It’s been a few weeks since the Hampton Court Flower Show. There is always so much garden inspiration to be had there, but visiting the show can be quite an overwhelming experience. The huge crowds, seemingly inevitable collisions between my feet and other people’s plant trolleys, insanely hot weather, onslaught of sights, sounds and smells – intensely fragrant lilies and roses, overheating bins and food stalls – make for a set of experiences that I need a bit of time to process afterwards!
The best approach, I think, is to take away just a few design tricks and ideas that you like, and might try on your own or a client’s garden, and some key plants and materials that are new to you or that have been used in an interesting way. So, here are a few of my take-aways from this year’s show…
1. Circles & Spheres
I love the symmetry that a circular layout can give a garden. It makes for a formal garden that is at the same time soft and comfortable. Curved lines are so pleasing to the eye and naturally give a space a lovely relaxed feel. This works especially well in this show garden (below) where the theme is continued into more detailed elements of a design – umbels and pompom flower shapes, tumbled pebbles, urns and water features.
2. Natural & Recycled Materials
Timber and real stone give a garden a warmth and sense of authenticity. I love the way this show garden (below) used log faces to build a boundary wall, with bug hotels built from old tiles and bricks. I wanted to touch everything in this garden. And check out the oversized pear! It’s a den made out of different colours of willow, and I know my kids would be straight in there. The informality of the planting, the shaggy lawn and abundant, naturalistic borders make this a garden that will be just humming with bees, crickets and butterflies in mid-summer. It’s somewhere I would happily sit in and just be.
3. Imperfectly Perfect Materials
This show garden (below) used both circles/spheres and natural materials in its design, and felt similar in tone to the one above. I thought the sculpture made from twisted branches was rather special, especially set into the bed of flowering thyme. And there isn’t much I like better than a slightly higgeldy-piggeldy path of brick setts – I hope to have something like this in my garden one day.
4. Perennials and drought-tolerant plants
The installation by Piet Oudolf, RHS ‘Horticultural Hero’, was everything you would expect from this master plantsman; exuberantly large borders full of swathes of flowering, sun-loving perennials that would peak in mid- to late-summer. The grasses amongst them swayed in the (very welcome) breeze and insects were busy in the flowers. The plants were carefully selected varieties of echinacea, eryngium, scabious, monarda, loosestrife, alliums and helleniums, as well as grasses such as stipas.
I have quite a lot of these plants growing in the sandy soil of my garden in Norwich, and they have been well drough-tested this year – we haven’t had any proper rain since May, and we’re currently in the driest summer since 1962! If your garden is suffering in the heat-wave, you might want to consider creating a border inspired by Piet Oudolf’s New Perennial style.
5. Pick a dramatic colour palette
If you want a sense of drama in your garden, go bold with your forms, plant and material choices. And don’t be afraid of dark colours! A geometric sphere sculpture of Cor-ten steel (which is meant to look rusted and industrial/agricultural) and black timber fence, combined with the dark, purplish foliage of dahlias and their rich pops of red flowers, and a backdrop of purple verbena bonariensis and orange heleniums, look stunning in this show garden. It works here because the pale colour of the stone path contrasts and lifts the scheme.
I hope you’re feeling inspired, I certainly am! And if you’ve never been, it’s certainly worth visiting one of the RHS flower shows. The TV coverage can never give you the full sensory experience of visiting the gardens in person, and at the show you can actually talk to the designers and growers. For my money, I prefer Chelsea, as it’s more about the gardens and less about a retail experience – Hampton Court is chock full of stalls selling plants, greenhouses, tools and equipment, as well as countless other non-gardening products which I could happily do without! – but I missed Chelsea this year as I was on my hols. Whichever RHS show you go to, you’re bound to leave with a few ideas that you can take away and use to enrich your own gardening experience.