Chelsea Flower Show 2009

If SED last week had been afflicted by the credit crunch flu, then Chelsea Flower Show had the "bad case of the sniffles" version of the same underlying infection: nobloody moneyus . The show gardens in particular have, over recent years, become heavily dependent on sponsorship from bankers and upmarket property businesses, so the "economic downturn" has had a negative impact on their schmoozing budgets, which means that several of the usual lavish gardens have been laid off but the champers and posh nosh for zelebrities, Sloane Rangers, and the perennially under-talented survives by virtue of the remaining chastened megacorps commandeering one or other of the less-expansive gardens or Grand Marquee display of some smaller company that hasn't yet managed to bankrupt itself or any of the minor European countries.

Luckily, Marshalls are still around, cashing-in the third (and probably final) year of their generous sponsorship and doing it with some real panache. Last year they gave us a garden for children; this year we get a street for people, featuring no less than four separate dwellings, each providing bed and board to a different type of resident, from trendy young couple to retired-and-living-it-up senior citizens. And to emphasise the way that we use streetscapes and how they link to our homes and gardens, a troupe of performers from central casting had been brought in to play out a four minute “Day in the Life” of the street. What's this? Live drama, interaction, entertainment! At the Chelsea Flower Show? Is that allowed? Well, it is, but only twice and only on press day, apparently. The doughty organisers within the RHS decreed that such excitement is too much for the ordinary citizen, likely to get them over-excited and giddy, and so, despite the best efforts of Marshalls' to drag them kicking and screaming into the 19th Century, the great unwashed will have to watch it in the safety of their own homes, on the telly or that new-fangled interwebby thing.

living streets from marshalls
Marshalls' Living Street
living streets from marshalls
Gravel driveway at Nr. 1

And if you do have access to these modern electronic media (they'll never catch on you know!), I urge you to take a look at what Marshalls did. In a few short minutes they created a mini-drama that underlined the importance of hard-landscaping to our everyday activities, whatever our age, social group, ethnicity or colour of socks. The street, the garden, the path to the front door all provide the backdrop to much of what happens in our lives, yet many of us take it for granted. While we meet and greet, live, love and leave, the paving is there, draining surface water to sustainable systems (Priora), removing pollutants for the atmosphere (Noxer Paving), and subtly connecting us to one another. What's the betting that the judges completely failed to take all this into account because they wanted to see more greenery?

Three years ago, Bradstone literally stole the show , taking a big shiny Gold Medal along with "Best in Show". Last year, in what some interpreted as 'throwing a sulk' they didn't turn up at all at the Marshalls'-sponsored event. This year, they are back but I don't think they want anyone to know.

There have been major changes within the marketing department at Bradstone-StoneFlair-Border Stone, and along with many of the damned good personnel that were there, the new regime seems to have dispensed with the concept of "communication". Have they thrown the baby out with the bathwater?

Not a peep from the company themselves in the lead up to the show; no identifiable Bradstonites on or around the stand; three Bradstone leaflets hidden in a back corner. I do hope I've not spoiled their cunning masterplan to disappear completely from the hard-landscaping radar by revealing their presence at a major event such as this!

Anyway, the small garden, designed by the obscenely talented Chris Beardshaw, was intended to promote a new master/apprentice scheme , whereby some promising youngster is mentored by a "'Legend" in the hope of getting them up the first few rungs of the ladder to garden design recognition.

Chris Beardshaw Scholarship Garden

Not much in the way of hard-landscaping - there never is with Mr Beardshaw - but sumptuous, naturalistic planting, with a simple focus and a trendy palette of whites and purples. Yummy!

No Brett this year, but as was explained to me a couple of months or so back, the Big Re-Think that's taking place at the company's hard-landscaping sector doesn't really allow for garden shows at this stage of the plan.

Cancer Research Garden
Cancer Research Garden

While many of the gardens featured paving supplied by some of the smaller companies involved in the trade, one name that should be familiar to regular readers is Rock Unique , purveyors of the more esoteric stone from around the world. For the creamalicious Cancer Research UK Garden , Chris and his team had sourced a buttermilk-hued tumbled limestone which had been laid between magnolia-rendered dwarf walls to near-millimetre perfection and jointed with a white mortar. Yes: you've guessed - you could see every bloody footprint, but as a statement piece, it had the sort of wow-factor that was missing from several of the other gardens on Main Avenue.

