More Chelsea

June 15, 2014

in Articles, Events, General Interest, Shows

I’m risking boring everyone with more Chelsea stuff – in this case, some thoughts about the actual 2014 show: mine and those of Katherine Crouch. I promise that normal service will be resumed shortly. (ie not quite so often ..)

Anne Wareham, editor

I couldn’t design a Chelsea garden. I’m not a trained designer and simply haven’t got whatever it takes. So this is not an attempt to show I can do better, but a query about the prevailing style at Chelsea, illustrated with pictures from Veddw.

And the question is, why do we never see anything like this?

Veddw Front Garden copyright Anne Wareham

What’s particular about this? (here’s another view..)

Front Garden, Veddw, Euphorbia Fireglow and Lyschimachia Firecracker Veddw copyright Anne Wareham

Close up


You might say the colour – Chelsea is very pretty and a little pastel-y at the moment, but that’s not principally what I’m thinking of. I’m thinking of the limited number of plants involved here.


Chelsea 2014 Copyright Anne Wareham on thinkingardens

That is from Chelsea this year and nicely illustrates the number of plants that get put into relatively small spaces.

Chelsea designers have a great advantage over the rest of us poor amateurs, as well – they don’t need to make something which looks good all year. So, you’d think they might be able to simplify much more easily than we can. And they don’t have all the foliage of up-coming plants to dilute their scene either, as we do..

And, they say their clients want easy maintenance gardens. Well, I go for that – and the picture  of Veddw you see illustrates to me how you get that: you… errr.. simplify. Fewer different plants to fret over and easy to tell someone what is weed and what is not if you are lucky enough to have a gardener or other help. (what else are children for?)

This is one of the reasons I find Chelsea gardens hard to look at, hard to ‘take in’ and hard to enjoy. I realise that makes me highly unusual, but you’d think there might be one dramatic, simple planting one year? Or is there actually a rule against it? Would you get disqualified for not enough different plants?

Cornfield garden, Veddw

What about really radical: no flowers either?!

Anne Wareham


Chelsea Rant – Katherine Crouch

Back from press day and I am filled with a great sense of deja vu. Will fuchsia growers ever stage their plants in any way other than on tiers of black cloth? (no) Will the irises and delphiniums bloom in time this year? (yes). Will anyone ever order a life size sculpture of a gorilla for their garden? (I’d love to know)

I wish I could have flown over or walked through the Night Sky garden in order to appreciate the details better. Lots of textural detail looked better on the overhead televised shots than on the site.

I found much of varied interest in the Fresh category of gardens and the hovel count in the Artisan gardens was agreeably lower than in previous years.

Fresh Garden by Copyright Charles Hawes

Fresh Garden by Sophie Walker for Crug Farm

However, when I walked past the large show gardens I thought the pages of the catalogue had been duplicated, the pictures looked so similar. Four gardens had many common ingredients. All were beautifully executed and proportioned (no clay ashtrays this year). All had exquisite natural stone rectilinear features, both as paving, pond surrounds and at least two had stone vertical rectangular panels in the middle of the long sides of evergreen tall hedges.

All had buns and domes of clipped evergreen shrubs (heaven forbid any variegated or yella), the largest specimen deciduous trees that could be delivered through the Bull Ring gate and a soft colour palette of white, cream, lemon yellow and blue of very good quality diaphanous and vertical perennials.

Cleve West garden, Chelsea 2014 Copyright Charles Hawes

Cleve West’s garden

At least three harkened back to the past, whether the First World War, Persian or Italian gardens and all was exquisitely tasteful and well done but somehow rather samey.

I really missed seeing a loudly coloured futuristic conceptual garden to turn my nose up at and growl ‘whatever were they thinking?’ No levitating pyramids, no plasticine flowers, no dodgy construction, no angry spectator muttering ‘Ghastly, simple ghastly’.

Now just watched the BBC Tuesday coverage. Gnashing my teeth at Carol Klein gushing with first time medal winners trying not to sound gutted that they got Silver, Gilt or otherwise. Didn’t want to speak to us last year, us first timers getting Gold and all. I am bitter and twisted. Even more gnashing when accompanying music for Southern exhibitors is relentlessly modern, but it’s got to be brass band music for Robinson’s Seeds because it must be all cloth caps and whippets Oop North.


Alan Titchmarsh’s Garden

Mr Titchmarsh’s journey from the Yorkshire moors to the shores of the Isle of Wight was an autobiography which missed out great chunks of Kew, Hampshire and 50 years in between. It was very much a garden of two parts, birches and moss covered drystone walls to agaves and echiums in a blink of an eye. The transition was too abrupt, and the space too small for a longer journey. I dare say everyone thought it ‘lovely’. (no, I didn’t, Katherine. I agree. editor)

Katherine Crouch. Website

And here is a really interesting suggestion by Michael King.

