Tun­ing in to Ori­en­tal ex­pres­sions

The flora of China, which has for so long en­riched our gar­dens, and a new link-up with Ra­dio 2 are just two of many com­mend­able de­vel­op­ments in this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, demon­strat­ing that the event’s con­tin­ued suc­cess lies in its readi­ness to adap

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What’s in store at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show? Mark Grif­fiths finds wel­come in­no­va­tion ev­ery­where

SOME months ago, it was an­nounced that the Chelsea Flower Show this year would have just eight ma­jor Show Gar­dens, nine fewer than in 2016. Ever since, com­men­ta­tors have been con­stru­ing this news as yet an­other sign of Brexit-re­lated fi­nan­cial un­cer­tainty and proph­esy­ing that, de­prived of cor­po­rate ir­ri­ga­tion, Chelsea would wilt in 2017, per­haps never to re­cover.

As the show’s con­struc­tion nears com­ple­tion, it be­comes clear that they are wrong, and mas­sively so. But their pro­jec­tions were never safe, be­ing based on the false idea that Chelsea’s suc­cess de­pends on the num­ber, flash and daz­zle of its Main Av­enue ex­trav­a­gan­zas. It was only in the 1990s that these ex­hibits came to dom­i­nate the show. Prior to that, Chelsea had en­joyed decades of glory with­out them.

In the years around the start of the 21st cen­tury, some great and ground­break­ing Show Gar­dens es­tab­lished de­sign trends of en­dur­ing im­por­tance, but the Next Big Thing is not an an­nual oc­cur­rence in any art­form wor­thy of the name, let alone the gar­den.

Lat­terly, the Main Av­enue has been tak­ing stock, of­fer­ing us more re-cre­ations of wild land­scapes, re­vivals of tra­di­tional styles and vari­a­tions on the Mod­ernism and Nat­u­ral­ism that

‘Chelsea never is what it was. That is its great at­trac­tion and the se­cret of its longevity’

were launched there a decade or so ago. For in­no­va­tive bril­liance, mean­while, there are other ex­hibitors, not least the nurs­eries.

Chelsea never is what it was. That is its great at­trac­tion and the se­cret of its longevity. Whether or not the cause was Brexit blues, this year’s slim­mer Main Av­enue is a pos­i­tive cor­rec­tion that had been com­ing for a while. A re­duc­tion in one area has turned at­ten­tion back to some un­fairly ne­glected as­pects of the event and stim­u­lated new ideas and there is ap­pre­cia­ble wealth in the Show Gar­dens that re­main.

Of these, the most spec­tac­u­lar is the Chengdu Silk Road Gar­den, de­signed by Lau­rie Chet­wood and Pa­trick Collins and spon­sored by the Gov­ern­ment of Chengdu, the great Chi­nese city that was once the gate­way of the Silk Road and the cap­i­tal of Sichuan. In plan, the gar­den re­sem­bles a slen­der sin­u­ous is­land.

Along its mid­line runs a se­ries of soar­ing tri­an­gu­lar par­ti­tions that grow taller to­wards its cen­tre and deepen in colour from white to peach to lac­quer red. These si­mul­ta­ne­ously con­jure a moun­tain range, a de­con­structed pagoda and the stegosaurian spine of a vast re­cum­bent dragon.

Be­tween them, in­ter­vals of plain and vale are land­scaped with plants from Sichuan Prov­ince, floris­ti­cally, one of the world’s most di­verse re­gions and the source of so many of our gar­den favourites.

At first (and for cen­turies), these botan­i­cal riches were car­ried west along the Silk Road. In the Chelsea ex­hibit, the route is re-cre­ated by a bridge of con­nected plat­forms that runs the length of the de­sign.

along it lies the gar­den’s heart and ra­tio­nale: a cir­cu­lar plat­form, golden and dec­o­rated to rep­re­sent the sym­bol of Chengdu City and of China’s cul­tural her­itage, the 3,000year-old sun and the Im­mor­tal Bird. Much as one might hes­i­tate to re-cre­ate it at home, this ex­hibit is im­por­tant in terms of de­sign, hor­ti­cul­tural his­tory and diplo­macy.

It’s high time that China, which has en­riched our gar­dens for so long, should be present at Chelsea and pre­sent­ing its own plants.

A very dif­fer­ent ter­rain, that of South­ern Europe and the Mediter­ranean, pro­vides James Bas­son with in­spi­ra­tion and ma­te­ri­als. The M&G

Gar­den 2017 re-cre­ates a quarry in Malta in which Na­ture, grace­fully but ir­re­press­ibly, has re­asserted her­self de­spite trau­matic hu­man ac­tiv­ity. From its two tower-like mono­liths to its ter­raced flanks and block-check­ered floor, all is parch­ment-coloured lime­stone shipped from Malta and an ab­so­lute tour de force.

