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Chelsea Flower Show 2017: The Highlights

We round up the highlights to look forward to at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, which will have an unmistakably international feel

Around-the-world trip within 11 acres of west London awaits visitors to this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Consciously or not, in the wake of the EU referendum, the grounds of the Royal Hospital will have a distinctly global feel between May 23 and 27, with Japan, Malta, Mexico and Canada among the countries inspiring some of the event’s 28 gardens.

At the same time there will be plenty of reminders of the UK, with Yorkshire, Norfolk and Covent Garden all represented. And while even the world-famous RHS Chelsea Flower Show hasn’t escaped the financial fallout from Brexit, with just eight main avenue show gardens in 2017 compared with just over double that number last year, its organisers remain upbeat. “Like everyone, we weren’t immune to the impact of uncertain times last year and we think it was this uncertainty that may have impacted on sponsors’ decisions to be involved this year,” explains an RHS spokesman.

“As with every RHS Chelsea Flower Show for more than a century, designers, nurserymen and leading lights are pulling out all the stops to make this the best gardening event in the world. At RHS Chelsea it will always be about quality and not quantity.”

Malta is the inspiration for James Basson’s garden for M&G, which will be showing how the country has adapted to overcome environmental challenges, such as water limitations and sustainable waste disposal. France-based Basson, who won a gold medal for his Provence-inspired creation for L’Occitane last year, is basing his design on a quarry separated into a series of spaces. His garden will feature Maltese limestone, along with unique plants that he has had special permission to bring to the UK.

“I want to capture the principles of ecological sustainability and the urgent need for action to preserve the fragile balance of our planet,” he explains. Meanwhile, Charlotte Harris explored the geographically vast and ecologically vital boreal forests and freshwater lakes of Canada while preparing her design for the Royal Bank of Canada Garden, in what is the 150th anniversary of the confederation of that country. This will be Harris’ first project as a lead designer for the RHS Chelsea Flower show and she will head up an all-woman design team.

“As with every RHS Chelsea Flower Show for more than a century, designers, nurserymen and leading lights are pulling out all the stops to make this the best gardening event in the world. At RHS Chelsea it will always be about quality and not quantity”

“I spent time in northern Ontario exploring on foot and by canoe –navigating the waterways, pine forests, flora and granite of the Boreal,” she says. “This time was a special source of inspiration for the design.” Elsewhere, The Chengdu Silk Road Garden – the fourth collaboration at Chelsea between architect Laurie Chetwood and garden designer Patrick Collins – will highlight ancient trade routes between East and West and showcase plants found in the Sichuan province, one of the most florally rich and diverse regions of the world.

Five hundred years of Covent Garden, from its origins as an orchard belonging to Westminster Abbey to its years as the home of the capital’s famous flower sellers, will be marked in a garden designed by Lee Bestall and supported by Capco, the site’s owner and steward, while Tracy Foster will be recreating a ruined abbey, as well as cliffs, a beach and reconstructed sea for Welcome to Yorkshire.

Winner of 11 gold medals Chris Beardshaw is hoping to make it a perfect dozen with his design for The Morgan Stanley Garden, which will include a geometric performance pavilion in which members of the National Youth Orchestra will play a unique piece of music – and, unusually, the entire site will be viewable from three sides. The garden is due to be donated to the charity Groundwork to use in community schemes in east London after the show. “Music in essence runs a parallel course to the creation of the garden,” Beardshaw explains. “The plants that we’ve used are akin to the players in an orchestra and it’s about the choreography of those players and the orchestration...”