The use of limestone, however, was a theme repeated elsewhere. I'll overlook those that used limestone in its bastardised format (Travertine) but it was noticeable that various limestones, ranging from the familiar Portland stone through to richly textured crinoidal stone, kept popping up in all sorts of places. This set me wondering: we all know that taste in hard-landscaping changes from year to year - twelve months ago the show saw four garden using Vande Moortel Clay Pavers, which were completely absent this year - but why pale, creamy limestone all of a sudden?

limestone paving at chelsea
Limestone paving at Chelsea Flower Show

I daresay some clever psycho-economist yoghurt knitter would be able to tell us how straitened times cause us to seek comfort and security in simple, familiar yet neutral tones and textures, or some arty colour consultant would explain how limestone provides a blank canvas which allows the designer to paint pretty pictures with their chosen planting. Whatever, the case or reason, limestone is definitely "in", and so, it would seem, is Welsh Slate.

After years of being battered by cheaper, inferior imports for both roofing and hard-landscaping, two adjacent Main Avenue gardens elected to make the unmistakeable Penrhyn slate a key element of their designs.

Future Garden Slate
Slate on edge paving
Future Garden Slate
Slate lined rill

The Future Nature Garden by Ark Design used salvaged roofing slates laid on-edge and contained within steel cages to create highly distinctive stepping stones across a shallow pond, which was continually replenished with water running in along a slate-lined rill. This is one of my favourite uses of salvaged roof slates. The surface texture is created by the fettled edges and while some designers likes to keep it looking crisp-and-clean by means of a regular cleaning regime, I love it when the narrow gaps fill with moss or Baby's Tears (Soleirolia soleirolii). The designer had cropped the slates to around one-third of their width prior to creating the pathways, thereby reducing the formation depth and, assuming good quality reclaimed slates are used, doubling the coverage by creating at least two usable pieces from each individual slate.

Quilted Velvet garden
Quilted Velvet Garden

And those wonderfully tactile fettled edges were used en masse in The Quilted Velvet Garden . 30,000 individual slates, each hewn from the mountainside in Bethesda, North Wales, and glowing with the reddish-purple hue that is so characteristic of Penrhyn slate. And to make sure the colour was emphasised, I spied the designer giving each of the surfaces a rub-down with vegetable oil, a trick that should only ever be used for decorative pieces, as using any sort of oil on slate paving renders it dangerously slippery and can help ensure it attracts just about every flying stinging insect in the neighbourhood.

slate texture
Colour and texture of Welsh Slate
Petalled modesty

A serties of grass-topped cubes featuring the incredible texture of all those fettled edges combined with the imperial colour and standing in a field of pink Busy Lizzies, I was so entranced with the stone that I almost missed the nudey-rudey model immersed in a pool of pink petals.

While clay pavers were the paving of choice last year, only two gardens used them this year, and one of those was actually a greenhouse retailer. The QVC Garden was difficult to appreciate from the boundary as the heavily planted beds hid most of the structure, but once you stepped into the area, it overwhelmed the senses. Paths of stretcher-bond clays led the way between shallow pools and stuffed-to-overflowing cottage garden beds with only the uncomfortable "reconstituted stone" raised planters to mar the effect. I know they would mellow with age, but those unconvincing concrete blocks kept dragging my eyes away from all that was good in the garden.

QVC Garden
QVC Garden
Clay pavers
Gorgeous Clay Pavers

I must have trudged up and down that Main Avenue half-a-dozen times (powered by Tramadol: for pain relief when morphine isn't readily available!) trying to decide which of the show gardens would be my 'best in show' and even now, writing on the train home while my feet throb as they might after walking across hot coals while being slapped around the ankles with a sledgehammer, I can't decide which was my favourite.

The Hesco Garden from Leeds City Council is close to what I'd have in my own garden, if I had the space, the budget and a modicum of talent. It teeters mere microns above tweeness, as it contains all the elements folk like in a 'northern' garden: haphazard yorkstone flags, stone cottage with flag roofing, a gurgling beck tumbling through a rock-strewn clough, somewhere restful to park yer arse, and truly glorious planting that would make your heart soar and reaffirm your conviction that God can only have come from north of Birmingham.

Hesco Garden
Hesco Garden - a little piece of heaven on earth

At the other end of the scale is the serene yet staid Laurent Perrier garden. Haven't we seen this all before? Cube-clipped hornbeams with long linear sightlines and pathways bounded by clipped box and the merest dash of maroon-ish colour. I'm sure someone with more money than sense would think this is a garden, but I find it soulless and eerily cold. So, naturally, it wins a Gold.

Laurent perrier garden
Laurent Perrier Garden

This is public space (or private retreat) gardening. It's not a 'down-on-yer-knees getting yer mitts mucky” garden, and that's why I struggle to empathise with it. I appreciate what it is trying (and succeeding) to do, but that doesn't make my heart sing. Gardens should provoke a reaction: the aforementioned Hesco Garden makes me want to find a seat and down a pint of Theakston's XB whilst immersing my audio-visual senses in the panorama. The Laurent Perrier Garden makes me nervous: it's too clean, too precise, too cold and too structured.