Also Mal­tese are the plants that colonise and soften its hard sur­faces. Among them are en­demics such as

Euphor­bia meliten­sis, a spurge whose sulphur-green domes dot the is­lands’ gar­rigue, and Matthi­ola in­cana subsp

meliten­sis, a stock with suc­cu­lent silver leaves and li­lac flow­ers. This sparse and sun-soaked space is na­tive­plant gar­den­ing taken to the level of an ex­treme sport. It’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary re-creation of a land­scape, but it also works as a gar­den, con­tain­ing in­tri­cate walks, an en­tic­ingly placid pool and places to shel­ter and sit.

A more ver­dant and tra­di­tional sanc­tu­ary is of­fered by Lin­klaters Gar­den for Mag­gie’s. This is the first Chelsea ex­hibit in sup­port of the Cancer Car­ing Cen­tres founded by the late Mag­gie Keswick Jencks, who, through her own ill­ness, found com­po­sure and so­lace in serene green spaces. De­signed by Dar­ren Hawkes, it is a se­cret gar­den, en­closed by high horn­beam hedges and glimpsed through slot-like aper­tures or en­tered through a wooden-gated arch­way.

Within, benches, paving, al­cove, view­ing plat­form and wa­ter fea­tures are all made of the same concrete and de­signed to con­jure frag­ments that can be re­assem­bled, so sug­gest­ing the process of re­build­ing a life shat­tered by a di­ag­no­sis of cancer. Em­brac­ing and uplift­ing their basalt-grey solid­mid­way

ity are in­for­mal plant­ings of rare del­i­cacy, gen­tle­ness and per­fume— in places, fix­ing one’s con­tem­pla­tive fo­cus; over­all, in­still­ing calm. To those, usu­ally non-gar­den­ers, who main­tain that nov­elty of de­sign is the only mea­sure of a Chelsea gar­den’s im­por­tance, this may seem a con­ven­tional scheme. How­ever, its con­cept and pur­pose are in­no­va­tive and im­por­tant and I doubt any­thing less con­sol­ingly fa­mil­iar could re­alise them quite like this per­fectly planted haven.

As these three il­lus­trate, the re­duc­tion in Show Gar­dens is one of num­ber, not of stan­dard. Mean­while, other cat­e­gories are flour­ish­ing in the light now that the Main Av­enue has been trimmed of some of its over­shad­ow­ing boughs. And there’s one en­tirely new class for 2017, the Ra­dio 2 Feel

Good Gar­dens. Cre­ated in cel­e­bra­tion of the sta­tion’s 50th an­niver­sary, these are five plots each de­vised to ap­peal to one of the senses.

Each has a starry dif­fer­ent de­signer, or de­sign­ers, and a muse-cum-pa­tron who is a Ra­dio 2 pre­sen­ter: James Alexan­der-sin­clair (The Zoe Ball Lis­ten­ing Gar­den); Ta­mara Bridge and Kate Sav­ill (The Jo Whi­ley Scent Gar­den); Sarah Raven (The An­neka Rice Colour Cut­ting Gar­den); Matt Keight­ley (The Jeremy Vine Tex­ture Gar­den); and Jon Wheat­ley (The Chris Evans Taste Gar­den).

In my lim­ited ca­pac­ity as a Ra­dio 3 sort of chap who takes hor­ti­cul­ture rather se­ri­ously, I reckon that this unashamedly pop­u­lar en­ter­prise is tremen­dous. He­do­nis­tic, play­ful and in­ge­nious, these de­signs demon­strate that gar­den­ing is not only the purest of hu­man plea­sures but also one of the most ex­cit­ing and sen­sual.

The Great Pav­il­ion

IN the Great Pav­il­ion this year, the dis­play is one of the most ex­u­ber­ant and eclec­tic that I’ve seen in my

30-some­thing Chelseas. The ex­hibitors are high in num­ber and achieve­ment, not least in pre­sent­ing some out­stand­ing new plants.

In­tro­duced by Fi­brex Nurs­eries (GPD157), Pe­largo­nium Rush­moor Ama­zon is the first re­lease in the Rush­moor River Se­ries, a group of cul­ti­vars de­vel­oped over the past three decades in Aus­tralia and the UK. They be­long to a class known as Zonar­tic Pe­largo­ni­ums, (crosses be­tween Zonal kinds and P. ar­tic­u­la­tum), which have a low and com­pact habit, dec­o­ra­tive fo­liage, tall and el­e­gantly spoked in­flo­res­cences and showy flow­ers that are ex­tra­or­di­nary in their range of form and colour.

In P. Rush­moor Ama­zon, the blooms are loosely dou­ble and coloured Naplesyel­low tend­ing to ivory with sub­tle carmine suf­fu­sions. It’s rav­ish­ing: there could be no bet­ter in­tro­duc­tion to these ex­cit­ing new hy­brids.

To mark the cen­te­nary of the Pap­worth Trust, Peter Beales (GPF195) is re­leas­ing Rosa Pap­worth’s Pride. I’m not yet sure how its flow­ers— big, pe­ony-shaped, sum­mer pud­ding-like in their richly blended red­ness and ir­re­sistible scent —will fit into our bor­ders here, but have them we must.

