I’m not entirely sure what I expected of the show gardens at the Malvern Spring Show. Up until now my only exposure to show gardens has been via TV, and then mainly RHS Chelsea and RHS Tatton Park. One of the things that has always bugged me about these is the tendency for them to be hugely expensive, relying heavily on dramatic sculptures, elaborate water features, things out of the reach of most “normal” gardeners. True, there are often beautiful planting ideas, and I do frequently fall in love with some of them, but what I want most are ideas that I can take away and use myself, coupled with – ideally – challenges to the way I think about gardens, planting, plant combinations. Things to make me think.

Malvern didn’t have as many show gardens as I think I had been expecting, and only one really took my breath away in its entirety – ‘A Garden For Life’. But I wasn’t disappointed. For a start, most of the gardens were small, which immediately meant they felt more accessible and relevant. Lots of them had intriguing ideas or planting combinations that made me think. I didn’t take photographs of every show garden – I went through two memory cards as it was – but here is a roundup of the ones that caught my attention. Its not a guide to the show gardens by any means, but you can download a leaflet describing them all and I’m sure lots of other bloggers will cover the show gardens rather more completely. It feels a little mean to be at all critical of any of these gardens, there is no way I could produce a show garden myself, but there also seems little point in not expressing my reactions to them – surely part of their purpose is to provoke and be judged, and not just by the RHS…

Keni Lee Show Garden

We started with the Chris Beardshaw Mentoring Scholarship gardens. Chris set this up with Bradstone, a UK landscaping materials company, with the aim of nurturing a new generation of garden designers. Each year Chris and the rest of the organisation set a challenge to build a show garden at the Malvern Spring Show based on a theme selected by the panel. Competition for the places is fierce, and the overall winner gets to spend 12 months being mentored by Chris and other members of the team. This year there were 11 gardens, and the theme was “Atom”. You can see descriptions of them all on the Bradstone website. Regular visitors to Meet@Malvern will have read about Keni Lee’s entry in the competition, and how he got involved. The finished garden (pictured above) was impressively executed – they all were – and was designed in memory of his father, who passed away last year. I’ve never seen a garden that claims the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as part of the inspiration before!

Keni Lee Show Garden Detail

I liked the circular pond, and the way it intersected with the circular paving. I can imagine this making a lovely patio feature – as long as there was a more wildlife friendly pond elsewhere – but overall I found it all a little too bitty and therefore quite restless. I had to admire the immaculate planting though, even if it isn’t to my taste.

Colour From Carbon

The ‘Colour From Carbon’ garden by Pippa Bumstead was a total contrast. I wanted to like it, I love a lot of the colours used, and am a big fan of geums (which is just as well, as they seemed to be everywhere). But. Overall the feeling was “municipal planting gone goth” and I didn’t linger. The amber foliaged heucheras alone were enough to drive me away…

Po84 Atomic Energy Garden

I also had mixed reactions to the ‘Po84 Atomic Energy Garden’ by Jackie Crofts. I love the idea behind it – celebrating women’s contribution to science and the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize – and naming a garden for a radioactive element (polonium) certainly got my attention. But I didn’t like the large area of linear landscaping at the front (intended to represent hypothesis) and didn’t find the planting particularly inspiring either. What I did love, though, was this:

Po84 Garden Screen (Back)

I think this is a great way to screen off an area, perhaps around compost bins. I imagine one could use a combination of living and dry willow, which would add another dimension. And the yellow aquilegia cropped up again, saying “buy me, buy me” – which I later did…

Po84 Garden Screen
Breathe Garden Bug Wall

The ‘Breath’ garden by Paul Cantello had this extraordinary bug hotel wall. Bug homes were a bit of a theme in fact.

Bug House In Wall

I didn’t particularly like the stone of this wall, it seems to jar in colour with the bug house, but I do rather love the bug house itself.

Grass Against Red Wall

The same garden had a striking deep red wall, and I loved the effect of the grass heads against it. I’m sorry, but I completely failed to note down which garden this was – if anyone can help, please let me know so that I can give credit!

Budding Scientists Garden Rear

We approached the ‘Budding Scientists’ garden (Rachel Phillips & designs With Nature) from the rear, and discovered bug-shaped bird feeders hung on the walls of the modern take on a gazebo, and yet more bug boxes nestled in the planting.

Half Hidden Bug Boxes

I think this is my favourite way to approach it, they are architectural in their own right, but I do wonder about the practicality again – does it matter that if you had to get in an do stuff with the plants, the insects would get disturbed? And are there some critters that would prefer a home further off the ground?

