Chelsea Flower Show 2017 – highlights

I love my annual trip to the Chelsea Flower Show in London, exhausting though it always is! This year though I have to say it was pretty disappointing due to the reduced number of the bigger show gardens – less than half than in 2016. My main reason for going to the show is to be inspired by great design and innovative use of materials and planting, so the lack of gardens was keenly felt. Still, it’s always a good day out and a great opportunity to see beautiful plants.

The ‘Best Show Garden’ award was won by the M&G Garden designed by James Basson.


Clearly a very well-constructed and thought-out design inspired by an abandoned Maltese quarry, it was notable to see how few members of the public were gathered around the plot looking at the garden. You normally have to fight your way through the crowds to get a glimpse of the big gardens!  I think this one was just a bit too abstract and stark for many of the show goers who were there to see a more traditional ‘garden’ packed full of flower and colour.

Speaking of which, the Morgan Stanley Garden designed by Chris Beardshaw was stuffed with beautiful plants, with a lovely oak and limestone loggia as its centrepiece – much more crowd-pleasing.


Not surprisingly this garden won the People’s Choice Award for Show Gardens.


Winner of this award in the ‘Fresh Gardens’ category was the Breast Cancer Now Garden – Through the Microscope. I liked the simplicity and structure of this garden.


So many of the gardens at the show are filled to the brim with planting, that it can be a welcome relief to find something a little more calm and open.

Another Fresh Garden with a strong, simple structure that I liked was Beneath a Mexican Sky. This was a very successful homage to the Mexican modernist architect Luis Barragan who used colourful walls and pools in his work.


I have a bit of a thing for orange, so particularly liked the use of California poppies and the fabulous agave planted against the backdrop of an orange wall.

Far more subtle and restrained – and archetypally Chelsea – was the planting in the RHS Greening Grey Britain garden.

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Lots of lovely purple, white and green froth contrasting with the dark foliage of Sambucus nigra shrubs. Yum!

At the other end of the scale, with pink walls and much more colour, was the Silk Road Garden, Chengdu, China.  The pink wasn’t to everyone’s tastes judging by the comments around the garden (!), but the garden was designed as a showcase for just some of the many, many plants which we use in our gardens today and which originate from China.


I usually find a few products and suppliers of interest at the show and this year particularly like the rusted steel screen panels used on the Alitex trade stand.


I also liked the bespoke pots and furniture used on the 500 years of Covent Garden designed by Lee Bestall.



One thing that never disappoints at Chelsea is a garden designed by the Ishihara Kazujuki Design Laboratory from Japan.


They create the most beautifully atmospheric Japanese gardens which always draw a crowd. The attention to detail in their gardens is completely mind-boggling and a gold medal was – as usual – very much deserved.

I just hope we get a lot more to look at in 2018!


Photos: Janet Bligh


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

Designing shade into the garden

Shady bench.JPG

When I’m designing gardens, possibly the most important factor to take into account before drawing up a plan is to work out which are the sunniest parts of my clients’ gardens, because that is usually where the entertaining areas go – whether for dining or just sitting outside.  With our totally unpredictably climate we do tend to want to focus on sitting in the sun as it’s such a novelty!  But sometimes (just sometimes!) it can be uncomfortably hot and that’s when it becomes important to find some shade.  So instead of simply having to drag furniture to a shady corner to escape the sun, it’s always good to plan in at least one area of the garden for spending time in the shade.

There are many options to consider – some more permanent than others – and here are just a few ideas.

timber pergola
Structures such as pergolas are invaluable – whether free-standing or built next to a house or garden wall.  They can be planted with evergreen climbers for maximum shade, or with deciduous climbers (such as golden Hop or vines) for good coverage in summer, but with leaves falling in autumn they won’t be too shady over winter.

Pratic Tecnic Sail awning with a very solid support system

Shade sails are a relatively new concept for creating shade outside.  They offer a more contemporary alternative to structures like pergolas, but they do need to be planned in properly with really good foundations for the structural supports.  On a windy day the sails need to be safe and secure.  They are ideal for warmer climates where shade is needed on a constant basis, but the sails are generally not that easy to take up & down (so not ideal for ad hoc use), and obviously careful thought needs to be given to exactly where the shade is required before any support posts are set into the ground.

Cantilevered Parasol
Parasol design has evolved too – no longer limited to sticking a parasol in the centre of a table (and then having to constantly move seats along with the sun!), there are now some very stylish (and large) cantilevered parasols on the market which offer much more flexibility.

Bury Court
A very stylish open frame pavilion at Bury Court in Hampshire

Garden buildings or pavilions (or whatever you want to call them!) can come in any design, shape or size with as much coverage or shelter as required.

ENCOMPASS Reverse 21
A retractable sail awning makes this contemporary pergola very useable – whatever the weather

Slatted sides and roofs will give dappled shade, or a solid roof can be used to give complete shade (and shelter from the rain too!).