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Lucas Logan SW16 June 23, 2014 at 10:07 am

I agree with you. Everybody wants easy to maintain garden but I can’t understand why it have to be boring. I think there is an easy way to make a garden interesting and extraordinary and easy to maintain in the same time. It is true that somehow the time stooped for Chelsea and everything is just the same as it was years before.

Te Gek May 29, 2014 at 3:46 am

Yes! So agree with Martin’s thoughtful observations.

Jon Tilley May 27, 2014 at 9:18 pm

I also sit with gnashing teeth, budgets ten times more than any other show, but what do we get, same old same old. Huge hedges shipped in, huge pools with dry stone bottom that went green by wednesday, huge amounts of money thrown at shipping in huge trees from all around the world – eco – conscious, mmmmm?
Well if you get the same big landscaping firms to build all the gardens they will look the same, if you get all the same nurserys to provide the plants, because they have the expertise to get the plants ready on time, the gardens will look the same. It’s just one big round about. But I’m just a chippy northerner so what would I know? See you at RHS Tatton for ‘Life is a garden path’. My seventh and probably last show garden, but it will be a hard habit to break, very much a love hate relationship.

Anne Brookes May 26, 2014 at 7:36 am

Most main avenue gardens at Chelsea were built by those with seemingly bottomless pockets of money. Time for a change and a cap on costs to be set. This would then showcase actual talent and not just what money could buy.

Martin May 25, 2014 at 8:49 pm

The Reachout garden won a gold medal in the Fresh category and it only had a planting of Thyme and Rosemary, so a limited plant palette evidently does not affect the level of award.

The very tasteful planting we saw elsewhere this year is just what is fashionable for show gardens at the moment – but I expect it also represents what clients with money want. Most of the comments I’ve seen have been favourable regarding the planting – it could even be said that using lupins in a fashionable garden at Chelsea was quite risky and challenging.

I’m quite happy seeing big expensive gardens at Chelsea, if I wanted to see smaller/cheaper ones I could go to a regional show. Nor do I see the point of the designers producing something that is the same planting as an actual garden – I want a bit of fantasy in a show garden…more the idea or flavour of a garden planting. If I want to see a garden on a domestic scale I can look round those in the Yellow Book right? Equally I don’t want to see gardens at Chelsea that can be copied exactly at home – what’s the point in that? Surely it’s more fun for people to think “I like those bits of the garden but I’ll have to change it to make it work for me” or “I like the look of that but I’ll need a different palette of plants on my soil to achieve it”; more creative that way. Even better is that people react against what they see in the shows and do their own thing. Sometimes seeing a garden you don’t like is as important as seeing one you do for the development of your own garden.

I think the comments about the staging of some of the exhibits under cover are interesting. We have got so used to nurseries producing superbly grown plants every year that it becomes ‘not enough’ and we want more novelty. The more examples we see of garden design/gardens the more discerning we get and the more novelty becomes interesting.
Sacha’s comments got me thinking that rarely (if ever) to the nurserys have sponsorship for their exhibits like the garden designers do. Surely there are sponsors out there who would want to be associated with a consistently gold medal winning nursery to allow the nurseries to be even more spectacular with their exhibits?

Sacha Hubbard May 26, 2014 at 10:39 am

I don’t know if nurseries ever do get sponsorship but sooner or later, without it, they’ll be giving up. We know already of a few that have done so because the cost is just too great. We don’t do shows, though we recently did Toby Buckland’s Garden Festival because it’s just up the A38 from us and it’s about time the south west had its own major all-encompassing event. We want to support it and will do so again next year. But to do Chelsea or Malvern or any other, would cost us an awful lot of money. We’d have to hire a van (probably two if we were at a ‘selling’ show) then we’d have to pay for extra staff either here or at the show and then we’d have to pay for accommodation for at least two people for 5 or 6 nights and a lot more for Chelsea. Even as a showcase, how many plants would we have to sell here to cover that? We know of one exhibitor at many shows who has now bought a small caravan because the cost of accommodation is such a major expense. I don’t know what the cost of exhibiting at Chelsea is but I’m told it’s frighteningly high, so perhaps some major nursery exhibitors do get concessionary fees? Exhibitors at Hampton Court receive what is called a benefit package but no actual numbers are given in most categories. This article was written in 2009 and I wonder if anything has changed or whether a slow erosion in numbers of nurseries exhibiting continues:

Bob Hobden May 26, 2014 at 12:25 pm

It’s not only the cost of exhibiting it’s also the ever increasing cost of entry for the public to shows of all sorts. Just happened to be looking at the Southern Counties Show and it’s £18 each concessions, that is £36 a couple to get in. Then you buy some food and drink plus travel expenses and it’s becoming more than expensive. We won’t be going this year and neither will our friends. Someone is being very greedy but shooting themselves in the foot in the long term.

