Friday, 25 May 2018

Is Chelsea a Flower Show?

I may be about to commit horticultural heresy. The exhibitors at Chelsea Flower Show have wowed us with blooms grown to perfection and colour combinations to die for. We have fallen in love all over again with lupins, and drooled over myriad pinks, roses and delphiniums, but for me, once I have had my fill of beautiful flowers, the little bit of Chelsea I take home and try to apply to my own patch involves the quiet, unsung hero of flower shows: foliage. 
Flowers in Janine Crimmins' Very English Garden
Yes, I know the clue is in the name. It’s not called Chelsea Flower Show for nothing, but I wish that it could be the Chelsea Plant Show because the use of foliage is top-class. I also think that the exquisite hard landscaping should get a shout-out, as alluded to in Andrew O’Brien's excellent Gardens, Weeds and Words*, but the Chelsea Plant and Hard Landscaping Show hardly rolls off the tongue.
Chris Beardshaw's garden for NSPCC

The first-rate use of foliage in Tom Stuart-Smith's celebration of 60 years of The Weston Garden and Robert Barker’s Skin Deep Garden will live long in my memories of Chelsea 2018. Good foliage, well combined, is a feast for the eyes (and admittedly, caterpillars, rabbits, and deer, but let us not forget that flowers have their troubles too). Of course, everything is as perfect as it can be at a show. I have yet to see a hungry bunny or a ravenous deer at Chelsea, let alone a gluttonous sawfly.
Tom Stuart-Smith's Weston Garden
Leaves are workhorses. They are photosynthesis powerhouses that retire from their working lives by falling from the plant and removing waste, before rotting down to produce precious leafmould. In short, they are excretophores, which doesn't sound terribly glamorous, but leaves are capable of doing it with such panache. After all, people travel miles to admire pre-waste-disposal autumn
leaf colour. 
Robert Barker's Skin Deep Garden

Long after we’ve finished swooning over fleeting peonies, foliage will still be quietly doing its job and earning its keep in our borders. Thoughtful foliage planting can create a beautiful textural tapestry. Combine it with striking bark, and you have the recipe for a heavenly display that will continue long after the flowers have finished showing off.
Robert Barker
It might seem strange for someone besotted with wildlife to focus on foliage at a flower show instead of pollinator-friendly blooms, but where would the flowers be without  leaves? Beautifully mingling foliage combinations linger longer than purely floral planting. Leaves help to rest the eye and make an excellent foil for showier plants, all while providing valuable ground cover for wildlife and helping to suppress weeds.
Tom Stuart-Smith

Designing with foliage is not just for the ornamental garden. Creative planting may be used in the vegetable patch to great effect. Just think of the combination of corn, beans and squash in Three Sisters planting, or take a look at Mark Gregory's Welcome to Yorkshire garden at Chelsea. Why shouldn’t vegetables feed the eye as well as the belly?  
The Chelsea Flower Show is a place for perfection and dreams. While those at the Saturday sell-off may find themselves sharing a tube carriage with ramrod straight delphiniums, the rest of us leave with more portable souvenirs. In my case, it is a camera filled with inspiring foliage combinations. While foliage 
might not steal the show, its impact is huge. Chelsea is so much more than just a flower show.



  1. Oh my goodness, I was there too and we probably walked right past each other and never even noticed! What I found "off" about the planting combinations in the show gardens - stunning as they were - is that they're just a single point-in time snapshot of each plant at the perfect size to work well together. In subsequent years, the tiny shrubs will grow huge, shadowing out others, some plants will spread invasively, others will be choked out. It's just not sustainable hence I refer to these as the "impossible" gardens.

  2. That garden show must be the world's creme de al creme show. I loved looking at the photos, hope to one day see it in person, but in the meantime thank you Sarah for giving a little taste.

  3. Yes!! I completely agree, I’m a total foliage fop. Must write about it some more. Thanks for the shoutout for the shoutout I gave you. X

  4. I like the mix of ground covering plants at Weston Garden - is that Hellebore and Japanese Forest Grass?

  5. What a great perspective on Chelsea. I agree completely, and also think that the term "flower show" does little to encourage a wider demographic to get involved. It sounds a bit too old fashioned and middle English. "Garden show" or something similar would be much better, since as you rightly say there is so much more to it than flowers. Hope you saw my piece too, on the show garden judging process:
    All the best

  6. A great post Sarah, and a different perspective of Chelsea. Indeed foliage is vital in a well thought out garden. Somebody said, and I forget who, that without it flowers just look like coloured hay.
    Lovely to find this post I thought you had stopped blogging, Wordpress has stopped showing your blog. It does this ftom time to time, I shall refollow you.

  7. Todays gale has flattened many of our flowering plants, no doubt they will revive. Today the Hostas and Ferns are the stars of the garden.

  8. Hello, I went by to say hello, since I've been disconnected from everything for a long time. As always I love your work. That I still think that they are not chapucillas, but great works. A kiss.

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  12. That's really something extraordinary. It’s like thinking out of the box and producing this kind of excellent stuff in front of everybody. Really very impressive.

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