Garden diary

London calling: Chelsea 2016


'Feather-footed through the plashy fens passes the questing vole' writes William Boot in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop. Boot writes a nature column for a national newspaper without ever setting foot in the capital if he can help it. And although I lack the crumbling ancestral home of Boot Magna Hall, I sometimes feel a little like William in Waugh's brilliant satire, to the extent that I try to temper the hyperbole and metaphor when I write. This is never more the case than when I 'go up to London'. It's not that I don't understand the energy or vibrancy it affords, or its culture and excitement, it's rather just that I prefer the peace and pastures of the countryside.

The Chelsea Flower Show is one event that will break my London inertia and actually make me keen to visit, although when crammed into the hot airless depths of the underground, or standing squashed next to a luggage rack on a commuter train, I find my soul crying out for a little sky and air!

Last year I managed to spend the whole day at Chelsea, I left overwhelmed, overtired and footsore. It took me a couple of days to properly unpack all of the information and begin to think coherently about what I had seen. This year I had an afternoon ticket but managed to get in little earlier and touring the show gardens with Arne, who was a gardens judge this year, was a huge treat. I even managed to get on to some of the gardens and it was really interesting looking at the finish and the attention to detail up close, it gave me a real appreciation for the level of craftsmanship that goes in to creating these temporary gardens. It is a little unnerving though looking around a garden with a crowd watching, wishing you would get out of their shot! I felt a little like an animal in a zoo; I have to say though that I thoroughly enjoyed my habitat!

It's the quality that always astounds me at Chelsea. The displays in the floral marquee were faultless, each bloom carefully selected and displayed. The passion and knowledge of the nurserymen who exhibit make me realize how little I really know while at the same time reenergizing my passion to learn. I suppose I have to say though that it is the show gardens that really capture my imagination and this year they were no different. Looking at gardens is so subjective; what works for one person will offend another. Designers' personalities seem to shine through in their garden creations from Diarmuid Gavin's openly challenging and, frankly, bonkers garden complete with rotating topiary, to James Basson's hopelessly cool, laid back garden for L'Occitane. Cleve West's garden for M&G Investments was beautifully planted using a similar palette of plants to that we have been using at Allt-y-bela; the water that flowed through the garden flowed under and over rocks towards a cobbled basin. Water was also used beautifully in Andy Sturgeon's garden for The Daily Telegraph where the hard and soft landscaping elements came together really beautifully. Hugo Bugg's garden for the Royal Bank of Canada had incredible stone structures and was planted very naturalistically. For me though I think my favourite garden may have been The Cloudy Bay Garden by Sam Ovens, with its limited palette of plants, naturalistic style and simple wooden jetty structure it felt like such a breath of fresh air.

Chelsea is one of those great British events, like Wimbledon, when it seems that it's really alright to be British; where London culture meets its more rural cousins and everyone has a lovely time amongst the flowers. For a few short hours we are all equal and united by our shared love of gardens.

Words: Steve Lannin, Head Gardener at Allt-y-bela

Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer


Chelsea: a first time for everything


May is a frenetic time in any garden. I think that I probably find it one of the most exciting as well; the rose buds are swelling and all over the garden plants are growing at the fastest rate that they will all year. All of this abundant growth comes with some problems for the gardener; all of a sudden you are faced with a seemingly endless list of time-critical jobs which you must somehow navigate your way through in order to surf the wave of growth.

When Arne first invited me to the Chelsea Flower Show I was understandably excited but as the date got nearer I started to grow slightly uneasy about the prospect of taking time out at this most critical of moments. In fact, the Friday before Chelsea I was very close to phoning Arne to tell him that although I would love to go, I just couldn't spare the time. Luckily though I held my nerve and set off for the capital last Monday afternoon.

For a country chap like myself, arriving in London is always something of a jolt to the system. I love to visit cities when I do get away from the garden, the vibrancy and pace of life is so very different to that which I am used to.

I was lucky enough to be able to arrive at the showground at 7am on Tuesday morning, a full hour before the gates opened and to have a tour around some of the highlights before the crowds arrived. I was also lucky enough to witness some of the reactions from the garden designers, exhibitors and garden builders to their medal awards; it was a timely reminder of the love and effort that goes into the spectacle that is the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

It is such a difficult task to sum up a show like the Chelsea in a few short paragraphs; there were things that I loved, there were things that weren't really me and there was everything conceivable in between. I suppose the one thing theme that ran through the whole show was one of optimism. Chelsea felt like a carnival of horticulture, where everyone could find something to inspire them.

I was amazed by the floral marquee; there is such a wealth of things on display; from floral art, to plant societies and nurseries specializing in almost everything imaginable. Personally, the stand out displays were the Cedric Morris iris which have been lovingly collected by Sarah Cook, and Simon Lockyer's perfectly presented auriculas. I spent many happy hours photographing interesting and unusual plants that I thought Arne might like.

Outside in the show gardens was perhaps where I felt most at home and I was charmed by the artisan gardens, especially the Sculptor's Picnic Garden by Graham Bodle with its strange, yet majestic gnarled arbour. The Trugmaker's Garden by Serena Fremantle and Tina Vallis was another favourite for its relaxed cottage garden planting and its highlighting of an almost forgotten traditional British industry. The Breast Cancer Haven Garden was brought together by some fantastic willow sculptures inspired by nests and contained a beautiful oak leaf shaped sculpture.

The Fresh Gardens were mixed and variously challenging, although I felt drawn to the more traditional planting in gardens like the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Garden. It was refreshing to see a wealth of concepts conveyed through the use of different plants and materials. For me the stand out garden was the Dark Matter Garden; I loved the way it attempted to make sense of the movement of dark matter through sculpture and planting.

The main show gardens were for me dominated by two stand out designs; Dan Pearson's Chatsworth Garden for Laurent-Perrier and James Basson's Perfumers Garden in Grasse for L'Occitaine. I was very aware of the hype surrounding Dan's garden before I viewed it but I was totally blown away by the detail and the frankly flawless presentation. It was jaw-droppingly impressive. James Basson's garden had many parallels with Dan's; it was perfectly put together and felt very much like a garden that had sat in the same spot for many years. They both in different ways showcased a less formal approach to planting; Dan's garden being wild yet somehow pristine and James's garden feeling lived in and real. I desperately wanted to sit down with a glass of wine in James's slice of rural France.

There were some really innovative ideas on display amongst the other show gardens including the Rich Brothers from just down the road in Brecon, who used a moveable shack and fold-out furniture and art to give their garden a really youthful dynamism. I also loved Charlie Albone's water feature in his garden The Time Inbetween which symbolized the sudden loss of his father through the sudden draining of a pool. It was one of those things that you have to see to really appreciate. The anticipation of waiting for the pool to fill, followed by the sudden and dramatic loss of water was really quite affecting.

It's been nearly a week since my day at Chelsea; I spent 13 hours at the show and came away feeling a little overwhelmed. There were other great show gardens and a multitude of floral displays that will stay with me for a very long time but it's Dan's garden, which has given me the most food for thought.

The over-riding feeling though has been one of huge respect for all of the people who make the RHS Chelsea Flower Show what it is; the most prestigious horticultural show in the world. Busy or not I'm going to be making sure that I make time to pay homage to Chelsea and all that in exemplifies a little more regularly in future.

Words: Steve Lannin, Head Gardener, Allt-y-bela

Photographs: Britt Willoughby-Dyer