Sacha Hubbard May 26, 2014 at 1:02 pm

One of the comments we heard over and over again at the TBGF and since, is that the entry fee of £5 per adult with children under 16 going in free, encouraged so many families to come. And of course, once they were there, they had money to spare to buy plants, souvenirs, food etc. There are no show gardens but there is a wide range of plant nurseries represented, as well as allied trades. That entry fee included going round Powderham Castle which was the venue. So 10,000 people attended over 2 days – not bad for a first off event. Chelsea doesn’t have to worry about people buying plants, though they may wish to buy food & drink and other bits and pieces. But with a Preview ticket at £400, there is some justification in claims that Chelsea is only for a rich élite and not for the average gardener. On top of that the sheer volume of people is enough to stop us going. Even the members’ entry fee is a lot to pay to get knocked around and squashed into tiny amounts of space. Very sadly, for us it’s now a tv show, though I could find plenty of fault with the way that’s handled! An all day ticket for the first day at Hampton Court is now £35 per member with a munificent £1 off if you buy in advance. So that’s £70 per couple before you drive up or take the train and find somewhere to stay if you’re coming far. And now that people can buy most of the plants they see online, why bother going to a Show at large expense? One exhibitor told us he does 60% of his business online. This is a prestigious nursery in the SW and I would think they get a concessionary rate for their stand but even so, one has to wonder how long they can justify the ancillary costs. And why, I wonder, has the RHS never had an annual summer or late spring show at Rosemoor, one of the jewels in its crown? There must be reasons for this but I can’t imagine what they are.

Anne Godfrey May 27, 2014 at 6:40 pm

Although one has to be away from the nursery at a very busy time and man the stand for 12hours from Tues-Sat, the RHS does in fact pay all the nurseries that exhibit in the floral marquee a fee, based on the square meterage of the exhibit and the distance travelled to the show. There is also prize money attached to the medals.
As an added incentive nurseries can sell seed, 1000 packets @ £3 is easily doable and income not to be scoffed at. In the last 3 years there is also the option of selling plug plants which many of the nurseries do with great success.
Althjough most of the TV coverage goes to the show gardens, the floral marquee is still very much the heart of the show and, I think, the RHS are working with nurseries to make it remain viable.
At the end of the day you are simply not prepared and cannot put a price on the amount of publicity and kudos that goes with being a Chelsea exhibitor

Charles Hawes May 25, 2014 at 3:42 pm

Two good posts here adding fresh perspectives to “how we see Chelsea”. I’m sure that Anne must be right that gardens would be marked down if they chose a very restricted range of plants as we do in parts of Veddw. All these plants makes for a confusing and “busy” picture even if their colours are carefully thought out. Its frustrating that we are still speculating about this, though. Are the rules for garden makers not published so that we can know what the judges are basing their decisions on? And if they are not, why not?

This is the first year that I kept being drawn back into the Grand Pavilion. Partly that was beacuse the light was so harsh outside and so pleasantly subued inside. Partly it was because I found so little to excite and engage with in the Main Avenue and so much to admire on the nursery exhibits. The detailed attention that nearly all of them put into how to best display their plants is deeply impressive and the results often spectacular.

I did find more to admire in the Fresh and Artisan gardens, although I agree with Sacha about Sophie Walker’s container; I thought it was judged very generously.

Cortina Henzler May 25, 2014 at 2:18 pm

The photos of the varied colored gardens remind me of Shaws botanical garden the Victorian section. If you’d like some photos of that let me know.

Susan May 25, 2014 at 2:13 pm

I love the stones in the last one, but they’re too lovely to keep that way. I’d think of something more fitting, yet not traditional. In fact, the brain just clicked on and is lumbering up to speed to deal with this delightful creative puzzle. (“Hey, Picasso, whatcha think of this idea?”)

Annette May 25, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Hi Anne, just came back from Chelsea and feel the same way. It’s somehow all the same, gardens are just melting into each other so that in the end one finds it hard to remember a single one. Is that globalism or what? I kept seeing the same plants all the time and a lot of gardens looked like flower arrangements but certainly not like gardens. I do feel we’re in desperate need of innovation…

John May 25, 2014 at 11:31 am

Picking up Sacha’s first point, it’s formally “The Great Spring Show” so perhaps it should feature more upholstery? I’ve never been and never want to go. This year, I haven’t even seen it on TV as I refuse to watch (or listen to) anything which contains any element of Monty Don; coverage for me has been 100% on this site. And I don’t feel as if I’ve missed anything.