Other show gardens include Breaking Ground, designed by Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliam, and sponsored by Darwin Property Investment Management Ltd, which will include a reference to the bleak heath landscape in Berkshire into which Wellington College was established in the 1850s, and The Linklater’s for Maggie’s Garden, designed by Darren Hawkes and inspired by the vision of the late Maggie Keswick Jencks, who understood the importance of cancer patients having spaces in which to relax. Elements of this tranquil garden will be taken to the new Maggie’s centre at St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

Five hundred years of Covent Garden, from its origins as an orchard belonging to Westminster Abbey to its years as the home of the capital’s famous flower sellers, will be marked in a garden designed by Lee Bestall and supported by Capco

While the number of show gardens may be down, there will be a record nine entries for the much-loved Artisan area, a section that often produces Chelsea’s most imaginative and inspiring designs while revitalising traditional crafts and materials. Among the most eagerly awaited gardens is Gosho No Niwa by Ishihara Kazuyuki, who’s Senri-Sentei Garage Garden with its classic Mini car won over crowds in 2016. This year, Kazuyuki is basing his design on the Kyoto residence of Japanese emperors and will be using trees such as acer and pine to evoke the atmosphere of his homeland and moss to represent the passage of time. The Japanese theme will be continued by Shuko Noda, whose Hagakure – Hidden Leaves garden is set to express the five senses and encourage visitors to be thankful for life’s opportunities.

David Domoney will be joining in on the celebrations to mark the centenary of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission with a design that incorporates Portland stone steps leading to a raised platform, while the work of Antoni Gaudi and the modern arts movement in Barcelona will be represented in the Viking Cruises Garden of Inspiration from multiple time RHS gold medal winner Sarah Eberle. 

Gary Breeze will be bringing a replica of an 800-year-old oak boat to Chelsea for Broadland Boatbuilder’s Garden. The plight of abandoned and neglected animals will be highlighted in The World Horse Welfare Garden, with designers Adam Woolcott and Jonathan Smith recreating Clippy the pony’s journey from a dark, derelict stable to sunlit meadow in the west of England. And for the literary-minded, there’s The Poetry Lover’s Garden, designed by Fiona Cadwallader and based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s immortal words in This Lime-tree Bower my Prison.

Among the most eagerly awaited gardens is Gosho No Niwa by Ishihara Kazuyuki, who’s Senri-Sentei Garage Garden with its classic Mini car won over crowds in 2016, who is basing his design on the Kyoto residence of Japanese emperors

Things will be heating up in the Fresh section, which aims to redefine the perception of the garden, with Inland Homes Plc’s Beneath a Mexican Sky. Designer Manoj Malde will be using colour-washed walls in clementine, coral and cappuccino, offset by concrete slabs floating across an aquamarine pool, as the backdrop for drought-tolerant plants that merge Mediterranean and country-cottage styles. Elsewhere, 23-year-old Jack Dunckley will be evoking The Bermuda Triangle, with a contemporary representation of an active volcanic landscape interwoven with tropical planting, using LED lights and plastic sheets.

Other highlights of this section include Kate Gould’s ‘City Living’ garden, designed for an urban apartment block in which residents have no other access to outdoor spaces.Its message will chime with the innovative ‘Greening Grey Britain’ feature designed for the Royal Horticultural Society by Professor Nigel Dunnett, which will present a vision for the future that demonstrates the role of plants in creating healthier cities, with ideas for balconies, front and backyards. Meanwhile, the BBC Radio 2 Feel Good Gardens category will showcase five spaces designed to show the benefits of having a place to escape and indulge the senses. 

No visit to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show is complete without a wander around The Great Pavilion, a 12,000m² structure large enough to park at least 500 London buses. Talking points are bound to include a 4.3m high metallic spring, the centrepiece of ‘Hillier’s spring’ from the renowned Hillier’s nursery in Hampshire. 

If a trip to the grounds of the Royal Hospital isn’t an option this year, it’s still possible to enter into the spirit of the show by taking a tour of the Chelsea Fringe. Now in its sixth year, the alternative flowering festival, taking place between 20 May and 4 June, celebrates the spirit and creativity of the horticultural world with special gardening events, activities, installations and workshops.   

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2017, 23-27 May, Royal Hospital Chelsea, SW3. For more information visit: rhs.org.uk/Chelsea. Chelsea Fringe, 20 May – 4 June, for more information, visit: chelseafringe.com