Tuesday, 30 June 2015

RHS Hampton Court Flower Show 2015, part 1

They could at least have turned the fountains on for me
I have been fortunate enough to have spent the past two days at Hampton Court, helping Fibrex Nurseries to set up in the Floral Marquee on Sunday (another gold winning display for them, hurrah!), and attending press day on Monday. 2015 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Show at Hampton Court. This is a truly stunning location, bisected by the the Long Water with its fountains, spanned by four pontoons, with the royal palace forming the focal point at the end. No matter how warm it gets – and, to my memory, Hampton Court is always hot and sunny (clearly I’ve blocked out the rainy years) – there’s always a cool breeze by the water, and a shady spot to sit beneath the lime trees which flank it in avenues on either bank, an ideal place to pause and to mull over the many things to see during the day.

This year the Show has been organised into three zones: Grow, Inspire and Feast (or respectively, Plants, Gardens, and Grub, if I was in charge of things. Fortunately for the RHS, I’m not). The first of these, the Grow zone, consists of the plant village, Floral Marquee and Plant Heritage areas, and here you’ll find wonderful plants, details of national collections and a wealth of expertise generously given from many of the best nurseries in the UK. You could easily spend your entire visit here, but just over the water the Inspire zone beckons, playing host to the show gardens and the trade stands, the Festival of Roses marquee and the Country Living pavilion. Further up the path from the smaller Summer Gardens you enter the Feast zone. Initially, I’ll admit I felt a little disgruntled. In the past this whole section has been given over to small gardens, so to discover that half of them had been replaced with cafes and restaurants could give the impression that the horticultural and design aspects of the show are being dumbed down in favour of commercial considerations. However, there’s more to Feast than eateries – the presence of the the Cookery Theatre and a full programme of talks from speakers including Alys Fowler, James Wong and Greg Wallace indicates that the RHS are looking to ramp up their evangelical efforts concerning the link between plot and plate, which can only be a good thing. On Monday, I narrowly missed a demonstration given to a group of schoolchildren by Raymond Blanc in the children’s community garden of Henri Le Worm (I would have loved to have attended, but couldn’t quite tear myself away from the plants in the Floral Marquee).

One final general note before I get on to specifics, which I record here largely for my own benefit in the hope that it might also be useful for someone else. Navigation is a big issue for me around the showground – on past visits I’ve lost my bearings and only discovered a huge section just before I was due to leave. It really helps to carry a map of the Show with you, but if you don’t fancy paying almost a fiver for the catalogue in which it appears (much of which is available for free on the RHS’s excellent website), then use your phone to take a photo of one of the free-standing maps along the main route. Without a map, the rule of thumb is this – if you’ve not yet made your way over the water and to the opposite gate to the one by which you entered, you haven’t seen all there is to see. (Coming from the car park end via the Long Water Gate, the place where I would invariably get confused is a little choke point at the lower end of the Summer gardens, which takes you through an avenue of trees before opening out into an area leading down towards the conceptual gardens and the Thames Gate.)

Onto the gardens. There are over thirty in all over four categories, show, historical, conceptual and summer gardens. Here is a taste of those that made the biggest impact on me.

Green roofed wheelie bins and permeable paving on the Community Street
The Community Street, designed by Nigel Dunnett, illustrates the current RHS campaign, Greening Grey Britain, which is promoting the use of plants to enliven the hard, grey areas of our towns and cities, transforming unloved areas of harsh concrete and paving into healthy, productive and engaging spaces for the whole community. As housing density increases and our natural green space is eroded, this is a vital initiative if we’re to preserve our wellness and sanity in an increasingly crowded world, and I’ve been keen to see how the issues are addressed at the show.

All rather grey on the Community Street
You enter the space through a recreation of a very grey, rather unloved street in Bristol, complete with abandoned car, litter and a fridge in one of the front gardens. Wall art depicts three of the main issues with our grey city space – rainwater runoff and consequent flooding, the urban heat island effect, and particulate pollution of the air. The garden goes on to demonstrate – with many information boards and an army of keen planty evangelists – how an informed use of horticulture coupled with appropriate hard landscaping can combat each of these problems.

Detail from the Community Street

Detail from the Community Street

Detail from the Community Street

Detail from the Community Street

Plenty of places for bugs and bees to set up home on the Community Street

Wildlife friendly hawthorn hedge and log piles on the Community Street
The planting here was magnificently bold, dense and rich, and if Nigel Dunnett takes the props for coming up with the ideas, then great credit must also go to Kitty Wilkins and her army of volunteers for implementing the intricately detailed plans.

