We are in the midst of the garden show season with seemingly an event somewhere almost every weekend. Tatton Park is my nearest RHS Flower Show but it’s been a few years since I last attended and I was interested to see what was being showcased. Visiting a large garden show really brings home what a vast industry there is around gardening and horticulture with numerous suppliers of tools, landscaping features, and other ‘lifestyle’ accoutrements. There are an amazing array of independent specialist nurseries, the displays for some of which are as stunning as the carefully designed show gardens which are the centrepiece of the event, and the focus of this blog.
Back to Back Gardens
As the owner of a teeny-tiny garden one of the features at the Tatton Show I most look forward to is the back to back gardens. These are 6m x 4m plots arranged, as the name suggests, in ‘back to back’ blocks echoing the backyards commonly found in the terraced housing which characterises a lot of towns and cities in the region. The show guide bills these as “Offering inspiration and ideas for tiny spaces, these garden plots show how interesting gardens can be …” Disappointing then to find that three of the submissions had chosen to treat the plot as if a small part of a larger whole, rather than a self-contained garden in its own right. This seemed to me to be missing the point of doing a back to back, which is really all about the creativity needed to use the limited space of a small garden.
That said the planting for the Gold Medal winning The Flowers of Arley was sumptuous with deep, rich burgundy and purple tones tumbling over the red brick path, bringing to mind a summer pudding.
Notably, the winner of this category, Bee’s Gardens: ‘The Penumbra’, was designed for a small “sheltered, urban garden”. It was very easy to see why this won both the judges’ ‘Best Back to Back Garden’ award and the publicly voted ‘People’s Choice’ award in this category. The hard landscaping and the planting were perfectly complementary, with rust coloured containers harmonising beautifully with the warm orange of Crocosmia and soft yellow of Achillea ‘Terracotta’. The clean horizontal and vertical lines created throughout by the rectangular containers, the long slabs of slate paving and the use of upright metal tubes, along with the inclusion of architectural ferns, provide fantastic structure and visual interest without being overly busy. Wildlife is considered with the inclusion of a pool and pollinator friendly planting. Really, it was a triumph in every sense and frankly you would be delighted to have such a thing nestled next to your home.
I’d also give a nod to The Buzz of Manchester which was again conceived for a small urban garden and was a celebration all things Manchester, including the now ubiquitous bee iconography and, I was pleased to note, Factory Records in cushion form! The planting was a riot of hot colours with lots of Helenium and Rudbeckia and, judging by the actual buzzing of bees, a hit with the pollinators. Rather more traditional and subdued was the Port Sunlight village submission but I have to say I quite liked the way it managed to accommodate both formal borders and an informal more naturalistic area in such a small space.
Full Size Show Gardens
There were only three of the larger show gardens in the standard category as it appears many designers are finding it hard to get sufficient sponsorship for works on a bigger scale. From Hop to Glass was the worthy winner – a circular garden taking inspiration from the brewing industry of its sponsor J.W. Lees, all golden hues and soft naturalistic planting reminiscent of a settling pint (just writing that makes me want a swift half). It is going to find a permanent home at The Golden Pheasant pub in Plumley making it possibly the loveliest beer garden ever!
RHS Young Designer of the Year
Tatton plays host to the finalists of the RHS Young Designer of the Year show gardens with five on display this year. This section featured probably my favourite garden of the show, Raised By Rivers, which included two water features: a pond-cum-riverbed and a small, trickling fountain. A gorgeous rounded, wooden deck butts against the pond and is surround by naturalistic planting with Ox-Eye Daisies, Achillea millefolium and Sedges featuring heavily. I also loved the detail of oak paving blocks set in gravel and used to link with the decking area. I could certainly imagine spending a delightful afternoon in that environment.
From an urban greening perspective Finding [Urban] Nature sought to highlight the value of brownfield sites in towns and cities with a fun design incorporating a seating area delineated by a scaffolding framework and plants, associated with colonising available nooks and crannies, set in a gravel garden comprising broken bricks. Next door was Calm in Chaos which sought to provide a place of tranquility to escape the hustle and bustle of city life with a meandering path leading to a seating area amongst lush, green woodland style planting. I subsequently listened to an episode of The Sod Show podcast which featured an interview with the designer Max Harriman in which he linked the increasing numbers of people living in cities with higher rates of mental illness, and it was interesting to see both these entries emphasise the importance of green space in urban areas.
Key Themes and Features
There was a noticeable trend through many of the show gardens for highlighting the role of gardens in supporting biodiversity with all of the Young Designer gardens referencing this to some degree, as well as Bee’s Garden: The Penumbra, Don’t Chop Me Down and The Buzz of Manchester in the back to backs. Perhaps as a consequence of this many of the show gardens included water features, particularly round containerised pools which appeared across a number of designs and could be accommodated in a small garden.
I think the pool I liked best though was the long rectangular pond included in Born to Bee Wild which featured in the Young Designers category. I think the contrast of its clean lines and naturalistic aquatic planting works well and shows how a wilder elements can be combined with formal geometric shapes. This too was not particularly vast in scale and showed what could be done with narrow space.
Similarly the style of planting which dominated was generally informal and naturalistic. Lots of grasses and pollinator friendly flowering perennials were included in a variety of palates. Inevitably when a show takes place in a particular month of the year certain plant species can feature widely and many of the gardens included Verbena bonariensis, Achillea millefolium, Helenium, and Echinacea.
My favourite plant spot though was Salvia ‘Amistad’ which was included in both The Flowers of Arley and Sleep Well in the back to backs. Spikes of vivid purple tubular flowers rise up above its heart-shaped green foliage on dark stems. I found it really striking but sadly I fear my small, enclosed garden may be too shady for this magnificent specimen. Maybe I could find space at the allotment though!
All photographs included in this article were taken by Ann Cooke, 20th July 2018