Cape Town - Fashion, World War I remembered, community and food gardens, and Italian Renaissance-style gardens were the talk of the Olympics of gardening in London.
The yearly Chelsea Flower Show is one of the key indicators of trends in the gardening world. Among the 600 exhibits and over 30 keynote gardens, top designers reflected on their concerns, colour choices and themes for the season.
With first-world economies struggling to emerge from one of the greatest recessions in recent memory, gardening in communities is an important focus across Europe.
Economic conditions have also opened up opportunities for young landscape designers that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
With the old guard swept away, Hugo Bugg, 27, became the youngest designer to win a gold medal for his Waterscape Garden on Main Avenue, while brothers Harry and David Rich, aged 26 and 23 respectively, received a Silver Gilt Award for their environmentally responsible garden entitled, The Night Sky Garden.
An increasing number of city parks departments are taking part at Chelsea and creating large exhibits to show how they are breathing life into communal spaces in the city with woodland, grasses, ferns and edible plantings.
Community gardens are also now regarded as needed and trendy. An exhibit made entirely from recycled and donated material, which was manned by unpaid volunteers, became a poster pin-up for this trend.
One example of this new economic reality was the National Union of Students “NUS Students Eat” exhibit, which showcased the value of student-led sustainability.
Successful on-campus food-growing programmes now engage students at 20 universities across Britain. Graduates and university students are taught to grow, harvest and sell their crops by engaging with a wider community.
Large exhibits by school children also demonstrated how to grow food in communities in cheap, but stylish ways.
Food gardens in schools across Europe are no longer a curious nicety, but a trend which has gained enormous traction, sponsorship, interest and economic need.
This is all in stark contrast to the heady champagne days of 2005 to 2008 when over 40 Chelsea corporate exhibits – each costing well over R2.6 million (£150 000) – were sponsored by big business.
That era is over, with the exception of five relatively modest corporate gardens at the show this year. Young people and parks departments showed that an attainable sense of normality has, at last, returned to the Chelsea Flower Show.
l World War I
The centenary of the beginning of World War l (1914-18) was the theme of at least six gardens. The effects of war on families and landscapes were inspired by the return of devastated bomb sites and “No Man’s Land” to parks and gardens. With titles such as “Enlightenment”, “The Gardeners Have all Gone” , the war gardens reflected deserted potteries, regenerated wildflower meadows and even a complete recreation of a World War I trench.
The trench was built with realistic bagged sand and peek-hole gun sights, all of which had a direct view – curiously – into the forest of South Africa’s Kirstenbosch exhibit, which happened to be the neighbouring exhibit.
Known as the “catwalk of the gardening world”, Chelsea is still the showcase of fashion and flowers.
Celebrities at the press day included fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, models Jerry Hall and Penny Lancaster, and even singers such as Geri Halliwell (Spice Girls), Lulu, Ringo Star, Rod Stewart and Sandy Shaw (1967 Eurovision Song Contest Winner).
The Gucci garden took its newly launched floral-fabric scarf, designed by Vittoria Accornero in homage to Princess Grace of Monaco, and turned it into a garden.
Gucci also launched two exclusive Lady Lock handbags complete with bamboo-top handles and floral canvas.
The media quipped that the garden looked as high maintenance as a Gucci store interior display.
A Viking Cruises Norse Garden offered a very different take on fashion, with four actors dressed up as Vikings, dressed in skins, warrior helmets and metal armour.
Meanwhile, the meadow garden, complete with a Viking boat, reflected the Nordic era of maritime exploration.
One did feel a little sorry for the overdressed Vikings who looked decidedly bleak during the three-day heat wave which edged noon temperatures towards 30ºC.
The three big gardens at Chelsea this year were all inspired by Italian-style gardening. Designer Luciano Guibbilei’s Laurent Perrier garden won the Best on Show Award for an impeccable garden, which was a blend of modernism, a vibrant meadow of yellow lupins and Moghul-style pools and rills.
While the finishes were superb, the British media declared it to be part garden, part art gallery.
The return of Italian Renaissance gardens was best epitomised by masses of clipped box topiary and hedging seen at the show this year.
Romantic colour schemes in yellow and lilac meadows and ornate Italian water features dominated all the big gardens.
Multiple-award-winning gold medalist and designer Cleve West designed a contemporary interpretation of the paradise garden for the show’s main sponsor, M&G Investments.
The concept was invented by the Persians 2 000 years ago and used water, shade and planting for sanctuary and contemplation. With an ornate Italian water feature as its central focus, West’s garden was a combination of Italian, Persian and Greek.
Kay Montgomery, Weekend Argus