Budding Scientists Garden

From the front I found the garden less attractive. The round planters seemed too obtrusive to me, and although I love the idea of using recycled metal girders to construct the sculptural arches, I actually found them a little overwhelming, too weighty somehow. Perhaps if there had been more planting up and over it?

Budding Scientists Gate

I loved the gate to this garden though, and the purple form of the contorted hazel they had used. There was a lot of hazel at the show, and quite a lot of the purple form too, in fact one garden used it as an informal hedge across the back, and I still haven’t entirely worked out what I think of it. Too much, I think, in the end, fan though I am of purple foliage.

Moving on to the other show gardens, there was a lot of soft “cottage garden” style planting, and quite a lot of woodland planting. Perhaps with the time of year this is common at Malvern, it is certainly the perfect time to enjoy aquilegias, irises and geums – of which there were lots.

Fade To Shade Logs

‘Fade to Shade’ by Alex Bell was intended to show how to deal with the dry shade found under trees. I really liked the use of the logs, and of course this would also create a great wildlife habitat. The ferns and dicentra were a pretty combination, and any garden that uses a multi stemmed birch is going to be a winner for me.

Fade ToS hade Steel And Wood

I surprised myself by also rather liking the juxtaposition of the vertical metal poles that formed the boundary and the wooden logs. I suspect that the boundary only works because it is so precisely built – if I tried this it would look a total mess.

I think I have a bit of the ‘thing’ for boundaries. I’ve blogged about them before, and I found myself eyeing up quite a few of the solutions used in the show gardens at Malvern too.

Hornbeam Hedge Detail

I’ve already talked about the hornbeam hedge from ‘A garden for life’. Quite a few gardens were using willow screening of various sorts, and one (sorry, I’m not sure which, I really must take better notes) used a mix of living and dead to create a very pretty informal boundary:

Interesting Hedge

The ‘Inside Out’ garden by Jody Lidgard had an informal hazel hedge around it very much in keeping with the relaxed “cottage garden” style planting. I really liked the area around the pond:

Inside Out Garden Pond

The same garden used alliums and verbascum together in another area, which I rather liked, although I prefer the slightly smaller heads of Allium ‘Purple Sensation’:

Inside Out Alliums And Verbascum

I realised how little I know, wandering around the show gardens. Yes, many of the plants were familiar, but I took quite a few pictures of things I liked and didn’t recognise – homework!

Beautiful Planting

Sorry, this has turned into another long post, so I shall quit, but if you’d like to see more photographs of the show gardens, you can find them on my photos page or go straight to Flickr where you will be able to see them in a larger size.

Next stop – the Floral Marquee.

31 thoughts on “Malvern – the show gardens

  1. Wow, great coverage Janet! Love the ornate use of the willow. I was thinking of doing something like that myself, but more basic! I watched Gardeners World last night and loved Hannah Genders Local Veg garden. Any pics of that one! Hope to get back to Malvern one day but thanks again for some great shots.

    1. Thanks Trevor. Sadly the only photos I took of Hannah’s garden were rubbish. Plus I was strangely unmoved by it – it was very smart and lovely, and I liked some of the planting, but it didn’t excite me. I was interested in the bed made from recycled material shown on Gardener’s World, but the info tags weren’t visible and accessible to the hoi poloi outside the green tape so that was the first I knew about it! I can see why it got a gold medal though, I love the concept behind it.

  2. I got a much better idea of Malvern from you than Gardeners’ World last night. Love the willow screen and some of the bug houses

    1. Goodness, what an extraordinary compliment, thank you Sue! I found it a little bizarre watching coverage of somewhere I had just been myself. I was also chuffed that Carol (a hero of mine) picked out the Sanguisorba I bought…

  3. Overall I do not like show gardens which seem to try too hard to be trendy and many modern ideas just seem to convert a garden into a house extension. Always on the lookout for new planting ideas and ways of creating inner boundaries e.g. loved the living/dead boundary. Thank you for this impressive and very personal tour, Janet.
    p.s. Prefer the ‘loose, naturalistic planting’ reviewed in your previous post. Sorry to have missed it so will subscribe by email (and add this facility to my blog – thanks for the suggestion ;)
    Laura x

    1. Glad you enjoyed the tour Laura. It was nice that most of the show gardens at Malvern had more planting than fancy hard landscaping, cooking areas etc. And delighted I have converted you to “subscribe by email”!!

  4. Janet the level of creativity and ingenuity is amazing in these gardens…I can only think that if I had tried a few they wouldn’t look nearly as gorgeous…the artistry takes time of which I have little, but these gardens really have gotten my creative juices flowing..your tour was amazing and you captured the true essence of these gardens..thx

    1. Hi Donna, I look forward to seeing the results of all those creative thoughts! I’d like to build a bug box, if I can make time and find the right tools, our garage is in chaos :-( Glad you enjoyed the post.

