RHS Chelsea flower show 2018 – highlights

Another year, another Chelsea Flower Show!  I was worried that it may turn out to be a disappointment like the 2017 show was, with very few of the large Show Gardens to enjoy, but the numbers were up this year and there was actually plenty to see.

That said, the overall winning show garden (‘The Morgan Stanley garden for the NSPCC’) was actually very difficult to see!  We mere mortals who pay for tickets to the show don’t have the honour of being ‘allowed’ in to wander around the gardens and see them from every angle, so the view looking into the garden from outside is critical.  There were 2 gardens this year where I just couldn’t get any sense of what was going on because the visibility was so limited. One was the Morgan Stanley Garden, and the other was the ‘Spirit of Cornwall garden’.  I’m sure they were both lovely, but I’ll never know for sure!


M & G garden

There are always a few contentious gardens where visitors to the show just ‘don’t get’ what the garden is about.  This year I think the main contender was probably ‘The M&G Garden’ by Sarah Price which won a gold medal.  For someone looking for a quintessential English garden, this was far from it.

M&G Garden

Colours were muted, the planting was sparse and made up of Mediterranean drought-loving plants, and the hard landscaping had a distinct dusky pink hue.  So all in all, not very British!  I liked it, and am always pleased to see something original at the show – that’s why I go!

Perhaps not surprisingly, two of the BBC/RHS People’s Choice Award winners were very traditionally English in style, although at opposite ends of the design spectrum.  Mark Gregory’s ‘Welcome to Yorkshire’ was beautifully built and a very lovely slice of Yorkshire sitting in the middle of London.  As a (proud) Yorkshire woman I could appreciate how realistic it was and the attention to detail was phenomenal.

Welcome to Yorkshire

As a total contrast, in the artisan garden category ‘A Very English Garden’ was a much more formal affair, but had some stunning stonework and really beautiful planting.  I’m not generally that keen on the artisan gardens as so many of them try to pack too much in (in my humble opinion), but this was a classy little garden.

A Very English Garden

The third People’s Choice winner was also one of my favourites.  This was ‘The Silent Pool Gin Garden’, designed by David Neale.  It was a very attractive contemporary garden with a calm atmosphere, a lovely mix of materials, and all very well executed.  It felt like the sort of stylish garden which would translate very well to a domestic setting.

Silent Pool Gin Garden

‘The Trailfinders Garden South African Wine Estate garden’ illustrated an interesting mix of influences with its Cape Dutch homestead building, a very romantic front garden in what we’d think of as an English cottage garden style, and then beyond the garden boundary a section of vines, merging with an area planted to represent the wild South African landscape.

Trailfinders South African

It was a really nicely put together garden, and as my companion at the show is very familiar with South Africa it was good to learn about more about all the authentic details used in the design.

I think plant of the year for 2018 was definitely the Lupin.  And all I can say to that is there are clearly no slugs allowed at the Chelsea Flower Show!  Two of my favourite small gardens (both in the ‘Space to Grow 2018’ category) featured stunning Lupins.

Seedlip planting

One was ‘The Seedlip Garden’ which was stuffed with Lupins and all the species of plants used in the garden were related to the pea family.   I also came away with serious ‘Peavilion’ envy (their name for the pavilion, not mine I promise).

The Seedlip Garden

Lupins were also used to great dramatic effect in the ‘Urban Flow’ garden which had a subtle mix of materials and planting, and some lovely metalwork throughout.

Urban Flow

This garden won a gold medal for the designer Tony Woods.

Silent Pool Gin

Another of the main show gardens I enjoyed was ‘The David Harber and Savills Garden’.

David Harber & Savills

I liked the steel screens and the relatively simple layout which was set off by some very nice planting (including – wait for it – lupins!!).

David Harber Savills


With the usual stunning array of plants in the pavilion, some warm sunshine and a nice drop of Pimms at lunch time, I have to say that all in all it was a good show this year. I’ll be back for more in 2019 no doubt!


Designer guide to … creating the perfect outdoor room for summer

At this time of year (when the weather allows) many of us want to spend much of our time outside.  With TV programmes such as Channel 4’s Inside Out Homes dedicated to linking the house with the garden it just underlines how important the space beyond the four walls of our house is and what an underused resource a garden can be.  To make that valuable space outside work well there are a number of things to consider.

Key to being comfortable outside (I think) is the creation of cosy spaces to sit in.  Whether using plants or structures such as walls, fences, or trellis screens to achieve this, there’s no doubt that the sense of feeling enclosed results in a more comfortable space to spend time.

