Conservatism – it must be in the air. At this year's Chelsea Flower Show, you could almost smell it. Was it a sign of the continuing recession? The result of a cold spring, making preparations difficult and discouraging risk? Or fatigue among designers who have been here one too many times without recharging their batteries?
Our false summer in March, followed by prolonged cold and wet, certainly made for a dramatic run-up to Britain's biggest flower show. One grower, Marina Christopher of Phoenix Perennial Plants, told me she had a panicked call in March from exhibitors afraid their annuals would blow in the heat (and could she grow more?). And yet a mere month later Crocus was using grow lamps for the first time in its 20 years of building show gardens. Contractors toiled in the mud and designers had to wait to plant until the last minute.
Still, you'd never have known it. In spite of adversity, this year's Chelsea was as accomplished as ever, even if, on first viewing, I noticed a certain similarity to several of the gardens. Some, however, did catch me by surprise. And none more so than Cleve West's Brewin Dolphin garden (pictured above), which was awarded Best in Show. West's designs are normally known for their quiet modernity, so this year's offering was something of a departure. A giant antique wellhead on the back wall offered his signature sculptural element, but the garden felt distinctly Edwardian, with immaculate topiary and a froth of pretty borders. The openness of the cobbled area and simplicity of the two limes at the far end of the garden provided balance to the conventional front of house. I like West's work for the space that he leaves, a mark of confidence when show gardens are so often crammed to the gunnels.
But there was space elsewhere, too. Joe Swift's garden for the Homebase Teenage Cancer Trust was his first at Chelsea, and a great success. A bone structure of cedar wood provided a frame to the garden that worked from all angles with equal strength. I found myself returning several times to take another look. Swift's design allowed you to take in the sculptural use of water and stone and to ponder the counterpoint of plants, held together by a group of staggered Cornus mas. A rubble "mulch" united the ground plane, with bloody Dianthus cruentus and acid-green Euphorbia pasteuri set bravely on their own. White Libertia lightened the sombre tones set by Dodonaea viscosa "Purpurea", in second place to the hummocky forms of green Pittosporum.
Restraint and delicacy were the watchwords in Sarah Price's Telegraph garden. Floaty birch provided a veil and a contrast to a bold tectonic of stonework through which rose various colonies of plants. Lofty water dock and arching Carex acutifolia and spears of bog iris punched through water buttercup and softened the hardscape. At the end of the garden a glade gave way to Onoclea ferns and Lily of the Valley, mosses and even a tiny group of Lady's Slipper orchids nestled up close to a rock. It was a place that let you breathe.
But if you liked your show gardens, well, showy, you needed look no further than the Laurent Perrier Bicentenary garden by Arne Maynard. Its unique colour palette was established by a backdrop of copper-beech hedges and box topiary, with an undercurrent of silvery Artemisia "Valerie Finnis" and Dianthus superbus. Jagged Onopordum rose up through a plump quilt of pale blue Geranium phaeum "Walkure" and Centranthus lecoqii – a delightful Valerian, duskier in colour and the best, apparently, for attracting the hummingbird hawkmoth. Digitalis mertonenssis – the colour of crushed strawberries, pink delphiniums and hazel domes – were woven through with a plum-purple Centaurea "Jordy". And then of course there was Diarmuid Gavin's eye-catching erection, impossible to ignore, at the end of the main avenue. His Westland Magical garden broke the Chelsea records with an installation that soared to seven stories. It was a reminder of Gavin's ability for showmanship and although not a garden in the conventional sense, a talking point about what a garden could be.
At its base, like the foothills of a mountain, was my favourite place at the show this year for the simple fact that it transported you beyond the showground. Quiet Time, the DMZ Forbidden garden by Jihae Hwang, explored the idea of the sanctuary of the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. It was a moving commentary on a potent natural environment. Within its triangular plot – a difficult prospect for any gardener – it drew you into the detail. Paths made from buttons represented clothes torn in conflict; there were bottles with messages from separated families tied to rusted fences, and bullets not quite secreted in the dirt.
Dead wood isn't normally welcome at Chelsea, but here exhausted, tangled Actinidia vines protected a host of treasures in the shaded understory. Kirengeshoma, Paris, Sanguisorba and Thalictrum: "weeds" in their home country, treasures at Chelsea. It had been built by team effort, including dozens of volunteers, after Jihae Hwang lost her main sponsor just a month before the show.
For those looking for practical inspiration among the fantasy, the Grand Pavilion included breathtaking perfumed lilies, little worlds of violas and begonias the size of a fist, not to mention wonderful displays of vegetables arranged to look like stained-glass windows. I found myself marvelling at W&S Lockyer's Auriculas and wondering if I could ever find the time to grow them. I am also excited by acers at the moment – they are good for containers in a shady courtyard – and Hippopottering Nursery had some beauties. Acer palmatum "Koto-no-ito" was my favourite, like lace, and A palmatum "Red Pygmy" and A shirasawanum "Aureum" would add colour to a lifeless corner.
The Bowden Ferns stand was a masterful composition, including Osmunda regalis "Purpurascens" and Dryopteris sieboldii, and Harvey's Garden Plants had more lovely plants for shade: Beesia calthifolia, dark Trillium kurabayashii, delicate Primula sieboldii "Manakoora" and Speirantha convallarioides, a close relative of the Lily of the Valley. Though they are still building up stock, Symphytum "Moorland Heather" looks like a good clump-forming comfrey, with unusual purple flowers. I also want to try the silver-leaved Digitalis heywoodii from Botanic Nursery. It is a sun lover with delightful primrose flowers.
Inspired by the sighting of the Cyprepedium orchid on the Telegraph garden I found myself drawn to the hardy Lady's Slippers orchids exhibited so beautifully at the Jacques Amand stand. Chelsea is as much about seeing something new as it is aspiration, and I'm interested to find out if these lovely treasures really are good garden plants, as they look like they might be neurotic. There is only one way to find out.
Read this article on The Observer website
Photograph courtesy of Marianne Majerus