23 things at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2017

The Chelsea Flower Show is nuts. People on stilts dressed only in flowers, cactus jackets, astro turf lions, stands of rare plants grown to utter perfection by collectors and nurseries, every millimetre of gardens designed and fussed over, landscaping built in a week to be knocked down a week later, flowers arranged into hats…

People like me turn up taking photos, jotting down plants names, blogging about how amazing everything is. Everyone hotly debates afterwards that their favourite garden should have won best in show because it was better than someone else’s favourite.

Why do we do it? Because we all flipping love it!

The Chelsea Flower Show is an unpredictable and eccentric celebration of skill, plants and artistry. There’s nothing else like it. As has now become tradition, here is an article with a random numer of ‘things’ that caught my eye at this year’s show.

1) Chris Beardshaw’s shade planting

Everyone, and I mean everyone loved Chris Beardshaw’s garden for its masterful planting. One side in shade, a lush woodland garden – a type of planting I absolutely love. Full of ferns, lush foliage and showing people you can have flowers too.

2) Chris Beardshaw’s sun planting

Echiums, Cirsium, dwarf pines, Angelica, Lupins. All the crowd pleasers are here in a colourful display. The building is almost incidental, it’s all about the plants in what’s essentially one gargantuan border.

3) This structure setting off the Canadian boreal forest planting

Contender for my favourite garden of the show. Charlotte Harris has designed a cool and contemporary space I would love to spend time in. The structure is one of the best I’ve seen at Chelsea, the simple shapes and the see-through slats (reminiscent of something I’ve seen at Edinburgh Zoo) make the plants look better. The level of detail on the stone work, pool and charred wood is really strong.

4) Vibro-gardening

I know James Alexander-Sinclair from TV but this Chelsea made me realise I know none of his designs! Well, that has changed with this simple eye-catcher, a shadey area with three copper troughs. Not such a big deal, eh? Think again! For one, the entire garden sits on mahoosive vibration plates making the mini fountains in the pools create incredible displays of grids and squares. Secondly, that shade planting is pretty genius tbh. Tetrapanax and lots of interesting foliage plants.

5) Side wall of the Poetry Lover’s Garden

I think / hope this was intentionally a highlight, otherwise it’s a bit sacrilegious for me to say, my favourite part of Fiona Cadwallader’s garden was this side wall on her Poetry Lover’s Garden. The little fern, Asplenium trichomanes is one of my (many) favourite ferns, the wall is contemporary dry stone and peaking over the top is another fave, Fritillaria persica, the cultivar ‘Twin Towers Tribute’.

6) Speaking of back sides

Kazayuki Ishihara’s Gosho No Niwa garden impressed like all of his previous show gardens. This year we could walk around the back to find… the magic continued with the back looking as good as the front. A living wall of Acers, Viburnum and herbaceous plants. Incredible skill and ingenuity.

7) City living

City Living by Kate Gould is a tour de force of exciting new ideas for people transforming their inner city small spaces. Proving again that shade planting can be very exciting with plants in unusual undercover and living wall positions, as well as roof tops and basement style areas. Very clever with lots going on in every tiny space. Lots of interesting materials too, including the rusty colour metal.

8) Walker’s Wharf

It’s like the sequel to the Sculptor’s Picnic garden in 2015. Walker’s Wharf by Graham Bodle was my favourite Artisan garden this year because of the colouring and atmosphere, it looked like it had always been there. The materials are what make it. Old industrial cogs and crane surrounded by lovely wood decking, dwarf pines and other woodland wonders. Deserving of best of the Artisan gardens.

9) A contemporary mediterranean retreat

There was quite a lot of hype leading up to the show about James Basson’s quarry garden, so I was expecting the reality not to live up to it. In the end, it surpassed all expectations and is one of my favourite Chelsea gardens of all time. Lots of people don’t get it because it doesn’t match up to the traditional voluptuous planting of regular gardens (“where are the Lupins?!” etc). For me, it captures an atmosphere like nothing else. Plus, I’m a sucker for wild flowers and I don’t understand conventions that tell us we shouldn’t like weeds in our gardens. All plants are beautiful in the right setting. Growing wildflowers as grown in this garden, and then presented to look natural takes far more horticultural grit (and I don’t mean the pebbles) than a regular border. The plants are interesting, unusual and they set off the fantastic grid, pool and path of hard landscaping, combining to create a truly wonderful overall colour palette. All making this garden completely unique and fully deserving of best in show 2017. (There I said it – comments box below for other opinions! 😀 )

10) More weeds

If people hated the planting in James Basson’s garden I’d love to know what they think of the weedy wonder of the World Horse Welfare Garden by Adam Woolcott and Jonathan Smith. It was rammed full of an incredible number of our native / naturalised wild flowers all grown to weedy perfection. Some were even trampled to make a natural path. Again, I loved it – there’s such talent in making a garden like this look so natural.

11) Mind Trap

Designer Ian Price told me he’d been planning this garden in part for 15 years and as he explained it to me, the layers of meaning were wonderful. With conceptual gardens I either love them or hate them, because you either get them or you don’t. This garden, about an individual’s struggle with depression I got. It also looks pretty cool which is a hard thing to do when your garden has a message. I was initially drawn in by that funky little water feature.

12) Big red fins!

Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins’ Silk Road garden was visually spectacular and really unusual. I loved the planting and the red fins. I was less keen on all the other gizmos that came with it, like the random bug boxes, wrestler faces and giant plastic toy balls – but I am a minimalist so what do I know.

