Gardens are this year’s big news. The hip, cool and urban are taking up a pastime that was previously the passion of their aunties and uncles in the shires.
The Chelsea Flower Show, the highlight of the horticultural year, has a lot of catching up to do, but the signs were clearly there at this year’s event. Decades of domination by horticulturalists are about to be toppled by the advancing army of design-led gardeners.
There was every kind of flower – from serried rows of lupins and carnations to bonsai, cacti, fascinating carnivorous plants, fuchsia, alpines, and seductively pretty and sweet-smelling lavenders.
Flowers are now as subject to fashion’s whims as frocks, and last season’s paleonopsis orchids are losing favour to sweet peas, (especially the dreamy new pink and blue lathyrus odoratus in the 21st Century Street Garden by Carol Klein), daisies, trumpet lilies, hostas and anything in metallic blue like seaholly and echinops. There’s a wonderful shade of dusky terracotta pink that’s new for irises, tulips and, loveliest of all, foxgloves.
More interesting still was the Garden Design Pavilion, with plans by Arabella Lennox Boyd for a roof garden in the City of London. There was also interest in McCabe Josland’s design for the Royal Institute of British Architects’ cafÃ© terrace in London’s Portland Place.
Everyone was very excited about the elaborately constructed life-sized gardens. Some are traditional – like Pet Plant’s meticulous reconstruction of Beatrix Potter’s Mr McGregor’s garden – complete with scarecrow, and the garden gate that Peter Rabbit squeezed under.
Others are more spectacular and design-led, like the Garden of the Book of Gold by Charles Funke Associates for His Highness Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, with 12 full-sized palms imported from the United Arab Emirates.
The Daily Telegraph Reflective Garden, by Michael Balston, featured huge overhead canopies with bold plants. Christies’ cool, calm Sculpture Garden by George Carter, included modern sculptures, offset by restful grey and green plants. Less successful was the Daily Express’ fussy “horti-couture”, mixing fashion by Bruce Oldfield with flowers by James Alexander-Sinclair.
The star of the show was the Evening Standard/Laurent Perrier Chef’s Roof Garden, designed by Terence Conran. It used food plants and vegetables to create an innovative garden that blends seamlessly with the elegant kitchen inside. The garden is paved with Yorkshire flagstones and has huge galvanised steel agricultural drinking troughs and giant terracotta Long Toms by Willow Pottery.
The theme of the year is about growing vegetables and herbs instead of, or mixed with, flowers. A reminder that it’s not a new idea is the “Acetaria” display, based on John Evelyn’s book (he called himself a gardener and salad maker), published in 1699. Old-fashioned plants like purple-podded peas and “Painted Lady” runner beans prove that vegetables can be more subtle than flowers.
This theme was echoed at the show in a superb garden designed like an outdoor room by Marston and Langinger, with paths of shells, and planters filled with different varieties of lettuce and tall bronze fennel. And in every garden there was water, tranquil canals or fountains.
Garden design is coming into its own, but I’d like to see a quantum leap – how about a show planned by someone like Jasper Jacob, who could give gardens the London Fashion Week treatment?