The best of the smaller show gardens at Chelsea this year each tell a story. Like the cover of a book, at first glance you can tell what genre of literature you are looking at. Then, as you spend a while ‘reading’ the garden, understanding it’s structure and planting, the story unfolds.
Breast Cancer Now: Through the Microscope
The first thing you notice about the Breast Cancer Now Garden: Through the Microscope is two giant white hoops which could represent the lenses of a microscope, or, if seen in a different light, the breasts themselves. In contrast to these cool, clinical structures, the planting is feminine, with feathery grasses, peachy geums and hot pink peonies and lupins.
Beneath A Mexican Sky
Manoj Malde’s garden made me feel like I was on holiday in Mexico City, about to take cocktails on an artist’s terrace. I loved the colourful walls in tangerine, salmon pink and pale coffee, and the mix of cactuses, agaves, and plants such as salvias and the orange Escholzia californica.
I could imagine a younger, child free version of myself living in this apartment garden with its shady terrace, cool white foxgloves, over-sized orange angle-poise lamp and superlative vertical planting.
BBC Radio 2 Feelgood Gardens
I loved the concept of the Feelgood Gardens, each celebrating one of the five senses. The Chris Evans Taste Garden was the allotment of Peter Rabbit’s wildest dreams, with giant, glossy lettuces in red, acid green and purple, not to mention rainbow chard, orange calendula, yellow dahlias and a pretty pink rose.
The Jo Whiley Scent Garden definitely told a story – of the smells the presenter remembers from childhood, the phrases carved into the back of the beautifully curved stone bench. We struggled to find the scent in this garden though, apart from a rose, some thyme and Myrrhis odorata.
My favourite story from these gardens was the Anneka Rice Cutting Garden by Sarah Raven, with a magical shed decorated with shelves of antique bottles in jewel tones, reflecting the rich planting with plants such as her signature dahlias, purple alliums, Rosa ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Rubenza’.
The Seedlip Garden
The woodland setting of the Artisan Gardens adds to their fairy-tale feel. I loved the Seedlip Garden, hidden in the woods like an alchemist’s hut with a laboratory table of distilling vessels and intriguing copper wire sculptures. Designed by Dr Catherine MacDonald, the garden depicts the ‘book to bottle’ journey of Seedlip’s non-alcoholic distilled spirits. It features species from The Art of Distillation, including artemisia, calendula, rosemary, hyssop, mint and thyme, as well as the festival favourite Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’.
Poetry Lover’s Garden
Perhaps the most literary of all the gardens at this year’s festival is this one, inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘This Lime Tree Bower My Prison’ in which he laments being left behind in the garden while his friends go off on a long walk he had planned for them all, after his wife accidentally poured boiling liquid on his feet. Designed by Fiona Cadwallader, the planting under pleached limes includes Astrantia major ‘Star of Billion’, Bearded Iris ‘Jurassic Park’, Geranium ‘Mrs Kendall Clark’, Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Irene Patterson’, Fritillaria persica ‘Twin Towers’ and Philadelphus ‘Twin Towers’, the names a poem in themselves.
The World Horse Welfare Garden
On seeing this garden, I felt like I had already taken the train home to Sussex. It was just like the corner of a country field. Telling the story of Clippy, a horse who was found in a terrible state, half starved and unable to sit down because of his cramped surroundings, Adam Woolcott and Jonathan Smith’s garden begins with a tumbledown stable hut in an overgrown corner, with weeds such as Ragwort which are poisonous to horses, and moves towards a luscious meadow under the shadow of a Sweet Chestnut tree like the one where the real life Clippy now happily grazes.
Having seen so many wonderful stories told in the gardens at RHS Chelsea 2017, I am now inspired to tell a story with my own garden; one with elements of magic, adventure, romance and fun.