Chelsea Flower Show 2015

It's a good Chelsea this year. There is a wider variety of gardens than last year, there are some new(er) faces, and while some of the big designer names are taking a year out (Andy Sturgeon, for example, plus Cleve West and Tom Stuart-Smith), others have returned to the show - notably Dan Pearson, with his Chatsworth garden, inspired by the trout stream at the famous Derbyshire estate.

The garden (above) is an example of what Pearson does best - a deceptively simple design that looks as if a piece of the English countryside has been uprooted and transported to the centre of London. The lush waterside planting includes ferns, rheums and candelabra primulas.
Three of the most striking gardens on Main Avenue (where most of the big show gardens are housed) are inspired by very un-English landscapes, however. The Hidden Beauty of Kranji recreates the tropical atmosphere of a suburb of Singapore, the Sentebale garden is inspired by the southern African country of Lesotho, and The Beauty of Islam, designed by Kamelia Bin Zaal, is a modern interpretation of Arabic and Islamic culture.

The Singaporean garden (above) is an ambitious design with two waterfalls which I bet gave contractor Mark Gregory a few sleepless nights. From a distance they look like sheets of glass amid a sea of orchids.

The Sentebale garden (above) is designed to promote the charity set up by Prince Harry to help children living with the HIV virus. It's designed by Matt Keightley, who did a wonderful garden for the charity Help For Heroes at Chelsea last year. It looks very exotic, but with a few exceptions, most of the plants are fairly easy to come by; the bright orange in the foreground, for example, is the perennial wallflower Erysimum 'Apricot Twist'.

I found the Beauty of Islam garden one of the most interesting show gardens. We owe such a huge debt to the paradise gardens of Islamic culture, whose basic layout is still echoed in millions of gardens throughout the world, including here in the UK.
The word "paradise" comes from the Old Persian word meaning a walled garden, and a traditional paradise garden has not only religious significance but also practical advantages. There are often four sections, divided by four rills or canals which represent the four rivers of paradise - named in the Bible as Pishon, Gihon, the Tigris and the Euphrates. The rills also serve to irrigate every corner of the garden, which is traditionally planted with fruit and flowers. Even the most basic Islamic garden has at least a rectangular pool.
Kamelia Bin Zaal's garden does not have the four quadrants, but it has water and pomegranate trees and that sense of an oasis that you get in any walled garden. Instead of date palms, she has used the powdery grey-blue Bismarckia nobilis, or Bismarck palm. It's a native of Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa, and can grow up to 60 feet.

Chelsea on press day may be a seething mass of expert horticulturalists, but my understanding of the garden was enhanced by a young Muslim student who was working as a steward at the show.
We got into conversation while i was looking at the garden, and he told me that the flame-like sculpture below the palm on the left is a stylised representation of the word "Allah", and that the calligraphy inscribed on the walls of the garden are verses from the Quran which refer to paradise.
Until recent years, Islam was regarded as one of the most tolerant of the world's religions. I know many Muslims are horrified by the atrocities committed by organisations such as Islamic State and Boko Haram, and saddened that their faith has become associated with violence and death.
I can completely understand that they would want to reinstate the image of Islam as a religion of peace and serenity, and to present it as a garden is a beautiful idea.
To English eyes, the expanses of white marble can seem overpowering, especially in full sunlight. But as my Muslim student friend explained, you wouldn't spend time in this garden during the day if you were living in the Middle East - it would be far too hot. Instead, you would use it in the evening, when the white marble would gleam in the cool dusk.
Now, I could (and often do) go on at length about Islamic gardens, but I can hear all you non-Brits out there starting to fidget and say: "Come on, Victoria, we want to see some traditional British garden style!"

So here we go: this is Chris Beardshaw's Healthy Cities Garden for Morgan Stanley. The vibrant colours are provided by Geum 'Prinses Juliana' and Salvia nemorosa 'Caradonna', backed up by 'Masterpiece' lupins. After the show is over, this garden will be recreated at an inner-city site in the east London district of Poplar.

More traditional English romanticism from Jo Thompson, with her garden retreat design for show sponsors M&G. It features a natural swimming pond, and an oak building inspired by writers such as Vita Sackville-West, Dylan Thomas and Roald Dahl, who famously hid themselves away - whether it be in a tower or a shack - in order to work. The planting is a mouth-watering melange of pink, lavender and blue, and features roses and peonies.
It may be the middle of May, but that doesn't mean it is reliably sunny here in the UK. Press day at Chelsea yesterday started off with steady rain, and when the sun finally made an appearance, it was accompanied by a stiff breeze that brought the plane tree pollen down on us hapless hacks. I didn't stop coughing and sneezing until I got home - and I don't normally suffer from hay fever.
It was interesting to see that the gardens that used a lot of wood, or a lot of orange, seemed to glow even beneath the black skies.

The Homebase garden (above), designed by Adam Frost, was a good example of this, as was Matthew Wilson's garden for the Royal Bank of Canada (below) which is designed to demonstrate efficient ways of using and saving water. (That's Matthew on the left.)

It isn't just the garden designers who excel at Chelsea. The nursery people put on a fantastic show in the floral marquee, as you can see from this detail from the Hillier exhibit (below). I don't want to give you the impression that I only write about people who give me glasses of champagne, so let's put it this way. The massed ranks of champagne bottles and glasses at the Hillier stand ensured that the cream of the British gardening press took an intense interest in their plants. Thanks, guys - and here's to your 70th consecutive gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show.

This stand by Redwood Stone also caught my eye - I wouldn't mind a few of those urns on my terrace.
For gardening journalists and serious gardeners, Chelsea is a must-see. It's difficult to keep up with what's going on in British horticulture AND pay attention to your own garden, so the Chelsea Flower Show provides a one-stop source of gossip, news and ideas, not to mention a chance to catch up with friends and commissioning editors.

And it is jolly good fun too.


  1. Looks like you had a lovely day. I really suffered in Rome with Plane and Lime pollen which was one of the reasons I decided against Chelsea this year at the last minute, plus the rain and the train! Plan to go next year though

  2. You poor thing! I'm going to wear a mask next time I go to Chelsea. Once I started coughing, I couldn't stop.

  3. Maybe we should adopt the face masks that the Japanese wear, start a new fashion trend!

    1. Seriously, I am amazed that more people don't get carted off in ambulances. Luckily, it's a very short pollen season, but it always seems to coincide with Chelsea week. It was windy yesterday too which makes it worse. Perhaps we should makel special Chelsea floral face masks? We might even be able to sell them!

  4. A great write-up and some lovely photos too. I really liked the Beauty of Islam garden too and think I have some nice shots of it. The attention to detail on Dan's was fantastic, and he was lovely to chat to. I agree that the variety was there this year, and thought that the show was all the stronger for it. It's a real shame that we missed out on meeting up with you!

  5. No as that would mean lots of work before hand and standing around with stuff at the show - boring!!

  6. I felt like someone was deliberately chucking fistfulls of the stuff at me! It was lovely to see you yesterday - I hope to come over to your open garden on Sunday :)

  7. Wonderful post and lovely photos. Warm greetings from Montreal, Canada! :)

  8. So that's the answer. I'm coming to this very late, I know, but I had several fits of coughing at Chelsea and didn't understand what the problem was. (My being at Chelsea was an unplanned, last minute, surprise.)


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