May 232014


Cleve West's garden at Chelsea 2014

I went to Chelsea this year seeking inspiration for my own garden – a first for me. It was great to be able to wander around the Great Pavilion, knowing that I could actually use the plants in my own garden if I wanted. My favourite garden was by Cleve West, especially the gravel section – not that I could recreate that in the soggy West Country.

Marilyn Abbott's topiarist garden at Chelsea 2014

I also really liked Marilyn Abbot’s Topiarist’s Garden (below). I loved the cool greenness of it. And the fact that a lot was crammed into a small space, without it feeling cramped.

Amelanchier canadensis in Laurent Perrier garden

I’m on the lookout for a multi-stemmed shrub or tree for my main border, and the Amelanchier canadensis above (in Luciano Giubbilei’s garden for Laurent Perrier) comes highly recommended by James Alexander-Sinclair as a tree for all seasons. It’s on sale at my local garden so maybe I’ll go for it.

Rose, peony and grass in the Positively Stoke on Trent garden

I loved this dark pink rose, peony and box ball, lightened by the airy grass in the Positively Stoke-on-Trent garden.

Geranium phaeum and euphorbia

A friend has given me lots of Geranium phaeum, which I’m planning on using in the shady side of the garden. It looked great mixed with euphorbia and purple-leaved plants.


This year there was a refreshing lack of young ladies wearing only body paint to promote the gardens. I failed to match my celeb- spotting nirvana of Chelsea 2012, when I got up close and personal with Gwyneth Paltrow. Instead I saw Esther Rantzen rush up to a Chelsea Pensioner, presumably to interview him. (Esther (gushingly): ‘Hi!! Are you Jack?!!!!’. Chelsea Pensioner (coolly): ‘No.’). The highlight of my day was meeting some Vikings. They told us all about the battles they take part in, the injuries they’ve sustained, and how to hold a sword correctly. You wouldn’t mess with them, I can tell you.

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May 212013

An Alcove (Tokonoma) Garden

Every show garden at Chelsea tells a story – usually one that’s dictated by the sponsor. Often it reflects a landscape,  an environmental issue, or a charitable cause. There’s rarely a garden without an agenda of some kind, which is a shame. The best gardens manage to nod to the sponsor’s brief while basically sidestepping it – I’d never have guessed that Roger Platts’ M&G Centenary Garden was reflecting 100 years of gardening features, and it was all the better for it.

I never read the blurb that I’m handed about a garden. To be honest, I’m not interested in the story it’s trying to tell, or the ‘journey’ that it’s taking me on. Much as I care about some of the issues represented, I just want to look at a show garden and decide how it makes me feel. Do I love it? Does it inspire me? Could I wake up to it every day? Could I try some of those planting combinations at home? Are there elements of the design that I could emulate one day?

On that basis, here are my two favourites.

I’m never going to plant a Japanese garden, but I could happily wake up to An Alcove (Toknonoma) Garden by the Ishihara Kazuyuki Design Laboratory (above). It represents an alcove in a traditional Japanese tatami room, and in Japanese culture, people often meet with important people in such spaces. As I was taking pics, Cleve West was invited by the designer into the alcove – lucky (and important) chap.

The planting in Chris Beardshaw’s Arthritis Research UK Garden (below) stood out for being refreshingly different. There was an abundance of meadowy planting in many of the other gardens (I was cow parsleyed-out by the end of the day and think I might have gone off that style of planting a bit), but this garden had lots of zinging colour, and plants that weren’t found elsewhere (eg lupins, foxtail lilies and Echium pininana). I loved the splodges of Pittosporum tobira that acted like full stops at the end of the borders – a nice alternative to the ubiquitous box balls. I went back to look at the garden several times, and that’s always a good sign.

In other news, I went home with a red face. For once I hadn’t put my foot in it (or if I had, I hadn”t realised it) but had managed to get sunburn. Or was it windburn? Many other people said that their cheeks were also burning. How on earth did that happen on a chilly, cloudy and not-especially-windy day?

Arthritis Research UK Garden

Arthritis Research UK Garden

May 242012


Unless you’ve been living in a cupboard under the stairs, you’ll know that the Chelsea Flower Show is taking place at the moment. I went on Monday, on press day. It’s a privilege to walk into the  showground early in the morning, the air heady with anticipation, and to glimpse the show gardens for the first time. I’ll admit that I’m more interested in the show gardens than I am in the displays in the Great Pavilion. Maybe that will change when I get my own garden, as I might actually be in the market for buying some plants.

