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The year 2013 was an auspicious anniversary for the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show. Known officially as the Great Spring Show for the first few years of its life, last year it celebrated a century of horticultural showboating from the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. As the most famous flower show on Earth, its importance to the UK horticultural industry cannot be overstated.
In the run-up to the show’s opening, and for the five days it is open to pre-ticketed visitors, Chelsea is writ large in newspapers, radio and television worldwide. Social media and online blogs crackle with news from the show (expect the “Chelsea Selfie” to trend this year). It is the place where new plants, products and ideas are often given a first airing; a tradition that goes back to 1913. At the inaugural show a number of “Japanese dwarf trees” were exhibited for the first time in the UK, introducing the British to the art and craft of bonsai. Chelsea is big business for the industry, and big business for the RHS. The first show cost £3,365 to stage and made a princely profit of £88. A large show garden this year will typically have a budget of £250,000-plus. The gala evening, a major source of income for the RHS and vital in helping to fund the society’s charitable work, will be attended by CEOs and CFOs from most of the FTSE-listed companies.
If 2013 dripped with nostalgia and retrospection, it is all change for 2014. There are eight first-time designers, several of whom are aged under 30. In horticultural circles – where slow acquisition of knowledge over innumerable decades is revered – this is pretty groundbreaking stuff. It is also a reflection of the RHS’s drive to encourage the next generation of horticulturalists, gardeners and designers through its Horticulture Matters campaign. It is not without a degree of risk, as the success of the show relies heavily on the quality of the show gardens and their capacity to enchant and astound visitors, and to translate into alluringly lovely images for the global TV audience. Designing a garden for a show throws up different challenges to designing for real life. Building them requires stamina and great skill in order to deliver the required quality in little over three weeks on the logistically challenging Royal Hospital site.
Royal Bank of Canada is sponsoring a garden for the fourth year in a row, promoting its Blue Water Project, a 10-year initiative to support schemes concerned with the preservation and management of fresh water. Gardens may not seem the greatest villains when it comes to water use, but sprinkler systems, for example, are notoriously inefficient, wasting up to 80 per cent of the water that passes through them to evaporation. When an estimated 1,400 children a day are dying through lack of access to fresh water it puts irrigating the lawn into perspective. RBC’s three previous gardens – the last yielding a gold medal – were designed by Professor Nigel Dunnett and landscape architecture practice The Landscape Agency. Dunnett is widely recognised as one of the leading exponents of sustainable water use and water management in gardens, so he was a natural fit for the technical aspects of the previous gardens.
This year RBC have brought in 26-year-old Hugo Bugg, winner of the 2010 Young Designer of the Year award and a gold medallist at the Hampton Court and Tatton Park flower shows, to design its RBC Waterscape Garden – Embrace the Rain. The garden will set out to show how water management features that occur in nature can be replicated in a garden. The trick for Bugg, with his first Chelsea garden, will be to take ideas that have been developed by his predecessor – who has literally written the book on rain gardens – and reinvigorate them to make them his.
Brothers David (23) and Harry (26) Rich have the tricky task of making a garden that is a celebration of stargazing – and that aims to raise awareness of the impact of light pollution – make sense in a show that closes to the public before dusk. Symbolism is to the fore, inevitably, with circular pools representing black holes and chunky boulders for fallen meteors.
This is one of several gardens, including the RBC’s, that will be “rehomed” after the show, in this case to Beechwood College in Cardiff, which caters for young people with autism. It is a trend that has grown in recent years as sponsors and designers have become ever more mindful of the environmental implications of a garden that exists solely for a week. This always seems the trickiest of propositions for the designer. It is impossible to design a show garden with a new home in mind without compromising the exhibit, so the challenge, therefore, must be to make the garden have enough reusable components that it can be redesigned into a new location but is still recognisably the same garden. The risk is that both iterations will come out half-baked.
Other Chelsea virgins include Nicole Fischer and Daniel Auderset with their Extending Space garden, an exploration of the spatial experience found at a forest edge inspired by the Pfyn Forest nature park in Switzerland, and the Brewin Dolphin Garden by Matthew Childs, another of Chelsea’s under-thirties. Like RBC, Brewin Dolphin has worked with established designers at previous shows and their willingness to embrace the next generation of designers is commendable.
Adam Frost has been around long enough to seem almost venerable among the youthful newbies. His garden for Homebase, titled Time to Reflect, is inspired by his father’s interest in the countryside and the natural elements found within it. Frost and Homebase are also doing their bit to inspire the next generation of horticulturalists through the Garden Academy Scheme, set up and underwritten by the retail chain. Fourteen young apprentices are involved in the pilot project and Frost personally mentors and teaches them.
It isn’t all youthful exuberance among the leafy plane trees of the showground. Chelsea veterans Gavin McWilliam and Andrew Wilson have designed the Cloudy Bay Sensations Garden, inspired by the tasting notes of Cloudy Bay winery. Laurent-Perrier UK has been a regular fixture at Chelsea for years and it is hard to remember one of its gardens failing to deliver – due in part to its insistence on working with designers at the top of their game. This year it is the turn once more of Luciano Giubbilei.
Multiple gold-medal winner Cleve West is back with a contemporary interpretation of the paradise garden for show sponsor M&G Investments. Expect an intelligent, playful and beautifully planted garden that explores the evolution of the theme from ancient Persia to the present.
Inevitably, the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war is marked by several gardens and exhibits. Charlotte Rowe’s first Chelsea garden is No Man’s Land for ABF, The Soldiers’ Charity, inspired by the landscape depicted in works by war artists. The garden sets out to demonstrate how the landscape of the battlefields regenerated and healed.
TV viewers in the UK will also notice a significant change; the BBC will be doing without the services of Alan Titchmarsh, lead presenter of the corporation’s coverage for the past three decades. His announcement to step down, made late last year, was met with incredulity in the small world of professional horticulture, for whom Titchmarsh is an important ambassador and one of the few professional gardeners to have gained “national treasure” status.
Titchmarsh is back at the show but this time as an exhibitor, after an absence of 29 years. His Country Kitchen garden in 1985 won gold, but this time there are no medals at stake – the RHS has invited him to produce a special exhibit for the show. His garden, titled From the Moors to the Sea and co-designed with Kate Gould, celebrates two anniversaries; the evergreen Titchmarsh’s 50 years in horticulture, and the 50th anniversary of RHS Britain in Bloom.
Matthew Wilson is managing director of Clifton Nurseries in London