Chelsea seems to be the domain of a very small number of designers with a very restricted view of what they can achieve or, when willing to be different being so in a way that no ordinary gardener can – the Korean DMZ garden or anything by that chap Gavin, for example. And of a very limited number of regular exhibitors who can afford the cost. Oh and, of course, Crocus. The majority of designers and growers don’t get a look in. So arguably it showcases money and not necessarily the best of horticulture.

I’ll stick to Cardiff where, at least, I’m allowed to walk into the gardens if I ask and I stand a reasonable chance of being able to duplicate, and to afford, what I see in them.

Paul Steer' May 25, 2014 at 12:36 pm

I agree with you John, (apart from the Monty bit of course) the showgardens are a showcase for the moneyed. I’m surprised that Monty agreed to front this show given his past views on it, but he did ask some awkward questions about the finances! I also agree about the well trodden formula and the use of the same plants becomes a bit boring. Yes bring back the mad Irishman!

Sacha Hubbard May 26, 2014 at 1:08 pm

It was The Great Spring Show, John but it became the Chelsea Flower Show in the early 1900s. It was the famous nurseryman, Harry Veitch, who moved it to Chelsea.

John May 26, 2014 at 10:06 pm
Sacha Hubbard May 25, 2014 at 10:10 am

At the risk of being shot down in designer flames, I feel it only fair to point out that this is Chelsea FLOWER Show. It’s not even Chelsea Garden Show or Chelsea Garden Design Show. Its origin was to show plants and at a time when growers everywhere are struggling or going under entirely, what is needed is a big, bold, unashamed showcase for plants. In more recent times, attention has turned more fully to garden designers, possibly because of the telephone numbers of money thrown into the big gardens, exciting a sort of curiosity about what the sponsors get for their money. And in media coverage, the growers and exhibitors of plants, rather than show gardens, have been comparatively neglected. Personally, I’m tired of angles and straight lines and that perfectly clipped lawn with 4 large humps at the corners filled me with boredom and a sense of being cheated. It was like filling a large room with a big green carpet, adding a couple of corner tables and considering it decorated. And nobody was allowed to walk on it, so it harked back to the days of “Keep Off The Grass” in municipal parks. The Sophie Walker design in the photograph looks to my eye *exactly* what a load of plants look like just before they come off the truck! Seen in the flesh it may have been quite different. To me, it looks a muddle. Perhaps because I like plants and really enjoy seeing new, beautifully grown ones, or perhaps because I’m married to a nurseryman who makes his living out of selling plants, I’d like to see fewer straight lines and angles, square arches and more of the naturalistic style that seemed to be the focus of some designs this year. And too often, not just at Chelsea, and not just in UK, some designers think about the design more than the plants they’re going to use. I have lost count of the times when, just before some big show or other, a designer emails to ask if we have 12, or 25 or 46 something-or-other at precisely 60cms tall. I agree that much of the planting seemed rather samey and if most plants do come to most gardens from the same source, it’s no wonder and how dull is that! Watching only from home we said that someone must have had a lot of Cirsium growing somewhere this year! One of the most interesting bits of Chelsea to me, is to see what the judges select as Best In Show and what ‘the people’ choose as their Best In Show!

Gaynor Witchard May 25, 2014 at 9:07 am

I reckon all Chelsea designers should come and build at Cardiff RHS show…because they won’t have the budget, time or sponsors to be frivolous 😀

Ben's Botanics May 25, 2014 at 7:43 am

A very fair and balanced review, to which I’d like to add a couple of points. Firstly the ‘samey’ planting; garden designers are seldom truly enlightened when it comes to plants. I see them at work looking for the same few plants for each job, rarely parting from the script to add a touch of distinction. Granted some have fairly broad tastes, but they are by no means the majority. If you look at who supplies the plants for the show gardens it tends to be the same suppliers (mostly Crocus)- it seems that with enormous budgets proffered by corporate sponsors that designers are only able to commission from one nursery… The other issue boils down to what that one nursery can grow and get to Chelsea quality in time for the show. As any gardener will know May is a very difficult month in the garden; not quite spring, not quite summer, sometimes boom, sometimes bust. The palette of reliable plants for a show in May is fairly small, hence tedious repetition. My second point is aimed at the RHS guidelines for judges. Designers can be as wild and creative with their gardens, providing they meet the brief that they set themselves, and the same is true for *most* nurseries. Sadly the RHS has decided that cacti, bonsai trees, Chrysanthemums and Fuchsias must be exhibited on stages, and any deviation from this leads to a loss of medal points. I’m fairly sure that if this particular rule was relaxed then we would see more creative displays from these nurseries, displays that might encourage gardeners to delve into parts of gardening that have suffered a decline. As for the BBC coverage…?

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