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Garden Centre

Chelsea Flower Show is a great spectacle, but how can it help you? Stephen Anderton cast an expert eye over the 2000 show and has some lasting suggestions.

When people think of flower shows, they think Chelsea. It's the biggest and the best. It's the one with all the glamour and the glitz. But what, actually, is the point of it? Have you ever stopped to wonder? What is it supposed to do for you?

We all think of Chelsea as a national institution. In reality it's the main summer show of a private membership organisation - the Royal Horticultural Society - thrown open to the public. Well okay, the RHS is a charity these days and works for horticulture in general. What it gives us is a showcase of plants and garden designs of truly International quality.

The plants, the raw materials of horticulture, are in the vast marquee - this year in the form of a new modular structure tall enough for the exhibitors to drive their lorries right inside. They love it, and so do I.

As ever there are wonderful sights in the marquee this year. Massive palm trees from the Fairchild Tropical Garden in Florida, hundreds of bowls of perfect tulips from Bloms, saved until now by cold storage, whole Manhattan skyline's of blue delphiniums from Blackmore and Langdon, and feasts of specialised perennials from people like Glebe Cottage Plants and Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants. If you feel like getting an eyeful or ordering a gardenful, you won't be disappointed.

Chelsea is the place where new plants are launched too, like the new trailing hardy geranium 'Rozanne', on the Blooms stand.

Outside the marquee things are different. This is where you can see ideas of how to use all those plants - how to make gardens. And with a bit of luck you can see how to make contemporary gardens, gardens which reflect the way we think and garden right now.

The easy-end of making a modern garden is to go with the latest fashions. Chelsea certainly had enough to offer in that line this year. If there is no particular new must-have darling plant, there are plenty of trends. Hot colours are suddenly gone. Simplicity and soft blends of colour are back.
Furniture is going simple and 1960s retro. Most significantly of all, if your garden is without mirrors, it ain't a garden just now.

The harder-end of making a modern garden is to look hard at the way the Chelsea designers have made their spaces. It's the style of space you make that defines your garden, more than how you decorate it with plants.

This year Chelsea has a huge range of garden styles to show. There is wild naturalistic look of ‘countryside just about under control’ in a garden made by Leyhill Prison. Help the Aged had a cosy, ordinary, safe, urban or suburban garden for those who like it ‘nice but not naughty’. Some designers turned in gardens which would have looked 'modern' in the 1980s.

But the designers working with big budgets all had a clear message about gardens today. Classic formality is what they are offering - clipped trees and hummocky 'cloud' hedges, surrounding small vistas over clever water features to pieces of sculpture. Clarity of design is what they are
promoting. Planting was minimal.

The Best in Show Award has gone to a garden made by English designer Arne Maynard in collaboration with the Dutch designer and nurseryman Piet Oudolf, who is a grasses man. But grasses were not prominent. Grasses are no longer de rigueur. The new look, clearly, is simple and classic.

But we gardeners need to remember that classic gardens and mini-vistas can lead us to make gardens which are just pictures, perfect compositions without spaces in which to be and stop and turn round and see how the garden changes as you move through it.

Well, at Chelsea you can't walk through the gardens. You do see them from one end, or occasionally from two sides . It is thoroughly unnatural. You have to keep saying to yourself, yes but what would it be like inside? What would it be like to live with ?

Thinking that way at Chelsea, you might just find yourself preferring to live in the most modern of all the gardens, a water garden, made be designer Christopher Bradley Hole - so modern some people hated it. Stone, and steel, and wood and water, with a minimal planting of grasses, irises, and marginal perennials. That's all. But to that you must add perfect proportions, fabulously careful craftsmanship, and what matters most a set of places to be in and walk through which change and offer new moments of harmony and interest with every step.

I am enthusing, I know. I loved it. You might hate it on sight. But there is no avoiding its lessons. It teaches you to think about what makes the spaces of your garden, what is essential and what is not. Think about your garden. Imagine it without the planting and the colour, strip it down to the bare essentials, and think how you could improve that before planting it again.

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