At The Chelsea Flower Show

It’s Press Day at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show!

Susie White reports back from an inspirational first day at this year’s event.

It promised to be the kind of Chelsea Flower Show that would really speak to me and it didn’t disappoint. A show whose themes are the restorative power of nature, wildflowers. But also mixed with cultivated ones and accessible green spaces for all. And for the first time ever there were more women designers than men.

I arrived at 7 o’clock on the morning of Press Day, a moment of calm and of soft light for taking photographs. I was excited as always to see what the top designers had conjured up in just three short weeks. This event, sponsored by The Newt in Somerset, is a quite incredible feat of transformation. Visitors are dazzled before it all disappears again. And from this year all RHS Chelsea gardens are required to have a plan for life after the show.

Attention To Detail

Benton irises in Sarah Price’s garden. Pic by Susie White.

The largest gardens are on Main Avenue and all have been made with imagination and amazing attention to detail. I will always have favourites though. A garden that will stay in my mind for many years is The Nurture Landscapes garden designed by Sarah Price. It’s inspired by the abandoned garden of mid 20th century artist plantsman Cedric Morris. His 16th century home of Benton End, Suffolk is now in trust to the Garden Museum. It is being revived as a place of art and horticulture.

Everywhere I looked in Sarah’s breathtakingly beautiful and painterly garden I saw subtle or startling colour combinations. Shadows played against richly coloured straw-cob walls. Semi-wild looking plants grew through fine gravel made from waste demolition materials. And the irises! Morris was famous for his flower paintings, especially the irises that he bred: here was Iris ‘Benton Olive’, a creamy yellow with lilac and ‘Benton Menace’ named after one of his many cats.

A Place To Contemplate

In complete contrast was the secluded woodland garden designed by Chris Beardshaw for Myeloma UK. It was richly textured with many greens and leaf shapes in layered planting. White Calla lilies rose out of ferns and hostas and two neoclassical pavilions made places to contemplate and reflect.

 Many of the gardens highlight the work of charities. It was Horatio’s Garden designed by Charlotte Harris and Hugo Bugg that won Best in Show. This is a fully accessible garden, designed to be experienced by spinal injury patients from a bed or a wheelchair. It will live on in Horatio’s Garden Sheffield after the show. The garden room made a woodland retreat, the layered planting working on many different levels. Water is also there to encourage wildlife and add to the sensory feel.

Another Chelsea First!

At the RHS and Eastern Eye Garden of Unity designed by Manoj Malde I watched Manoj marry his partner Clive Gillmor. It was a traditional HinduIndian wedding with sitar and flute music, flower garlands and a small gathering of friends and family. Another first for Chelsea! Hanging garlands were made of vibrant colours with roses, chrysanthemums, limes and chillies threaded amongst beads.

A wedding first for Chelsea. Pic by Susie White.

 The smallest garden ever was designed by Danny Clarke and Tayshen Hayden-Smith. It was just a rough cube of concrete with native plants growing out of a crack down the middle. Tayshen founded Grow2Know in response to the Grenfell Tower fire and this tiny garden, The Green Gap, represents the disparity in green space within the borough of Kensington. Press Day is a great opportunity for me to meet gardeners and designers and I photographed Danny as he walked down Main Avenue.

Danny Clarke aka The Black Gardener. Pic by Susie White.

Celeb Sightings

Inspiring gardener Sue Kent. Pic by Susie White.

I also met Sue Kent from Gardener’s World who I very much admire for her innovative gardening ideas and we chatted about what we’d seen at the show and what we’d enjoyed. Many celebrities visit the show on Press Day – I saw Judi Dench, Joanna Lumley, Dominic West, Jim Carter and Bill Bailey amongst others – but then there was a flurry of photographers and the Princess of Wales made a surprise visit for the first ever children’s picnic at the show. She then spent time chatting to school children in the Samaritan’s Listening Garden designed by Darren Hawkes.

The Princess of Wales in the Samaritan’s Garden. Pic by Susie White.

There’s so much to see at the Chelsea Flower Show and I can’t mention it all! The inspiring balcony gardens, the floral art, houseplant studios and the incredible displays in the Great Pavilion. Each year I get a feeling for the themes that emerge and that will influence – and be influenced by – the public. This year it’s about outdoor living, about growing your own and cooking straight from the garden. It’s also about the ability of nature and wild plants to restore spirits and provide calm. As always I took home with me many ideas…

Keep up with Susie’s visit to the Show on her Instagram. And if you’re going to the show this year, share your pics and stories with us on social media or by emailing in to the team – we’ve love to hear from you!

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Alex Corlett

I am the "Friend's" Features Editor, working with the talented Features Team to bring you everything from cryptic crosswords to financial advice, knitting patterns to international travel and inspirational real life stories. Always on the hunt for a new feature idea, I also enjoy cycling and love a good tea room.