Planting paradise

Planting paradise

David Hurrion reflects on how the planter’s art at Chelsea Flower Show is often overlooked by visitors and viewers alike.

The greatest flower show on earth may be over for another year, but the incredible gardens that were created there will live on in our memories, through photographs and on BBC iPlayer for many months, if not years to come. 

I first started going to Chelsea more than 40 years ago and, from my very first visit, have always been in awe of how established these ‘instant’ gardens look. The sheer quality of finish and attention to detail sets them above most other events and a medal at Chelsea, whatever its colour is hard earned and well deserved.

I’ve designed, built and planted at many gardening shows. But for me the biggest and most exciting challenge has been planting for other designers – most notably Adam Frost on his Urban Retreat show garden in 2015. So when I was asked by Jekka McVicar to help plant her garden, A Modern Apothecary, at this year’s show, I was thrilled and terrified all at the same time. Thrilled because it is an honour to be asked to help out at such a prestigious show, but terrified because of the responsibility to get it right.

Show gardens are judged across a range of criteria including overall concept, design, hard landscaping, and suitability and quality of plant material. But for me, one of the most important considerations that the judges take into account is the art of the planting itself – how the plants have gone into the ground and how they ‘sit’ in relation to their surroundings. OK, so what’s the big deal with that? Surely it’s just a matter of digging a hole and putting the plant in the right way up? That might be fine for planting in a domestic garden where the growth of a plant can adjust gradually to the direction of the sun, settling into position and spreading out to intertwine with its neighbours. But there isn’t the luxury of this time at Chelsea; for the show garden to look like it has always been there, the planter needs to have a wealth of experience of how plants grow, together with an artistic eye. And, as all plants have different growth habits and respond to the conditions in which they are growing, it is crucial to have knowledge of a wide range of different species and to have watched them grow and develop over time. Such knowledge will enable a good planter to turn each individual specimen this way and that until it looks natural and to plant at a density that is in balance with the garden without it appearing ‘overstuffed’.

So, with other garden shows on the horizon – Gardeners’ World Live and Hampton Court are just a few weeks away – spare a thought for all the skills of the planters who have added the finesse and final flourish that brings life to these fleeting glimpses of heaven.