More ob­vi­ous is what to do with Rosa Dame Judi Dench, from David Austin (GPD159). Mantling arch­ing stems, its blooms are ra­di­ant apri­cot, densely dou­ble and charm­ingly ruf­fled. Their fra­grance is a de­li­cious blend of tra­di­tional tea notes, salad greens and ex­otic fruit.

Mr Austin, it seems, has striven to en­sure that no rose by any other name would smell as sweet as his trib­ute to Shake­speare’s great­est liv­ing per­former.

Hardy’s Cot­tage Gar­den Plants (GPE163) has the very thing to set off Dame Judi’s rose. Salvia Crys­tal Blue is a se­lec­tion of wood sage (S. nemorosa) with spires of sky-blue flow­ers that make it a must for herba­ceous bor­ders and for plant­ing with roses white, pink and apri­cot. Although nemorosa means ‘wood-land-dwelling’, it needs a sunny spot.

For sim­i­lar colours in a shade­lov­ing peren­nial, visit the Hil­lier Nurs­eries’ ex­hibit (GPE162) and see its new in­tro­duc­tion Co­ry­dalis Porce­lain Blue, a hardy and florif­er­ous se­lec­tion of the Chi­nese na­tive C. flex­u­osa. Bronze-backed and fil­i­gree-fine, its founts of fo­liage emerge in spring.

The sweet-scented flow­ers come soon af­ter­wards and con­tinue through au­tumn—flocks of them, like the blue­birds that bear glad tid­ings in Chi­nese myth.

But the Great Pav­il­ion is not just for nov­el­ties. It is a vast ex­hi­bi­tion of the liv­ing trea­sures that we’ve col­lected, bred and nur­tured down the cen­turies; of plants that have made ours the most richly var­ied and pi­o­neer­ing gar­den­ing cul­ture of all. One of these, haunt­ing in beauty, leg­endary in sta­tus, pro­vides the cen­tre­piece of the Hil­lier ex­hibit. It is Da­vidia in­volu­crata, the ghost, dove or pocket-hand­ker­chief tree, seeds of which E. H. Wil­son sent from China to Eng­land in 1901 after a quest that al­most cost him his life.

At Chelsea 2017, it ac­quires yet an­other name: the mem­ory tree. In a joint ini­tia­tive with Hil­lier’s char­ity part­ner, the Wes­sex Cancer Trust, vis­i­tors will be in­vited to record their cher­ished gar­den­ing mem­o­ries in a book be­side the Da­vidia and to sign tags that will be hung from its branches, join­ing its spec­tral white bracts.

I’m pre­dict­ing that this sou­venir vol­ume will con­tain at least as many fresh im­pres­sions as it does dis­tant rec­ol­lec­tions. After all, this prom­ises to be a most mem­o­rable Chelsea, and for all the right rea­sons.

The Chelsea Flower Show is at the Royal Hos­pi­tal, Royal Hos­pi­tal Road, Chelsea, Lon­don SW3 4SR, from Tues­day, May 23, to Fri­day, May 26, 8am–8pm and Satur­day, May 27, 8am–5.30pm. All tick­ets must be bought in ad­vance—visit www.rhs.org.uk for de­tails

Below: The Chengdu Silk Road Gar­den, de­signed by Lau­rie Chet­wood and Pa­trick Collins

Above: The Chris Evans Taste Gar­den by Jon Wheat­ley is one of the col­lab­o­ra­tions in the Ra­dio 2 Feel Good Gar­dens to cel­e­brate the sta­tion’s 50th an­niver­sary. Left: The Walk­ers Wharf Gar­den, de­signed by Gra­ham Brodie, de­picts a derelict in­dus­trial space trans­formed into a use­able out­door area

Na­ture strikes back: a piece of Malta comes to Chelsea in the M&G Gar­den 2017 de­signed by James Bas­son, which re-cre­ates a land­scape re­pair­ing it­self after hu­man ac­tiv­ity

Top left: David Austin Roses’ Dame Judi Dench. Above left: Fi­brex Nurs­eries’ Pe­largo­nium Rush­moor Ama­zon. Above right: David Har­ber’s stainless steel The Quiver, whose flut­ter­ing curves re­flect the land­scape

David Austin Roses’ Vanessa Bell

Above: The Vik­ing Cruises Gar­den of In­spi­ra­tion by Sarah Eberle chan­nels Gaudí. Below: Peter Beales Roses’ Pap­worth’s Pride

Above: A replica of a 900-year-old boat found in 2013 is the cen­tre­piece of the IBTC Low­est­oft Broad­land Boat­builder’s

Gar­den by Gary Breeze, which cel­e­brates the Nor­folk Broads

Right: The Had­don­stone High­land Firepit

Left: The Uuni Pro out­door pizza oven can burn wood, wood pel­lets, charcoal or gas

Above: Jim Lawrence’s Bulk­head out­door light.

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