Frome at Chelsea Flower Show 2013

I wrapped up warm for this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. The show happens at that time of year when the weather can really do anything. Sometimes it is so hot you are desperate for any hint of shade. Or it can be so cold that constant hot drinks are the only way to keep warm. Fortunately the loos are always very nice at Chelsea.

This year’s cold spring made it tough for the nurseries who supply the show. It is always a delicate balancing act getting plants to be at their peak for the end of May. Each spring is different and this year it was about a month late. Most years the gardens are perfect regardless of the preceeding weather but this year was different. I saw several gardens with flowers still stubbornly in bud and blossom trees without blossom. I found it rather charming, however, to see show gardens that were closer to everyday garden reality instead of impossible perfection.

One local nursery who struggled valiantly with the weather to supply Chelsea is Barters, in Chapmanslade. Jamie Dunstan’s ‘As Nature Intended’ garden was designed around plants that we rely on in our daily lives. Barley is an important ingredient in many beer drinkers’ daily lives and it was used as the ground plane in Jamie’s bold and uncluttered design. The cold weather meant the crop was not flowering in time for the show but it still created a calm, green foundation for the well-balanced and restrained design.

Jamie Dunstan’s garden

The Barters barley was growing on Main Avenue, the central area for the large Show Gardens. Prince Harry’s Sentebale Garden, Ulf Nordfell’s Laurent Perrier Garden and Christopher Bradley-Hole’s Daily Telegraph Garden were all within hailing distance. The Telegraph Garden was another design with a predominantly green colour scheme but the subtle variations of height, texture and form created a mesmerising and tranquil tableau.

Telegraph garden

If subtlety and restraint were the watchwords for the Main Avenue gardens, the Australian Flemings Garden, which was at the Avenue’s far end, was an exuberant contrast. Featuring plants from across Australia, the garden was an exciting design that even included the sounds of the Australian bush. I have family in Australia and have been bushwalking there many times. I can tell you that this garden really did capture the drama of the Australian countryside. It deserved the Best in Show award, although this did generate controversy among some of the old guard.

The Flemings garden

I find that you have to take Chelsea show gardens with a pinch of salt. Most of these gardens are not possible in real life. They have been dressed up to create eye-popping impact for one week in May. But, Chelsea is a rich source of ideas that you can interpret for any private garden. Prince Harry’s Sentebale garden had some beautiful hummocky groundcover planting that included a plant new to me, Leptinella squallida or Green Brass Buttons. It was planted with other groundcovers and accents of Forget-Me-Nots. This kind of groundcover planting could replace your lawn, much less maintenance and more eye-catching!

 Sentebale garden
Sentebale Garden groundcover planting

Chelsea on Press Day is great for spotting famous faces. Ringo Starr was the most familiar face I saw but there were many others, including TV chefs Jamie Oliver, Raymond Blanc and Antonio Carluccio. Outdoor cooking was a popular theme and that smoky barbecue aroma is hard to resist on a fine summer’s evening.

Ringo Starr on the Water Aid garden

A couple of faces I recognised because they were from Frome, rather than the silver screen, were John Collins and Jo Illsley. John Collins’ company Straysparks had a stand exhibiting his ornamental wrought iron work. His garden trellis had been shortlisted for an RHS Product of 2013 Award. Jo, who runs the Mells Walled Garden, supplied the lovely planting that graced the stand.

Straysparks’ John Collins

My favourite Chelsea garden this year didn’t win a gold medal, but my opinion often differs from the RHS Judges. The Cloudy Bay garden was in the Fresh Garden category, where designers are asked to think outside the box. I didn’t think the design was especially innovative, although the use of rammed earth as a walling material is unusual.  The garden elements were beautifully balanced, however, and the design had that special quality that makes you want to explore the garden further.

Cloudy Bay garden

Of course the sad reality at Chelsea is that the public are not allowed to enter the gardens. For Health and Safety reasons, I expect. So your garden may not be a Chelsea beauty but at least you can get out and enjoy it. And perhaps a little touch of inspiration from our local Chelsea stars will add some extra glamour!