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