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London correspondant and garden expert, George Plumptre, reports on the greatest flower show in the world.

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By House & Garden South Africa | June 7, 2023 | Gardens

A few weeks before this year’s Chelsea Flower Show someone at the show’s organisers, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), was quoted in the media saying that we all need to treat weeds as friends to be nurtured in our gardens, not enemies to be rooted out.

Harris and Bugg created a gentle, tranquil garden showcasing the healing and rejuvinating effects of nature. Image: Eva Nemeth

The situation was given further publicity because the President of the RHS is none other than Mr Keith Weed. So would 2023 see Chelsea Flower Show, the world’s most prestigious horticultural stage, turn out to be a weed fest?

Emphatically not. The healing powers of plants and nature were both evident and a constant talking point, and there were some inspirationally conceived show gardens whose unkempt, natural state powerfully projected the challenging and sometimes bleak messaging of the charities that the gardens represented; in particular Cleve West’s garden for Centrepoint which supports homeless people and Darren Hawkes’ garden for the Samaritans which supports those at risk of suicide.

(Left image) Layed back seating under the dappled canopy of a river birch tree (Betula nighra) in Harris Bugg’s design for Horatio’s Garden. (Right image) A cameo from Cleve West's garden for Centrepoint. Image: Eva Nemeth

But there were also sublimely crafted gardener’s gardens with exquisitely arranged planting, in particular Sarah Price’s garden, which celebrated the gorgeous bearded irises bred by artist Cedric Morris (1889-1982) at his Suffolk home, Benton End, and Charlotte Harris and Hugo Bugg’s Horatio’s Garden, created for the charity of that name which builds gardens for hospital spinal injuries units.

For the show’s cognoscenti, the top prize of best in show was always going to be awarded to one of these two, and in the end Horatio’s garden came through with a popular victory for a remarkable charity and a gorgeous mixture of perennial and shade-loving plants and fully wheelchair-accessible paths (a Chelsea show garden first).

The healing powers of plants and nature was the backbone of Darren Hawkes's garden for the Samaritans which supports those at risk of suicide. Image: Eva Nemeth

Their garden will go on from the show to become the garden of the spinal injuries unit in Sheffield, exemplifying a new and commendable requirement by the RHS that all show gardens must have a life after Chelsea. This also applied to the small garden categories which gave the show’s gardens so much variety: Sanctuary Gardens, Container and Balcony Gardens and All About Plants Gardens.

Young desigers shine at Chelsea Flower Show 2023

These categories also offered the chance for new younger designers to have their first experience of Chelsea, like debutante’s Joe and Laura Carey whose Talitha Arts Garden won the All About Plants category.

And the show really was all about plants, not only in the show gardens but, for the first time for a few years, in the marquee which is traditionally home to specialist plant nurseries. The best exhibit award went to a stunning display of ferns by Kells Bay from Ireland, including stately tree ferns, Dicksonia antarctica.

Wonderously dramatic Dicksonia antarctica makes a magnifient statement in a shade garden. Image: Supplied

Some of my other favourites were displays focusing on one family: Raymond Evison’s kaleidoscope of clematis cultivars; Claire Austin’s breath-taking array of bearded iris; Potash Nursery’s picturesque pelargoniums; and Peter Beales’ ravishing roses.

(Left image) Clematis ‘Bijou’ discovered on Raymond Evison’s exhibit. Right image) Touch of Mahogany’, Claire Austin's ruffled, cinamon-coloured bearded iris. Image: Supplied

Magical displays at Chelsea Flower Show 2023

But my real delight was in two displays of mixed plants, the first an ever modest but constant star at Chelsea, the other a first-timer. Kevock Plants from Scotland have been creating magical small displays of alpines and woodland perennials for years and this year they were rewarded with the prestigious President’s Award – given by the President to just one exhibit in the whole show.

Magical alpines and woodland perennials from Kevock Plants scooped the prestigious President’s Award. Image: Supplied

Kevock mixed tall meconopsis and candelabra primulas with other tiny treasures such as pale mauve flowered Anemonastrum obtusilobum and what could claim to be the plant of the show it appeared on so many exhibits and gardens, Thalictrum ‘Black Stocking.’

Meadow rue (Thalictrum ‘Black Stocking') produces the prettiest, hazy flower heads, scalloped foliage and jet-black flower stems. Image: Supplied
Meconopsis, the rare blue poppy. Image: Supplied

Micro-nurseries make their debut at Chelsea Flower Show 2023

The first timer was a group of eight ‘micro-nurseries’ who are part of the Plant Fair Roadshow that tours the south of England. Too small to exhibit on their own, the invitation from the RHS for them to form a group was inspired and clearly hugely popular with visitors.

Their stands were small but perfectly formed with an array of choice plants including one of my all-time favourite small perennials, the rarely seen Semiaquilegia ecalcarata with nodding soft-purple flower heads.

Dainty, delicate blooms like this Semiaquilega elcalcarata, proliferated this year. Image: Supplied

Given its international prestige and media attention, Chelsea is always a key launch event for new plants and this year was no exception. I particularly liked the currently very fashionable apricot shade of David Austin’s new shrub rose ‘Dannahue’ named after Danny Clarke (aka The Black Gardener).


Chelsea Plant of the Year, the South African, Agapanthus ‘Black Jack’. Image: Supplied

The RHS’s own top award, for Chelsea Plant of the Year went to a spectacular new cultivar of a long-established South African favourite, Agapanthus ‘Black Jack’ bred by South Africa’s own De Wet Plant Breeders. With large flowerheads of densely packed purple-black umbels it is a suitably spectacular note on which to end this round-up of a buoyant Chelsea Flower Show.

This article has been written by George Plumptre