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22 May 2024

The Chelsea Flower Show goes green

A focus on rewilding and sustainability has not diminished what the world-famous garden show does best.

By Alice Vincent

The plants that perhaps best summed up the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year were the peonies in Tom Stuart-Smith’s National Garden Scheme garden. Several were planted into a space about a square metre large, tucked to the left of the path. Crucially, they were all tightly in bud.

This might not sound groundbreaking, but for an event where the meteorological run-up is enough to keep designers from sleeping at night – too much rain can lead to overzealous leafy growth, too much sun will usher flowers out and over before judging – the decision to show peonies, one of May’s blousiest floral offerings, as beautifully structured buds felt purposeful. Stuart-Smith – returning with a Chelsea Show Garden for the first time since 2010, and taking another Gold for it – is a designer who chooses plants for his gardens on sight. His frothy white azaleas, for instance, appeared days before judging, despite being a major part of the design.

The peonies stood out because, by traditional Chelsea standards, they were imperfect in their realism: if you have peonies in your garden, there’s a solid chance they won’t be in flower yet, either. This year’s Chelsea was the most convincingly familiar I’ve seen – and all the better for it. After years of showy hard landscaping and immaculate alliums, where even the wild-flower planting is vigorously watered, 2024’s Flower Show reflected a gentler, more inclusive and accessible design.

This is, perhaps, a product of a wilder approach to gardening. This shift to a less manicured understanding of floral and garden design has been prevalent for several years. At Chelsea, this has manifested in a pointed nod towards “rewilding”, with dandelions, buttercups and other “weeds” (for instance, the dainty ragged robin, which turned up again in Tom Massey’s Gold medal WaterAid garden) appearing with such frequency that they attracted the ire of horticultural stalwarts Alan Titchmarsh and Monty Don.

The increasing scrutiny of the sustainability of flower shows may also have something to do with it. This year was the first that designers of Show and Sanctuary gardens had to submit their designs to an audit: anything that didn’t have a low enough carbon footprint had to be rethought. That might be the reason we saw more actual plants than opulent seating areas or outdoor kitchens: more than 75 per cent of the blueprint of the Muscular Dystrophy UK garden, designed by the Chelsea debutante Ula Maria, was dedicated to planting – and won Gold and Best in Show.

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The best Chelsea gardens – the reason the Flower Show remains the most famous in the world, with people visiting from all over – not only reflect certain parts of the society we live in today but hint at what our green spaces might look like in the future, too. This year’s press day was refreshingly free of gimmick: I saw no young women in bodystockings with hula hoops nor DJing drag queens, as have appeared previously. Instead, the gardens were largely filled with children wielding clipboards, tasked with judging. While the show still doesn’t allow entry to under-fives, the children’s presence, along with the “no adults allowed” garden at the top of Main Avenue, sent a message that the Royal Horticultural Society values these gardeners of the future.

Another pocket of gardening society that has long felt overlooked also came into its own at this year’s show. The balcony and container gardens, a category now in its third year at Chelsea, demonstrated how successful small-scale gardening can be. Lucy Mitchell put orange and yellow horned poppies centre-stage in the Changing Tides Garden, while the unlikely combination of tree ferns and nasturtiums in Mike McMahon’s Junglette Garden was a masterclass in urban planting. Both won Gold.

This year’s Chelsea was a beautiful oddity: a lot of green, trees and space to reflect – in contrast with the bombast and bluster that typically defines the show. I left feeling refreshed and hopeful, with a list full of plants and ideas I want to immediately put into my own beds.

[See also: The lure of the English garden]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024