This year, the must-have plant seemed to be cow parsley. A colleague quipped that he spends most of his life trying to keep it out of his garden. There was a very high box ball and topiary quota, too. Some of the big gardens on the Main Avenue looked a tad similar, with lots of naturalistic, romantic planting – a reaction to the double-dip recession maybe? Or a homage to the big Chelsea cheese and gold medal winner Tom Stuart-Smith? And oddly, there was very little grow-your-own in comparison to the last few years, so maybe that bubble is beginning to burst.

This year, I decided I’d ‘judge’ the gardens on whether I’d like to wake up looking at them every day. My favourites are below. I wouldn’t actually want Diarmuid Gavin’s creation (above) outside my back door, but it was most definitely fun. Due to vertigo issues I only got halfway up, but it was great being able to set foot in a show garden, especially one that involved ladders, waterfalls and slides.

And then, of course, there were the celebrities. I’ve come to the conclusion that spotting celebs on press day at Chelsea is a bit like going on safari. On safari you’re told what you might see – zebras, lions, elephants etc – and you really, really want to tick them off your list. At Chelsea, you’re given a list of the celebrities who may be present (Christopher Biggins, Floella Benjamin and Ringo Starr are usually guaranteed), and you really, really want to tick them off the list. You get jealous if someone has seen someone you haven’t, even if they’re a bit Z-list, and get over excited if you spot anyone at all (my colleague Jane, visiting Chelsea for the first time, cried: ‘Oh my god, it’s JENNIE BOND!!!!’. We haven’t let her live that one down).

If you get wind of a crowd gathering, see some flashbulbs going off, or hear a rumour that someone off the telly is nearby, you hotfoot it there indecently quickly, camera or smartphone held aloft and sharp elbows at the ready. This is what happened when I heard Gwyneth Paltrow was in the vicinity last year, and the same thing happened this year with Sir Cliff Richard. I’m not proud of it and I don’t know why I did it, but there’s a pic of him at the bottom of this post anyway.

The Homebase Teenage Cancer Trust garden by Joe Swift

There was a lot going on in Joe Swift’s garden compared to others on the Main Avenue, but it was ordered, welcoming, contemporary and considered. I’d seen some drawings beforehand and the garden didn’t look particularly inspiring, so the finished result was a surprise. All the years commenting on other people’s show gardens for the BBC have obviously paid off.

The Brewin Dolphin garden by Cleve West

I sat on Cleve’s bench for a few moments with a bunch of other hacks. I loved the planting  – naturalistic but with lots of pops of colour. Apparently there was some red, white and blue to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, but it was very subtle.

Celebration of Caravanning by Jo Thompson

Jo Thompson’s garden was an inspiration for anyone with a small space. She used mature birch trees, Betula albosinensis  ‘Fascination’, which were perfectly shaped and not remotely overpowering – perfect for a town garden. And who wouldn’t want Doris (the 1950s caravan) at the bottom of their garden?

The Bradstone Panache garden

More inspiration for small gardens. The clever layout included a path that was a continuous curve, leading to a seat. The sweep of alpine strawberries (on the right) was a nice touch.

Satoyama Life

This Japanese masterpiece invited you to just stand and gaze at it. Which I did, for a long time.

The World Vision Garden

Lots of hard landscaping and tree ferns isn’t really my thing, but the underplanting was really pretty in this garden, in shades of purple and orange. I couldn’t really do it justice in this pic.

A national treasure


May 252011

Cleve West's Daily Telegraph Garden

Sarah Eberle's Monaco Garden

The Cancer Research Garden

Diarmuid Gavin's Irish Sky Garden

Cornish Memories Garden

What to say about the ‘greatest flower show on earth’ (as Alan Titchmarsh says year after year)? For what it’s worth, I liked Cleve West’s garden best (and not just because it won Best in Show).  But I still prefer the one he did for SAGA a few years back – one of my all-time favourites. I also liked Sarah Eberle’s Monaco garden (light and airy and sustainable too) and the Cancer Research one  (lovely seaside planting). And surprisingly, Diarmuid Gavin’s – but more for the lush planting than the pink pod hanging from a crane.

The small artisan gardens at Chelsea can be a bit cutesy but I always like to see them as they show how much can be achieved in a tiny space. My favourite was the garden with a rather unfortunate brief (pardon the pun): an evocation of a Korean toilet. I couldn’t get a shot of it of that due to the aforementioned lady in national costume and a TV crew but you can see it here. And I loved the pots in the Cornish Memories garden.