Chelsea 2017: A Festival for the Bees

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Bees were everywhere at Chelsea today, and who could blame them with a strong naturalistic theme running through many of the Large Show Gardens.

Best in show

Our first stop was James Basson’s Best in Show M&G Garden inspired by a Maltese quarry. Here one plant in particular caught our eye: the so-called giant fennel  (Ferula communis) which is not actually a member of the fennel family at all. While some of the plants in this garden are unique to Malta such as Maltese salt tree (Damiella melitensis), Maltese sea lavender (Limonium melitense) and Maltese stock (Matthiola incana sip melitensis), others are plants which grow in my own garden including red valerian (although I couldn’t find this on the planting list). The rectangular stone pillars are like a Cubist’s dream of a quarry. What I would have given for a private picnic on the secluded table and benches.

A slice of Yorkshire

Next, Tracy Foster’s silver-winning Welcome to Yorkshire Garden also featured red valerian growing above a chalk wall as if it had been there for ever, beside a boat bobbing gently on a peaceful stretch of water. There was even a pair of ducks when we arrived, although they soon flew away from the Chelsea crowds.

Disappearing walls

The bees loved Breaking Ground, the ornamental meadow garden designed by Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliam. Perhaps the unusual metal structures representing the ‘disappearing walls’ that once surrounded public schools reminded them of honeycombs – the garden was inspired by a new bursary campaign at Wellington College to enable talented pupils who would otherwise be unable to attend to win scholarships to the independent school. More likely it was the native-inspired planting with craggy Hawthorn trees, alliums, ferns and grasses.

Gold standard

Never mind what the Chelsea judges think, my mum and I (and the bees) absolutely loved Chris Beardshaw’s Morgan Stanley Garden.  The first plant that caught our eye was the alien-looking lily Cardiocrinum giganteum in the woodland zone of the garden. Here also is a soothing carpet of ferns (including Asplenium scolopendrium, Dryopteris affinis, Matteuccia struthiopteris), hostas, irises, geraniums and pretty blue Meconopsis. Beardshaw was inspired by fractal shapes and the relationship between chaos and formality, seen in the pathway leading from the informal woodland to a more formal loggia and terrace planted with a dazzling array of jewel-like flowers including Lupinus ‘Manhattan Lights’, Paeonia lactiflora ‘Red Charm’, and the pretty pale pink Linaria purpurea ‘Canon Went’ which we also saw in the Fresh Garden ‘Beneath A Mexican Sky’.

A market garden

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Lee Bestall’s garden celebrating 500 Years of Covent Garden may only have won a silver, but we thought it was rather lovely, as was the designer himself who was cheerfully manning his stall and chatting to the public. His garden builds on the historical origins of the London marketplace as a ‘convent garden’, supply the monks’ table at Westminster Abbey. Bestall uses a tasteful palette of pale pinks and creamy whites planted around three retired apple trees and a recreation of the green metal arch structure of the marketplace building. We particularly liked the Rosa ‘English Miss’.

Green apartment living

I had been looking forward to Nigel Dunnett’s ‘Greening Grey Britain’ Garden and I was not disappointed. Dunnett is Professor of Planting Design and Urban Horticulture at Sheffield University and recently transformed the rooftop gardens at London’s Barbican with imaginative prairie planting. Including horticulture in urban planning has so many benefits, many of which were on show here in his garden based on an apartment block in the midst of an under-construction city-scape. Insect hotels rise like obelisks from beds packed with alliums, aquilegia, ferns, foxgloves, salvias, veronicas and much more. A peaceful rill runs through a paved area. Giant terracotta pots are brimming with sweetcorn and rainbow chard, both beautiful and useful, while the planting continues vertically to a balcony above.

Colourful silks

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We enjoyed the Primula vialli in Patrick Collins and Laurie Chetwood’s colourful Silk Road Garden, reminding me that I planted one which has not reappeared this Spring. Hot pink peonies and rhododendrons reflected the large dragon scale-like structures that form the backbone of the garden. Here too are unusual insect hotels, like lacquered boxes in inky blue and bright yellow.

Sadly, we did not have time to visit Darren Hawkes’s gold-medal winning Linklaters Garden for Maggie’s as there was a long queue to get in and we had a train to catch; and our view of the Royal Bank of Canada Garden was rather obscured as Monty Don was in the middle of filming there.

Back tomorrow with my take on the Great Pavilion.

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