For a gardener, attending the Chelsea Flower Show is a ‘big thing’. It’s an opportunity to get out and see what other gardeners, designers and growers have been getting up to during the past year. A chance to look at new plants, new trends and new ideas and generally have a day off, wafting around, making comments about show gardens, pretending to know what we’re talking about.
Everyone has their favourite garden and that’s very much down to our own personal taste. I particularly loved Cleve West’s ‘Persian Garden’ but no matter what I felt about the overall design of the gardens, in all of them, I found areas of interesting, intriguing and sometimes inspirational, planting. Despite the fact that the designers all develop their gardens individually and privately, every year definite themes seem to emerge; colours, flowers, building materials and ideas all seem to reflect a unified thought process. Designers and TV presenters like to refer to it as the zeitgeist (spirit of the times); an interesting idea if you’re into psychology but I’m just into plants and I was intrigued by the plant themes that emerged this year. So here are my observations of the ‘plant zeitgeist’ this year at Chelsea; plants that seem to be everywhere and enjoying a moment of glory. Surprisingly, even though we are an ‘old’ garden, we grow many of them here at Sissinghurst. Good plants don’t go out of fashion but they do get used in different and unusual combinations and that’s what’s great about Chelsea.
Irises are always popular at Chelsea, it’s the right time of year for them and they give an intense burst of colour to many of the planting schemes in the show gardens. This year was no exception. Irises were abundant, particularly the elegant and graceful Iris sibirica which seemed to find its way in to practically every show garden.
The Waterscape Garden designed by Hugo Bugg perhaps relied most heavily on the use of irises. He chose Iris bulleyana, Iris sibirica ‘Perry’s Blue’ and Iris robusta ‘Gerald Darby’ (which we grow at Sissinghurst) echoing the theme of water, in his planting scheme. But he wasn’t the only one. Cleve West used a trickle of small white irises in the desert area of his garden, Matthew Childs used I.sibirica ‘Dreaming Yellow’, ‘Gull’s Wing’ and ‘Shirley Pope’ in the Brewin Dolphin garden whilst Luciano Giubbilei used I. sibirica ‘Persimmon’, and the Cloudy Bay garden used I. sibirica ‘Dreaming Green’ as well as bearded irises such as ‘Wine Master’, ‘Deep Black’, ‘Dutch Chocolate’ and ‘Fortunate Son’ in deep rich hues to represent the colours of wine. Iris ‘Jane Philipps’ (another classic Sissinghurst iris) was used in both ‘The Telegraph Garden’ and ‘The Extending Space’ garden, whilst the Rich brothers used I. Chrysographes ‘Black Knight’ and I sibirica ‘Tropic Night’ to represent the night sky. All in all, a good year for irises although one journalist rather meanly suggested that perhaps they were ‘going cheap’ at the wholesale nurseries.
Lysimachia atropurpurea ‘Beaujolais’
We grew this Lysimachia at Sissinghurst last year in the Rose Garden and I recognised it straight away in Matthew Child’s garden, growing up through Melica altissima ‘Alba’ and Zizia aptera. It appeared again Charlotte Rowe’s garden and then in Hugo Bugg’s Waterscape garden. I loved it in all three of these gardens. The designers had all combined it with different plants but in each case they had managed to capture its snake-like appearance as it pushed up through other plants like a rattle-snake ready to strike.
Monty Don even declared it to be his favourite plant of Chelsea 2014, which is not a bad accolade to have.
I have never taken much notice of the Trollius we grow here until I was forced to take a closer look at it when it was part of one of our weekly plant idents. Although I decided that I didn’t really like Trollius x cultorum ‘Superbus’, I did find some that I liked in the Rose Garden. Trollius x cultorum ‘Alabaster’ is altogether a more refined plant and the flowers are a very pretty pale yellow unlike its slightly brasher relative T. x cultorum ‘Superbus’.
It seems that Trollius are also having their moment at Chelsea this year. I spotted it initially in the Laurent- Perrier garden, where Luciano Giubbilei had also chosen Trollius x cultorum ‘Alabaster’ with its pale primrose-yellow flowers to mingle with Digitalis lutea, Lupinus ‘Chandelier’ and Orlaya grandiflora. Then I saw it in Adam Frost’s garden with Iris sibirica, a white geranium and Briza media. Charlotte Rowe had it growing at the front of her ‘No Man’s Land’ garden and had chosen the same cultivar as Lucciano. Same plant, different combinations. I liked it in Lucciano’s garden best, where the rounded, globular shape of the Trollius flower contrasted nicely with the spires of the lupins and the flat flower-heads of the Orlaya.
Perhaps aquilegias are popular every year, as like irises they actually want to flower at this time of year but it seemed to me that aquilegias were everywhere. Deep, dark moody ones could be found in Matthew Child’s garden, where no less than 5 different cultivars were used and the Rich brothers used ‘Blue Barlow’ and ‘Black Barlow’ in their ‘Night Sky’ garden. Other aquilegia lovers included Matthew Keightley in the ‘Hope on the Horizon’ garden, ‘Positively Stoke-on-Trent’ who used masses of pale pink fluffy ones and Charlotte Rowe who used the green Aquilegia viridiflora.
Other plants were definitely having a minor ‘moment of fame’ at Chelsea. Although not quite so obvious as the ones already mentions, 2 other plants caught my eye as I walked around.
Cirsium rivulare atropurpurea
Cirsiums are part of the thistle family and have small, scarlet flowers, held erect on strong, branching stems. It’s a strong architectural plant which gives little bursts of vivid colour. Matthew Keightley used it well in his ‘Hope on the Horizon’ garden where it stood out against the dark granite blocks, Hugo Bugg combined it with an acid green euphorbia and pale blue irises and the ‘Positively Stoke-on-Trent’ garden had it sprinkled throughout, combining it with other deep pink flowers.
This shiny, dark green plant, with rounded heart-shaped leaves gives great ground cover and will thrive in all sorts of awkward shady places. I spotted it in both Charlotte Rowe’s garden and Hugo Bugg’s. It’s unique selling point, I think, is its incredibly glossy leaves which make it shine out and look special in even the most unpromising of locations.
Chelsea is such an interesting show to visit. Of course, it has its limitations in that many plants are either ‘held back’ or ‘brought on’ in order to be in perfect condition for the show. Nevertheless, it’s a great place to look at new plants and different planting schemes and perhaps take back a few ideas for our own gardens. Most of all, it’s a really fun day out!