Detail from the Macmillan Legacy Garden by Ann-Marie Powell
The Macmillan Legacy Garden is the gentlest tour-de-force. Ann-Marie Powell has created a tranquil, edge-of-woodland space, lush foliage and white birch bark contributing to a soothing pallet of greens and whites – which just happen to be the sponsor's primary brand colours, also including copper/apricot tones from their secondary pallet in the planting, for example with the verbascums and the russet tones in the epimedium foliage.

Detail from the Macmillan Legacy Garden by Ann-Marie Powell
As a response to the turbulent and emotional journey followed by any family whose life has been touched by cancer, it’s a perfect place in which to seek sanctuary, to pick your way through the plants across the ribbons of water which weave through the paving, past the avenue of birches with their seating, and across the stepping stones to the seclusion offered by the softly rounded structure whose surface has been planted with ivies and ferns and other woodland plants.

Detail from the Macmillan Legacy Garden by Ann-Marie Powell

Detail from the Macmillan Legacy Garden by Ann-Marie Powell
A lush and slightly sinister note is introduced by the arisaemas, and perhaps even the gunnera has a slightly spikey, other-worldly feel which suggests elements of confusion and uncertainty. Maybe it’s easy to read too much into the individual choices of plants, but the overall effect manages to be at the same time soothing and stimulating. Just the kind of place I'd like to wander in, lost in thought.

Detail from the Hadlow College ‘Green Seam’ Garden by Stuart Charles Towner and Bethany Williams
It was interesting to see my old college represented, Hadlow’s ‘Green Seam’ garden, designed by Stuart Charles Towner and Bethany Williams winning Best in Show. This garden presents us with an allegory of how horticulture can play a part in improving the lives of those living in areas of social and economical deprivation, mirroring the work of the Hadlow Group with the Betteshanger Sustainable Parks initiative seeking to bring regeneration to the ex-mining community near Deal in east Kent. Big business and politics, rather than grassroots gardening, but it was encouraging to see the designers illustrate nature’s ability to reclaim post-industrial sites by depicting the colonisation of the old spoil heaps by pioneering wildflower species.

Detail from the Hadlow College ‘Green Seam’ Garden by Stuart Charles Towner and Bethany Williams

Detail from the Hadlow College ‘Green Seam’ Garden by Stuart Charles Towner and Bethany Williams
Another particularly accomplished effort was Vestra Wealth’s Encore – A Music Lover’s Garden, by Paul Martin. A sinuous path of consolidated hoggin between Corten steel edging winds through a landscape of sandstone rocks and lush planting, accompanied by a narrow rill, before descending into a small amphitheatre for musical performances surrounded by a curved pool.

Detail from Vestra Wealth’s Encore Garden by Paul Martin
Some beautiful rusted steel sculptures nestle among the plants, their shape and form reminding me of pollen grains under the microscope.

Detail from Vestra Wealth’s Encore Garden by Paul Martin

Detail from Vestra Wealth’s Encore Garden by Paul Martin

Detail from Vestra Wealth’s Encore Garden by Paul Martin

Detail from Vestra Wealth’s Encore Garden by Paul Martin

Detail from Vestra Wealth’s Encore Garden by Paul Martin

Detail from Vestra Wealth’s Encore Garden by Paul Martin
The small space from Squires Garden Centres – Urban Oasis by Mark Charles might not win great plaudits for originality of design, but I loved it.Neat boundary hedges, cottage garden borders, with the centre of the lawn given over to a wildflower meadow and bounded by a mown grass path, and a red brick path leading between twin seating areas to catch the morning and the evening sun, it represents a vision of what is achievable in a typical small domestic garden. A wonderful, wildlife-friendly space.

Detail from Squires Garden Centres – Urban Oasis by Mark Charles

Detail from Squires Garden Centres – Urban Oasis by Mark Charles
I would have liked to have seen more in the way of community gardens. Not to say there weren’t community spaces – there were some beautifully designed ones incorporating many a thoughtful idea but, as with Chris Beardshaw’s garden at Chelsea this year, they were posh, expensive ones, clearly designed by professional garden designers. While I’m aware that one of the reasons to come to an RHS show is to see how the professionals can push boundaries and use the latest, cutting edge techniques, materials and thinking, I can’t help but think that including more grassroots gardens, created from the ground-up by enthusiastic end users, would help to circumvent the uncomfortable feeling that these gardens are being bestowed upon grateful paupers by professionals, however well informed and intentioned (last year’s A Space to Connect and Grow from Jeni Cairns and Sophie Antonelli was a great example of how to get this right). While I think this could be a valid criticism of spaces like the Community Street and the Vestra Wealth garden, it’s less applicable to the Macmillan Legacy Garden which, while being conceived partly as a communal space and undeniably high end, is not designed as a living space, but more of a therapeutic space rather like the gardens of the Maggie’s Centres.