Tall plants at Scampston Walled Garden create a sheltered, cosy space for sitting and relaxing

On that theme, many of us are now overlooked by neighbours so planning screening along the boundaries or next to seating areas helps to create a sense of privacy.

pleached trees
Pleached trees are a brilliant tool to screen out neighbours without completely enclosing a space

Whilst it’s lovely to create enclosed spaces around a garden, there’s a balance between feeling cosy and feeling blocked in, so keeping views out of and through the garden are also something to bear in mind.


Taking out a section of hedge in this garden gave my clients a fantastic view of the South Downs to enjoy from their new terrace

When I go to visit potential clients I am often struck by the fact that most gardens have a paved area outside the back door, then some lawn and all the plants are arranged around the boundaries of the garden.  Bring them closer!  There’s nothing nicer than having plants flopping over walls and paving near the house to add colour, softness and scent.

Alton garden
Planting next to the house and terrace bring colour and seasonal interest to this Hampshire garden all year round

If plants are used to soften paths, there needs to be enough space to allow for that, so the paths should be built at a reasonable width (I’d say 900mm as a minimum without plants overhanging, but ideally I’d go much wider to allow enough space for 2 people to walk side by side comfortably).

plants on paths

The scale of entertaining spaces is very important – especially with the popularity of large outdoor sofas – so it’s important to ensure that paved areas are large enough to accommodate seating and tables and chairs.

Large furniture needs plenty of space

Permanent outdoor furniture is great!  It definitely encourages us to get into the garden more – even if just for a quick cuppa in the sun without the palaver of having to carry a seat outside specially.  So create spaces to leave seats and benches in key positions around the garden and I guarantee they will be used all year round, not just in summer.

If space allows, it’s a bonus to have areas around the garden to enjoy at different times of the day.  Evening is a key time for most of us to unwind and enjoy the late sun so I always try to design even just a small space for my clients to sit out at the end of the day.

evening sun
This circular seating area was built into the flower bed as it’s exactly where my clients can enjoy the late evening sun in summer

Whilst we tend to focus on sitting in the sun in the UK – with it being such a rare treat! – it’s also important to create spaces for shade.  And that may be something as simple as having a space under a tree to have lunch on a hot summer’s day.


shady tree
This tree seat provides somewhere to sit all year round and valuable shade in hot weather

I always encourage clients to include garden lighting in a new scheme – not just to create a lovely atmosphere when the sun has gone down, but to make it safe to navigate steps and paths around the garden.


These subtle step lights built into the wall provide a safe route around the garden at night

As well as sofas, hot tubs, pizza ovens, firepits and even outdoor fireplaces, another recent trend is the addition of an outdoor kitchen to the garden.  Moving on from the simple built-in barbecue, many companies now offer something far more extravagant – all-singing all-dancing outdoor kitchens complete with fridge, work surfaces, gas barbecue, kitchen sink ….

Gaze Burvill outdoor kitchen
The A La Carte Linear outdoor kitchen by Gaze Burvill is a great example of how far we’ve moved on from a simple barbecue outside!

It’s definitely true that the Outdoor Room concept has come a long way, even in the last 10 years, and gone are the days for a lot of us being satisfied to cook a few sausages over charcoal and eat them from the comfort of a deckchair!!


Photo credits:  Janet Bligh, Gaze Burvill

Designer guide to …. choosing paving stone for your garden

I have a number of garden design plans which are nearing completion at the moment and we’re getting to the tricky subject of paving choices. It really is one of the hardest decisions to make in the design and build of a new garden as there are so many factors to take into consideration, and it needs serious thought as the costs involved can be substantial. And unfortunately the choice isn’t getting easier as every year the major paving suppliers come up with new products to add to the mix! So if you’re bemused and bewildered by the choices on offer, here’s a simple checklist of things to consider before you decide what materials you choose:

What’s your style?
Is your house traditional or contemporary in style? Do you want your paving material to fit the style of the house or are you happy to contrast old and new?
If your house is very traditional and built in brick or stone, the obvious choice for paving is to go with brick and the same local stone or an all rounder such as Yorkstone which seems to work in pretty much any situation. If you’ve got a very contemporary house you may prefer something with a cleaner sharper look, maybe slate or granite, or a sawn sandstone.

sawn edged paving, chelsea flower show
Crisp clean lines for a contemporary look. Chelsea Flower Show

But you don’t have to be a slave to tradition and just do what’s expected, in fact modern materials can look fantastic next to traditional buildings and vice versa, but it’s something that needs to be thought out carefully. (And if you’re thinking long term – possibly about selling your house in the not-too-distant future – I’d advise you not to get too wacky in your choices. You could put potential buyers off).

