Other people's gardens

Chelsea 2018

Hello all,

I find myself still thinking about Sarah Price’s delicate garden at Chelsea this year. That’s it at the top of this post. It’s such a wonderful illusion – a deceptive simplicity and apparent lack of effort that belies the enormous amount of work it takes to produce in the viewer a feeling of ease and relaxation  – magic! I got to see it – and all the other delights of the Chelsea Flower Show – as leader of a group of lovely travellers with Ross Garden Tours. You may have seen all the images you want to of the Main Avenue gardens at Chelsea this year, but in case not…here’s the story I wrote for my column in Spectrum in the Sydney Morning Herald. If you’d like to join me on a tour sometime, keep an eye on my Travel with Me page, or, even better, as I don’t visit this blog as often as I intended, follow me on Instagram @robinpowell60.

The horticultural skills on display in the specialist exhibits in the Main Pavilion at the Chelsea Flower Show were dazzling. A bulb company’s catalogue miraculously flowering at once; towering delphiniums; a battalion of lupins; an arbor of fragrant roses blooming a month early and a wall of perfect daffodils, each different and at its peak six weeks after finishing everywhere else in the country. Outside in the show gardens many designers used those horticultural skills in the service of gardens that looked like natural landscapes.

The most naturalistic of all was the Welcome to Yorkshire garden, designed by Mark Gregory, which recreated a romanticised slice of Yorkshire. A tumbling ’beck’ (creek to you and me) ran down a hill of wildflowers and grass and past a stone bothy (cottage), and its little flower and kitchen garden. It was a charming postcard brought to life with the detail of a photo realist painting.

Sarah Price, renowned for her painterly planting plans, designed a garden for M&G, inspired by dreams she had after seeing an exhibition of paintings by Monet. Monet’s layered splotches of colour, applied in comma-like swishes, combined in her dreams with memories of Mediterranean escapes where respite was promised by a stone wall, a seat and a tree.  The layout of the garden was as obtuse and fragmented as a dream and the very diffuse planting – the opposite of the usual floral-dense Chelsea style that crams plants together – had space in which to catch the light.

Diaphanous heads of grass and weedy-looking, yellow-flowered mead floated over the top of more solid mounds of very diverse plants planted into gravel the same colour as the rammed earth walls that bounded and divided the garden. London spring sun cast shadows on the pink clay walls and really did conjure a dream of Mediterranean countryside.  

Jo Thomson worked up a tea garden for Wedgewood that had the feeling of the wild bit at the bottom of the garden.  Away from the formality and duties of the house, a stream, rocks, trees, a beautifully worked stone terrace and a shade structure of curving steel and wires offered an escape from the everyday . There were no straight lines in the planting, just a naturalistic looseness with a light dusting of flowers in Wedgwood blues.

Some of the well-dressed Chelsea ladies around me clearly thought that applying precision horticulture and landscaping to a vision of the unkempt was the horticultural  equivalent of paying good money for ripped jeans but I loved it. It was, after all, one of the great English garden designers, William Kent, whose genius, according to Horace Walpole, was that he “leaped the fence and saw that all nature was a garden”.

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