I admit to being a little unsure about this year’s RHS Malvern Spring Festival. It was so good last year: stand-out gardens; a marquee full of tempting flowers; perfect weather. Would Jane Furze manage to meet let alone exceed that in her first year running the festival?
I was lucky enough to be allowed a sneak preview before it opens and first impressions are good, very good.
For the first time in the nearly 30 years that I’ve been visiting, Malvern seems to be looking outwards and finally making the most of its enviable setting. From nearly every point on the Three Counties Showground you are aware of the Malvern Hills in the background.
Continuing a move started a couple of years ago, the show gardens are positioned to be against the hills and elsewhere views have been kept clear of tents, stands and trailers, the necessary but ugly mechanics of a garden show.
Then there’s the feeling of space. Obviously, this was helped today by the fact that visitors were not on site but there’s the sense that even when the crowds arrive – advance ticket sales are already up on last year – there will be none of the past cramped atmosphere.
It is, says Jane with a smile, exactly what she had hoped for.
“We’ve opened the site up and created much more open space.”
Permanent showground trees have been incorporated into the vista, filling the middle ground and linking the site to the hills.
“We’re in a really beautiful site and I wanted to make sure that location stood out. Everything is placed in the frame of the hills.”
Exhibitors’ vehicles, which used to occupy a fairly central area, have been banished out of sight and a vast swathe of grass has been left in front of the Floral Marquee.
And what of that marquee? When I spoke to Jane a few months ago, she was excited about one of her major rejigs, namely the design of Malvern’s equivalent to Chelsea’s Great Pavilion.
It has changed shape and site on the ground several times over Malvern’s 32-year history. I think it’s finally right. The long 190m vista from one end to the other is knockout – even when the exhibits were still being put together – and the shape means nurseries are no longer in danger of being tucked away in a corner and easily missed. And as for the space outside, the marquee now has room to breathe, while keeping trade stands to a minimum means the hills are beautifully on show.
Jane confessed that her main worry before the festival had been the weather. Even that has worked in her favour. Today was a perfect sunny day with the forecast looking good. The forecast for the festival also seems to be set fair.
So, what are the ‘not-to-be-missed’ features? Here are just some of the things that caught my eye.
The best thing about RHS Malvern gardens is the chance to get up really close – and usually from more than one side.
Small enough to be relevant to the average gardener, they are nonetheless packed full of ideas.
And don’t miss Jekka McVicar’s Health and Wellbeing garden. She’s completely revamped what had been a rather neglected permanent feature. Now it’s full of edible and medicinal herbs with plenty of places to sit.
The garden, with a greenhouse donated by Hartley Botanic, will be cared for in the future by Pathways, a day service for adults with learning difficulties,
“I’m very pleased with it,” says Jekka. “It’s come up really well.”
In the same vein, there are edible borders at this year’s festival. Created by community groups, including Incredible Edible Bristol and Garden Organic, they are putting the spotlight on community projects that promote food-growing.
For me, the Floral Marquee is the highlight of RHS Malvern. There’s plenty to see with exhibits of everything from cacti to clematis. At its heart is the Plant Finders Parlour, designed by Joe Swift, and set to be the stage for talks.
Don’t miss the special Master Grower exhibit by Fibrex Nurseries. Part of a rolling programme across RHS shows, it explains a bit about the history of the family nursery and the behind-the-scenes work.
I also spotted stand-out lupins on W&S Lockyer’s stand and some irresistible peonies.
British flower growers are back at RHS Malvern in force. The austere surroundings of the Wye Hall have been cleverly disguised by Peter Dowle, giving the hall a Victorian street market feel.
Don’t miss the spectacular floral fountain, designed by leading florist Jonathan Moseley. Hundreds of blooms in glass holders hang from the ceiling, slowly rotating as they catch a breeze. Simply mesmerising.
• RHS Malvern Spring Festival runs from May 11-14. For details, see the website
• For show garden results see here
Top honours at this year’s RHS Malvern Spring Festival have gone to Peter Dowle’s tranquil Japanese-style retreat.
‘At One with . . . A Meditation Garden’ has won gold and the coveted Best in Show award.
Peter, who runs Howle Hill Nursery in was delighted with the win – his second best in show at RHS Malvern.
“It’s absolutely fabulous news and great for all the team – it was a huge team effort as always.”
And despite it being his 12th RHS gold, the thrill has not diminished: “Every gold is special,” he said.
