Forum Trustee Marc Carlton gives his personal view of some of the show gardens at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show 2017.

July 10th 2017
I’ve been gardening a long time. In the earlier decades of my gardening life I used to regularly go to shows such a Chelsea and then the newly-founded Hampton Court, but as my interest in gardening for wildlife grew stronger, I gradually became more and more disillusioned with the gardens on show at these events. 

By the early noughties we regularly saw wildlife gardens at Chelsea and other shows, but they were islands in a sea of gardens hostile to wildlife. And the self-proclaimed wildlife gardens at the shows  seemed to become trapped in a ghetto which ordinary garden owners could not empathise with; circa 2002 I remember a garden in a skip, another representing a disused railway track, another a ruined building. All this for the laudable purpose of showing how important brownfield sites were for wildlife, but giving little in terms of design features and planting that ordinary gardeners could take away and use in their own gardens to bring in the wildlife (unless you actually wanted your garden to look like a rubble-filled skip overrun with invasive Canadian Goldenrod, which was the London Wildlife Trust’s take on a wildlife garden). So about fifteen years ago I more or less gave up going to shows.

Well, times have changed, so has garden design moved forward?   Watching television programmes about RHS shows in recent years suggested to me that naturalism as a design style was certainly on the ascendant, so what about genuine wildlife-friendly planting? This year I thought I would give Hampton Court a try. I was pleasantly surprised. There were indeed two gardens at Hampton court this year that emphasised the importance of brownfield sites, neither calling itself a wildlife garden.

However many of the show gardens had good quality, pollinator-friendly planting, and several  were impeccably wildlife-friendly. Naturalism as a design style featured heavily and seemed to be well-received by the public.  There was extensive use of native plants, supplemented by ‘near-natives’, across many gardens and much less use of ‘exotics’ than I had expected. 

Well-informed pollinator-friendly planting certainly seems to be becoming more prominent in the world of cutting-edge garden design, although none of these gardens was labelled as a special wildlife garden. They were mainstream.  Several of them were gold medal winners.  Is wildlife gardening leaving its ghetto at last?

Here are some gardens that caught my eye:

The Perennial Sanctuary Garden. Designed by Tom Massey, sponsored by the gardener’s charity Perennial.

Designed as a small piece of naturalism as an antidote to over-structured urban settings, “a place where structure and order is left in the hands of nature”. It used forest garden techniques so that many of the plants used are edible, and with little hard landscaping, slopes being provided by planting into mounds of composted green waste.  In practice gardens such as this, with a range of plant heights and varying density of foliage cover, present a variety of micro-habitats. 

This is one of the core principles of wildlife-friendly gardening, and I liked this design very much. Although it did not hit you in the eye with a bold colour scheme, it was highly sustainable and I would welcome more gardens like this all over our cities. Definitely a template which keen gardeners (or garden designers) could take away and apply elsewhere. 

The RHS Watch this Space Garden. Designed by Andy Sturgeon.

The purpose of this garden was to encourage young people to into the landscaping profession, to show it is a rewarding and meaningful occupation. Another beautiful piece of naturalism, built by apprentices, trainees and students, planted with natives and near-natives.  If this is the kind of future garden they are learning to create, I’m all for it.

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One of those highly aesthetic show gardens which look more like an art installation, this was a giant spiral with a path disappearing into its core. What I liked was the fact that the strongly colour-themed planting was very pollinator-friendly. Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’, Fennel, hybrid yarrows (Achillea) and Agapanthuses were alive with bumblebees and honey bees. 

Noteworthy though, that most of the pollinators attracted to this planting scheme were from a small range of the generalist species, not specialists such as small solitary bees. More on this topic later.

London Glades. Designed by Andreas Christodolou and Jonathan Davies.

On now to the large show gardens.

The Viking Cruises World of Discovery Garden (designer Paul Hervey-Brookes) was designed to represent a trip across the world.
Although this could have led to a garden of exotic palm trees , tree ferns and Cannas, the designer restricted the exotic features largely to the architecture, and the planting was a satisfying mix of Mediterranean and temperate perennials,  pollinator-friendly and very attractive to look at. (In the Plants for Bugs experiment these types of plants were described as ‘near-natives’). Height was provided by amongst other things a multi-stem clump of birch trees; one of the commonest of wild trees but one of the best for wildlife. Beside them was a long border of native wild flowers.

The next garden won a gold medal and was awarded best in show.

The Zoflora and Caudwell Children’s Wild Garden. Designed by Adam White and Andreé Davies.
This was designed to highlight the beneficial qualities of outdoor space for children with disabilities, in particular those with autism spectrum disorder.

In my view gardens like this could be of benefit to all children, not just those with disabilities, and I would like to see many more gardens like this around schools, nurseries, libraries and community centres. This garden reminded me very much of the ‘play experience’ gardens that are designed in Germany and Holland, as a way of bringing an experience of wildness or the natural world to young people. More of this please!

This garden represents the other side of the coin of ‘wildlife gardening’.  Not a garden designed primarily for wildlife, but a garden designed for people that will make them appreciate aspects of wildness and benefit from it. I’m very glad the judges gave this best in show, affirming that there can be a lot more to garden design than the use of colourful flowers.

There were several more gardens with prominent pollinator-friendly planting, but I have room to highlight just one more, which left me feeling overwhelmed with a sense of joy, tinged with sadness and irony. 

This was The ‘Blind Veterans UK: It’s All about Community’ Garden.  Designed by Andrew Fisher Tomalin and Dan Bowyer, on behalf of the charity called Blind veterans UK

A large garden, with rows of vegetables and borders of pollinator-friendly cottage garden perennials.

But what kept me spellbound was the seriously good and totally convincing recreation of a wild flower meadow, without grass but stuffed with a variety of genuine native hay meadow perennials.  The insects were also totally convinced by this and there was an array of species on this patch. In a few minutes I counted half a dozen skippers, four other species of butterflies, some damselflies, hoverflies, leafcutter bees, and several species of mining bees and bumblebees.  Nowhere else in the show did I see a similar concentration of insect species.

The irony was that these insects would have had to fly across bleak acres of showground, marquees, temporary buildings and crowds of visitors to discover this little patch of their heaven.  And in a few days it will be gone.  What really struck me was how diverse was the insect fauna attracted to this little patch of native wild flowers.  Although I saw many patches of pollinator-friendly planting across the show, mostly they were attracting the common generalists such as honey bees (which I don’t regard as wildlife) and the very common Bumblebees such as Bombus terrestris. This one area of densely planted and varied native wild flowers was in a different league of insect-friendliness. 

Which leads me to think that we still need to find ways to make it very easy for ordinary gardeners to successfully grow diverse, good quality patches of native wild flowers. Anyone who has successfully done this in their garden (including me) will confirm that it is no mean feat!  I now tend more and more to the view that diverse patches of native flowers are the key to insect diversity in a garden, and they should be the foundation planting, which can be supplemented by ‘near-natives’ and ‘exotics’ if you want, but only supplemented; I do not mean ‘replaced by’.

This is not everyone’s cup of tea though; I overheard a lady looking at the ‘London Glades’ garden saying that she understood what they were trying to do but the result was a load of weeds, and she would never let her garden look like that! 

Still some way to go then to bring all the gardening public round to our way of thinking.