Chelsea Flower Show Exhibitions

This year the RHS Chelsea Flower Show was celebrating its 100th anniversary and as the English horticulture event of the summer, it was not to be missed. Each year the gardens vow to bring it bold and bring it big with 2013 being no exception. The crowd was out in full force despite the chilly spring weather that we have been experiencing lately. This cool spring was also apparent  with the plants being used in the gardens that were still being held back in tight bud. Together we, and E and I, will take a look back at three of the Designer Exhibition Gardens and discuss the ideas behind them, and why it worked or not.

Christopher Bradley-Hole -The Telegraph Garden
Christopher Bradley-Hole -The Telegraph Garden

The first garden, designed by Christopher Bradley-Hole, for The Telegraph, was a modern and abstract interpretation of the English landscape encompassing woods, hedgerows, fields and streams.  He stated his influence came in the form of Japanese design and a wooded estate he is in the midst of restoring. The only 3 trees present were Corylus avellana which are commonly found throughout the English woodland. The sheared cube shaped shrubs that were used are Buxus sempervirens, Taxus baccata, and Carpinus betulus, representing woodland and hedgerows  which were then  interspersed with meadow type plants, such as grasses, annuals, and perennials.

J-  When  looking at these gardens I try to imagine being enclosed in the space and how I might enjoy myself while walking through them and how it would look while approaching from different viewpoints.  I love looking at the plants up close but this is difficult  since people are restricted from entering the gardens, due to this the minute details that a plant offers are sometimes lost on the visitor. Taking the exhibition garden in as a whole and contemplating if I would enjoy spending time in this garden. The overall effect the Telegraph Garden had on me was excitement, as it had enough going on to keep my eye busy, a subtle yet soothing color palette, and was beautiful and interesting to look at from any angle.

E- Interestingly I tend to evaluate the overall effect first even if my eye inevitably goes to the planting by asking myself the following: Can I see myself being at ease in the garden? Is the garden harmonious in its disparate elements? When Christopher Bradley-Hole’s preliminary plans were published online, I was concerned about the canopy of the Corylus avellana and the scale of the clipped shrubs. Having seen the photographs of the finished garden, I rest my case because there is enough negative space around the beautifully limbed-up trees that the panels of clipped topiary and loose herbaceous plantings can be admired. I liked how you could view the garden from the different sides under the oak timber colonnade.

Laurent-Perrier Garden Detail

J- The garden design here was very plant heavy which is always a win for me.  There was not too much hard-scape going on except for the oak timbers in the background, which, with its contrasting repetition against the garden, helped to define the space and set the garden off very effectively. The garden got most of its structure from the clipped shrubs, which could easily have made the garden too static, but the plant choices mixed throughout the design really helped soften this linear effect and gave it life through movement from plants swaying in the breeze. It made me wonder if the whole garden would have appeared  too heavy if a more intense color palette would have been used, thus making me more appreciate the lightness in the plantings present.

E- The major challenge for garden designers at Chelsea is the balance between planting and hardscaping – sometimes the show garden tilts heavily towards planting while at other times hardscaping dominates instead. I am typically biased towards plant-centric gardens, although I am aware that such gardens, if not tamed carefully, can be a muddle. Here Christopher Bradley-Hole’s abstract interpretation of the English landscape is more plant-driven without compromising the hardscaping. His interpretation has succeeded for the sheared shrubs capture its mosaic-like patchwork and the looser herbaceous planting the mixed hedgerows (I remember distinctly seeing the English landscape from the airplane during my transatlantic trips). The Japanese restraint comes in the catholic use of plants and spatial orientation of the hardscaping features. I do question the use of boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) especially in this hard-sheared form since boxwood blight has badly decimated European gardens – if boxwood was actually used, it can develop unsightly brown patches from the blight. Unfortunately, not many plants can withstand the same pruning or produce the same effect as boxwood. The oak timber colonnade provoke mixed feelings for me – I find them to be beautiful, but uncertain about their unfinished look, which looks like construction scaffolding. Some weathering or conditioning for a time-worn effect could have been better and created a link to the earthy natural colors.

Laurent-Perrier Garden detail

J- There was a slyly placed water feature comprised of many right angles which was to represent a meandering stream.  The shape of this and its placement, which was the perfect link uniting the clipped forms, plants, and trees, were crucial to making this feature a success. The 3  Corylus trees were  just enough to add height and another layer of green canopy, it became another layer of green held above a flat plane of clipped shrubs.  With the pool of water which was only visible at certain angles it created a pleasant surprise moment in such an open space. When catching your eye, this water feature allowed the reflection of the tree canopy to be visible from another angle  below giving even further sense of depth to this space.

