I am not a garden designer by profession, well only some of the time; however I have made gardens of my own and designed for others. I have been responsible for the Hillier Nurseries and Garden Centres exhibit at RHS Chelsea Flower Show for the past twenty something years. Hillier have a reputation for staging the largest garden exhibit in the Great Floral Pavilion and an unbeaten record of 67 consecutive gold medals. My experience at Chelsea has taught me a lot about putting plants together, the use of colour and positioning to create a pleasing picture.
If only your garden could look like a Chelsea Flower Show Garden: everything in the peak of condition, perfect foliage and unblemished flowers; everything in the right place. Chelsea Flower Show is a dream, an inspiration, something to strive for but perhaps not entirely unattainable. However your garden can become closer to being a show garden with a little thought and planning.
A show garden creates the illusion of a larger space in a small area. The average flower show garden is only around fifteen metres square, not dissimilar to many small gardens. The Hillier exhibit is 20 metres square, however it appears much larger and with many more facets and vistas than most gardens. That’s the secret: create an illusion of space and the garden suddenly becomes more interesting.
One of the first considerations in any garden is enclosing the space and achieving a degree of privacy. Exhibiting in the Pavilion at Chelsea means that I can take visitors through my garden exhibit; that is not possible in the outside Show Gardens. I aim to shut out the rest of the surroundings, not by a solid barrier in the form of a fence, wall or tall hedge, but by light airy planting. Well positioned trees brought forward into the sight line of visitors and a variety of interesting foliage shrubs draws attention away from the background and focuses it in the garden. A series of well-positioned focal points encourages the journey through the garden and helps the hustle and bustle of Chelsea to disappear.
The space you leave open in a garden is as important as the planting and features you add. As a rule of thumb a garden should be two-thirds space to one third planting. The space may consist of lawn, paving, decking, gravel, carpet planting or water. If open space is lacking a garden can become claustrophobic and the detail and planting may be difficult to see and enjoy. I can’t leave this much open space in a Chelsea exhibit in the Pavilion because we are a Floral exhibit and plant material must predominate. However, there is the main pathway, the water features or pools and islands of space punctuated by pots. I also ensure that there are glades of lower planting to give those taller plants room to breathe and be seen.
Show gardens make the most of vertical space as well as the horizontal area; the crowds of visitors in search of inspiration miss gardens that are too flat. Successful schemes have three levels of planting: Trees, tall shrubs and climbers create interest and structure above eye level. Shrubs and tall perennials are the key players at eye level, and dwarf shrubs, shorter perennials, bulbs annuals and ground cover fill the space closer to the ground. Gardens often miss one or more of these essential layers. More often than not more height is required; perhaps another tree, a pergola, an arbour draped in climbers. In a Chelsea exhibit I might use as many as forty standard trees to create that upper canopy and to make the visitor feel part of the garden.
Gardens need enough structure: shrubs and trees planted to provide that structure need to be large enough and tall enough to be in proportion with the scale of the plot. At Chelsea this is where our show plants come into play. These large specimen shrubs may make the journey to the show many times in their lives: big acers, elaeagnus, pittosporums, griselinias, cornus, evergreen magnolias. These are the foundation of the planting that hold the whole thing together.
In an English garden successful planting use a balance of evergreen and deciduous plants; these change with the seasons. Those gardening in warmer climates where most subjects are evergreen can still achieve this effect by selecting a variety of different leaf shapes and textures. Don’t just gravitate towards your favourite plants. Evaluate every plant for its contribution to the overall effect. Often a widely planted familiar shrub is a better choice than an unusual or rare one. Plants that are commonly planted usually work and provide the planting structure to show off the treasures.
In most gardens beds and borders are too narrow; the same is sometimes true at The Chelsea Flower Show. I hate being left with narrow planting areas because of the confines of the space. One metre wide is minimum, two metres barely adequate and three metres better. It is always better to have fewer, larger planting areas than lots of narrow borders which the plants quickly fill and overflow. Larger areas create a more interesting picture and the opportunity to vary plant form, shape and texture in the scheme. It also gives you the opportunity to bring more light height into the foreground of the picture.
Perspective is a magic element in garden design. Height in the foreground is often lacking in the main views of the garden whether from the terrace, the lawns or most importantly the windows of the house. Our instinct is to plant tall at the back, short at the front, orderly borders where nothing is hidden. Height and interest in the foreground creates depth, makes the garden appear larger, borders deeper. Plant spiky, see through plants in the foreground and increase the perspective and apparent depth of the planting areas instantly.
In Show Gardens it is always those little touches like an old wood shed, a grinning gargoyle, a hidden seat or perhaps a well-positioned pot that attracts the attention of the show visitors. Use a feature such as a pot, a statue, a birdbath or a sundial to create a focal point: to draw the eye to a certain part of the garden. The position of focal points should be decided from the main viewing points: from where you will look at the garden most frequently. In a real garden this is often the windows of the house, or perhaps the terrace where you sit. It is surprising how often these main views of the garden are ruined by the careless positioning of less attractive features such as the garden shed or the washing line.
Choice of colour in the garden is a personal thing. Most of us choose our plants on impulse. We see something we like, take it home and then decide where to plant it.
I work on this principle at The Chelsea Flower Show. We don’t work to a planting plan: the inspiration comes from the plant material as it arrives on site. I have an idea of the colours I’m going to use in a particular area. The lead colour often comes from a flowering shrub such as a rhododendron, an azalea or a rose Then I look for other plants to put with it to create the look. It’s surprising and rewarding to see how many different forms that colour scheme can take just from that one starting point.
Although at The Chelsea Flower Show I usually start with a flower, it is worth remembering that in a real garden the key to success in any planting scheme is the foliage. Green foliage dilutes the overall impact of other colours. Variegated, golden, plum and silver foliage can all be used to add colour and variety to a planting scheme and each can be used as the basis for a specific colour theme. Foliage colour endures throughout the season whereas the colour and beauty of flowers is more ephemeral.
A show garden is created for a moment in time, after the show it exists only in pictures and never changes. A real garden is never finished, it goes on to grow and mature. Plants will need to be maintained, rejuvenated and eventually replaced; gardens never stand still. However, if you get the basics right at the outset you are well on the way to creating your own show garden.