Its been a few years since I visited Chelsea Flower Show, I’ve always had a bit of a marmite relationship with it. Not because I cant relate to the gardens, they’re pure, joyous theatre and you’re not supposed to think of them in the terms of your own back garden. Well… at least that’s how it used to be.
The main reason I wasn’t in love with Chelsea is the price of the tickets which have always been completely out of my price range and the pure crowds that go with being at Chelsea. I really struggle in crowds especially as I’m so short that all I see is peoples armpits and elbows…. That said I dont mind working it as that feels different.
Anyway, I found my visit this time exceedingly pleasant, a friend had very generously invited me as her plus one and I am SO grateful, especially as I saw so many friends I hadn’t seen since before the apocalypse!
Sadly I forgot my big camera so all my pics are off my phone and I wasn’t as methodical and focussed as I would normally be as I was in company rather than full on “working”. All that said I think everyone will have found Chelsea a very different animal this year. Maybe that’s a sad thing or maybe that’s a good thing but let me explain why I say this.
Chelsea has always been more about being seen than any of the RHS’s other shows, you do get a few celebs at Hampton etc but not at the same scale. I think this really became a thing in the late 80’s early 90’s and has continued regardless of market crashes and austerity.
The times was the first sponsor in 1959, the first sponsor i remember properly was Marshalls, followed by M&G i think? They seemed to hold sway for a great number of years and I felt a lot improved. It became glossy and sleek. Much like a well fed cat it had an air of superiority about it and frankly I couldn’t blame it. Water features were beautiful glass and marble affairs. The quality of the builds was exquisite and the planting was dense and for the most part unique to each garden, imaginative, drawing inspiration from around the world.
Now what I’m about to say is going to sound harsh but its my honest truth and its only because I remember that sleek well fed cat.
My overall impression of Chelsea this year was that it felt poor, it felt like the amount of money spent on the gardens was either less than in the past or that the money hadn’t gone as far? I hesitate to say cheap because obviously those gardens are never going to be cheap but it just wasn’t as glossy overall.
Even the gardens I loved like the Benton End garden felt sparse and empty from the point of view of the planting.
In most gardens there seemed to be lots of recycled hard landscaping, crushed concrete, hard and with a derelict, building site feel to them. The Cleve West garden more possibly than any other but then that had the dereliction in its story. Even the Saville gardens stream had felt more like a field drain. Steep sided and a slightly dangerous hazard rather than something you would like to dangle your toes in.
Don’t get me wrong, there were beautiful gardens that had embraced the sustainable, rewilding feel and as much as I was critical of the Saville gardens hard landscaping its planting scheme was really well done…. apart from that shocking tree.
One in particular was Tom Masseys garden, quite frankly from him I would expect nothing less. I had the pleasure of working on his RHS Hampton Court Show garden for Perennial in July 2017. His plant choices, the grading of colours and the challenge of the spiral borders ensured it stayed in the memory. I didn’t see his 2021 Yeo valley Garden in person but it did look fabulous on the TV. His Chelsea entry for this year was on behalf of The Royal Entomological Society putting sustainability and the environment at its heart.
Another garden I loved that I felt embraced a rampant, verging on wild feel yet had that quality, sleek Chelsea look to it was Paul Hervey Brookes garden for RBC Brewin Dolphin. His plant choices are always stunning and he has such a team spirit, refusing to take credit and drawing in his team at every opportunity, a true gent!
One other garden whose planting was absolutely stand out and broke the mould this year was The National Brain Appeal’s Rare Space Garden designed by Charlie Hawkes. Not only were the plant choices stunning but the water features were so beautiful too.
Everything had been designed with a very rare form of Alzheimers the focus so movement, scent and colour had all been considered and it made it beautifully unique insofar as it told a story without leading you by the nose and hitting you over the head with it.
So this was my slightly delayed take on Chelsea and I’ll try to think a bit more about the balcony and container hardens once I’ve got over my disappointment at not having the artisan gardens which were my favourite.
That said one of my favourite designers was back under the sanctuary garden banner, The Biophilic Garden Otsu – Hanare designed by Kazuyuki Ishihara.
How do you feel about it? Please do let me know in the comments below!
2 Replies to “Chelsea Flower Show 2023 – Show Gardens”
The best bit is always in the Gt Pavilions!
My take on the gardens were that mainly these were more about theatre than gardening, more like a film set than an area for dressing with plants. The others were very muted even the Benton End Iris one, I felt it cried out for some dots of bright colour. There probably is less money being thrown at these things as most of them seemed to be sponsored by charities.
Hi Lou. I wasn’t as lucky as you to go to Chelsea so I had to rely on TV coverage. I known what you mean about the planting, it didn’t look as lush or densely packed as previous. I miss the artisan gardens too. Having said that, I still enjoy the gorgeous plants and flowers. Always on the look out for something new to grow