Planting Palettes: Reflections on RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2016

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.

Purple Predilections


Purple, yellow, orange and white flowers and foliage in The St John’s Hospice – A Modern Apothecary

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.


Calendula officinalis ‘Long Flowering’, Viola tricolor, Beta vulgaris ‘Bull’s Blood’, Amaranthus ‘Red Army’, and Allium schoenoprasum create a vibrant purple/red and orange mix

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.


Surrounding the ‘Wellness’ water feature, the flowering thymes (‘Iden’, ‘Peter Davis’, ‘Porlock’ and ‘Fragrantissimus’) create a purple patchwork of texture and colour

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.


The gentle purples of the Hesperis matronalis, Linaria purpurea ‘Canon Went’, Phlox divaricate subsp. laphamii ‘Chattahoochee’, the soft blue of the Iris ‘Jane Philips’ and the white spires of Digitalis purpurea f. albiflora and Eremurus robustus create a soft celebratory atmosphere in this garden



The soft blend of pastels in The LG Smart Garden contrast with the minimalist black and white hard landscaping

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.


The pink and blue end of The Chelsea Barracks Garden

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’.


Darker purples and pinks adjacent to the bronze sculpted seating


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.

Colour Blocks

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.


The Brewin Dolphin Garden – Forever Freefolk

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.

Filigree Colour

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.


The Winton Beauty of Mathematics Garden uses delicately smudged purples and oranges

I found the planting in the gravel borders absolutely riveting. Spires of Resda alba rise gently from the speckled Briza mediaGeum ‘Mai Tai’, Iris ‘Kent Pride’, Allium atropurpureaCentaurea 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 soft planting looks stunning in front of the copper band symbolising the germination and growth of a seedling which sweeps around the centre of the garden

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.


Delicate colour contrasts through the wispy grasses

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.


Earth chestnuts at Pennard Plants

My Hard-Working Garden: An Ongoing Transformation (Part 2)

Welcome back to my potter through the changes in our back garden over the past 6 years. In the last post I considered the diverse aims of many modern gardens and their similarity to the older styles of cottage, potager and walled gardens – that of combining utility and beauty in one place. My garden is no different. We wanted a space to provide fruit and vegetables for the family, to have flowers (some for cutting), to provide a place for the kids to play, grow (in all senses of the word), explore and have fun, and to give us somewhere to be outside with friends and family.

Helianthus annus

Stunning sunflowers  – beautiful and edible

Fruit Cage Protection

Previously I looked at the side espalier/herb border and the spring garden. This leads on to the fruit cage, which has now been established for 5 years and which provides us with raspberries (‘Joan J’, ‘Allgold’, ‘Glen Moy’ and ‘Glen Ample’), currants (red ‘Rovada’, white ‘Blanca’ and black ‘Ben Connan’), blueberries (‘Patriot’, ‘Chandler’, ‘Earliblue’, ‘Bluecrop’ and ‘Pink Lemonade’) and rhubarb (‘Timperley Early’ and ‘Early Champagne’) throughout the summer. I had grown fruit in our previous, extremely small garden and remember vividly the morning I pottered outside in my pjs to pick the gooseberries which were perfectly ripe – only to find the bush had been stripped by creatures unknown. I blame hormones for the tears I cried over this mishap (I was pregnant with my first child at the time), but to be honest I think I might still react the same way now.


The fruit cage – worth its weight in raspberries

So I determined to investigate small fruit cages for our new patch to give me a head start in the fight to save the fruit. We decided to buy a walk-in 2m x 3.5m aluminium fruit cage from Harrod Horticultural. It was a bit of an investment, but five years on it is still looking great and we’ve lost no fruit in all that time, so I reckon it’s paid its dues, especially when you consider soft fruit prices and the amounts we’ve picked. It just needs the netting roof removing in early winter and replacing in spring. Occasionally young dunnocks get in under the pegged down netting and need to be chased out again. Never any other birds – always dunnocks, presumably because of their habit of footling around in the undergrowth. But apart from that it’s pretty maintenance-free.

fruit cage

Sweet peas and sunflowers in front of the fruit cage

One of the disadvantages in a small cage is having enough room to move between the plants. The raspberries are planted in two rows so I can get between them to pick – just. But a couple of years ago the gooseberry ‘Invicta’ I’d grown from a cutting had to be donated to a friend because of its antisocial habit of lacerating me every time I squeezed past to get to the rhubarb. Now I’ve got an allotment we’ve been able to plant a new gooseberry, a red ‘Hinnonmaki’, so gooseberry crumble will be on the menu again – a very small one this year – provided I get round to erecting some kind of netting round it!


