May opens and closes with two of the top RHS shows – Malvern Spring Festival (11 – 14 May) is the biggest RHS show after Hampton Court and the oldest after Chelsea. It is one of my absolute favourites and kick starts the gardening show season in a spectacle of show gardens, award winning nurseries and oodles of inspiration. Monty Don described the festival as the “gateway to summer” and he’s not wrong. This year I’m mentoring the fledgling design talent in their brand new Spa garden category which includes the opportunity for a British designer to build a show garden at the prestigious Moscow Flower Show in July. The end of May heralds the marvel that is RHS Chelsea Flower Show (23-27 May), the gardening Oscars. The eyes of the world turn to SW3 and a small 11 acre site that is transformed once a year, over five weeks into a Mecca for garden and design experts and enthusiasts.
Whether it is an RHS show garden at the foot of the Malvern Hills or one sitting proudly on Main Avenue, Chelsea, all are scrutinised with the same set of rules and guidelines. A gold medal at Chelsea is the same as a gold medal at Malvern and this standard is set by a panel of expert horticulturalists and landscapers. If you remain true to your brief and deliver a flawless garden then you can expect a gold medal but sometimes the harshest critics are those that are viewing your creation after that all important medal has been awarded.
Everyone has an opinion on a show garden and believe me it is not always easy standing within earshot of the comments. Designing is an incredibly exposing and personal expression and criticism can feel more akin to a flaying than simple fault finding.However, I would
ay that regardless of tastes all show gardens can teach us something and leave us with ideas and inspiration that we can apply to our own spaces.
How to view a show garden?
Sometimes show gardens seem unrealistic and out of the reach, but there is always something we can learn even if it’s what not to do! Pay attention to the details, not just the whole, but to the planting, materials, shapes, architectural elements, and the artistic touches as well as the practical.
✤ Keep an open mind – if the colours of the plants aren’t to your tastes, look at their shapes. Spires work with balls, umbels work with grasses, a good balance of different shapes and textures can create a unity, regardless of colour palette. Apply the same logic to the hard landscaping, look at the design rather than the material, the pattern or shape rather than the colour, can these be adapted to suit your own space?
✤ Done and dusted – a real garden is never finished, they evolve and ‘grow’ with you and your tastes and needs. A first time buyer’s garden is going to be completely different to that of a growing family or retired couple. What you need to ‘take’ is the elements that work for you now such as the atmospheric lighting for evening entertaining or the handy electrical socket for an impromptu open air office.
✤ Snapshot – Show gardens may be temporary fantasies but they should always be inspirational and exciting, they are a snapshot not a timelapse. These gardens are designed and planted to look particularly good at a certain time of year. RHS Malvern and RHS Chelsea are both filled with early summer plants, visit them a couple of months later and they wouldn’t look anything like spectacular. Take note of this and make sure that any planting combinations have a longer life than just May.
✤ Problem Solving – Themed gardens can often offer solutions for ‘difficult’ spaces such as shady areas or exposed spots – these less forgiving spaces are often used in a show garden to demonstrate what can be done and so are perfect for emulating at home. Often show garden designers will have a plant list they will happily share too.
✤ It’s a Bug’s Life – Wildlife show gardens are becoming more popular, for good reason, and they can be bee friendly and not look like they’ve just been transported from the nearest allotment. There are literally hundreds of plants that are a pollinators paradise without looking like they only belong in a wildflower meadow.
✤ Future Proofing – RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show has introduced a new category of show gardens called Gardens for a Changing World. This category reflects a more sustainable direction and is asking designers to deal with the important issues of climate change and how horticulture can fit into our modern lifestyles. I will be looking closely at these gardens to see the innovative ways that these designers have created in order to future proof our gardens.
✤ Shop Window – finally if you are on the lookout for some design help, this is the garden designer’s equivalent of a shop window. Is their creation making you want to metaphorically press your nose against the glass? Take away inspiration for your own garden shopping list.