Julia ThomasChelsea’s woodlands (again and again)

This year I found myself among the many lucky spectators at the world famous Chelsea Flower Show! For many years prior, I had only seen the glorious gardens from my couch, watching as garden shows ran specials on the main event. For a garden and plant enthusiast like me, Chelsea is truly the ‘Mecca for Landscape Design’, so you can imagine my excitement as I entered the grounds on the first day…

Chelsea Flower Show 2015 woodland garden. Photo Fiona Ericsson

Chelsea Flower Show 2015 woodland garden. Photo Fiona Ericsson

The atmosphere was literally buzzing and my anticipation built as my first Chelsea show garden stood in front of me in all its glory. Perennials, bordering a freshly mown lawn, were positioned like they had been there for years. Their blooms provided splashes of blue, pink, red and white, planted in the shade of freshly sprouting deciduous trees. Scatterings of ornamental grasses played amongst the garden beds, adding contrasting texture. The overwhelming shades of green made one think there could never be such a thing as drought. Fond memories of storybooks and English countryside meadows came to mind.

Chelsea Flower Show 2015 woodland garden Photo Fiona Ericsson

Chelsea Flower Show 2015 woodland garden Photo Fiona Ericsson

I moved onto the next garden, appreciating the different perennials and subtle change in cottage blooms. I observed the water feature and impressive stonework. The natural beauty in these gardens was undeniable. It was as if the designer had found a perfect meadow somewhere and transplanted it right into their show garden. It was impossible to think these gardens were not only temporary, but also new. The details of every plant placement was flawless, a superb reflection of nature. But the more gardens I saw, the more a pattern began to appear. It was as if the designers all visited the same meadow for inspiration, a checklist in hand:

Chelsea Flower Show 2015 woodland garden Photo Fiona Ericsson

Chelsea Flower Show 2015 woodland garden Photo Fiona Ericsson

Perennials: Check
Cottage plant palette: Check
Lawn: Check
Excess of green: Check
Stone sculpture: Check
Water feature: Check

'The Beauty of Islam' Design Kamelia bin Zaal. Photo Fiona Ericsson

‘The Beauty of Islam’ Design Kamelia bin Zaal. Photo Fiona Ericsson

The gardens continued to follow this similar formula until I came to one particular garden; The Beauty of Islam, designed by Kamelia Bin Zaal. This garden was everything the other gardens were not. It was confronting, stark, and a reminder that drought was very real. Taking inspiration from Arabic and Islamic cultures, the garden aspired to create a space of relaxation and inspiration. With a nod at traditional Arabic garden design, the space was divided by four walls, creating different rooms, to enhance the gardens element of discovery. The subtle flow of water was featured throughout.

'The Beauty of Islam' Design Kamelia bin Zaal. Photo Fiona Ericsson

‘The Beauty of Islam’ Design Kamelia bin Zaal. Photo Fiona Ericsson

Seeing the contrast of the striking walled gardens and Mediterranean plant palette against the green, colourful gardens, really highlighted that something was missing at Chelsea. Diversity. The approach to the gardens and their plant selection is very clearly English, even though the designer participation is now international.

'The Beauty of Islam' Design Kamelia bin Zaal. Photo Fiona Ericsson

‘The Beauty of Islam’ Design Kamelia bin Zaal. Photo Fiona Ericsson

The English countryside is nothing short of beautiful, however it is also not short of water. The concept of drought is not something of which they need to be aware. However, for many other countries in the world, plant selection is very much dependent on the limitation of water. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it is causes designers to be creative with their choice of plants. I may be demonstrating an Australian bias, but perhaps it would be more appropriate and progressive to see more diversely international inspired designs and plant sections.

Perhaps Chelsea’s traditional expectations have limited the imagination of local designers and discouraged international designers from using plants and design styles from different climate zones.

[All photos by Fiona Ericsson]

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Julia Thomas

About Julia Thomas

Julia is a Sydney based Landscape Designer and co-owner of Sticks & Stones Landscape Design. She was recently featured in House & Garden as ‘Ones to Watch’ in Landscape Design. Julia has an avid interest in beautiful spaces, the ability to create them and the plants that marry a design.

5 thoughts on “Chelsea’s woodlands (again and again)

  1. Gail on said:

    What an interesting insight! I look forward to more of your posts.

    • Julia on said:

      Thanks Gail, I am glad you found my blog an interesting read!

  2. Yes, the whole flowery meadow thing is looking very same-same. I haven’t been to Chelsea since 2013 but the photos I’ve seen of the gardens show that the ‘Chelsea style’ of intermingled planting continues (with the notable exception of the Kamelia’s garden). Intermingled planting is not useful inspiration for mere gardening mortals, who could never hope to replicate its intricacy and intensity. And nor should they, as they’d have a garden that looked good for exactly one week each year. It would be great if 2016 had more designers breaking away from that look, but it seems that the judging favours it heavily, so there will be an award penalty for doing so.

  3. Sophia on said:

    The Beauty of Islam is a really inspiring garden. Thanks for showing it.

    • Julia on said:

      I completely agree Sophia. It is always so nice to see a culture reflected in a garden.

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