“We’re looking forward to a fabulous festival.”
There was gold also for Painswick designer Sue Jollans on her second time at Malvern and after a gap of 10 years.
The Refuge highlights the plight of refugees and the journey they take in search of sanctuary.
A Mediterranean retreat by Villaggio Verde picked up a silver-gilt. There was silver for Buckfast Abbey’s Millennium Garden and the Treehouse Garden by Tim Lawrence.
A Garden Framed by Tim Lawrence, inspired by the idea of gardens as art, won bronze.
In the Spa Garden category, gold and Best in Show went to Russian duo Denis Kalshnikov and Ekaterina Bolotova. They were invited to exhibit at Malvern as part of a collaboration with the Moscow Flower Show.
Annette Baines-Stiller got silver for her garden inspired by the poetry of Ted Hughes.
There was bronze for The Ocean Garden by Damien Michel and Keith Browning’s eye-catching Bubble Drops.
• The RHS Malvern Spring Festival runs from May 11-14. For details, visit the website.
I’ve never been to Japan and, aside from Ishihara Kazuyuki’s Artisan Gardens at Chelsea, know little of the country’s gardens. Ask me to sum them up and I’d have probably muttered something about moss, rocks and gravel. So, I was hoping to learn more with Helena Attlee’s The Gardens of Japan.
It definitely falls into the ‘coffee table’ category, despite being a paperback reprint of the original 2010 edition rather than a hardback glossy. This is not a ‘how-to’ book but one to inspire further research.
Attlee takes us on a whirlwind tour of Japan’s finest gardens, pausing in each long enough to give only a little historical background – vital to understanding many of the gardens – and a brief overview of what’s there. It is brief and would be insubstantial were it not for the stunning photography of Alex Ramsey, which helps to flesh out the description.
What she does do is give a sense of a different way of appreciating gardens and even of what constitutes a garden.
Many, especially the kare-sansui, dry gardens created from gravel and stone, were, she tells us “not made for touching or walking through. They were designed like paintings, to be viewed from a static position.”
This is taken to the extreme at the Adachi Museum of Art and Gardens where the carefully constructed landscape can be seen only through specially constructed ‘picture frames’ on a viewing platform around the building.
Everything in Japanese gardens is carefully controlled from the precisely raked gravel – often done daily – to the carefully positioned rocks and, when you can enter, the route you must take; there is only one way around Katsura Rikyu. Surprisingly, a string-bound rock is universally recognised as a ‘no entry’ sign, something I cannot see being effective in open gardens in Britain.
In Kenroku-en, pine trees have their needles thinned by hand to give the trees a more transparent feel; at Heian Jingu, weeping cherries are supported by a bamboo frame and pruned annually to create a lattice effect; in Daichi-ji, azaleas are clipped tightly to produce undulating topiary.
Gardens borrow from the landscape – shakkei – and create a false perspective by using small trees to suggest distance. In some cases, the view beyond is vital.
“Without its view the garden is nothing,” Attlee says of Entsu-ji, which has one of the most famous examples of borrowed landscape.
Some have little in the way of plants beyond trees and moss – there are 48 different mosses in Ginkaku-ji – and Ryoan-ji has no plants or trees but just gravel and rocks.
There’s a sense of time slowing with stepping stones, double bridges and zig-zag paths all designed to stop a headlong rush from one end of the garden to the other.
Where there are flowers, they are revered with thousands celebrating the cherry blossom season with flower festival picnics, or hanami.
The Gardens of Japan would be a good starting point for anyone who is thinking of creating their own Japanese-style garden or planning to visit not least because it has a map and contact details for the gardens. I certainly feel as though I know a little more and will be looking at Ishihara Kazuyuki’s Chelsea entry this year with greater insight.
• The Gardens of Japan by Helena Attlee, photography by Alex Ramsey, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £14.99. Buy now. (If you buy through this link, I may get a small fee and it doesn’t affect the price you pay.)
• Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.
For more book reviews, see here
RHS shows come fast and furious at this time of year and while RHS Malvern may have only just closed, work on building gardens at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show is nearing the final judging deadline.
And there’s plenty of input from the Cotswolds this year with exhibits from the region across the show.
Cheltenham-based designer Chris Beardshaw will be planting to the sound of music on his third show garden for Morgan Stanley.
