Returning home from Chelsea yesterday and on waking this morning my main recollections of the show were all infused with colour, my brain still awash with the contrasts and blends which lent a particular character to each garden and plant exhibit. I’ve been entertained, surprised and soothed by the colours of Chelsea in the past and there’s no doubt that hues, tints and shades are a key part of designing gardens that engage the observer. But this year the use of colour spoke to me more directly, both the broad brush strokes across the show and the details of specific gardens.
I could be accused of being a purpleaholic. I love purple flowers in all their guises – whether it be blending the soft purple of Verbena bonariensis or Allium ‘Purple Rain’ in gentle pastel colour schemes, using purple Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ to contrast with the zingy orange of a geum like ‘Prinses Juliana’ or using the deep purple centres of flowers like Centaurea montana ‘Amethyst in Snow’ or Nigella papillosa ‘African Bride’ against their white petals for delicate accents in the border. Purple foliage also has many uses aesthetically and for cutting. I’m particularly fond of Sambucus nigra Black Lace and even purple Pak Choi (Brassica rapa subsp. chinensis ‘Purple Choy Sum’), Kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea subsp. gongylodes ‘Azur Star’) and Kale (Brassica oleracea ‘Redbor’). All of these plants can be used to bring interest and beauty to a cottage or potager garden, whilst also supplying the table with vibrant vegetables and pink elderflower cordial.
So I enjoyed the mix of purples in the flowers and foliage of The St John’s Hospice – A Modern Apothecary. Whilst appreciating the calm atmosphere evoked by the cobbled path, trickling water feature and gentle planting, I could also imagine a light salad eaten on one of the oak benches consisting of red/purple beetroot and brassica leaves (high in healthy anthocyanidins) and sprinkled with edible petals from the viola, chives and calendula.
The next study in purple I encountered was The LG Smart Garden, where purple combined with pale pinks and white results in an elegantly exuberant planting scheme.
In The Chelsea Barracks Garden, Jo Thompson uses bronze foliage and sculpture as a background to the soft planting. However, unlike The LG Smart Garden, this garden takes the eye on a colour-based journey around the bronze-edged elliptical lawn.
Beginning with blues and pinks alongside the purple foliage of Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’, the sightline travels past the Basaltite stone wall with bronze fins echoed in the handsome foliage of the Fagus sylvatica f. purpurea, which looks stunning next to the Digitalis purpurea ‘Sutton’s Apricot’.
When your gaze finally reaches the other end of the garden, the striking colours of Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’, Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ and ‘Amistad’, Rosa ‘Nuits de Young’, ‘Chianti’ and ‘Reine des Violettes’ and the purple stems of the Angelica archangelica contrast with the gentle colours at the beginning of the visual journey.
Finally my purple preoccupation was almost sated in the Great Pavilion when I came across this wall of Heuchera ‘Obsidian’ (one of my favourite heucheras) and Echeveria ‘Pollux’. An impractical, but arresting and absorbing diversion.
In The Modern Slavery Garden, Juliet Sargeant uses striking blocks of colour to represent the bright social exterior which conceals the reality that people are still being held in captivity in the UK and forced to work without pay. Lupins, peonies, foxgloves and irises form a strong architectural framework in this garden. The message is bold and important and so is the planting.
Rosy Hardy’s garden is another space where colour dances for the spectator from the bright pathway to the wonderful daubs of unresolved planting. The vibrant contrasts serve to accentuate each plant, showcasing individual features that might get lost in more subtle colour schemes. Particular highlights include Achillea ‘Moonshine’, Geum ‘Red Wings’ and ‘Totally Tangerine’, Allium stipitatum ‘Mount Everest’ and Salvia ‘Eveline’.
Not to be outdone, the Grand Pavilion has stepped up to the colour challenge and delivered an engaging floral exhibit which showcases white and green flowers and foliage on one side and the Queen’s head resplendent in floral technicolor on the other. The exhibit was designed by Ming Veevers Carter for the New Covent Garden Flower Market to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday. It is bold and striking, and I thought it might be rather strident, but up close the flowers have a beauty which I found softened the whole effect.
The use of strong colour blocks to showcase individual plants and their features is effective, but nothing at the show drew me into the gardens like the latticework effects of the lacy umbellifers and other intricate flowers hiding in between the frothy grasses. Such planting combinations are a study in the subtle use of colour, none more so than in my favourite garden – The Winton Beauty of Mathematics Garden, designed by Nick Bailey.
I found the planting in the gravel borders absolutely riveting. Spires of Resda alba rise gently from the speckled Briza media, Geum ‘Mai Tai’, Iris ‘Kent Pride’, Allium atropurpurea, Centaurea montana ‘Jordy’, Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’ and Calendula officinalis ‘Sherbert Fizz’ (which I first used in a design earlier this year and which I’m growing from seed in my own garden). The colour of this calendula attracted me because of its coppery, almost muddy tone – a characteristic shared at Chelsea this year with other subtle orange flowers such as Geum ‘Mai Tai’, Eremurus ‘Cleopatra’ in the RHS Greening Grey Britain garden and Verbascum x hybridum ‘Copper Rose’ in The Chelsea Barracks Garden. I also grow Allium atropurpurea, a favourite allium which I noticed was just beginning to flower this morning in the espalier/herb border. The deep purple rigid structure of this allium echoes another treasure in this scheme – the almost black Centaurea montana ‘Jordy’ with its delicately feathered petals. The flowers can get lost when combined with green foliage, but here it forms small velvety black holes in front of the orange Geum ‘Mai Tai’.
The use of umbellifers is popular once again at this year’s show. Their lacy beauty acts as a foil for other plants and creates a shimmering backdrop against which to exhibit stronger colours. I loved the umbellifer combinations in the RHS Greening Grey Britain garden and the way they create a latticework of structure and colour. From the tall Angelica archangelica, to Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’, a lovely dark-leaved form of our native cow parsley, which froths up behind another beautiful umbellifer, Orlaya grandiflora. The clear, white flowers of the Orlaya highlight the dusky reds of Verbascum ‘Firedance’, Lupinus ‘Towering Inferno’ and Rosa ‘Heidetraum’.
Then on the other side of the path the froth continues with this beautiful combination of strong orange Geum ‘Prinses Juliana’ and the lovely purple Lysimachia ‘Beaujolais’ both emerging from beneath Deschampsia cespitosa.
I found one final umbellifer delight at Pennard Plants in the Great Pavilion whilst exploring their unusual vegetable range in the modern allotment area. A new one on me, it’s called the earth chestnut, giant pignut or black cumin (Bunium bulbocastanum) and has a tuberous root which can be eaten raw or cooked and tastes like sweet chestnut. And so I end where I began – with a plant which is both beautiful and edible. I’m off to find some and plant it alongside soft orange Geum ‘Mai Tai’, Calendula officinale ‘Sherbert Fizz’, Briza media and my Allium atropurpurea and Centaurea montana ‘Jordy’ in a pale recreation of a mathematical garden which will colour my memories of Chelsea for many years to come.