Biodiverse gardens are nothing new for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. After all, the best way of achieving biodiversity is to fill the garden with a variety of plants of various types, ideally including trees, shrubs and ground level ones. This year, though, it’s as if the designers have really let their hair down and have joyfully crammed in thousands of plants into their Show Gardens – in some cases more than 40 individual plants per square metre - giving minimal space to hard landscaping. Block planting has been swapped for meadowy sweeps of relaxed planting spangled with mainly white, pink and blue flowers.
Some designers, such as Lulu Urquhart and Adam Hunt with their Best in Show A Rewilding Landscape and Hugh and Howard Miller with their Silver Gilt Alder Hey Urban Foraging Station, are revelling in palettes of natives and naturalised plants (species that have become established in the wild in the UK but are not true natives). Lulu and Adam’s beautifully conceived slice of beaver-shaped streamside landscape embraces the seedheads and faded foliage of natural habitats, a feature of last September’s Chelsea Flower Show, and peps up the moisture loving natives with naturalised beauties such as Euphorbia lathyris.
Other designers have chosen to thread wild flowers, especially campions, ragged robins, buttercups, valerian and wild roses, through their gardenesque plants. Looking at these show gardens, it seems that the secret to successfully combining the wild with the cultivated is to choose plants with a relaxed habit for your companions. Or, as Jamie Butterworth has done in his gold medal The Place2Be Securing Tomorrow Garden, let your more shaped plants (in this case two domes of Acer campestre) be shaggy, so that they blend with the other plants and don’t interrupt your view across the planting.
These designers are also showing us that there’s a huge choice of umbellifers, which are magnets for insects at this time of year, to create pinpricks of white and pale pink and wonderful transparency through planting schemes, from the old favourite cow parsley to moisture-loving Valeriana officinalis, feathery-leaved, caraway, chervil, wild carrot and Ammi majus. Andy Sturgeon uses the sturdy Melanoselinum decipiens as a stand-alone plant for architectural effect against his textured walls in his gold medal garden for MIND.
Native hedges are favoured by many designers for their boundaries, and again there’s lots of variety in the way they are grown, and the plants used. Andy’s bushy one is boosted with Amelanchier and Alder buckthorn (a winner for wildlife with its nectar rich-flowers and autumn berries) while Andy Smith-Williams boosts biodiversity in his All About Plants front garden for Core Arts by mixing Acer campestre, Carpinus betulus, Rosa canina and Crataegus monogyna with the zingy foliage of Humulus lupulus.
Hawthorn is used in various forms, including multi-stemmed and umbrella and as a recently laid hedge in Hugh and Howard Miller’s foraging garden. Paul Hervey-Brookes has chosen a craggy Crataegus monogyna as an architectural element in his silver-winning Brewin Dolphin garden full of pioneer and pollution-busting species, while Richard Miers, whose silver-winning garden for Perennial is a traditional English flower garden with long borders and a central rill, uses the same common hawthorn in table top form to create a shade-casting allée down the middle of the garden.
Annie Gatti is an award-winning garden writer and co-author of the RHS Your Wellbeing Garden