The Garden Guide

Chelsea Show Gardens 2017 - review and comment by Tom Turner

The M&G Garden, designed by James Basson was inspired by a disused limestone quarry in Malta. His design ambition, rare for a Show Garden, justifies his Gold Medal and Best in Show Awards. 

The Show Garden judges have been criticised in other years. But in 2017 I am happy to agree with all their choices for Gold Medals. These gardens enjoy an important place in the evolution of garden design and it’s worrying that in 2017 there were fewer of them. TV coverage of Chelsea gives much attention to the show gardens so it is also a worry for the BBC and the RHS. Monty Don, introducing the BBC coverage of the show, asked the RHS Director General what she thought the explanation might be. She said it was probably the Brexit vote, which came when applications were being invited and which caused financial uncertainty. Sue Biggs could be right. Or she could be wrong.

Royal Bank of Canada Garden designed by Charlotte Harris was inspired by a Canadian boreal forest and makes good use of a design theme. It has mature pines, glacial boulders and a copper lined, burnt larch wood canopy reminiscent of wooden shelters created by hunters and travellers exploring the riverside.

It is also possible that the gardens are losing contact with sponsors and visitors. I have not been through the process of ‘doing a Chelsea garden’ but I have spoken to many designers who have. As Joe Swift told Monty, the designers all say it is hard in every respect: finding a sponsor, doing the design, getting it approved, getting it built, satisfying the judges and staying on your feet during the show.

The Viking Cruises Garden of Inspiration, designed by Sarah Eberle has a Mediterranean theme with succulents, palms, and a fruiting orange tree a mosaic wall inspired by Antoni Gaudi. It makes me want to 'go south for the winter' and the amoeboid sun lounger is as delicious as the oranges

My suggestions are to simplify and clarify the guidance, to support the teams who produce the gardens and to do everything possible to make the gardens relevant:

  • To garden owners
  • To show visitors
  • To TV viewers
  • To sponsors
  • To the wider community

‘The way to a woman’s heart’ we used to joke, ‘is through her stomach’. One way to a nation’s heart is through its gardens. They need to be full of delights while feeding the mind and sustaining the body. These truths need to be embedded in their production, consumption, judging and explanation. The classical formula is that designs should have Commodity, Firmness and Delight. 

Breaking Ground Designed by Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliam for Wellington School takes its theme as 'the learning and thought process in education'. It uses open frameworks to represent the overcoming of barriers to learning. The design has a feathery tracery and makes good use of its theme.

A thought I always have in mind when walking round Chelsea is ‘What style does this design represent?’ Typical answers from designers are ‘I don’t know’, ‘It’s just what I do’ and ‘I don’t follow a style’. But histories of the Chelsea show, and all histories of art and design, find common characteristics in the designs of historical periods and patterns in their evolution. Medieval houses and gardens had little in common with those made in the Georgian and Modernist periods.


This garden, designed by Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins  takes the Silk Road as its theme. I would not have known this without the catalogue entry. The desert sections of the Silk Road do not look this but the red paint and plants are associated with China and, presumably with Chengdu.

When I visited a Chelsea Show, probably in the late 70s, it was dominated by time-expired interpretations of the Arts and Crafts Style. The first Modernist garden I remember was by Preben Jakobsen. Abstract Modernism then swept the board. It was followed, surprisingly quickly, by the Postmodern approaches that now dominate the show.

The Breast Cancer Now Garden designed by Ruth Willmott has a theme which many designers would struggle with. It represents the experience of looking through a microscope and is intended as a space for a small team of cancer research scientists.  

Even the Arts and Crafts echos, still to be found in unexpected corners, are done like classical quotations on supermarkets - in a Postmodern spirit. At Chelsea, the typical manifestation of Postmodernism is best described as a theme (the ‘post’ bit) overlaid on an abstract composition (the ‘modern’ bit). The resultant gardens are definitely Modern but also have ‘meaning’. This can create a problem for the designer: what meanings and themes should they turn to? Often, the inspiration comes from formative personal experiences in a much-loved natural or semi-natural landscape. Another typical source of inspiration is the sponsor. The work of some sponsors is well suited to inspiring a design theme, as we see for Viking Cruises and the Royal Bank of Canada in 2017. Others are much more problematic. The Breast Cancer Now garden struggles with its theme but the Linklaters Garden does well.

Monty Don, who is excellent, began his 2017 presentation of the Chelsea Flower Show by pointing to a trend he expects to advance: the conceptual approach to garden design. His two examples were designs by landscape architects James Basson and the Wilson McWilliam Studio. Asking, rhetorically, if they are gardens and if they have lessons for gardeners, Monty gave a resounding yes. On the next evening he went further saying that 'many people would not see them as gardens'. I'll try and remember to comment on this issue next year! Meanwhile, I look forward to the advance of post-Postmodernism at Chelsea.

The Linklaters Garden for Maggie’s designed by Darren Hawkes provides a secluded, calming and private space for those suffering from cancer. Making it secluded from the crowds was a great idea.