Members of the National Youth Orchestra have produced a piece of music based on their interpretation of his garden and this will influence where individual plants are based.
“That piece of music will help to direct how we formulate the drifts of plants in the planting of the garden itself,” explains Chris.
The garden has three distinct areas and, unusually for Chelsea, can be viewed on three sides. At one end is a naturalistic woodland, while the opposite side has a formal sun terrace garden. Linking the two is a green oak asymmetrical building.
Like his previous two gold medal-winning gardens for Morgan Stanley, the design has been inspired by one of the three strands of the firm’s outreach programme.
The 2015 design looked at well-being and was part of a much larger community garden in Poplar. Last year’s garden, which was relocated to Great Ormond Street Hospital, focused on health and this year’s entry explores education, with a basis in fractal geometry.
“There is an assumption that nature is chaotic and a garden is ordered and in fact that could not be further from the truth. Everything in nature has a pattern and order it’s just that it does not necessarily conform to an artificial geometry that we impose,” says Chris.
And in a move back to his horticultural roots, he’s growing more than 2,000 herbaceous plants himself in borrowed glasshouses at The Nursery at Miserden rather than leaving it to a commercial grower.
“Looking after the plants is obviously very time consuming when we are so busy with everything else. And is quite challenging as we have to work with the changing weather conditions – holding back some species, while coaxing on others. But for me the planting is the aspect of any show garden creation I love the most and this year will be even more special and rewarding.”
Concrete isn’t usually thought of as beautiful but Darren Rumley turns it into art.
The sculptor from Stroud is making his RHS Chelsea debut on award-winning designer Sarah Eberley’s artisan garden.
Spotted by Sarah at the RHS Tatton show, he has been commissioned to produce a seat for her garden for Viking Cruises celebrating Gaudi and Barcelona’s modern arts movement.
“I am a massive fan of concrete as a material and his work stood out for me,” explains Sarah.
The glass fibre reinforced concrete will be shaped using a silicon mould to produce a sculpted seat.
“It’s something very different and not what I’ve done before,” says Darren, of One Artisan
With fewer show gardens than in previous years – eight down from 17 in 2016 – the RHS has brought in five gardens to fill the space, a move last seen in 2009 with the ‘Credit Crunch Gardens’.
Celebrating Radio 2’s 50th anniversary, the ‘BBC Radio 2 Feel Good Gardens’, which won’t be judged, will be half the size of a show garden and aim to demonstrate the role gardens have in promoting a feeling of well-being.
Each has been named after a presenter and has a different theme. The Jo Whiley Scent Garden is designed by Tamara Bridge and Kate Savill, who have asked fragrance designer Jo Malone for help.
The Anneka Rice Colour Cutting Garden is being designed by Sarah Raven and will concentrate on plants that can be cut and will flower again.
Matt Keightley is designing The Jeremy Vine Texture Garden with bold geometric forms against soft planting.
James Alexander-Sinclair is aiming to reproduce the feeling of music vibrating through your body in The Zoe Ball Listening Garden. While visitors won’t be able to hear the music of the last 50 years of Radio 2, it will produce patterns in the water feature and will be felt through the floor.
And Chris Evans will be broadcasting from his garden on Press Day. The Chris Evans Taste Garden has been designed by Jon Wheatley as an allotment-style plot with a range of fruit flowers and vegetables. Bake Off Queen Mary Berry has been consulted on the tastiest plants.
The Great Pavilion will see its first fully revolving exhibit with a display by Linda Marsh from Cheltenham, which celebrates 60 years of the Hardy Plant Society.
In another first, each plant will have a QR code to enable visitors to access cultivation notes via their smart phones.
“We want to show that we’re innovative and moving with the times,” she explains.
Linda, part of the Worcester HPS, which was chosen to put together the exhibit, is using 60 different plants in a fiery palate of purple, red and orange, with highlights of white.
Members have been growing the plants since October both in their own gardens and in glasshouses lent to them by Cotswold Garden Flowers nursery.
Fibrex Nurseries are no strangers to Chelsea but this year will be extra special.
The nursery, based at Pebworth near Evesham, is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its National Collection of Pelargoniums and fittingly the display will resemble a celebration cake.
Rather than its usual ‘against the wall’ pitch, the family-run nursery will have a free-standing display featuring pelargoniums in a tiered arrangement.
Among the four new varieties being launched, is ‘Rushmoor Amazon’, with large yellow blooms.