E- Water is an essential part of the English landscape and to ignore it here would have been a significant oversight. Bradley-Hole has been careful to capture the right reflection in the water feature. A garden designer had to relocate his water feature at Chelsea a few years ago because the reflection was that of a sculpture in a competing garden. The water feature elongates the oak colonnade, creating another depth beyond the flat plane of shrubs. Had the sole dimension been the tree canopy, the garden could have fallen unflatteringly flat. Water has a way of highlighting details overlooked on initial impression – consider how your attention is drawn to the sculptural limbs of Corylus avellana. A nice touch is how the black surface echoes the dark green sides of the yew while offering a textural contrast –yew being rough, water smooth.

Kate Gould Garden-The Wasteland
Kate Gould Garden-The Wasteland

Kate Gould was the designer for this small space which was listed under the urban garden category.  Wasteland, the name for this garden, was inspired by her walking in and around London and seeing the possibility of creating beauty in abandoned spaces. The idea was for this  garden to be created in an abandoned water pumping works station. The plants that were picked out were chosen for their naturalizing properties, which could flourish in these abandoned areas.

J- Though this garden is heavy on hard-scape, which normally l don’t like, the garden really made me smile at its cleverness.  The layout of the space, which can make or break a small garden, had fluidity due to its circulating path around the center pool and was  very important in not giving it a static feel.  The thing that I realized when I saw this garden was that all of the hard materials used were not shiny and bright, something that is so common with these exhibitions, and by using these recycled materials, a sense of history was already created helping to create the character of the garden; it appeared unpretentious. The plant palette was enjoyable, though color wise I would have strayed from the more feminine colors and played up the masculinity of the hard materials used with more with textures, and yellow or blue blooms. Definitely this would be a garden I  would enjoy having with the sound of the trickling water, and the cooling cement structures that is so welcome in otherwise hot urban environments in summer, just imagine the future with it filling out with the self-sowers and watching the moss taking over.

E – When one visualizes abandoned urban spaces, the feeling is of melancholic decay and positive renewal from nature reclaiming what we humans have destroyed. Kate Gould’s garden certainly leans more towards hardscaping, but the materials are ingeniously used and the muted colors played well into the theme. I liked how the concrete benches have rough edges and some discoloration, and the recycled bathtub as an outdoor chair is clever. Given the garden’s tentative location by the water pumping station, the sound of water enlivens it and gives a natural foil, apart from the plants, to the hardscaping. Gould has circumvented the space constraints by allowing her garden to flow around the water feature, which is the garden’s heartbeat.  However, planting here is a bit too tidy for that effect – spontaneously breaking up the hardscaping with a plant here and there could have reinforced that ‘abandoned’ feeling. Colors do appear uncharacteristically timid against the masculine-like space – I craved something bolder and wilder. As much as I like rhododendrons, they look somewhat out of place here! On the other hand, Gould’s choice of the underused Enkianthus campanulatus deserves kudos.

The Wasteland Garden

J – The moss that spreads through the paving helped create a sense of age in the garden, softening what could have just come off as a hard and cold area among the other many other hard materials.  The  far reaches of the Bauhaus effect, due to  its pared down details, lets the space emphasize functionality rather than heavy design, and lets the plants, with the small changing details they possess, be the highlight of this garden. The old claw foot tub cut in half is just another bonus in this well-thought out and inspirational garden.

E – The contrast between the moss paving and the concrete steps and seating is a striking one. It helps that the concrete is not a glaring gray and moss was used to fill the crevices of the paving. Luzula nivea (Snow Rush) hits the right wild look without being too weedy or messy.

The Wasteland Garden

J– I could imagine in a few years time the Ostrich Fern,  Matteuccia struthiopteris, just continuing to run rampant through the space and creating more of a wild effect on the garden.  This Kate Gould design was my overall favorite throughout the Chelsea Flower Show due to  the chosen materials and plants,  it didn’t alienate the spectators by choosing expensive and imported materials, which makes this sort of space feel more attainable than some of the neighboring show gardens.

EMatteuccia struthiopteris is a popular fern in U.S. and U.K. for colonizing shady areas, and its inclusion by Gould is a good one. Between Bradley-Hole’s and Gould’s, I find Gould’s Wasteland Garden to be more personable. It is not overly ambitious and does not demand much from the gardener. Flowers are not the primary attraction as they are in other show gardens, and a good mix of perennials and woody plants are used.

Ulf Nordfjell- Laurent-Perrier Garden
Ulf Nordfjell- Laurent-Perrier Garden

The third garden design  was created by Ulf Nordfjell for the Laurent-Perrier Gardens. His modern idea was inspired by a design that was created by two female designers  in the 80’s, which was a garden comprised of sculpted forms. The plants chosen came from a very soft color palette of blues, purple, pinks, grays, and whites, with a soft orange unifying the whole scheme, encroaching slightly upon the feeling of a Mediterranean garden. These colors chosen were softly whispered in the hard materials of stone, copper and wood.

