Feeling the blues at the ‘granddaddy’ of all flower exhibits: Chelsea Flower Show

Last modified: Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Chelsea Flower Show, the horticultural extravaganza held in London every May, is absolutely overwhelming.

It was my dream for 30 years to attend this granddaddy of all flower shows and this year my dream came true.

A group of 20 members of the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association and their guests toured English gardens for eight days, starting with Chelsea.

My most vivid memory is of blue flowers — blue Siberian iris, blue delphiniums, blue borage and my own favorite blue salvias.

The enormous display has many facets. First are the show gardens. In England these gardens are sponsored by banks, newspapers and wine companies instead of nurseries, as in America.

Many in our group were surprised that these exhibits are outdoors. American garden shows are usually held inside in March, often when snow is on the ground outside. Also outside at Chelsea are smaller designed gardens and dozens and dozens of commercial vendors as well as fun places to eat. While I ate lunch, the Guards Association Band played upbeat music.

There is also a huge marquee under which major nurseries and horticultural groups display their latest wares. You can’t buy anything from these booths until the last hours of the four-day show.

Youth movement

Luckily our tour guide insisted we arrive at the show grounds shortly after 8 a.m. because later in the morning the crowds were so intense you couldn’t get close to the major displays. Most of us spent six hours at the show.

The hype beforehand was all about the young designers who created some of the major competitive displays. Hugo Bugg, 27, won a gold award for his water garden 
underwritten by the Royal Bank of Canada, which has a program to encourage water conservation.

His modern garden, with concrete slabs forming relaxation areas over pools, was breathtaking. A gentle waterfall on the far side spilled into a filtration area and rill. His design demonstrated ways to capture and filter water from natural and artificial runoff.

His palette of flowers was gorgeous, including some plants I had never seen. The spikes of deep red Lysimachia ‘Beaujolais’ were quite striking beside bold yellow euphorbias and burgundy “thistles” (Cirsium rivulare atropurpureum).

In the distance, the Chelsea trademark blue Siberian iris were matched with anemone ‘White Swan’, a variety introduced at Chelsea a few years ago and prominent in several display gardens. Bugg’s philosophy was evident: “water-efficient design can also be bold and elegant.”

Best of the best

Choosing a favorite garden from the 16 large displays is difficult. While I loved Bugg’s garden, I really preferred two others, only one of which won a gold. ‘Time to Reflect’ was the title of Adam Frost’s peaceful garden built in conjunction with Homebase Garden Academy, a training program for young gardeners sponsored by a Home Depot-like company, and the Alzheimer’s Association.

This tranquil space featured simple pools of water and a garden pavilion with a green roof. There was a rustic bench made from a fallen oak tree. The color scheme was restful blues, whites and yellows. One lovely combination was blue iris with white columbine and white foxgloves.

Another dramatic garden with a fascinating story was “Hope on the Horizon” by young designer Matthew Keightley.

The design plots the journey of military veterans dealing with the horrors of war from trauma to a sense of hope for their futures. It was inspired by the designer’s brother who has served five tours of duty in Afghanistan for the RAF.

Granite blocks were scattered throughout the garden, starting with unprocessed stone indicating the raw trauma of battle. Semi-processed stones were in the middle area while the display culminated in a shiny flat sculpture of polished granite with gold leaf symbolizing sunrise, showing the end of the journey with a sense of hope and gladness. Near the beginning of the garden was a horizontal stone engraved “Inspire, Enable, Support,” the motto of the sponsoring organization which helps returning vets.

The plantings were stellar. Gorgeous blue delphiniums and towering white foxgloves were prominent. Keightley only earned a silver-gilt medal from the judges but show attendees voted it “The People’s Choice” on the BBC. The garden was to be dismantled and replanted in Colchester at a respite center for war veterans.

Italian gardens have never really been my cup of tea but there were two lovely ones at Chelsea. The garden sponsored by The Telegraph newspaper featured a flat curtain of water over Italian marble similar to the Samuel Paley Plaza on Madison Avenue in New York City. In England linden trees are called lime trees and this garden featured stilt-like lindens pruned into a living canopy for a pavilion. As in the “Time to Reflect” garden, the plants were white, yellow and blue, a restful combination.

Nearby was another Italian garden whose design didn’t impress me as much but its plants were fun. River birches were under planted with Salvia ‘White Swan’, which was blooming in my Amherst garden when I returned as well as blue salvias and zillions of white foxgloves.

The top winner was a Persian-style garden with decided geometry and formal pools as well as a fountain. Alas, I passed by it early in the day (distracted by another garden across the path) and when I returned, the area was mobbed. I could barely force my way close enough to get a couple of pictures and I had absolutely no sense of the overall design.

The Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism invested for a second year in a major display garden at Chelsea.

Last year it featured Emily Dickinson. This year was a Cape Cod garden.

A rustic beach house inspired by Henry Beston’s “The Outermost House” nestled among a stage set of painted dunes. Rugosa roses, prickly pear cactus and lupines were prominent. One of the designers told someone in our group that finding American beach plants in England was a major challenge. Perhaps that is why we were a bit disappointed in the result.

Intriguing idea

Before the show I did extensive research on the Royal Horticultural Society website to plan my visit. One garden that intrigued me was “Reachout,” created after the designer met with a group of troubled teenagers in a northern town. It was starkly simple. A series of short pillars of stacked stone along a slender rill of water edged with blooming thyme and rosemary. A dramatic statue of woven wire depicted a girl bowed over with despair.

It won a gold award in the Fresh category, a section for gardens incorporating innovative contemporary design.

Another interesting Fresh garden was sponsored by the Garden Museum in London. It was a huge modern Wardian Case, the clever 19th-century invention that enabled plant explorers to ship home live specimens from around the world.

The designer used plants from Crug Farm in Wales, the nursery of Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones, modern-day plant explorers. All the unlabeled plants are so new to the trade no one could recognize them even with the plant list provided.

The marquee where nurseries display their latest introductions is big enough to hold two 747 planes, noted one member of our group. It certainly is huge. There are hundreds of booths, some of them almost like landscaped display gardens.

One charming display was by Hooksgreen Herbs and depicted a Peter Rabbit garden. There were two hosta purveyors, Kelway peonies, Evison clematis, and in the center the 150th anniversary display by Hillier’s Nursery. This in itself was overwhelming with hundreds of huge specimens of trees and shrubs, all Hillier introductions over the life of the famous nursery. There was one section that was a white garden and another area featured roses.

I was drawn by a display of auriculas, that primrose sister which I would love to grow but can’t. I want to find ‘Bijou’ blue clematis shown by Evison whose nursery is on the island of Guernsey. I also want to find ‘White Swan’ anemone.

Chelsea’s downside

But the problem with going to Chelsea Flower Show — apart from the fact it is exhausting — is that the new plants and even the old plants are unlikely to be available in America even if they are hardy here. Evison clematis, however, are sold at Hadley Garden Center.

I had a marvelous time at Chelsea Flower Show. I came away with a renewed admiration for basic design concepts. But even avid English gardeners don’t go every year. For one thing it is expensive and for another you need to get tickets by January at the latest, unless you are part of a tour as we were. Public tickets were sold out before the second day.

But if you would like an incredible splurge and plan to be in England next May, check out the website rhs.uk.org for a report on this year’s show and information about 2015.