And they've used bloody Travertine for the main pathway!

The Daily Telegraph Garden , gold winner and declared Best In Show, is a modern garden, with granite blocks strewn precisely amongst cool green and white planting with a dash of purple, accessed by granite chipping pathways leading to a clear pool with more granite blocks beneath the surface and a black-timber and glass pergola-cum-summerhouse. Another garden that is well beyond the reach of us mere mortals but there are many elements here that will be carried over to the most contemporary designs: the near perfect balance of rock, water and planting; the colour contrast between dark hued hard structures and light coloured; the fluffy soft green planting accentuated by the very definite edges of the granite blocks. It's a very cool garden for a hot summer.

Daily Telegraph Garden
Daily Telegraph Garden
Daily Telegraph Garden
Cool, green planting
Granite paving
Granite paving and summerhouse
Childrens Society Garden
Childrens Society Garden

Mark Gregory's garden for The Children's Society features one of his extremely stylish hardwood garden offices, with dark, flame-textured granite used to form water-topped cubes and laid as boundary paving enclosing silvery granite chippings. While the planting has softened all those hard edges, the plain concrete wall broken only by vertical banners of greenery looked a little stark for my taste, but the judges seemed to like it as they gave it a Gold.

Other hard-landscaping features deserving a mention include Sarah Eberle's very clever 'mosaic' parking space created in her Overdrawn Artist's Garden using a salvaged steel grating and filling each of the cells with different colours of 3mm chippings to create intriguing Aztec-like patterns. Such a simple idea, but wonderfully impressive, and just one of the three gardens designed by Sarah for this plot. So much talent in one person is just not fair!

Artists Garden
Gravel-filled gratings
Modern Rock Garden
Modern Rock Garden

Japanese designer Tomoko Osonoe created the Modern Rock Garden which featured horizontally-filled mini-gabions and an attractive cobbles-in-red-concrete surface that must be amazingly comforting to bare feet on a warm day. Cobbles (or duckstones as they are known in some parts) are not easy to lay well, and it's often the cement matrix that spoils the look, but by using a red matrix, Tomoko has managed to turn a problem into an asset.

Fenchurch Garden
The Fenchurch Garden

Scotscape gave us The Fenchurch Garden with its intriguing limbs or roots of concrete running along the ground and up the walls. These are superb shapes that merge and branch in a fascinating organic manner, but the quality of the concrete casting was pretty bloody poor, with the inexcusable patches of rice-krispie texture detracting from the sensuous forms. The publicity says the concrete has been manufactured using a special 'low-carbon footprint' technique. Remind me not to bother with that on my next project!

The Courtyard Gardens tucked away on Serpentine Walk often charm but occasionally they can stray into sentimentality. There were a few of those here this year, but one that does deserve a mention is the Jacob's Ladder Garden by Jeffrey Hewitt. I'm not qualified to speak about his planting or the relevance to Jacob and his dream ladder, but the beautifully crafted brick paving which perfectly complemented to vertical brick masonry was a real joy, offering a realistic and eminently achievable patio option for any small courtyard. The central rill of running water will, almost inevitably, green the brickwork unless it is “treated” but the central idea remains wonderfully attractive.

Jacob's Ladder Garden
Jacob's Ladder Garden

So what will be the abiding memories of Chelsea 2009? It'll be difficult to forget the way Joanna Lumley effortlessly charmed even the most cynical members of the press with her praise of the QVC garden. James May's plasticine garden is the most fun I've ever seen at Chelsea and the response from the RHS in awarding him a plasticine medal suggests they might not be quite as stuffy as they sometimes seem. In terms of hard-landscaping, the revived interest in Welsh Slate is long overdue, but the use of crushed brick as a loose aggregate for pathways needs some fine tuning. Just because it's environmentally sound doesn't make it a de facto success, as evidenced by the uncomfortably red paths through the Homes & Communities The Key garden. Indian sandstone and run-of-the-mill concrete paving is all but extinct, clinging on in only one or two (usually appallingly laid) retailer's stands, while natural stone is still being explored with new colours and textures and formats appearing each year.

Joanna Lumley
wire figure
James May

However, the real winner for me was the Living Street idea from Marshalls. This was the best possible use of their allotted space, illustrating the interaction between hard and soft landscaping, homes and lifestyles, people and places, and showing how gardens affect our everyday lives, without any whiff of worthiness. When you consider that the exhibitor is the nation's largest hard-landscaping manufacturer and the event is the world's most important garden event, this was the perfect match, marrying paving to planting in a way that works for real people.

Marshalls Living Street arrow