  5. How cool – I’ll be coming back for inspiration. Loved the variations of bug hotels, red wall, and willow screen. Very cool. So glad you picked up a columbine; I hope you’ll be happy with it in your garden. I do love their playful flowers. The rain the other day brought out a couple more blooms from mine! Happy Gardening Janet!

    1. Hi Cat, glad you found interesting ideas in the post, I found the show really inspirational, lots of things I’ve taken away to ponder. That red wall was a good reminder that sometimes blocks of colour can be the perfect foil for plants, though I’m not sure I could live with a large area of it. I am in love with the columbine, though the long spurs made it a nightmare to transport, it got far too entwined with the other plants!

  6. I find the planting and atmosphere of some show gardens inspiring. But I do have a coiuple of niggles. One is the enormous cost of most of them. It gives people the idea that you must have lots of money to make a garden. Also the “be perfect” mentality of the shows. Not only are the plants brought on (or held back) but there is never a leaf out of place or a rumpled petal or a “weed” in sight. Ordinary gardening just isn’t like that. Most gardeners know that but people are still heavily influenced by Chelsea and co. I want a cloud pruned tree……

    1. Very true! Even the simple gardens are beyond the pocket of most of us, and the perfection can be very off-putting. On the other hand there were lots of interesting planting ideas in the show gardens, I found the whole thing a little like a 3D version of a glossy gardening magazine. I suppose some people will always approach gardening as a kind of exterior decorating challenge, and want to buy complete solutions. Good luck to them! I’ll stick to experimenting with plants and put up with the untidy areas and the occasional disaster like the sweet rocket that decided to grow to double the advertised height and then fall over in the strong winds we’ve been having recently… I look at cloud pruned trees and love them, but then instantly think of all the work involved in keeping them looking lovely. I felt the same about the knot garden at Malvern.

      1. I did see a cloud pruned tree at a garden centre and it cost over £1200. Who has that sort of money or could justify paying that for it? Maybe people that can afford a gardener, to answer my own question.
        I go to Gardening Scotland most years and I love some of the small gardens that some of the smaller nurseries build. They grow their own plants and there is so much choice. Also I am unlikely ever to visit the likes of Crug plants who came all the way from Wales. Good for them.

  7. I haven’t watched Gardeners World yet, have got it skyplussed for later, so this is my first glance at Malvern this year. I’ve just read through your previous post too and love the Garden For Life. I’m sure that would have been my favourite show garden had I seen them all too.

    1. Jo, it was beautiful – the Garden for Life not Gardener’s World! There wasn’t anything in it that I wouldn’t have happily lived with, though I’m sure I would have tripped over the step-over fruit and I’d like it stretched out to perhaps three times the size ;-)

  8. I love the photos you’ve selected for us, Janet – if you had to sift through 2 memory cards, that would have entailed a lot of choices! I’m so pleased that we had your personal opinion of the gardens, it made your critique very readable and thoughtful. It was intriguing to see what appealed to you and what didn’t – I have to admit I rather liked the round chunky wood planters in the Budding Scientists garden – they would be preferable to the low brick wall that I have to suffer around the Veg Patch! Thanks for sharing – I’m now going to watch GW on catch up TV for a comparison! Caro xx

    1. Hi Caro, delighted you enjoyed the post. In fairness a lot of the other photos are of the Floral Marquee, plus a snap of Monty Donn himself, chatting to the camera crew! I’d love to hear about what your impressions are post GW, one of the great things about gardening and garden shows is that we all get different things from them and have different tastes. Actually I think those large planters could work really well in the right setting – and when I get a moment I will do an odds and ends post that will include the most robust and over engineered raised beds you can imagine!!

      1. Robust beds ? Oh yes :-) Over engineered ? Most certainly :-) Built to last most definately and bear in mind that there is not one nut,bolt,screw or nail holding them together. Will look forward to any more thoughts you may have on our product.

  9. I haven’t seen Gardeners’ World yet, so this is my first glimpse of Malvern this year. I found myself agreeing with all your judgements – especially municipal planting gone Goth!
    Every year I envy you English gardeners who have shows such a Chelsea and Malvern within reach. One year…

    1. Hi Linda, the goth planting was something else! Hope you make it to a show some time, this was my first and I really enjoyed it.

  10. Thank you for sharing these photos. We do not have outdoor garden shows like this over here, at least not on this coast. Ours are all indoors, usually in late winter, well before most of the forced plants would be blooming naturally. I usually have to check my attitude at the door going to any garden show. There are gardens that intend to be realistic giving the viewer a glimpse of what could be possible for them, and in these I can often be too critical of plant or design choices. The other style of garden at these shows is usually complete fantasy, and if I give into the theme they are usually more enjoyable. With both though, I have to remind myself to admire the amount of work that often accompanies these displays, and also remind myself that it was more than I did.

