If Chelsea is theatre, a set dressing for a stage where gardens are hyped up versions of real life, each plant pimped, blooms tweaked and leaves manipulated then the game is not to judge who looks best, but what is being said. This year it was all stage whisper. Gardening is being asked to save, if not the planet, our existence on it.

Planting for nature ran as a theme through nearly every garden. In part because the RHS has just launched their big sustainability plan (a little late, but better than never) and in part because we are all painfully aware of our effect on our world around us and the need to make space for the more-than-human. A rich ecology is paramount to a good garden, but it has in the past been sidestepped for aesthetic values. "No longer!" cries Chelsea; there were gardens addressing every element of the climate crisis from anxiety to COP26 issues, clean air, water and soil health—all the stuff of life then. Lofty aims for temporary spaces that cost a pretty penny and a shed load of carbon to get there.

Perhaps because of the weight of such issues, the show felt rather subdued. Or perhaps because it is autumn, and the show historically has only ever taken place in late spring. So, the narrative shifted from optimism and new growth to rot and decline. Thus, instead of the froth of umbels in flower, there were their skeletal seed heads. The neon of new green replaced the bleached-out summer blondes of late flowering grasses and the burnt umbers and fiery reds of plants desperately mining their goodness before they sink under.

Gardens can’t save us from climate change, they can’t even mitigate it, only political will, a revolution in fact, will do that. But our gardens can teach us something about who and how we are in this world. The best gardens this year continued the theme of wilder naturalistic plantings that embraced the rot, the spent and burnt out and celebrated it. In Yeo Valley Garden, designed by Tom Massey, where all the material came from the farm in Somerset, this was figuratively spelt out in the carbonised trunks of ash that were piled about the garden to create walls and insect habitats. The ash had to be felled from the farm because of Ash dieback, one of the diseases brought about by globalisation. In the Boodles Garden designed by Thomas Hoblyn, reclaimed timber was lovingly sculptured into seating and trees felled from HS2 given a new lease as a delightful louvered fence that hid a delightful secret garden. Should the trees have been felled, of course not, it’s frankly criminal that a tree that held a musket shot in its heart (which the carving revealed) and had stood that long, should come down for speed. A fence doesn’t mitigate this, but it does hold our follies visible.

In the M&G Garden, designed to be a pocket park by Harris Bugg Studio, reclaimed industrial piping was burnished black and gold and reworked into a water feature-cum-sculpture, whilst delicate, wild planting of rare wild gingers, ethereal grasses and shrubs heavy with berries danced around it. Pure, beautiful, flawless, breathtaking . . . theatre.

Gardening is an odd game, the evidence has mounted high with nature, the less intervention the better. The wildest places are not untouched by us, we’ve been everywhere, but they are left alone. So, where does that leave our gardens, which are by their nature the height of intervention? I never thought I’d look to Chelsea to pull apart this knotty question, but somewhere between the gurgling waterfalls (there were a lot of them this year) and the dappled shade of imported mature trees, there it lay. Aesthetics will always dominate the way we garden, it’s why we do it, to create spaces that can transport us away from the hustle and bustle, that allow us to lose time, to sink into the world of more-than-human. But we can do this a bit better.

The Guangzhou Garden, designed by landscape architects, Peter Chmiel and Chin Chen, explored how future cities might be designed to be a balance for both nature and people. It radiated such calmness, with its soft green palette accented with the brilliant sky blue of Salvia uliginosa, a marginal pond plant that floated along with the movement of water through the garden. M&G’s pocket park filled itself to the brim, whilst still retaining an elegance, showing that less is not more, that it is diversity that we crave, rather than bland modernism.

Similarly, in the tiny artisan garden of Anna Dabrowksa-Jaudia’s which used huge, scalloped shaped, carved wooden bowls planted up to their brims with pale colours and cool greens, that seemed to almost float (a clever trick of using invisible feet to elevate the containers to give a little space beneath) remind us that even in the smallest space we can invite nature in.

And all of this can and must be done without chemicals. It is rare, almost unheard of for a show garden to be grown organically, but Yeo Valley pulled it off from its woodland edge to its flowering meadow.

The French writer, Colette once wrote that autumn had “the strong scent of delicate corruption” and it seems apt for this year’s autumn outing. I’m not sure that elite gardening shows have a place in our future, but whilst they are here we might as well listen to their stories and learn our lessons.

Words by Alys Fowler.

Photographs by Roo Lewis.

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Fantastic article, so enjoyed reading it, have left my garden to do what it wants this year, and it has surprised me with pockets of beauty and an abundance of wildlife.

eileen 2 years ago

A thought provoking article, although somewhat depressing. I have always worried about the environmental impact of Chelsea – what happens afterwards to the wonderful tree with the 40 ton root ball etc? Then there is the carbon footprint, use of water and so on. Yes, it is an elite event, but it can evolve, educate and encourage change. In the meantime, let’s just enjoy the wonders of all those amazing plants.

Eve 2 years ago