Jill, Duchess of Hamilton, challenges the Catholic Church to come up with a dazzling entry for next year’s Chelsea Flower Show illiam the Conqueror never tasted a tomato, a potato, a runner bean, a pineapple or a peanut.
Nor did he ever experience chocolate or refined sugar, indulge in tobacco or look at a begonia. Less than a quarter of the produce available today was known in the British Isles when he arrived in 1066. The origin of six of these plants is shown in a lavish rainforest corner of the Chelsea Flower Show.
Sir David Attenborough, patron of the World Land Trust, is one of the forces behind this display. The WLT, which for the past decade has worked with three Catholic countries in South America (Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil) has helped save huge swathes of rainforest.
The serious science behind this plea to save wild plant and animal habitats clashes slightly with the “stop and take notice of me” displays nearby. Garden gnomes remain on the banned list at the Chelsea Flower Show, but other extremes are not. There are dressmakers’ dummies covered in moss, a wall of dozens of open umbrellas, fake grass, real diamonds, a suspended Chinook helicopter covered in carpet-bedding, a giant flower-covered fairy, an open fire and Robin Hood introducing a rose. For once, on the first day the sun was suitably hot so the Australian lifeguards and bikini-clad girls were not shivering.
Novelty or concept gardens do not always work. David Domoney’s bikers’ retreat was much-acclaimed last year, but for some his diamond garden takes extravagance and gimmicks too far. As one visitor exclaimed: “The silvery bits on the path and the bouncers wearing black shirts and black glasses makes me yearn for an old-fashioned garden.” In the awareness in saving water, “grow your own”, and greenness, large expanses of mown lawn have often been replaced with planting of long grasses or hard surfaces of slate, stone, marble, gravel, brick and tiles. Indeed, this year, exactly 100 years since the first Chelsea Flower Show opened in the Royal Hospital grounds, there is an inclination towards biodiversity and juxtaposing man with nature. As Chelsea is undoubtedly the greatest horticultural showcase in the world there is no better place to observe new fashions and styles.
Over the past five years wild planting has often been mixed with stark architecture. This May this trend is more extreme. While the abundance of planting as in traditional English garden remains, most displays have an almost self-conscious emphasis on modern architectural walls, awnings and geometric paths. Their severity is very distinct from the wild planting, adding a satisfying sense of proportion.
The undisputed king of Chelsea, Tom Stuart-Smith, has pushed the boundaries between an outdoor naturalistic entertaining area and sharply designed walls and buildings. Entered through a pavilion of folded sheets of copper, the space overlooks a rectangular pond surrounded by tall beds of cow parsley instead of lawn. His blurring of the border between what is a garden and what is woodland, though, is deceptive. A rectilinear pattern of geometricshaped paths run through a grove of river birch. He conveys that it is possible to bring the woodland really close to the family house, that it is not necessary to go into a garden centre to have something you can recognisably call a garden.
Robin Myer’s Cancer Research garden, like many others at the show, also combines a near-wilderness in tune with nature, which again stands out against unexpected up-to-the-minute architectural shapes. And, as if to avoid fussiness, the colour of flowers used is muted which much repetition of each species so there are clusters.
The message this year is to use sharp, bold architectural lines. In other words, get rid of the clutter, the old gazebo, wooden slat decking, crazy paving, resin statues, naff Italian statues, mock alpine rock, the pseudo-Italian pergola, the simulated Italian balustrading, cement balls and the satisfying and easy use of symmetry.
Other trends include a conscious use of different heights. The completely flat garden is out. Along with the new stylish garden architecture is an awareness of the need to have different levels with distinctly raised areas. This was very obvious in the Global Stone Bee Friendly Plants Garden which has bleak words starkly written on the back wall: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would have only four years life left – Albert Einstein.” Instead of the stereotypical wildlife garden, the sponsors have used contemporary architecture with tall giant wooden planters and lots of heavy natural stone. Another obvious trend is the swing away from white garden furniture. Any colour but not white. White jeans may be in fashion this season but white garden furniture, especially white wooden or metal chairs, like white hats and white jackets, are out. A bit of old paint with rust showing through is permissible.
“An economical use of colour, with a stress on texture, changes of levels and crisp architecture,’ was the way that gardening writer Alan Titchmarsh described the restrained palette and geometrical shapes to me as we strolled along discussing the work he has been doing for Butterfly Conservation.
As over 100 of the exhibitors are either charitable or non-profit making organisations, the question again should be asked why there are no ecclesiastical gardens or any displays drawing attention to the magnificent work of the Catholic Church in England? This year for the first time an Oxbridge College is exhibiting at Chelsea with an exhibit drawing attention to the Transit of Venus and botanical and astronomical advances. Perhaps next year the Diocese of Westminster will surprise us all with a garden.