Think about colour and its effect
Are you paving in a bright sunny part of the garden or is shade an issue? Think about colours of the stone you are choosing, not only to get the right tones to complement any nearby buildings and existing hard landscaping, but also in terms of the effect the stone will have on making a space brighter or not. A lighter coloured stone can really lift a gloomy space but with that choice comes the problem of keeping the stone clean.  You could consider sealing light-coloured paving to reduce the chance of staining (this can be done in advance by stone merchants, but there is of course an additional cost involved).

Are you concerned about where your stone is coming from?
You may also like to check that your supplier is sourcing their stone ethically – some of the stone currently on the market is unbelievably cheap, and certainly in the past concerns have been raised about the safety of some of the overseas quarries supplying stone. You may be aware that Indian Sandstone has become hugely popular in the UK over the last 10 or so years – and that popularity is based largely on price. Despite the fact it’s travelled so far to get to the UK, much of it is now cheaper than local stone or precast slabs. There’s no denying it can be a very good cost-effective alternative for the more expensive stones such as Yorkstone, however it can vary hugely in quality and also in colour (a real case of you get what you pay for).

Indian sandstone, stone merchants
Indian sandstone can vary enormously in colour & markings

And be aware that within one colour range you could be supplied with stone with tones of pink, beige, orange, grey …. I always advise my clients if at all possible to go to a stone merchants where you can see the paving laid out en masse to get a clear idea of the colours and textures you are likely to end up with. It doesn’t always look like it does in the brochure!  And look at it in dry and wet weather to get the full picture.

What about your budget?
Budget is often the deciding factor when it comes down to it, but it’s aso important to take into account the cost of laying the stone you choose. Many natural stones are supplied in varying thicknesses, and it’s a lot harder and more time-consuming for a landscaper to lay an area of paving if all the stones are of different thicknesses. Reclaimed Yorkstone in particular can be a nightmare as it can vary massively in this regard. It also weighs a ton which makes laying it a very slow and costly process.

Yorkstone paving
Yorkstone paving isn’t a budget stone but it looks fantastic.

You can pay a higher price to buy new stone that has been cut to a uniform thickness, or you could consider using pre-cast or reconstituted slabs. Some of the ‘fake’ products on offer these days really are pretty impressive in terms of mimicking natural stone, and they can be a better solution if for example you like the look of sandstone but don’t like the wild colour variations.

Concrete paving stone with brick detailing
Concrete paving stone with brick detailing

Of course there are many other very attractive natural stones to choose from apart from sandstone – limestone, quartzite, granite, slate, Purbeck stone and Travertine to name a few. The key is to do your homework and make sure you know where the stone originates from and (very importantly in the UK) that it can cope with freezing weather.

Where is the paving being used?
If it’s being laid in an area that gets little sun and it will be covered in algae by the end of winter that’s okay if you don’t need to walk on it. But for pedestrian areas you don’t want stone underfoot that will be really slippery and slimey when it gets wet (and the same goes for decking which can be lethal when wet). You also need to think about the surface finish of the stone you choose – a riven finish is great for a traditional look, but this uneven surface on sandstone and Yorkstone can be seriously dangerous when wet – as can a very smooth surface.

Sawn edged Yorkstone with a smooth finish
Sawn edged Yorkstone with a smooth finish

Consider opting for stone with a shotsawn, bush hammered or tooled finish on the surface which would solve the problem (you can specify this by getting the stone directly from a quarry).  In recent years we’ve seen Porcelain tiles being introduced to the landscaping market.  It’s great for a clean crisp look and is marketed as being easy to clean and slip-resistant.

Jetwashing will get rid of the algae and do a lot to keep paving clean but it can also damage mortar joints, so you could consider laying paving with clean edges which can be ‘butt-jointed’ (ie no mortar joints between the slabs).

A cost effective alternative to stone slabs is loose stone (gravel, shingle, chippings etc.). If you want to use a space for outdoor dining for example, gravel is best avoided where you will be putting your furniture as it will be difficult to move the chairs easily. And do avoid laying gravel right next to the lawn (always use a mowing edge like a strip of brickwork) or you could have stones flying through your windows next time you cut the grass!