Another nursery marking an anniversary at the show is Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, which will be putting on its 25th display.
Also celebrating is The British Florist Association, which will highlight its 100th anniversary with a 2.5m-high display using more than 6,000 cut flowers in pink, orange and green.
Visitors will be able to look through circles of flowers onto the RHS Chelsea Florist of the Year competition entries.
And Hillier is hoping to add to its 71 consecutive golds with a bold display, designed by Sarah Eberle, featuring a 4m-high metallic spring.
Weighing in at more than a tonne, the coils will span the length of the display and will carry water into a pond at one end.
There will also be a ‘Memory Tree’ where visitors can hang a signed copper tag with a book below for them to add their favourite garden memory.
Alan Titchmarsh will be the first to add his memory to the Davidia involucrata, or Pocket Handkerchief Tree, and tags added by other designers and personalities will be auctioned after the show in aid of the Wessex Cancer Trust.
And there’s also . . .
Cotswold flower arranger Jayne Morriss, from Brimscombe Hill, near Stroud, is making her 10th appearance at the show with an entry in the Enchanted Garden class of the flower arranging competition. She’s interpreted it as ‘Puck’s Hollow’ and is planning to create a green and white display with a small pool, delphiniums and roses.
Mickleton-based Phil Britt, a member of Chipping Campden and District Flower Arranging Society, is also putting his floral art skills to the test in the same contest.
Cotswold wire sculptor Rupert Till from will be displaying his garden artwork and Cheltenham sculptor Chris Lisney will be unveiling three new pieces at RHS Chelsea. One is a sphere with a branch and a perched bird, while the other two show girls, one dancing with a perched bird and the other balanced on a book.
There will be garden antiques from Architectural Heritage, based at Taddington, and artist Jaci Hogan, based at South Cerney, will be showing her flower paintings on everything from cards to tablemats.
• The RHS Chelsea Flower Show runs from May 23-27. For more details, visit the website.
This post was updated on May 18.
I’ve been venturing further afield with a Garden Media Guild trip to see two of Herefordshire’s notable gardens.
Not even icy air and occasional hail storms can dull the delight at discovering new gardens. Not that the two I visited last week were entirely unknown to me. I interviewed Sir Roy Strong and reviewed his book about The Laskett some years ago, while the country plot of Tamsin Westhorpe, former editor of The English Garden magazine, is well-known in gardening media circles. But I had never seen them and was intrigued.
We started with the four-acre Stockton Bury, and what Tamsin describes as “quite a new garden”.
These include a working kitchen garden with beautifully shaped apple trees, shrub and perennial borders and a water garden, all set against some stunning old buildings: the dovecot with an entrance so low even I had to duck and barns that are now used for displays of old tools and as a restaurant.
Although horticultural standards are high with weed-free beds and neat lawn edges – helped by wooden edging boards – this is part of a working farm and the garden has to work with, among other things, moving stock.
“It’s the scariest event when we have these sheep coming through,” Tamsin tells us.
Among the highlights for me were the Dingle, a spring-fed water garden that Tamsin says is her favourite place to work, and the newly constructed auricula theatre alongside the farmhouse.
The Laskett is another relatively young garden, created by Sir Roy Strong and his late wife Julia Trevelyan Oman.
Sir Roy describes it as autobiographical, not least because the garden was funded by the couple’s work in the arts; Julia was a designer, Sir Roy director of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The garden is like a four-acre series of stage sets, many named for events – ‘The Silver Jubilee Garden’ – or for the source of funding, such as the ‘Pierpont Morgan Rose Garden’, paid for with the fee for a series of lectures Sir Roy gave in New York. I particularly liked Elizabeth Tudor Avenue with its juxtaposition of pleached limes, swagged beech and clipped yew.
There are numerous ‘props’: statues, urns, and rescued pieces of ancient stonework, including pieces from the old Palace of Westminster.
And, like any good stage set, there are multiple ways to enter and exit each space, with long vistas or tempting glimpses enticing you to explore.
The Laskett, once a purely private space, has opened regularly since 2010.
“It’s given me a new focus in my life,” says Sir Roy, who has bequeathed the garden to horticulture charity Perennial. “It’s such a delight to share it.”
• The Laskett is open to pre-booked groups from mid-April to the end of September. Details on the website
• Stockton Bury is open to groups by appointment from April to the end of September. See website for details.
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