13) More mosaics please!

I love a mosaic and the Viking Cruises garden for inspiration by Sarah Erbele has a really good one. Working wonders with the orange tree above it. Sarah’s rill and water pipes also caught my eye.

14) Cushions and concrete

The exploded concrete cube is cool, but the cushions inside it are cooler.

15) Irises

Enough said.

16) Palms

17) Wish my allotment looked like this…

18) Concrete swirl

19) The hard landscaping! The planting!

Up there in my top five gardens this year has to be this one, the texture garden by Matt Keightley. The hard landscaping is very cool, and the planting is nigh on perfect in my eyes. Very textured in literal texture and colour palette too.

20) Proper copper

Catherine Macdonald created a wonderful coppery-orange garden for Seedlip continuing 2016’s biggest trend into this year. It really worked and is again, one of the top cutting edge plantings this year.

21) Beautiful tatties

The world needs people who obsess and collect plants. Heritage potatoes on display here are a history lesson and a lesson in the art of master veg growing. I wasn’t immediately drawn to them but what an inspirational exhibit.

22) In glorious techni-colour!

Beneath a Mexican Sky by Manoj Malde is a real gem. It stood out as utterly different to other gardens thanks to the bold paint job on the walls and its drought tolerant plants.

23) Great Pavillion 

As is true every year, as interesting as the show gardens are it’s what’s in the Great Pavillion that counts. Display upon display of plants grown by the best growers in the country. Everything looks immaculate and it’s where you be confronted by plants you’ve never seen before – either because they’re so unusual or because they’re an entirely new cultivar. You could spend the full week at Chelsea Flower Show in the marquee and you couldn’t see it all.

And that’s a wrap for another year. I thought 2017 was, despite what others have said, a vintage year. There may have been slightly fewer gardens but I didn’t notice at all. If anything, there are more iconic gardens this year that have stuck in my mind, like the Canadian garden, Butler’s Wharf, some of the Radio Two gardens and of course, that Maltese quarry. They will certainly keep me thinking for the next few weeks.

Please come back to the site for more on the show over the coming week.

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Jack Wallington

I'm an RHS qualified garden designer living in Clapham, London who loves growing plants and designing with them. Follow me on Twitter.

14 thoughts on “23 things at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2017”

  1. Vintage year! You said vintage year. Every year people say this year’s Chelsea is a vintage year 😉

    Thanks for the overview. I’ve barely engaged with Chelsea on tv/social media this year, but I enjoyed your overview and pics.

    1. I was thinking, and I used vintage year because other people had said it wasn’t a vintage year. I don’t actually know what makes a Chelsea Flower Show vintage… I’m guessing you can’t actually say it without a few years hindsight. What I do know is that there are some really good memorable gardens and flower displays. So I think it was a very strong showing overall, but then it always is.

  2. That’s it! I’m definitely going next year. Forget how many more sleeps before Christmas, it’ll be sleeps before The CGS 2018 in our house. Thanks for the bloggers eye view.

    1. Haha that’s exactly it Roger! I’ve substituted Christmas for Chelsea now I’m older 😀 hopefully see you there.

  3. Great post Jack, just what I needed as I couldn’t go this year. Love your photos as they’re giving me lots of ideas for the natural/wild/shady areas which are still in need of work in my garden. So good to see really interesting ‘design’ ideas for developing wild areas that go beyond just scattering wild meadow flower seeds.

    1. Thanks Judy, I’m glad the posts have been useful. I love shady areas and look forward to seeing yours in photos hopefully one day 🙂

  4. Thank you Jack! We’ve had a lot of mixed comments but it is so nice to hear from professionals who ‘get it’, there’s definitely a huge debate around ‘what is a weed’ and ‘what makes a garden?’ ‘Where is the line between natural landscape and a garden?’ Interesting to see what next year’s Chelsea brings.
    It was a great show and we were honoured to be part of it. Helen & James Basson

    1. Thanks for the reply Helen and James! All of my friends loved the garden too. Funnily, I was thinking of starting a blog post along the lines of “what exactly is a garden?” as you say, because really, everyone’s tastes are different and times are changing. I think your garden was really in tune with the direction people’s interest in gardens is going. Well done again on the garden itself and for adding to the debate! Jack

      1. Hi Jack, thank you for your article. I have just finished watching the Chelsea show. My husband and I are have thrown the TV out and so all our viewing is done via You Tube – hence the reason we have just finished watching. 🙂 When I first saw James’ garden I was so intrigued as to the boldness to step out of the mold. I appreciated the very personal application of what clearly was sense of a changing perception of gardens. It takes a lot of courage to step out and project one’s creativity in an environment that is clearly very traditional.

        I think this garden allows the viewer to experience a range of emotions where the very thought of future gardens becomes the focus. Its difficult to imagine a garden without pretty flowers (I love all flowers – I am so happy when I see a flower). There are aspects of this garden that can be replicated in our own gardens, however.

        Thanks to the designer and his team who went against the grain.

        Kind Regards

        1. Thanks Janet, I find it very interesting too. I heard a lot of gardeners saying this isn’t what people want, but I know a lot of people are more ecologically minded and are more interested in wild spaces while still wanting somewhere to use as a place to relax and entertain. It is definitely one to watch over the coming years. No doubt the eternal ‘natural landscape’ vs ‘horticultural wonderland’ debate will continue to rage and gardens will lean from one side to the other over the years 🙂 Either way, I’m happy as I love them all!

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