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Seating with added shade is always an option – for example a simple timber arbour with in-built bench, or a swing seat with a canopy shade.

Cacoon swings
These Cacoon hanging chairs come in a variety of colours and sizes

There are some really fun hanging chairs (or tents) available which can be hung from a tree or from a frame.  These are a great way to get out of the sun, as well as fantastic place for a siesta or for kids to use as a den.

Parasol trees
Parasol lime trees at the Chelsea Flower Show

And let’s not forget trees – so often an underused design resource!  Whether you opt to buy a ready-formed parasol-shaped tree, put a tree seat around the trunk of an existing tree, or simply move your table & chairs under the canopy, they are invaluable when you want to escape the heat.

Tree seat

And in my opinion there’s nothing to beat lying on the grass reading a book in the dappled shade of a tree on a hot summer’s day.  Heaven!

Willow shade.JPG

Picture credits : Janet Bligh & Encompass Furniture

Highlights from the 2015 RHS Chelsea Flower Show


Crowds at Chelsea

I went to the Chelsea Flower Show twice this year – once on Press Day and then again later in the week as a paying visitor.  Seems a bit OTT I guess, but I really enjoy going twice as both trips have their advantages.  The obvious upside to Press Day is the lack of crowds and the fact that you can see everything without fighting to get to the front of the throng.  But I do enjoy going when the show is open as there’s so much more atmosphere.  And there’s such a lot to take in that I always see something new on my second visit.

The Great Chelsea Garden Challenge Garden by Sean Murray proved a big hit with the crowds
The Great Chelsea Garden Challenge Garden by Sean Murray proved a big hit with the crowds

And this year it felt like there was more variety than usual in the style of gardens on show.  Probably because two of the main gardens did something a little different – they weren’t perfect!   There were seedheads, dead leaves and patches of bare earth and they just seemed altogether more realistic and made a refreshing change from all that stunning perfection which we’re so used to seeing at Chelsea!

The Best Show Garden award went to Dan Pearson for the Laurent-Perrier Chatsworth Garden which was incredibly well put together.

Dan Pearson

The landscaping and attention to detail was so convincing, it really did feel like a wild garden.  With enormous rock formations, a natural stream and wonderful planting, it was a fantastic achievement.

Chatsworth Garden

Another gold medal winner which I really liked was A Perfumer’s Garden in Grasse by L’Occitane, designed by James Basson.

Perfumer's Garden

This was such an evocative garden that you really did feel like you were in the south of France (or at least you did when the sun came out!).  It was beautifully put together.

L'Occitane garden

Most of the main show gardens were stuffed to the gills with gorgeous planting, and perfect hard landscaping as is par for the course at Chelsea.

Chris Beardshaw
I liked Chris Beardshaw’s planting and the steel wall panels he incorporated into the Morgan Stanley Healthy Cities Garden.

Steel panels

The Brewin Dolphin Garden by Darren Hawkes featured more than 40,000 hand-cut pieces of slate which were used to create steps and suspended platforms.  Talk about attention to detail!   The woodland planting was beautifully done too, and the overall effect very cool and calm.

Brewin Dolphin

Matthew Wilson’s Royal Bank of Canada garden featured some lovely curving decking and stylish furniture.

Royal Bank of Canada garden
The cool simplicity of the Beauty of Islam garden by Kamelia Bin Zaal was a lovely contrast to a lot of show gardens where there’s so much going on you sometimes don’t know where to look.  Like the Provencal garden this really came to life in the sunshine.

Beauty of Islam garden

I liked Adam Frost’s Homebase Garden – Urban Retreat.

Homebase Garden

It had quite a simple overall design with strong lines, and repetition through shapes and planting, and an open feel.  It felt like a really comfortable space.  Lovely timber pavilion too.

timber pavilion

The Fresh Gardens section is billed as the ‘cutting-edge face’ of the Chelsea Flower Show.  I find some of the gardens just a little too cutting-edge for my tastes but there are often interesting elements to admire (!).

The World Vision garden by John Warland was really striking with planting boxes set into a large reflective pool.

World Vision

Dark water pools were also used to good effect in the Breathrough Breast Cancer garden by Ruth Willmott.  They provided a really good contrast with the soft planting which was predominantly pink, green and white.

Breakthrough Breast Cancer

In the plant marquee there’s always such a lot too see it can be a bit overwhelming.

I’m not a massive fan of Chrysanthemums but enjoyed the striking ice-cream cones on display by the National Chrysanthemum Society.


My favourite in the marquee this year was something close to my heart – Time for Tea by Interflora.  It was a really clever design and ‘inspired by the nation’s love of a good cuppa’.

Time for TeaI’ll drink to that!


Photo credits: Janet Bligh