One of last year’s colourful fruit harvests

Raised Vegetable Bed Bounty

In front of the fruit cage are my two raised vegetable beds which I designed to allow a small path between the beds and the lawn/flower border. They are constructed out of wood, which despite being sturdy and treated, is badly rotting at the base after only 5 years and looks like it will need replacing in the autumn.


Protected growing in spring

Over the past few years we’ve grown a range of different crops in the raised beds, including oca, potatoes, flowers for pollinators and for cutting, salad leaves, courgettes, beans, peas, brassicas, tomatillos, onions and garlic, carrots, beetroot, a strawberry bed – the list goes on… I’ve never had as much room as I’d like, so this year, for the first time with the allotment, I’m just using the garden beds for salad crops and the children’s vegetables, and anything which needs to be in the ground longer term can be installed in the allotment (more on the allotment growing in a later post).


Summer brings the greatest rewards

Flower Border Fun

In front of the spring garden is the only flowerbed (flowers are often unfairly relegated to smaller spaces in my garden unless they are edible as well as beautiful), but I do love growing flowers for their own merits wherever possible. We extended the border into the lawn to create more growing space and to separate the lawn from the back of the garden, creating different areas of interest. Here’s how the flower border has developed over the past six years in six photos…


Established shrub borders, but no space to grow…



Early days in the garden…



Clearance time



The extended border, fruit cage, raised beds, new shed and willow den



Spring tulip glory (Tulipa ‘Queen of Night’, ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Purple Prince’ with Myosotis sylvatica underneath)



Summer bounty – I love the frothy effect of the Verbena bonariensis, Festuca glauca flower spikes, Knautia macedonica and Ammi majus

We kept an established Spirea japonica ‘Goldflame’ for the foliage colour, although I remove the pink flowers as they don’t fit in with the more dramatic colours of the border. This shrub also works well with the willow den to add structure to the border in front of the shed. Initially the border had predominantly crimson and white flowers, but over time it has developed to include more purples and blues. We planted Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ for winter colour, Salvia ‘Caradonna’, Monarda ‘Gardenview Scarlet’, Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’, Knautia macedonica, Centranthus ruber ‘Albus’, Hesperis matronalis ‘Alba’, Sedum telephium ‘Purple Emperor’, a selection of different Dianthus, Centaurea montana ‘Jordy’ (with flowers which are gorgeous for cutting, but tend to get rather lost in the flowerbed) and ‘Amethyst in Snow’ (one of my favourites at this time of year.)


Centaurea montana ‘Amethyst in Snow’

Then I add to the seasonal interest by growing annuals in the border, either sown direct (or self-sown) or sown initially in modules and planted out later. Stalwarts include Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Purity’, Ammi majus and Nigella papillosa ‘African Bride’. I also plant out my Dahlia ‘Bishop of Canterbury’, ‘Scura’, ‘Happy Single Date’ and ‘Wizard of Oz’ for some extra zing.

Dahlia 'Bishop of Canterbury' 1

My favourite dahlia – ‘Bishop of Canterbury’ – such vibrant flowers and deep purple foliage

On the edge of the border is a low hedge of Lavandula angustifolia ‘Dwarf Blue’ interplanted with Aubretia ‘Red Cascade’. The aubretia begins to flower in April and just as the flowers are fading the lavender reaches its best. In this way, the hedge provides colour from spring right through to later summer.