In past years, there’s been a definite feeling  that people without pots of money to throw at the garden were being catered for. I wonder if that might have been lost a bit this year. It would also be good to see more on elegantly practical solutions to the kind of real-world problems that the garden and home can throw up, as with Mike Harvey’s A Room with a View from 2013’s Show, which built a wonderfully terraced garden on the spoil heap of soil excavated for the foundations of a typical home extension.

These small criticisms aside, it was good to see that the Conceptual gardens section is as bonkers as ever. It might not be everyone's cup of tea – not everything here is always my cup of tea, to be honest – but it’s good to see some interesting ideas being explored. I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of synaesthesia, ever since hearing in a university lecture how the composer Oliver Messiaen, who experienced the condition, once demanded that the violins should play a particular section of his score “a little more pink”. So it was fantastic to experience the DialAFlight: Synaesthesia Garden by Sarah Wilson, which presents a heady mix of sensory stimulation with a creative combination of coloured lights, projected trigger words, sculpture and planting, inside a white canvass dome representing the mind of the synaesthete. Sadly I was enjoying myself so much I neglected to take any decent photos (please do let me know if you have any and I’ll feature one or two here, with appropriate credits, of course!).

Another garden I found particularly powerful in this section was Steve Smith’s SMART Vision garden, which portrays the attitudes of society to those suffering from mental health issues by enclosing the entire space in an austere, grey wall, wrapped in yellow and black hazard tape. Through peepholes in the wall you glimpse a tranquil space inside, a white, zen like circle of raked gravel surrounded by lush tree ferns and foliage plants, prehistoric flora that shows the resilience of nature left to its own devices. The inner walls are mirrored, so the space inside appears vast, and a strange feeling of fellowship succeeded the initial shock of discovering that you weren't the only person peering in on spying many other inquiring eyes among the plants.

Detail from Steve Smith’s SMART Vision Garden
Detail from Steve Smith’s SMART Vision Garden
Please click here to read the next part of my blog on RHS Hampton Court Flower Show 2015.

RHS Hampton Court Flower Show 2015, part 2

Why would you go to a flower show – for the the gardens, or for the plants? It’s true that some people go for the experience – event and retail marketing seems to be all about ‘experiences’ and ‘destinations’ now – but while these are animals I can identify in a crowd, quaffing their fizz* and seemingly more interested in being seen than in seeing, I have little to no real understanding of them. So...gardens, or plants? The show gardens can be inspiring, stimulating, frustrating and disappointing – I’m sure on occasion I’ve felt all of these emotions while pondering a single garden. But as for the plants on displayed in the floral marquee? I’d have no option but to laugh in the face of anyone who would dare to suggest that they are ever anything less than wondrous.

Wonderful textures and plants on the Todd’s Botanics stand
While working in the Floral Marquee on Sunday, I’d spent a lot of time trying not to tread on the trailing parts of Geranium 'Dusky Crug', one of my all-time favourite cransebills, which was on the beautifully planted stand of Todd’s Botanics. All purple, chocolate foliage and soft pink flowers, it’s like a deliciously sepia version of a vibrant garden favourite.

Geranium 'Dusky Crug', Todd’s Botanics
Imagine my delight on finding the very similar Geranium 'Dusky Rose' at Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants – so similar in fact that I’m having trouble telling the difference, and will have to wait till someone more knowledgeable can enlighten me!

Geranium 'Dusky Rose', Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants
Cosmos sulphureum 'Diablo', Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants
The Hardy’s display also featured the fabulously flame orange of Cosmos sulphureus 'Diablo' – I’ll definitely be growing this next year  –

Verbascum 'Firedance', Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants
and, while we’re on the subject of the infernal, the metre high flower spikes of Verbascum 'Firedance'.

A few  plants appeared to be following me around. This is a common experience at flower shows – you engage with a particular variety, and then can’t help noticing it as you move around the marquee, and even out into the showground. 

The first of these was an interesting Rose 'Hot Chocolate', first sighted by me on the stand of Madrona Nursery, and then seen again in the marquee for the Festival of Roses. It’s a floribunda rose with a long flowering season, about 90cm high, with very good disease resistance, striking blooms of a deep coppery red shade  on deep green leaves. Yet another for my wish list.

Rosa 'Hot Chocolate', Madrona Nurseries

Rosa 'Hot Chocolate'

Another apparently ubiquitous rose was 'Blue for You'. Not being a huge fan of roses in the lilac areas of the colour spectrum, it’s a source of interest to me that I've managed to end up planting both 'Twice in a Blue Moon' and 'Harry Edland' in our own garden. Perhaps I should go for this one and make it a clear hat-trick.