Gravel next to seating area laid with sandstone setts
Gravel next to seating area laid with sandstone setts

Also choose a stone of a reasonable size that won’t be carried in to the house on your shoes, or kicked about all over the garden (or used as a toilet by next door’s cat!). Avoid the big stones (reminiscent of Brighton Beach) as they are a nightmare to walk on, and ideally go for flatter stones for any pedestrian areas, as they move less and create an easy surface to walk on and use wheelbarrows etc.

What about drainage?
One big advantage of choosing gravel surfacing is that you won’t need to worry about rainwater draining away as you might with a large surface area of paving. And this could be something to bear in mind particularly if you are planning to create or increase the size of a driveway in your front garden. It is now a requirement to gain planning permission for any new area of impermeable driveway over 5 square metres in size (unless it drains to a permeable area), so if you don’t want to use block pavers or porous asphalt, gravel would be a good option.

There are 3 major stone companies who supply stone merchants nationally in the UK, so if you don’t have a local quarry who can supply what you want, it’s worth taking a look at their websites to get a feel for the variety of paving products available.  Check out Marshalls, Bradstone and Stonemarket.

You’ll soon realise that paving is a big subject (and I haven’t even mentioned alternatives to stone such as bricks, setts, cobbles, block pavers, sealed gravels, timber….)  and it may not be the most exciting subject in the world (!), but if you’re planning some new hard landscaping in your garden it’s important to spend some time thinking really hard about what you are looking to achieve.  If you don’t, you could risk making an expensive mistake by choosing materials which are completely unsuitable for your needs.

Horatio’s Garden – fantastic garden, fantastic cause

On a gloomy, chilly afternoon recently I headed off to Salisbury to visit a garden I have been keen to see for ages.  Tucked away in the grounds of Salisbury Hospital, between Car Park 8 and Car Park 10, is the wonderful Horatio’s Garden.  Built for patients of the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Treatment Centre at the hospital, the garden is named after Horatio Chapple who volunteered at the centre and recognised the desperate need for an outdoor space for patients (who can be at the hospital for as long as 12 months).  Horatio was tragically killed aged just 17, but the garden is a fantastic memorial to him and to his efforts at creating a beautiful garden for patients and their families to enjoy.


Horatio's Garden

The garden was designed by Cleve West (a stalwart of the Chelsea Flower Show and an inspirational British garden designer).  It opened in 2012 and has won many awards, and deservedly so in my opinion.

The key features of the garden are the curving spine-like dry stone walls which run through the garden – some complete, and some broken.  These walls double as seats too, creating a low-key sociable space.

Curving walls

The ground has been levelled and surfaced in resin-bonded aggregate which provides a smooth porous surface – very practical for patients in wheelchairs.  There are intimate seating areas, and shade provided by parasols, with a large open central area which is ideal for patients and families to gather for events.

Open space

Water falling into a long stone rill creates a calming sound, and the enormous rusted steel archway tunnels are planted with Wisteria and apple trees.

Water rill

A summer house in the corner offers more shade and a quiet space to enjoy views through the garden.

The planting is very soft and airy, predominantly herbaceous and ornamental grasses, with views through the beds to other areas of the garden.


Trees such as Amelanchier and Birches are scattered through the planting areas too.  The garden is enclosed with hedging making it feel like it’s a world away from the hospital environment.  But it’s not just a space for quiet contemplation – this garden is used regularly for social and artistic events, and fund-raising activities.  It is very much a space for enjoyment, as well as a place for patients and visitors to find some peace and quiet.

An additional area with a greenhouse and specially-designed planters and potting spaces mean that the patients can also get involved in growing plants for the garden and to raise funds.

potting table

This summer there were six fantastic Oak sculptures in the garden, on loan from the artist Johnny Woodford.  Up to 4 metres in height and reminiscent of the form of a spine, they fitted into the garden brilliantly.

Johnny Woodford

With studies showing that a hospital patient’s well-being was improved when they had a room facing trees, you can imagine what a huge difference being able to get outside into such a beautiful calm space must make to the patients in Salisbury.  In fact this garden has been such a success that there is to be another Horatio’s Garden at the Scottish National Spinal Injuries Unit in Glasgow – this time to be designed by James Alexander-Sinclair.  And following Glasgow will be another garden at Stoke Mandeville Hospital which will be designed by Joe Swift.

As someone who can’t sit still or bear to be cooped up inside for any length of time, I can’t really imagine what the patients at these spinal units are going through. And that’s why I think Horatio’s Garden is such a fantastic cause.  If you’d like to learn more about (and support) the charity, then click here.  The Salisbury garden is open to the public occasionally and details can be found on the website.


Picture credits:  Janet Bligh