RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2009-a few thoughts on the gardens. 

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Make no mistake, 2009 was a curate’s egg of a show!

With the recession biting and some big design names taking a sabbatical this year, the theory was that there would be more space for other designers to come to the fore and for us poor punters to move around. The reality was that there seemed to be more shops than ever, and the poorly organised space still left the punters searching, like well heeled refugees, for space to rest and food to eat which didn’t cost the earth. And while there had been lots of talk of leaner, fitter and more thoughtful, the truth is that the show was somewhat missing the acres of style and oodles of talent to which we had all become accustomed. Bring back Tim Stuart Smith, Arabella Lennox-Boyd and Andy Sturgeon, masters of space, line and planting and Flemings who always deliver chic by the kangaroo pouch full!

As a result, the Show Gardens were a mixed bag. In the Cancer Research garden, Robert Myers offered all his fabulous sense of space, design and line-it was a stylish garden to live, play and entertain in, to be seen from all sides and above.

Chelsea 2009 186The elliptical water feature made an elegant dark shadow in the largely pale landscape – stunning. The bold planting of just one species of common fern in a round container really worked. The downside for us was that the hard landscaping materials didn’t live up to the superb design, and the planting, while exceptional in parts, was let down by the rather tired sumach trees. We were pleased however, that, while this just missed gold, it was the people’s choice-a lesson for the judges perhaps to follow the lead of the public and give top priority to good design over the minutiae of execution.

Ulf Nordfell won best in show with a brilliantly crafted design, but English cottage garden meets Swedish minimalist?-we just do not buy the concept! To us this was a looser version of his Linnaeus garden of 2 years ago. It remained ‘a game of two halves’ and the area where the stone slabs met and entered the water, which should have been the most exciting, in the event needed further resolution.

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There was some beautiful planting, but to a horticulturalist some of it was completely inappropriate-does Festuca really grow well beneath dense pine trees?-we think not- and the accessories had the air of being parachuted in to fill the voids.

Designers should be able to think AND DO outside the box and this applies to their own style too. Luciano Giubbilei does euro-minimalism so well – his beautifully executed gardens display fantastic technical expertise, and his Laurent Perrier garden was no exception. But, without all the space he enjoys in his client’s gardens and with little transverse use of the allocated space, we felt this linear design, albeit smart, was somewhat soul-less and largely impractical. Unusually, a couple of patches of grasses and richly coloured flowers were thrown in (a response to the British love of plants perhaps), when what this really needed was simply crisp, mown turf.

Placing seats between the areas of planting, as though on a BR intercity, further demonstrated the lack of space which most of us had endured to see it! Saying all that, Giubbilei did wow the crowds and we still found ourselves loving the crisp lines and the millimetre-precise hedges.

Chelsea L's photos 109Elizabeth’s Perfume Garden found itself in the all round, difficult, numero uno slot. The rib vortex, Thuja forest and voltaic spiral, while all individually exciting, didn’t completely gel into one cohesive unit and we felt that the space had been better used in previous years. The concept of creating a perfumery within the garden was fun however, and we loved the clean line of the stainless steel edging as well as the pretty planting in popular shades of purple, pink and white.

Conceptual gardens should  have a place at Chelsea. Grass topped, slate pillar stepping stones rising up from a carpet of bright pink busy lizzies is clearly totally unworkable as a garden, but the combination of colours in the Quilted Velvet garden was enchanting, giving that ‘feel good factor’ which more than made up for its impracticality.

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Amongst the urban gardens, the Offshore Banker’s Garden –taking water right up to a house- was a fab idea, which we already had on our books as A LONGING TO DO, but who will believe us now?  It did not link with the house façade, (context is, after all, one of the basic tenets of the good designer), but the overall effect was very pleasing and calming.

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Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, the eye watering crapulousness of the plasticene James May Garden made his presence at the show at all a complete surprise. Did the RHS think it hip to allow him to stay, despite the absence of real plants, or did it lack the courage to shut him down? No photo for this-it was too horrid!

On the other hand, we loved the simply smart useable spaces designed by Mark Gregory (The Children’s Society) and Kate Gould (Eco Chic).

Chelsea L's photos 082The simplicity of Gregory’s contemporary water features and lovely planting combined with innovative storage facilities for such mundane items as rotary driers and compost bins showed what can be achieved in a small back garden, and Gould’s stunning sunken garden with a strong sense of geometry and clean lines was a true gem. These two gardens alone were a reason to visit Chelsea.

Out in the courtyard gardens we adored the ‘chic-ery’ of the Freshly Prepped, but lettuce growing on the walls? Well hey, this is Chelsea, abandon your grasp on reality all ye who enter here! We also enjoyed the refreshing simplicity of the Scandinavian Lakeside Retreat-Time to Think and Space to Breathe-what we all needed when on the Chelsea treadmill. But overall in this category surely the medal structure should not reward a pronounced tendency to bang out pretty pastiches and call them design.

Planting throughout the show has seen better years-there was a great deal too much thoughtless stuffing and weaving. Thomas Hoblyn’s wetland garden and Nicholas Dexter in the Witan Wisdom Garden, by contrast, showed a restraint and simplicity which allowed the plants to speak for themselves.

Chelsea L's photos 095 Our personal Bests in Show:

Robert Myers – Cancer Research; Kate Gould – Eco Chic;

Mark Gregory – The Children’s Society; Aralia – Freshly Prepped.

Our favourite take home accessory: one of the jauntily angled eco towers in the Future Nature Garden

Chelsea 2009 036Our favourite design bites: a glass-backed bench; interlinking rusty iron stormwater basins incorporating a mini wetland; wonderful blue irises against a cream wall; a rich vein of Portland stone edged with contrasting granite setts and the crisp lines of hardwood boards on edge   creating a walkway.

Chelsea 2009 038Do look at RHS or BBC websites for their excellent Chelsea coverage to see what we are on about. You can see photos of all the show, urban and courtyard gardens as well as 360 degree panoramas.

Also do pick up on the Thinkingardens website (www.thinkingardens.co.uk) where Anne Wareham has gathered an enjoyably eclectic selection of comments on Chelsea 2009.