Chelsea change welcomed

Hospice to get inside view of flower show 

When I catch up with Royal Horticultural Society judge Richard Sneesby, he’s feeling a little jaded after two long days at the Chelsea Flower Show but upbeat about what he saw there. The show seems, he declares, to have turned a corner.

“It was nice to see something different. There was a move away from the usual blue and white planting.

Richard Sneesby
Richard Sneesby

“For a long time we’ve had a kind of herbaceous mix of very feminine planting, of quite muted colours and lots of things at the same height.”

Richard is on the Chelsea selection panel and was part of the team, made up of designers, journalists, constructors and nursery experts, who judged this year’s Artisan and Fresh gardens. He will be talking about the process and how Chelsea influences design at a fundraising talk this month for Cheltenham’s Sue Ryder Leckhampton Court Hospice.

chelsea flower show
Leckhampton Court Hospice

He’s well qualified to spot changes in thinking having taught on design courses in Sheffield, Cheltenham and Falmouth over the past 25 years; he numbers Chris Beardshaw, Hugo Bugg and Sam Ovens, who all exhibited at this year’s Chelsea, among his former students. He is also senior judge for the Society of Garden Designers’ annual awards.

There was, he says, no dramatic shift this year but subtle changes: a rediscovery of shrubs and evergreens and some unusual plants.

“What was so wonderful about Andy Sturgeon’s garden was that I had no idea what probably 60 per cent of the plants were.”

chelsea flower show
Andy Sturgeon’s garden was awarded Best in Show

Yet, novelty alone won’t make a design work.

“It does not need to be whacky. It has got to be magical, it’s got to transport you for a moment to something different,” explains Richard, who now lectures at the Eden Project, alongside his Cornwall-based landscape architecture business.

However, doing something different is far from straightforward.

“It is getting harder and harder to do something new. It’s extremely easy to copy, it’s reasonably easy to adapt, but it’s incredibly difficult to find something genuinely new.”

chelsea flower show
Richard judged the Artisan Gardens

And only those designers who are confident are likely to take the risk of doing something that’s not tried and tested at the world famous show.

“If you get it wrong you have absolutely put your head above the parapet and there are not many people in the world who have got the guts to do that. People who have should be celebrated even if they get it wrong.”

When it comes to the RHS, gardens are marked out of four in nine separate categories, including construction and fulfilling the brief, with a threshold that has to be passed for each medal. Among the pitfalls are what Richard describes as ‘miniaturising’ things, such as making paths that are too small or seating areas that will take only one person, stuffing plants in too close together, or having poor specimens. Generally it is mistakes that make the difference to the medal awarded.

“Anyone who is offered a place at Chelsea has an equal chance of getting a gold medal.”

Richard will be talking at Cotswold Farm one of the area’s Arts and Crafts gardens. It was, he says, a period that saw collaboration between gardeners and architects and the sort of broadening of ideas that could be seen at the Chelsea Flower Show, with many gardens featuring bespoke works of art.

chelsea flower show
Cotswold Farm Gardens are the setting for the fundraising evening

“We’re starting to see gardens that are a collaboration of more than just the designer and a contractor. There are serious crafts people and very skilled artists, all sorts of people involved in these gardens.

“The more interesting ones are the ones that have come from the minds of more than one person.”

Richard Sneesby will be talking about the Chelsea Flower Show at Cotswold Farm Gardens, Duntisbourne Abbots, on Friday June 24 in aid of Sue Ryder Leckhampton Court Hospice. The event begins at 6pm with a drinks and canape reception and tickets, costing £15, are on sale from Sue Ryder Leckhampton Court Hospice on 01242 246285, email or visit the Sue Ryder website

• My reflections on this year’s Chelsea Flower Show are here

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Review: Gardens of the Italian Lakes

Friends smiled when they heard I was reviewing Steven Desmond’s Gardens of the Italian Lakes. We are known as the family who head for Italy most years and as for gardens, well that was a given. So a book that combines my two loves seemed certain to be a winner.

gardens of the italian lakes

Yet, I wasn’t so sure. I feared that at best it would be worthy but slightly dull, at worst little more than a cobbling together of guide book information dressed up in a glossy cover.

True, the cover has an immediate appeal – an envy-inducing view through a garden to Lake Como – and the fact that the book is illustrated with photographs by award-winning Marianne Majerus meant that, if nothing else, it was going to be very easy on the eye.

So, I settled down to read, telling myself that I could skim sections if the 200-plus pages proved too indigestible – and found myself totally absorbed.

The book opens with a general overview of the area and why it should be on every garden-lover’s itinerary.

gardens of the italian lakes
Villa Taranto

Desmond concedes that on the whole Italian gardens are often “not in the best of repair, and a bit short of decorative plant interest”. These gardens, he assures us, are different with “rich collections . . . organized into handsome layouts, often well labelled and, typically, immaculately maintained”.

Some of this is due to the influence of outsiders who have made this picturesque part of Italy their home, while the richness of planting is thanks to the climate with plenty of rain and temperatures regulated by the vast expanse of water, what Desmond describes as the “feeling of an inland sea”. It has allowed rapid growth – a scarlet oak at one villa has the girth of a centenarian but was planted only in 1938 – and the ability to grow many exotic things.

Gardens of the Italian Lakes is split into two sections: Lake Maggiore and Lake Como. There’s an introduction to each and then we are taken on a journey around their notable gardens.

These are varied from the Baroque garden on Isola Bella, the most visited in Italy, with its “unique combination of swagger, scenery and brilliance” to the “carpet slippers and afternoon tea” ambiance of Isola Madre and the rock garden that is Alpinia.

gardens of the italian lakes
Villa del Balbianello

Along the way, we discover the prato dei gobbi (lawn of hunchbacks) at Isola Madre, the garden with named terraces at Villa San Remigio and the double herbaceous borders of Villa Táranto, “a testament to the absurdity of British gardening abroad” declares Desmond.

Yet, this is not merely a description of what can be seen now but an exploration of the history of these gardens and the people who made them. We learn of self-made men, historic Italian families and characters such as the mysterious Baroness St Leger.

It’s detail that makes this far more than just a pretty coffee table book and yet Desmond’s light touch and chatty style mean it neatly sidesteps the pitfall of dry, historic lecture.

Some of his asides had me smiling and there’s the sort of guidance you need when travelling – how to get around (public service boats are deemed civilised and straightforward) and what to wear (“have your waterproofs somewhere near at hand”).

gardens of the italian lakes
Villa Sommi Picenardi

Desmond says that if he has done his job the book “will instil a desire to go and visit these places yourself.”

Me? I’m already packing.

Gardens of the Italian Lakes by Steven Desmond, photography by Marianne Majerus, is published by Frances Lincoln at £35 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Images taken from the book, copyright Marianne Majerus.

More book reviews here

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Nursery holds garden contest

Young gardeners are being encouraged to have a go at creating their own garden in a competition run by a Gloucestershire plant nursery.

Tortworth Plants, at Tortworth near Wotton-under-Edge, is hosting the miniature garden competition as part of Tortworth Estates open day on Sunday June 5.

Gardens have to be created in a standard sized seed tray and there are three categories: six years and under, 7-11 and 12 and over. Entries need to be handed in to the nursery at Old Lodge Farm between 9.30am and 10.30am on the day.

The event is part of the national Open Farm Sunday and will include tours of the estate’s dairy farm, tractor rides, a farmers’ market and plants for sale.

Tortworth Nursery specialises in herbaceous perennials and unusual alpines and also has a range of herbs and classic favourite garden plants.

For a full feature on the nursery see here

For more information on the Open Farm Sunday event visit Tortworth Nursery