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Garden Design

Chelsea 2013 What’s hot…or lukewarm

Catherine Stewart

Catherine Stewart

May 23, 2013

Apart from the few bright sparks among the Chelsea gardens, the majority of year’s main display gardens were safe, tasteful and disappointingly dull. Phillip Johnson’s Australian garden was an obvious Best in Show standout with its innovative plant palette and exciting raised studio pod, and I loved the ‘Seeabiility’ garden, ‘The East Village’ garden with its flowing sinuous lines, and the huge greenwall in the ‘Stoke-on-Trent Story of Transformation’ garden. And the ‘As Nature Intended It’ garden was refreshing in its rejection of the now ubiquitous perennial flower mix.

The Chelsea pensioners in their wonderful scarlet coats really brightened up the dull day.

Chelsea pensioners in their wonderful scarlet coats really brightened up a dull day.

But what’s going on with the others? It’s true that a large part of the Chelsea medal giving is about how well each garden responds to its brief. And many of those briefs are about causes – vulnerable children in Africa, sight impairment…….all very worthy societal and charitable issues but maybe they stifle a true sense of creativity of experimentation among Britain’s best designers?

Or is it the sponsors? Are the big companies only wanting those safe and tasteful gardens that are not going to scare the horses?

For this first Chelsea 2013 analysis, I’m not going to look at the gardens and their briefs, but just how I responded to each of them as garden – the shapes and spaces, proportions, colours, inclusions and plants – whether I looked at them and wanted to climb straight over the fence and sit on that chair or wander that path and whether they left me feeling decidedly uninspired to even stay looking at them.

B&Q Sentebale 'Forget-me-not' garden

B&Q Sentebale ‘Forget-me-not’ garden – but what’s with the central dog basket?

B&Q Sentebale garden curving stepsPossibly the most obvious example of this was the B&Q Sentebale ‘Forget-me-not’ garden, that i believe has something to do with Prince Harry being moved by the plight of vulnerable children in Lesotho. I’m sure that’s worthwhile, and I really liked the curvy stairs, but what’s with that huge dog basket in the middle of the garden? And such a strange disconnect between all those elements. And although I’ve never been to Lesotho, I’m surprised that they could inspire such a colourless garden.

Laurent Perrier garden Chelsea 2013

Laurent Perrier garden Chelsea 2013

Laurent Perrier had some wonderful mature trees but the rest of the garden just looked like a very confused combination of ideas to me. Several people I spoke to liked these angled hedges but I thought they looked like they’d just been poorly clipped. There were little blobs of plants all about and virtually no appealing colour.

Laurent Perrier garden

Laurent Perrier garden



And here is the whining “I didn’t win Chelsea Best in Show so it’s not fair” Christopher Bradley-Hole’s garden. Boring boring boring. This was born out by observing the much sparser crowds milling around the outside of it compared to the very appealing The East Village garden across the path. Clipped buxus in geometric patterns? Bet you’re all looking forward to having that little habitat in your backyard.

UK Telegraph garden

UK Telegraph garden

This is only my third Chelsea and the excitement of Phillip Johnson’s spectacular garden and thrilling win (OK he’s a mate of mine but it is well-deserved) probably skewed my perceptions. The general consensus seemed to be that it is a rather lacklustre affair this year; a shame given it’s the 100th anniversary and all.

So now I’ve had my spray, what trends did I observe at Chelsea?

Stoke on Trent 'Story of Transformation' conversation pit

Stoke on Trent ‘Story of Transformation’ conversation pit

Pit in the Brewin Dolphin garden

Pit in the Brewin Dolphin garden


i don’t quite get conversation pits. In a cold climate it seems a spot that chilly air will settle and in hotter areas, a heat box shielded from any cooling breeze – and you’re supposed to enjoy sitting in it. It’s also very limiting for future growth. Maybe I’ve only got 3 friends today and so 2m x 2m will be plenty, but I could become more popular and need more room. Easy done on a ground plane but a bit hard to further excavate. Although the increased popularity might be because of similarly increasing wealth, so no problem.

Stop the Spread garden

Stop the Spread garden

Underpruned shrubs in the Arthritis Research garden

Underpruned shrubs in the Arthritis Research garden

Underpruned shrubs


Many gardens had used large shrubs (A Good Thing) and underpruned them to create a clear separation between the canopy and a lower perennial of small shrub layer.

This was quite different to trunking up – we were not seeing a single clean trunk but rather a managed and rather sculptural multi-stemmed tangle.



Circles and squares in the Blue Water Roof garden

Circles and squares in the Blue Water Roof garden

Geometric shapes and sinuous curves

I’m an unabashed fan of circles and curves as they solve so many design layout dilemmas. Interlocking ‘L’ shapes are useful too. Chelsea has always been big on showing strong ground plane shapes as they’re even more important in show gardens. the Blue Water Roof garden took it one step further and played around with circles and squares all over the place, to extremely good effect I thought.

M&G Investments garden

Shrubs aplenty in the M&G Investments garden

More shrubs

Yes, meadow planting is still ‘in’ but there were also a lot of shrubs giving bulk and height. It may have been something to do with having to bring rhodies into the planting as with the spring being so cold, many preferred plants were not yet in flower and the rhododendrons had not yet ‘gone over’. Enkianthus, maples, photinia, cornus, rhododendron and lots that a warm-climate gardener like me didn’t recognise.

And I’ll have more to come on Chelsea over the next few days!



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Sandra Pullman
7 years ago

Thanks Catherine,
Look forward to your next blog and I am proud that Phil is a Burnley Graduate. He’s done good! And lets hope horticulture generally has a up time because Wes did make some very good points about open space.

Matt Popplewell
Matt Popplewell
7 years ago

Enjoyed your profound thoughts and honesty Catherine. A wonderful win for the Aussies. Great feedback. Thank you.

7 years ago

Catherine, I am a true advocate of the sustainable garden. As Eugene alluded in your former post, the Australian ‘Best in Show’ garden is NOT sustainable. Just because it uses Australian native plants does not make it a sustainable garden. The engineering behind the recycled water is clever, but there is also significant engineering behind the placement of 300 tonne of rocks, carted from Scotland. And where does all this rock go once the site is dismantled?
It is only clever in its engineering capability. As a sustainable garden it is a con! Massive earthworks machinery including cranes are needed to place these rocks. The drainage set-up also would be an engineering feat, but if it was truly sustainable, shouldn’t be needed. I know that it is a replica garden, but these gardens also showcase what the designer can do for clients. The whole garden is manufactured.
I actually like the UK Telegraph garden which you pour scorn upon which is very un-Australian. It is a far more sustainable garden because it is not overly manufactured – construction is kept to a minimum.
I for one am getting sick of the overuse and misuse of the word ‘sustainable’. It is becoming increasingly evident to me that very few people know what it really means.
Alison Aplin

Julie Thomson
7 years ago

Hmm, must say I am similarly lukewarm about much of these gardens you have pictured. I like best the blue water roof garden and the M&G Investments garden. They are the only ones that, as you say, make me want to walk into and through them. Looking forward to reading and seeing more on Chelsea from you, Catherine. Under pruned shrubs an interesting trend, I see.