli, all of these popular plants are tricky things to get to Chelsea in its normal season, but a September show sees them here in almost decadent abundance.
It’ll be a pivotal Chelsea Flower Show, come what may
On rare occasions, a show may be seen as pivotal in retrospect, but we know this will be one such. We need to remember that many key exhibits, particularly the show gardens, were commissioned and designed two years ago, before the world’s axis was shifted by the ongoing health crisis. What concerned us in 2019 may have been eclipsed since, by more pressing issues.
Add to that element the exuberance and bounty that always invigorates September and this should be a zestful, opulent and uplifting show.
You’ll be transported around the world without leaving the grounds of the Royal Hospital
Travel and hospitality have been among the hardest hit of industries across 2020 and 2021 and, although the staycation has inevitably come of age, a number of exhibits give us welcome glimpses of ‘abroad’. I like the serenity of the Finnish Soul Garden, a ‘Nordic heritage seaside garden’ by Taina Suonio, with its modern sauna cabin and watery surroundings.
The travel company Trailfinders takes us to the foothills of the Himalayas, with a lightly canopied woodland garden by Jonathan Snow showcasing the flora of Nepal. Featuring species such as Cautleya spicata, a Himalayan ginger; Schefflera rhododendrifolia with distinctive shredded parasols for foliage; and unruly Persicaria orientalis, known by Victorian gardeners as ‘kiss-me-by-the-gate’, growing among birches and hydrangeas, this garden will be a draw for plant connoisseurs.
Quite a different Asian vibe is present in The Calm of Bangkok, a compact and pared-down, meditative space, with a hammock in a shade house, suggesting languorous hours amid the heat, humidity and tropical foliage. It is an alluring, quiet retreat for a bustling, 24-hour city.
The NHS will be celebrated in plants and flowers
In the light of recent events, several exhibits celebrate aspects of hospitals and nursing. In particular, Robert Myers has created The Florence Nightingale Garden, for the Burdett Trust for Nursing, which includes medicinal plants, such as witch hazel and echinacea, under a series of sculptural timber structures, a modern take on the pergola.
The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association celebrates its 90th anniversary with a modest, but pretty garden of fragrant and bold-coloured plants in blocks, to please the partially sighted. It is one of numerous exhibits with a portion devoted to the fashionable flowery meadow.
The controversy over the merits of a good lawn will get louder, not quieter
Over the years, we have become used to underlying, sometimes preachy messages attached to the show gardens. We don’t need always to know the ‘story’; a garden can be judged on its own merits. It is sad, however, that lawns appear to have been all but banished from Chelsea and that there is wide- spread ignorance about their worth.
In our maritime climate, lawns are a habitat in their own right. They are good for numerous creatures and birds (including blackbirds, thrushes, starlings and green woodpeckers), as well as for the mental and physical wellbeing of people of all ages. I am, therefore, baffled by the RHS-sponsored COP26 Garden. This show garden demonises what it calls ‘negative gardening practices such as the monoculture of the lawn’. The RHS should know better. Although the exhibit, designed by Balston Agius, demonstrates many good practices — including rainwater collection, pollen-rich plants and a pond — common sense needs to return regarding the role of short turf.
Wild gardens will come to the fore
The organic dairy-food producer Yeo Valley has created an engaging, wild-looking garden with a merry stream running through it, among shaggy plantings under a nice range of fruit and nut trees.
Sparkling with asters, echinaceas and sanguisorba, it will be a crowd-pleaser, focusing on biodiversity and pollinators, as are most of the gardens in the show. Another time, it would be interesting to see a thoughtful sponsor, such as this one, using its messaging imaginatively to highlight something pertinent to its own business — the crucial ecological role of livestock-grazed pastures; unglamorous and undervalued, these habitats need a champion.
And finally, expect as many unusual surprises as ever
On a more urban note, I am looking forward to seeing the M&G Garden, designed by Charlotte Harris and Hugo Bugg. This inventive team has made a pocket community park with reclaimed materials, open spaces to walk in and places to sit, among characterful trees and seasonal plants, such as Rudbeckia hirta and Pennisetum ‘Cassian’s Choice’.
After the past 20 months, surely the most resonant garden of all is Sarah Eberle’s Psalm 23, an evocation of Dartmoor, a location she knows well. Created for the Bible Society, it is a bewitching space of huge pebbles, paddlestones and boulder walls, arranged in a naturalistic scene with flowing and pooling water. Inspired by the powerful Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want…’, it is by far the most timely, honest and moving of all of the show’s gardens, brought to the show by one of its heavyweight designers.
Echoing the role of the sacred groves of antiquity, it is a place where mental, physical and spiritual refreshment may be had. It doesn’t preach anything, other than to invite you to abide a while, fear no evil, but instead gather strength, comfort and resilience.
Five more things to look out for
- New this year are Container Gardens: potted gardens for tiny urban spaces. Also new are the Balcony Gardens, imaginatively planted mini gardens contained within ‘balcony railings’
- The always wondrous Floristry and Floral Design Competition will have centre stage in the Great Pavilion
- Houseplant Studio Exhibitors sees different takes on the resurgence of interest in indoor gardening; see cacti and succulents at Ottershaw in the Grand Pavilion, too
- Kitchen gardeners will find container-grown salads at Brighter Blooms, giant vegetables at Medwyns of Anglesey and ‘Ten Tomatoes that Changed the World’ at Pennard Plants, all also in the Grand Pavilion
- In spite of the late season, the show will be packed with popular trade stands, including glasshouse makers such as Alitex and Hartley Botanic and outdoor furniture from Gaze Burvill and others
The Chelsea Flower Show will be held at The Royal Hospital, London SW3. September 21–22: RHS members only; September 23–26: members and non-members (0344 338 7501; www.rhs.org.uk/chelsea