J- While I did enjoy certain details of this garden, it did not really seem to grab me the way the others at the flower show did.  If the garden was a little more wild, rather than restrained,  it would have struck me differently but it appeared a bit too controlled.

E- I have seen Nordfjell’s previous Chelsea show gardens, and his garden this year hardly vacillates from the formula. The Nordic penchant for soft colors is evident as well as the minimalist, contemporary structures. I enjoyed the use of Quercus robur (Fastigiata Group) ‘Koster’ rather than the standard, cliched birches. The pergola arches, as handsome as they are, feel like an uninspired rehash of the same ones in various show gardens, and the bronze Orpheus sculpture is difficult to see against the hedge. Overall the spatial transitions flow well together – nothing seems disjointed or contrary to the atmosphere.

Laurent-Perrier Garden

J- Always loving a good color story, and how the orange blooms picked up the brighter hues in the stone, I found that playful enough but for me a garden should create more emotion, and this fell short. Living in a garden like this I might feel underwhelmed and want to color outside the lines more.

E – I wonder if the staid color scheme was from the difficulty garden designers had procuring flowering plants from growers this year. Nonetheless, it’s a welcome change to see Nordfjell embrace orange after whites, greys, and blues typically characterize his planting style.  A brighter orange, rather than the soft hue of these lilies (Lilium ‘Orange Marmalade’), could have lifted the planting more – perhaps through orange geums and rusty foxgloves while keeping the existing plants. However, Nordfjell did use echiums, which can give the garden the color jolt it needs. Just imagine the bright blue flowers with their electric pink stamens against the pale walls.

Laurent-Perrier Garden

J-  In the pool of water there was a submerged planting bed for water lilies and I imagined in a few years time, having spread further across the water, that it be a welcome addition to the restraint found in the rest of the garden.

E- I feel conflicted about the yew blocks set close against the metal edge. The blocks do echo the stonework and give a living ballast, but part of me aches for something less rigid (perhaps more of those echiums?). The waterlilies do echo the Asarum europaeum nicely.

J- Good point about the Asarum, I do love that plant, and the waterlilies.  I did not notice that, nice one.

Laurent-Perrier Garden

J- This area of the planting bed proved to be more exciting with its depth in color due to the dark Irises against the gray foliage. That peach and white bloom of  Iris ‘Sugar Magnolia’ really lifts this combination.  I would imagine myself entering my Mediterranean garden in the evening to cut all those beautiful blooms for an arrangement, while the moon floats on the horizon above the sea.  It’s nice when a garden transports you…

E- Bearded irises are always a Chelsea favorite, and I always remember those wonderful rusty irises at Tom Stuart Smith’s 2006 Chelsea garden for the Telegraph. They make a presence again in this show garden. Colors still respect the Nordic aesthetic, yet given a renewed angle from the addition of the bearded irises, especially ‘Sugar Magnolia’. Silvers come from Matthiola incana and Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polarsommer’ and pale purples from Viola cornuta. Unlike the previous Chelsea Flower Shows I have either attended or studied online, I can’t say that there was a clear favorite this year as each garden excelled in different ways.


  The Chelsea Flower show is always a good place to get ideas and to pick and choose details from, but it is never best to recreate something you see exactly. Always make your garden your own with what you like, rather than someone else’s.  Going with a critical eye and a good friend is not a bad thing either, and remember not only note the things you like, but always wonder how can I make this better.  Happy 1oo years Chelsea Flower Show, and see you next year…..

Jerusalem Botanical Gardens Scholarship

JBG plantings
JBG plantings

An exciting scholarship is offered  to work and study at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens in Israel for a qualified horticulturist who wants to broaden their knowledge of world plants and experience, while working in a different environment and culture .    Applicants should be enthusiastic about new experiences, be up for a challenge and willing to spend a minimum of 6 months in Israel and possibly up to one year (conditions apply). There is  accommodations offered in a shared apartment, a monthly living allowance and a return flight to the UK.

The Jerusalem Botanical Gardens  cover approximately 45 acres and contain rare and endangered native plants as well as those from around the world, arranged in phyto-geographic groupings.  You can expect to work under the direction of the Head Scientist on the rare bulb collection and on conservation of native species and maintain the nursery, where you can practice and encourage good horticultural techniques.  If you think you have the energy, passion and interest to learn and grow away from home, email for an application form which you should return by 15 June 2013.  Interviews will be held in London  in July, with the scholarship beginning in the autumn.  For more information on the Jerusalem Botanical Garden, see or email the Friends.  To date, 115 scholarships have been offered to horticulturists from all over the world.