My next planty stalker was Hydrangea arborescens 'Invincibelle', which looks to me very much like a pink tinged Annabelle. I wonder if it does the green and cream colour change thing like the better known variety?

Hydrangea arborescens 'Invincibelle', The Big Plant Nursery
There was another pink tinged hydrangea on the stand of the Big Plant Nursery, with the vomit-inducing cultivar name 'Love You Kiss'. If you can keep hold of your dinner, however, it’s an attractive lacecap, with a reddish tinge around the rim of the petals.

Hydrangea 'Love You Kiss', The Big Plant Nursery
It’s always good to see local nurseries, and another Kent representative is Plantbase. Graeme had brought his party piece, the terrifying Solamnum pyracanthum, with its violet flowers, glaucous foliage and bright orange spikes. The Sid Vicious of potatoes.

Solanum pyracanthum, Plantbase
There was also my favourite tea tree plant, Leptospermum scoparium 'Red Damask'.

Leptospermum scoparium 'Damask Red', Plantbase
By now, it was probably time to cool off after all these hot colours. Nowhere better for this than the display of heucheras, heucherellas and tiarellas from Plantagogo. I was charmed by the dark purples and silver tones of Heucherella 'Cracked Ice', with its creamy white flowers.

Heucherella 'Cracked Ice', Plantagogo
A similar cooling effect can be had with Heuchera 'Silver Celebration'.

Heuchera 'Silver Celebration', Plantagogo
I was also interested to see the new introduction, Tiarella 'Emerald Ellie' – not a million miles away from 'Sugar and Spice'.

Tiarella 'Emerald Ellie', Plantagogo

While on Sunday I was busy assisting Heather and Fran of Fibrex Nurseries with their pelargonium display, Richard was putting the finishing touches to the adjacent stand featuring their ferns and specimens from the national collection of Hedera (ivies) which they hold. A lush and shady work of art, I’ll be carrying a photograph of this around with me to flourish on the very next occasion (there will be several) when someone looks bored or rolls their eyes upon my suggesting ivies for their dark, north facing wall or fence.

Ivies and ferns, Fibrex Nurseries
I’m keen to go an explore both of these collections on the nursery – if I can just avoid being waylaid by pelargoniums – but the selection on show here demonstrated the range and variety available, and what can be achieved in a small space.

Ferns Asplenium scolopendrium and Adiantum venustrum surround a terracotta pot filled with Hedera helix 'Goldfinch', Fibrex nurseries

 Hedera helix 'Ivalace', Fibrex Nurseries

The splendidly named Hedera 'Pink and Curly', Fibrex Nurseries

 Hedera helix 'Spetchley', Fibrex Nurseries
And what of the pelargoniums? Here I have to exercise some restraint, else I’d be posting photos of everything in the display!

The first spot goes to regal Pelargonium 'Beryl Reid', with its outrageously frou-frou ruffles – salmon pink with  maroon centres. Gloriously flouncy.

Regal Pelargonium 'Beryl Reid', Fibrex Nurseries
Still with the regals, I met two similar varieties, 'Fringed Aztec' and 'Arnside Fringed Aztec', both with large white blooms with respectively red and deep pink markings in the centres.

Regal Pelargonium 'Fringed Aztec', Fibrex Nurseries

Regal Pelargonium 'Arnside Fringed Aztec', Fibrex Nurseries
Possibly as showy, but more delicate, is 'Fairy Orchid', with carmine blotches to the top of the two upper petals, and the characteristic ‘false eyelash’ markings to the centre of the flower.

Angel Pelargonium 'Fairy Orchid', Fibrex Nurseries
Used on the display for its fabulous cut foliage, Pelargonium 'Charity' has vivid green variagated leaves, with an orange citrus scent. The mauve flowers are probably the least spectacular thing about this plant.

Scented Pelargonium 'Charity', Fibrex Nurseries
Scented Pelargonium 'Ardwick Cinnamon', Fibrex Nurseries
My final offering from the Floral Marquee is an unassuming plant, that takes hold of you by stealth. I’m rather fond of its compact habit and small, glaucous leaves, a perfect backdrop to its small white flowers. But its the unexpectedly spicy scent of cinnamon from the crushed foliage that really sets this particular pellie apart. One that needs to be smelled to be believed.

All this has left me with the not unpleasant task of prioritising my plant wish list. I have a feeling that they're not all going to fit back in the greenhouse come winter, but that’s a worry for another day.

Please click here to read the first part of my blog on RHS Hampton Court Flower Show 2015.

* This isn’t to suggest that gardeners eschew the quaffing of fizz. In fact, we’re far from an abstemious lot, and are as good at this as we are at tracking down and consuming cake. It’s just that we do this as an adjunct to viewing gardens and drooling over plants, not an alternative.