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Chelsea Flower Show 2019
Dawn redwoods, red campion and wild nature.
 
By Steve Head
 
I found this a flower show of two parts.  There were the usual show gardens full of huge transported boulders, monumental rusty ironwork, and angular concrete built structures. In most of these the planting seems to play an accessory rather than central role, and wildlife is definitely to be excluded.
 
On the other hand, it was apparent – and most commentators agreed – that sustainability in a very broad sense was a strong theme in many gardens this year. Here are the gardens which explicitly covered this theme, although for me some of them were over-hyped and disappointing. I'll then go on to the gardens that stood out for nature.
 
The gold-winning Resilience Garden (above)by Sarah Eberle, sponsored by the Forestry Commission, Kew and Gravetye Manor Hotel (home of William Robinson’s revolutionary Victorian garden) explored how woodlands can be made resilient to changing climate and the challenge of new pests and diseases.  The most obvious theme was apparently abandoning native woodland species like Oak and Ash  while establishing Araucaria (monkey puzzle), Liriodendron (tulip tree) , Metasequoia glyptostroboides (dawn redwood) and even a cycad, the latter suggesting quite a dramatic shift in climate.  Its central feature was an uncompromising mini farmland grain silo that emphasised human control over forestry planting.  From the wildlife perspective, I found the woodland section profoundly depressing!  However, the foreground had some attractive (Robinson inspired) naturalistic planting.
 
The Harmonious Garden of Life by Laurélie de la Salle, which won a silver medal, explored how gardens can:
 
“regenerate our ecosystem” tackling climate change, pollution and resources, by “positive interactions between the four kingdoms (minerals, vegetables, animals and humans) and the four elements (air, earth, water and fire) in order to create balance in joint synergy for our environment”. 
 
Language like this immediately puts me right off, as did the rather twee spatial design and the use of a large swing seat which apparently enabled the sitter to pump water around the token water purification system.  Can you imagine powering a mechanical pump by idly swinging? True, there was a back-up solar system, and a quite unusual clover lawn, which had it been in flower might have attracted bees and a higher medal grade.
 
I liked the bronze-awarded  Savills and David Harber Garden (above) by Andrew Duff  which was a “celebration of the environmental benefit and beauty of trees, plants and grass in urban spaces”, which is a very commendable theme.
 
It represented a glade in an urban woodland with a large pool and central metal sculptural feature.  Overall it was a very simple design with a long green wall, a variety of trees, and some nice naturalistic long grass full of buttercups and Queen Anne’s Lace, which was very wildlife friendly.  The pool was part of a water purifying system, with wetland area and permeable surfaces.  I loved the native honeysuckle trailed through the hornbeam at the front. I assume the low medal rank might be a feeling on the part of the judges that the planting was not as ambitious and spectacular as others, but that’s exactly why I liked it!
 
The Manchester Garden designed by Exterior Architecture also championed green space for people in post-industrial urban areas.  It tried to illustrate sustainable water drainage schemes, plants to clean soil, and the social and environmental benefits of parks.  Trees were chosen to be resilient to climate change including  Metasequoia glyptostroboides (again! – this was in lots of plantings this year)  Gleditsia triacanthos (honey locust), Zelkova serrata (Japanese zelkova) and Morus alba (white mulberry).  The large cement pool and odd pierced  metalwork features didn’t work for me, and it only managed a silver gong.
 
Floella’s Future by Birmingham City Council was (unusually) in the main pavilion. Its take on sustainability was to highlight water cycling and the pervasive use of plastics.  The planting was largely traditional seasonal bedding (Oh dear), but with a side-line in low pollen allergy potential. The sculptural elements, including a giant Monty-Pythonesque hovering foot (carbon footprint) were a bit bizarre. Nevertheless it got a gold.
 
Finally among the sustainability gardens was “Gardening Will Save the World”, Ikea's and designer Tom Dixon’s take on future urban farming. Another indoor garden, with an upstairs “planted oasis”, and a downstairs horticultural laboratory.  In its own words:
 
“the garden explores the contrast of the super-natural and technological to explore the future of growing. The base garden is a horticultural laboratory where hydroponic technology is implemented to grow hyper-natural edibles (my emphasis).
 
This hyperbolic language doesn’t work at all for me and makes me suspect hype and bovine derived fertiliser.  It won a silver medal, so perhaps the judges felt rather the same.
 
 
So which gardens did I really like? Essentially those which were honest depictions of natural conditions, and which clearly welcomed nature aboard!
 
Two gardens took the theme of nature quietly taking back human-managed spaces. Walker’s Forgotten Quarry Garden, (above) designed by Graham Bodie got a silver-gilt. It was fun, with nature reclaiming an abandoned quarry decorated with pine trees and big rusting machinery.  I have to say though, that it wasn’t nature that was reclaiming territory, but a much more garden plant assemblage in which clipped yew, Geum and candelabra primroses mixed in with the foxgloves. I liked the luxuriant foliage, but asked myself – where are the stinging nettles and brambles?  But then....
Then I saw Sue Hayward’s gold medal winning “High Maintenance Garden” (above) created for the Motor Neurone Disease Association. This was one of the “Artisan Gardens” (like the quarry one above), which are smaller constructions, often by less well known designers, and some, heaven help us, actually look like real gardens.  This was my joint best-in-show pick. 
 
The story is that the garden belonged to a classic car enthusiast who can no longer maintain the garden (or drive the car) because he has been struck down by motor neurone disease.  The garden had a palpable air of real neglect (although the classic Morgan was squeaky clean) There was clover, ragged robin, ash seedlings and ox eye daisy in between the roses and Solomon’s seal, and yes – there really were stinging nettles at Chelsea!! The driveway to the garage had been colonised by rough uncut grass, and the entrance to the whole garden was over this, in the form of a crushed and untidy pathway shown in the photo above.
 
This for me was a work of brilliance, and it completely linked nature (and by implication wildlife) within a garden theme.
Stinging nettles in the High Maintenance garden at Chelsea!!
My other choice for best-in show was Mark Gregory’s extraordinarily ambitious “Welcome to Yorkshire” Garden (above).  The main feature was a canal lock, with authentic (leaky) lock gates and murky canal below, a woodland edge, grassy canal banks and a lock-keeper’s hut with small veg garden. Everything about it worked beautifully, and being Yorkshire there was rhubarb growing in the mini-garden. 
 
 
The vast majority of plants were common native landscape species, with pollarded willow, field maple and hawthorn.  The naturalistic planting embraced marsh marigold, yellow flag iris, soft rush and reed mace on the waterside, with Queen Anne’s lace, royal fern, foxglove, teasels and red campion.  And not only discrete patches of stinging nettle, but some nicely invading bramble as well. 
This garden richly deserved its gold medal, although it lost out to the very  "designerly" M&G Investments garden for best in show.  It was certainly the garden most talked about by visitors, who crowded around so much it was hard to take photos without human anatomy intruding.
 
This year's nature story wasn’t all about pollinators as previous Shows have appeared to be.  The most pollinator-friendly element was one of the installations “Wild Walls Garden” by Tattie Rose. Dominated by huge white “RHS” letters and a crumbling arch, it was a mass of flowers, including red campion, dame’s rocket and foxglove, and full of bees. 
 
There were areas of pollinator-friendly planting in the Montessori Centenary children’s garden, and for the Mediterranean province, in the Donkey Sanctuary garden.  Generally however, this wasn’t a big theme.
 
So the usual mix of impractical high-end design, with smaller quirky and interesting gardens, but at last some that really embraced and welcomed nature.  Clearly the year’s must-include plants were red campion and dawn redwood.  I left knackered but impressed!