    So what’s a VW fesitval, is it about the cars? Because I love mine!

    1. Hi Les, what you say about US garden shows confirms the impressions I have formed looking at posts about them. I think we are very lucky to have so many outdoor shows, and although most of them tend to be rather “aspirational” and expensive, Malvern felt very accessible. Not sure about the “too critical” point. If it was an art gallery I would expect to comment on and debate my reactions to the art, despite the fact that I can’t draw or paint – or sculpt – to save my life. I think that if I don’t deliberately ask questions and explore my reactions to show gardens I come away having learnt less, both about myself and how to do better in my own gardening.

      The VW festival was a celebration of all things VW, mostly vintage camper vans, but also some spectacular bugs. Lots of heavily pimped rides, rust buckets, expensive accessories and useful spares and advice. Great fun!

  11. I love your reviews of the show gardens, and you took some wonderful photos too – I didn’t take as many as I thought I would somehow. The Colour from Carbon garden really jarred me, the lack of green seemed to really mess with the senses and give an uneasy perspective, strange how potent the choice of plants can be!
    We were mesmerised by the hop-hornbeam hedging too – I’d never seen hornbeam with those huge hoplike catkins before, we had to check with one of the graduate gardeners what it was, it made an amazing hedge. And an amazing garden, indeed. You have good taste :-)
    Lovely to see so many stunning aquilegias everywhere.
    Sara x

    1. Hi Sara, I think you must be right, those same plants with plenty of green added in could have been wonderful. Did you come back with some aquilegias? Bet sales of hornbeam rocket…

      1. Yes we came back with a couple of aquilegias (MIL came back with the same yellow one as you, somehow we didn’t get that one…), two phlox paniculata, couple of grasses, the old familiar hydrangea quercifolia just about to bloom, an apple tree(!), a peony, ladybird poppy, sambucus nigra… and more grasses, ornamentals and a 3 year-old greengage for MIL. It was all we could carry between the three of us, running back to the car in a rain shower. Otherwise I could have shopped and shopped…
        We originally ummed and ahed between hornbeam and beech for our front hedge, beech won of course, but now we both find ourselves pondering where else we might want a screen in the garden… ;-)

  12. Wonderful photos and coverage Janet! I do love those bug hotels, I have a bit of a ‘thing’ for bug homes and have lots of teeny ones dotted around. Sorry I’m not commenting much lately, my allotment is taking up lots of my time, but all good of course! x

    1. Don’t apologise for actually getting out and gardening Karen! I’d like to be at the allotment right now, but my Malvern Show companion left me a parting gift in the form of a nasty virus, so the plot will have to look after itself :-( Happy gardening!

    1. I love it that we all have different reactions to things. But I do agree with you about the “mixed” hedge.

  13. Hi Janet, just doing my usual catching up on the blogs thing after another busy weekend! I was really looking forward to reading this post as I’ve always wanted to go to the Malvern Spring Show but never had the chance mainly due to distance.

    A really enjoyable thread, thanks for the photos and the entertaining insight and I agree with lots of your points. It looks like the ‘Bug Hotel’ is the ‘in thing’ of the year and I suspect it will figure highly in all the shows for the rest of the year. Reminds me of last years ‘Vertical Gardening’ which was the flavour of 2010, hmmmm. I must admit, I’m sure it’s definitely beneficial to the wildlife but ‘Bug Hotels’ are not selective, they can harbour both wanted and unwanted bugs like Earwigs and Vine Weevil, something to ponder about.

    I agree with your comment about show gardens tending to be on the expensive side and downright impractical even. Mind you, some of the show gardens are bought as it is for huge sums by wealthy patrons, wanting that show garden in their own back yards. Some are just blatant, indulgent showcase of designers whim and fancy without any regard for practicality at all (not to mention plant knowledge!).

    I’ll have another nosy at your album later after work! :)

    1. Did you see the TV coverage of one of the Chelsea gardens being re-homed post show in the grounds of a large country house? It might have been on Landscape Man. The garden didn’t look nearly as good in the “real” setting, where it stood out against rather than blending with the surroundings.

      I fear you may be right about bug hotels being this year’s “must have”. I do like them, and the principle is sound – you just have to hope that overall the balance ends up in your favour, with more friendlies than nasties – but I do find myself wondering. If you can have an area that is just left alone, with piles of different sized wood, leaves, soil etc, don’t you end up with much the same result without the hassle? Having said that, I did really like the mini bug houses scattered around that Chris Beardshaw garden.

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