If it’s July it must be Hampton Court.
RHS Hampton Court Show is a big site, with a wide variety of more or less gardeny stuff: show gardens large and small, floristry, food, crafts, accessories, machinery, tools, garden buildings, and nurseries galore. I hadn’t been for a few years so I was keen to have a look this year, and was suitably grateful for a press pass.
On Monday the site was still looking a little raw at the edges – you could see that build-up had been tough in the unusually rainy (even for a British summer) conditions. Luckily for us visitors the weather was dull but warm – and the ground was dry enough for us not to need wellies. A lady I spoke to on her stand full of elaborately embroidered parasols was in optimistic mood.
On the other hand after what felt like fourteen hours on the motorway I was feeling fractious and had more than my usual difficulty with the conceptual gardens. Themes of illness, depression, isolation and general disaster seemed preponderant in these and indeed in some of the show gardens, and when I saw Tony Smith’s Rolawn garden entitled “Why?” my inner curmudgeon said “Why indeed?”
The UNHCR garden, however, was genuinely moving – especially when the lush sanctuary in the middle was filled with healthy, safe, little British kids in their high viz vests while the outside evoked their less fortunate contemporaries with small abandoned life jackets among the rubble and dead trees.
I was cheered up by bumping into some Twitter friends and spending a happy 10 minutes in the butterfly dome taking blurry photographs of randy blue morphos as they chased each other among the school groups. I have a feeling large butterflies at face level may have triggered a few phobias that day, but for most of us there were moments of sheer joyous wonder inside that plastic bubble.
Generally the show is sensory overload, there is too much to see and you can see too much of it at once. To avoid confusion and exhaustion at events like this I recommend focusing on just a few things which are important for you (and no, I don’t just mean the Pimm’s tent, although that is a valid concern).
Container gardening is of great interest to me, and a source of frustration as containers on show gardens almost always seem to be either an afterthought or a very minor accessory. Sometimes they are downright irrelevant. There is rarely any striking or imaginative container planting on show gardens. This puzzles me as container gardening in real life seems more and more popular – as so many modern gardens are small, with a high proportion of paving and decking, and planting in pots gives you the opportunity to garden even if your outdoor space is small and rented. A question for the RHS shows people: perhaps there’s room for a new show category here?
I have found that the places to look for container planting ideas are in vegetable growing and/or educational or community-led displays, and on the trade stands. Greenhouse manufacturers (Hartley Botanic, Alitex, Griffin and Gabriel Ash etc) are reliable for good planting and great styling, especially Gabriel Ash. But other trade stands often use container planting to good effect (after all, it is PORTABLE!), and I don’t just mean the suppliers of containers – although it is logical to look at them too.
RHS shows always have some pot displays from manufacturers and importers, though I think nostalgically of the insanely elaborate planted displays that we used to do at Chelsea for Whichford. There were a few container-related accessories around too. My mental shopping list includes Spanish Rings, a galvanised bath tub, and a folding wood or metal pot stand, but press day is not a good shopping day as many exhibitors take the chance for a look around the show themselves once they have set up, so there was no retail therapy for me, though I was happy to take leaflets and catalogues for later pot-plotting.
As always, my favourite part was the Floral Marquee – I love to see the well-grown treasures of all the nurseries displayed for our delectation. The plants are often arranged to look like they are growing in the ground – though of course the vast majority are still in their pots, but this is also a happy hunting ground for container planting ideas. I apologise if any of these are mis-credited, I did my best but some nurseries did not (yet?) have very obvious signage. I wish more nurseries would follow the example of Hardy’s Plants and have their name on every label so that credit can easily be given where it is due.
As I explored the show ground the words ferruginous and crinkly came to mind over and over again. Ferruginous is a word usually applied to rusty colours in plants and animals and pops up in many botanical names, but literal rust has remained a strong theme in show gardens. There were many rusty bowls filled with water.
The Peacemaker garden was mostly rust. I’m afraid it was impossible to photograph this one without including a dustbin or a pushchair, even on press day.
In plants rusty colours lurk somewhere in the no man’s land between red, orange, and pink, occasionally straying into brown. They are beloved of floral artists because they link and soften their clearer, brighter cousins, while retaining their warmth. They have to be used with caution in the garden to avoid a muddy effect, but can be very beautiful, intriguing and sophisticated. Andrew Fisher-Tomlin and Dan Bowyer’s Garden for Crohn’s Disease was masterfully and unusually planted, with just the right touches of ferruginous warmth.
This group of colours complements greens and blues for those of you who, in Christopher Lloyd’s phrase, “worship at the colour wheel”. Hence the success of rusty bowls, gutters, hoops, chains and general bric a brac in gardens – rust goes well with foliage. In accessories and hard landscaping rustiness gives contrast in texture as well as colour.
Talking of texture – I began to notice a lot of crinkly plants as I walked about. I don’t know if this is a trend or if I was just making strange links in my head (this happens a lot). Here are some of the wavy and curly plants I noticed – there are even some which have a touch of rust about them too…
After walking round the show for six hours I was curling at the edges like an elderly sandwich. Even though I hadn’t seen everything I sadly refused the offer of a ticket to stay for the gala evening because I knew I had a few hours on the motorway ahead of me and had to be in Burford at 8am the next morning for eight hours of real gardening. Hampton Court Flower Show is definitely worth the trip, so if you haven’t been before I recommend it – but pace yourself!