It’s high season for gardening shows, Chelsea Flower Show has been and gone, and up in here in the north Scotland’s biggest horticultural show Gardening Scotland has just passed a successful long weekend at the Royal Highland Centre.
Undoubtedly each show has its own character, it’s hard for the regional show gardens to compete with the big budgets and scope of the Chelsea Main Avenue gardens, but many of the same specialist nurseries exhibit at all the shows and there are clear, identifiable trends amongst the growers and designers throughout the UK.
Puffs of frothy perennials persist in the show gardens and on the stands in the Floral Marquee. Exuberant complex plantings of wafting grasses, aquilegias, salvias and astrantia were everywhere. In part because this is what’s in flower at this time of year and both nursery exhibitors and show gardens are subject to strict RHS marking criteria resulting in lost marks if plants are not in flower. Also, at selling shows, as most regional shows are, any nursery will tell you that they sell ten plants in flower for every plant in bud– even if the plant in bud represents better value and will flower for longer in the garden.
Given these seasonal constraints it makes sense that we see many of the same plants every year at the spring shows but it doesn’t quite explain everything. This year at Chelsea the show gardens and to an extent many of the nursery displays relied on a subtle palette of purples, blues and white, kept in check by a matrix of billowing green. The foxglove was ubiquitous as was the iris. Chelsea was as ever beautiful but it was a show screaming out for something bold, a state of affairs that made those few risky moments all the more worthwhile.
Cleve West’s Paradise Garden at Chelsea may not have been his best but at least his planting was adventurous – he didn’t play it safe. There was more tonal diversity, clashing red and pink poppies, and he did introduce some plants like Oenothera Odorata Sulphurea that have been unfashionably absent from Chelsea for years.
There were also small signs in from some nurseries and designers that a swing away from floaty perennials interplanted with box balls may be on its way. For a while designers and growers have been looking for a box substitute, since box fell prey to blight, and it seems that dwarf pines are finding favour as a low growing structural plant. Both nurseries and show gardens north and south of the border featured coniferous blobs like Pinus Densiflora Haybud and Pinus Mugo Benjamin and Abies Nordmanniana Munsterland.
On a romantic note roses, always a presence in the floral marquee at Chelsea courtesy of David Austin and Harkness Roses, made a welcome reappearance in a couple of show gardens, notably Positively Stoke on Trent and the Cloudy Bay Sensory Garden. The lupin is another plant making a comeback, Lucian Giubbilei used swathes of pale primrose yellow lupins in his Best in Show, Laurent Perrier Garden and they also appeared in the People’s Choice Winner, Hope on the Horizon. Maybe this is down to the growers who have been busy breeding new varieties that are stronger in both colour and persistency in the garden, or maybe it’s just the swinging pendulum of fashion – just ask Brook Taverner. A few years ago the Oriental poppy Patty’s Plum was the hottest belle at the ball yet this lovely plant seems to have fallen from favour faster than an X-factor winner.
On the landscaping front it was interesting to see the lawn is back in all its pristine glory. It’s hard to recall a lawn at Chelsea but there it was rolled out like a declaration of prosperity and control in the splendidly sophisticated Telegraph Garden. Gravel was back too, used brilliantly in the M&G Paradise Garden and less successfully in the First Touch Garden. It would seem that both lawns and gravel, stalwarts of jobbing landscapers have been forgiven their suburban sins and are now rehabilitated in the rarefied world of Chelsea.
Inevitably there will be a trickle down effect if only because to more or less extent the nurseries grow what’s fashionable, then the designers plant it, and then we buy what’s available. Or is it the other way around? Does it really matter? So long as there’s inspiration to hand and pleasure to be had.
Anchusa azarea ‘Loddon Royalist’
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