It may not have the glamour of its sister Royal Horticultural Society show – Chelsea – but the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show certainly makes up for it in other ways. Covering some 14 hectares (34 acres), it is three times the size of Chelsea and boasts an incredible 47 show gardens and over 500 exhibitors, making it the largest flower show in the world.
But size isn’t all that it’s about. Suggesting just a little in-house competition, Hampton Court Place Show Manager, Dave Green, explains that the high level of accessibility to the gardens makes it more fun, relaxed and engaging than Chelsea. For, here, you can walk into many of the gardens, get up close to the plants, engage with them on a sensory level and become quite immersed in them; the spaciousness of the grounds also affecting the pace and feel of the show.
As well as the show gardens, this year features a 283 square metre butterfly dome, with thousands of brightly coloured Indonesian and Belizean butterflies set amongst lush, tropical plantings. Hundreds of school children queue to see butterflies emerging from their cocoons in the puparium, squealing with delight as butterflies land on them inside their newly created, hot and humid habitat. Immediately outside the dome, native wildflower meadows have been planted with nectar-rich species from the RHS Perfect for Pollinators list, which Green hopes will inspire visitors to make their own gardens more wildlife friendly and halt the decline of Britain’s butterfly population.
Alongside the 6,750 square metre Floral Marquee and Plant Village, the Festival of Roses Marquee brings colour and scent this year to the theme of Beatrix Potter’s garden, marking the 150th year since her birth. The 300th anniversary of landscape architect and Hampton Court Head Gardener, ‘Capability’ Brown, is also celebrated with three themed gardens in his honour and a new show garden category, ‘City Gardens’ has been introduced to show big ideas for small spaces, just 6 by 4 metres each.
The Royal Horticultural Society is always seeking to turn young fingers green and a Scarecrow competition and range of Rocket Science-themed children’s activities promote this endeavour. This year the show also features four gardens by amateur gardeners, who entered a competition to “design a front garden which makes you feel good about the area in which you live”. Mentored by two Chelsea designers, these gardens were outstanding and the energy of the competition winners will undoubtedly inspire many visitors.
The large Show Gardens always attract big crowds, with well-known designers such as Catherine McDonald and Paul Hervey-Brookes exhibiting this year. Green described a continuing trend for more natural and ecological planting, with many wetland habitats and meadow plantings on display. Andrew Fisher Tomlin and Dan Bowyer won Best Summer Garden – a category designed to show smaller, more achievable gardens – with their ‘Garden for Crohns Disease’, which included many Australian plants, from tree ferns to Westringia and Plectranthus to Acacia, with foliage the focus over flowers.
The Conceptual Garden category is designed to creatively explore challenging topics and the Best in Show went to the UNHCR ‘Border Controll’ Garden, by Tom Massey and John Ward. Massey and Ward describe being inspired by the Syrian refugee crisis last year and want their safe, harmonious inner area, which contrasts with the struggling plants beyond the barbed wire, to prompt visitors to consider their views on this issue.
Finally, the six World gardens, representing Latin America, North America, Spain and France featured a wide range of planting styles, from the tropical bananas and bromeliads of the Inca Trail to the dry, arid Achillea and cycads of Austin, Texas.
If you are looking for the absolute pinnacle in garden design excellence, then Chelsea is your show. But if you are looking for a relaxing day out, with more garden ideas than you could possibly wish for, set amongst acres of world-class, beautiful displays, Hampton Court Palace is the place for you. The 2017 show is from 4-9 July, possibly the best week of the year for the UK’s weather, natural beauty and peak flowering season, so if you can’t make it this year, perhaps there’s a 2017 ticket with your name on?