11 Things at Chelsea Flower Show 2023

It feels like the RHS Chelsea Flower Show has finally found its feet again after having the rug pulled from under it by the pandemic. Gardens were big budget, the nurseries were out in force in the tent. For me, this year was all about the main avenue big show gardens, when previously I was more interested in the smaller artisan gardens. Main avenue in some cases seemed to adopt the wilder spirit of the artisan category, which left some bemused, but I think these were the best and in a number, the most personal of the show.

1) Cleve West’s weeds

You know me, I love a weed, or as we prefer to call them around these parts: plants. Did I ever expect to see Herb Robert, Geranium robertianum, at Chelsea? Probably not in a show garden and yet here it is among grasses, dead nettle and aquilegia bringing out the glowing yellow of dandelions. The complexity and skill of planting this intricate garden, to make it look natural is unparalleled. “Is it a garden?” many will ask this week, well, I guess that is the point, because for too many young people this is. The garden is to promote Centrepoint, the charity that helps homeless young people for whom this is their garden. For me, this is one of the more profound moments in RHS Chelsea history.

2) Sarah Price’s table

Talk of the show is Sarah Price’s Nurture Landscapes garden for its all encompassing colour palette, using terracotta, dark purple and apricot to bring out the glowing pink, white and acid yellow of other flowers. For good reason, it is utterly beautiful and unique. The handmade table under a pine in the back corner was my ‘place I want to sit the most’ of the show. Last time I had this feeling was for James Basson’s ‘best in show’ garden back in 2017. I tried to rally help carrying the table home with me, alas I had no takers.

3) Wild woodland

Although one garden has to be named best in show, I actually think the main theme running through the whole show of wild woodland understory should be given the award. I counted over ten gardens with this froth and it was a very welcome thing indeed. It set the feeling of the show, giving the whole event a wonderful cohesive modernity.

4) Valeriana officinalis

Plant of the show for me is the wildflower Valeriana officinalis which featured in loads of gardens. It’s one of my personal favourite wildflowers and we grow it at home from locally collected seed.

5) Thalictrum

As popular as the Valerian were a variety of the dainty purple flowered Thalictrum, seen in many of the gardens. Thalictrum are not widely grown plants considering how wonderful they are, perhaps their light airiness makes people assume they are hard to grow, but they are pretty tough.

6) A letter from a million years past

Chelsea press day is a chaotic event with people catching up, cameras flying, celebrities like Judy Dench, Brian May and Kate Windsor running about. It almost caused me to miss the calm beauty of Jihae Hwang’s garden featuring indigenous Korean plants endangered in the wild. This garden deserves a lot of time exploring its near perfect recreation of wilderness.

7) Irises

Due to the time of year, irises always feature heavily at the Chelsea flower show reminding us how wonderful they can be. In fact, I’ve just noticed how many irises and how few (none at all?) alliums there were, surely a first for Chelsea in itself! This is a trend that reflects what is happening in private designs, certainly in mine, I am planting more irises than alliums at the moment for that late-spring into summer blast of colour. The Cedric Morris irises in Sarah Price’s garden were particularly special because the purple in their fall petals were picked up by the stems of Angelica.

8) This spot to sit by Filippo Dester

I love the long pool, the planting and the seat in the Hamptons Mediterranean Garden. It feels so cosy and private, and yet, the view from the other end in even a small garden would be enough to sit and look for hours.

9) Papaver dubium subsp. lecoqii ‘Albiflorum’

Known as Beth’s poppy after Beth Chatto, we’re on Tom Massey’s lovely path admiring one of my favourite poppies with its glowing pink. I tried growing it in our Clapham garden back in the day but it was too shaded there sadly. Perhaps in Yorkshire?

10) Deschampsia cespitosa

Seen in quite a number of gardens as part of that wild woodland understory, this wild grass is perfect at this time of year, if about a month earlier than in our garden in Yorkshire!

11) Melica altissima ‘Alba’

One of my favourite little shade loving woodland grasses. Melica altissima ‘Alba’ has tiny little white grains which stand out in shade. In the UK we have our own wild version with dull grey grains, don’t be put off because this wild grass looks stunning as it emerges and creates its own beautiful veil like effect. At Chelsea, the white version was used in a large number of gardens in that wild woodland understory I mentioned.

Overall I really enjoyed this Chelsea and, while I find the show doesn’t quite give me what I want anymore – it can’t recreate the excitement of the wild – it is thought provoking. Increasingly I wonder if the Chelsea Flower Show would benefit from evolving into something more permanent to let all of these plants grow on in their spot, to show visitors how gardens change and to push show garden design into the contemporary direction of plant communities.

Are you going or have you been? If so, what did you think? What are your highlights?

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