As a past recipient of this scholarship, I can say that it truly was an influential part of my education, and the amazing people, plants and landscapes that I came in contact with continue to have an effect on me to this day. If anyone else has had the opportunity to receive the JBG Scholarship, please let us know by sharing your experience with us.  -J

Jerusalem Botanical Gardens
Jerusalem Botanical Gardens

pushing bloom boundaries

Magnolia petals

Each year happens the same, the weather gets warmer and before we know it,  we are  barraged by this festival of blooms called springtime. It seems there is barely enough time to enjoy one flower display before the next one is vying for our attention, screaming out our name to be looked at and admired.   We can appreciate these heightened, but brief flowering shows of trees and shrubs for what it is, thinking the moment to shine has passed once the petals have fallen to the ground. Or, we can see this as the moment you can push the boundaries of  bloom time, prolonging the display by taking advantage of tiny counterparts that might sometimes go unnoticed by being so low to the ground.

Primula flowerPrimula

Underplant these areas with small plants that bloom during the same period. To really catch the attention of a wandering eye, pick colors that are bold together, we can save subtlety for another time.  The goblet shaped flowers of Magnolia x soulangeana rains down fleshy white petals flushed with pale pink onto the reddish-purple blooms of  the small Primula pulverulenta, causing the blooms of this small perennial with gray stems to hover above a pale creamy background.

Mysotis and Berberis

In another scenario we have a study on complementary colors, where the diminutive blue blooms of Myosotis sylvatica are held even higher against a carpet of  orange flowers belonging to the evergreen shrub Berberis darwinii.

Violets and CamelliaAn invigorating combination of tertiary colors helps make the often overlooked Viola riviana a noticeable star as they nod above the discarded petals of  Camellia japonica.   It doesn’t matter what combination of colors or plants you choose, at any time of year, just have fun with it and play another round of bloom time…    -J

Gravetye Giant full circle

fog meadow

In full bloom
In full bloom

In the autumn, shortly after arriving at Gravetye Manor, my friend Stuart and I were asked to bulk the wildflower meadow up with more spring blooming bulbs.  The morning is forever engrained in my mind, a cool foggy mist surrounding us as we plunked each dormant bulb into the cold dark soil with our trowels, lost in the quiet cloud of our task. I first learned about this bulb early on when I  started studying horticulture, Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’, seeing it used often in gardens that put it to good use as a plant that naturalizes easily. This is a cultivar that has history here at Gravetye the great garden writer,  William Robinson found its bloom to be superior in size to the others growing on his estate.

We continued planting a  few crates of them into the grass  that was so heavy with moisture, and I thought to myself about how these bulbs were returning home, their place of origin, the home of their much older relatives that they descended from.  As I tucked each one to sleep for winter, packing the soil around them, my thoughts turned to Spring and I looked forward to seeing their green tips of their foliage, still months away, emerging in heat of warmer days.

Now, with Spring having arrived, it is obvious to see that these bulbs are everywhere at Gravetye, coming up in drifts in the wildflower meadows, in the hillside gardens, and even growing in clumps in the woods along the drive to the house. They bloom for a long period of time, about 2-3 weeks weather depending, due in part to the multiple bell-shaped flowers that emerge one after the other and all dangling from a single scape.  With the blooms now beginning to fade outside, and the foliage soon turning yellow, it is only a matter of time before there is no trace of them left in the garden, only known to those who have seen them here. Feverishly I cut some stalks for myself, to be greedy and have some alone time with them, to prolong this memory of my friends that I met in Autumn. William Robinson was a smart man for seeing this plant and realizing its potential and for the future, I will never see this bulb in the same light again, now that I have seen its history come full circle.   -J

Leucojum aestivum 'Gravetye Giant'

Noting notes

Myosotis sylvatica
Myosotis sylvatica*

Don’t forget to take notes, it is important to document your successes and failures including ideas you might want to improve upon for next year in the garden, such as combinations, quantity of plants, or spacing issues.  We  noticed here in our garden, Gravetye Manor, that we need to plant more Tulipa turkestanica among our dark purple flowering Helleborus orientalis for a much stronger visual impact.

Equally important, jot down what you see when viewing exhibitions when visiting museums and galleries. It is easier to cross-reference the ideas that interest you, such as artists, movements and periods, which can always be further researched later on.  Saving your tickets in these books is a way to easily note where you have been, what you have seen and when, since they already have the museum, date, and exhibition name included on it. -James

*Don't forget your notebook.
*Don’t forget your notebook.