The aubretia ‘hedge’ bursting into flower last week


Lavandula angustifolia 'Dwarf Blue' hedge

The lavender hedge later in the season

The Working Areas

These are the main elements of the garden. Other important features include the greenhouse, the compost bin and the cold frame. These provide the fuel and growing spaces for the garden – allowing it to work at full capacity.


When we arrived the greenhouse thought it was for storing bikes


We soon taught it otherwise

DSC_0002 (2)

Our compost – the most valuable commodity in the garden

Time To Enjoy

At the beginning of the first post I set out to retrace my steps through designing and building this garden. I also intended to look forwards to where I want it to go in the future. Whilst I’m sure there’ll be more plants added and taken away, more harvests of fruit and vegetables and more learning to be done, the main aspiration I have is to make more time to share the garden with those I love. I’ve created a lovely outdoor space with the help of friends and family, and now I’d like to spend more time enjoying it with them.


Friends and family enjoying the garden



If you have enjoyed reading this, or other posts, please leave me a comment and follow the blog via email or wordpress to get future updates. Thanks very much. Nic

My Hard-Working Garden: An Ongoing Transformation(Part 1)

Potager gardens, walled gardens and old-fashioned cottage gardens – all styles I love for their eclectic mix of vegetables, fruit and flowers. They can be seen as nostalgic, whimsical, outmoded; gardens which exist in an historical context, from time to time tempting modern gardeners into grand estates or rural open garden shows, but without contemporary relevance. Their visual, almost casual beauty belies the amount of hard graft behind such dual purpose gardens, which needed to create an aesthetic impact whilst also fulfilling a practical role for the household – whether that be a cottage with two occupants or a grand estate of many hundreds.


My veggie bed with a mix of edible flowers, flowers for cutting and vegetables (plus Billy the Scarecrow!)

Modern gardens don’t have to provide us with medicinal herbs which are unavailable elsewhere, they rarely need to feed large estates, or provide food for families who have no access to other sources of nourishment. But they do have to work as hard as in the past, especially modern small gardens which are required to fulfil a number of purposes. Many have an assortment of children’s toys sprawled untidily across the centre (ours often does), they are required to provide aesthetic appeal with flower borders, containers and other key features. They are intended to attract wildlife, to create space for entertaining, cooking and relaxing,  and some even have to provide fruit and vegetables for the table. As our requirements for our gardens increase and their size diminishes, the pressure on outdoor spaces to cater for many purposes grows. In this way we could be seen as returning to these older styles of gardening where the garden has to work hard to earn its keep. In spaces too small to allow different areas for each function, the potager style works well as each part of the garden can be used in multifunctional ways.

climbing frame

Our much-loved, but enormous slide and swings

We moved into our current house six years ago and have just finished the major changes on the garden (although I know it will always be changing and evolving and that’s the fun bit). Now there’s no major designing and restructuring to do, I thought it might be good to look back over the past six years at what we’ve achieved and where I hope it might go next.


Original tidy but rather dull border

Six years ago our back garden was uninspiring, with established shrub borders, a small rotting shed, a lovely little greenhouse and a fair-sized lawn. The garden is about 9m by 13m and is north-east facing, without much shading tree cover and fenced all round. I guess many people would have viewed the garden as low-maintenance, finished and tidy, but I saw it as an opportunity to create a garden which packs as much in as possible without seeming too busy or chaotic.


This side had an empty gravel border which emphasised the concrete fence base and an overgrown Ceanothus

My first aim was to replicate the semi-wildness of my childhood garden for my kids. I grew up in a 1/3 acre garden in Cheshire with several mature trees, a vegetable and fruit garden and a wild patch at the bottom. The wild patch existed quite happily without having an impact on the rest of the garden as it was unviewed fron the house and therefore an ideal place for secret club meetings, wildlife watching and endless hours of tree climbing with an apple and a book. We have no trees big enough to climb in our current garden, nor much likelihood of growing any, so I decided to create a willow den in the flower border to give the kids an area where they could exist unobserved.


Behind the shrubs, the border was empty and unused


The garden had a good-sized lawn

We kept the lawn (although we extended the border area) and the greenhouse, which had been one of the things which had initially attracted me to the garden. I replaced the shed with a larger potting shed, in which I’ve spent many productive, happy hours in the past five years, creating a small plant empire and generally pottering, in teeming storms, muggy afternoons and evenings so dark I’ve needed a headtorch.


Love my potting shed…

Initially we removed the large Thuja which were blocking light from the garden and then cleared out the back border, giving many of the plants away to local people though Freecycle. My main aim was to get the fruit trees and bushes established first as these would take the longest to become productive. Now, five years on from planting, the plum, apples, greengage, cherry (in a pot) and pear (in a pot) are really getting into their stride and we’ve been harvesting superb crops from the raspberries, currants, blueberries (in pots) and rhubarb for several years. We chose espalier apple trees along the side fence (‘James Grieve’, ‘Egremont Russet’ and ‘Bountiful’), two dessert apples and one cooker/dessert. ‘Bountiful’ went in the shadiest spot near the house, as cookers can tolerate more shade, and we planted short hedges of lavender and rosemary to create areas for herbs between the trees. We now have three modestly productive espaliers, now with four tiers, and a thriving herb border with sage, chives, garlic chives, assorted mints (sunk in pots), thyme (which has been fabulous for the past five years, but didn’t like the wet winter so now needs replacing), majoram, chamomile, lavender and rosemary.


After planting the espaliers

I’ve also added bulbs with varying levels of success. The snowdrops along the side of the lawn are thriving and the white hyacinths which I planted around the base of each apple tree have increased threefold and look and smell stunning in the spring. Tulips were less successful as the area is mulched with bark and slugs (the latter not intentionally) so I gave up the tulip struggle in this border as they emerged eaten and misshapen year after year. Alliums are more successful and the Allium sphaerocephalon increase each year. This year, however, the stock of larger allium like Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ and Allium christophii looks diminished and I wonder if the wet winter is again to blame (we do have quite heavy soil here, but I usually use grit under bulbs when planting which seems to help with longevity.)


Espaliers, herbs and Lonicera ‘Hall’s Prolific’ on the house wall beginning to get established



The alliums at their best in the herb/espalier border

Winter clematis (‘Freckles’ and ‘Jingle Bells’) thrive up one of the espalier poles and Clematis ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Artic Queen’ up another. The final post supports Vitis vinifera ‘Reliance’, which last year gave us our first harvest of sweet, seedless pink grapes.

Clematis cihhrosa  var. purpurascens 'Freckles'

Clematis ‘Freckles’ flowers non-stop throughout the winter

Clematis 'Arctic Queen'

Clematis ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Arctic Queen’ twine together up the post

At the back of the garden around the fruit trees I’ve planted several varieties of Narcissus which look and smell lovely in the spring, along with Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, Primula vulgaris, Fritillarea meleagris and two Cotoneaster horizontalis which were found in the garden as seedlings and have been trained up the shed wall as coverage for insects and berries for the birds.


Fruit trees becoming established


Daffodils at their best this year


Early dwarf daffodils emerging – the logs are sections from the tree in the front which we removed as it was too large, too close to the house



Plum heaven…

On the back fence, between the dogwoods and primroses we have a blackberry ‘Apache’ which gives us lovely blossom followed by huge, sweet fruit which form the basis of sorbets, stewed apple and blackberry and fruit leathers in late summer. It fits in perfectly with the potager style – combining beauty and utility, covering a boundary with foliage, flowers and fruit.


This bench catches the afternoon and evening sun – perfect for a late cuppa and a book


Other pop-up structures the garden has to contend with…


Our DIY tent

So much for the herb/espalier border and the fruit tree area which I, rather grandly, call the spring garden in reference to the blooming of the daffodils, primroses and fruit blossom from March to May. In the next post I’ll take a look back at the development of the fruit cage, vegetable beds, willow den and flower border. All testament to the fact that you can include much of what you want in a garden, if you are prepared to think a bit outside the box (willow den in a flowerbed), embrace the potager style and let your imagination run wild…

Read about the transformation in the rest of the garden in next week’s blog post…