Isabel Hardman

Why the Chelsea Flower Show shake-up is good news

Why the Chelsea Flower Show shake-up is good news
Image: Getty
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Is it really such a bad thing that the Chelsea Flower Show has been postponed to the autumn because of Covid? 

Yes, we'll be missing out on the blousy, frothiness of early summer gardens that we see every year - not so many umbellifers, alliums or delphiniums - and yes, the Floral Pavilion will be strange without the heady scent of roses from the David Austin and Peter Beales stands. But the show will benefit enormously from a shake-up that forces designers to stop using the plants listed above until it seems there is nothing else you could possibly grow in your garden.

Every year, a presenter or commentator gushes about how 'on trend' foxgloves are now, as though it's a strange coincidence that they flower around the same time as the show, rather than being bankers for a designer hoping everything will come together. 

All gardeners know that a May plot is so wonderfully clean and busy and easy. The warming weather and the influence of shows like Chelsea mean many of us put in huge plant orders at this time of year to bulk up our gardens even more. But by mid-summer, gaps have started to appear in even well-planned borders, and plants that were throbbing with life early in the year are starting to look tired. Fennel, which is over-used by Chelsea designers, goes from having wonderful plump clouds of new foliage to being a rangy flowering plant. Not unattractive, but it completely changes the way a border will look. 

Prince Charles smells a Highgrove rose at the Chelsea Flower Show (Getty)

An autumn show will encourage a little more honesty about what follows the energy of May gardens. Come autumn, there's the harvest from the veg plot - but the main garden is often looking a bit forgotten. British gardens often collapse into boredom once September's best weather is out of the way, which is a tremendous shame and a waste, given how many plants are at their very best in the colder months. It's not just the late summer/early autumn flowers like dahlias, Japanese anemones and hydrangeas that deserve more attention, but the foliage, barks and textures of the plants at this time of year. 

Forget the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness: autumn is all about foliage fireworks. Acers, Liquidambars and Cotinus make you feel glad that the seasons are turning. Berries like the unnaturally purple Callicarpa, or alien blue Lonicera 'Blue Pearl' have nothing mellow about them at all. The range of colours in the barks of birch and acer species stops winter from ever feeling bleak. There is even an autumn-flowering snowdrop, Galanthus reginae-olgae subsp.reginae-olgae.  

Besides, we've already had a preview of how wonderful an autumn Chelsea Flower Show will be. In normal years, the RHS puts on an autumn show in its Horticultural Halls in London. You don't get celebrities or models wearing floral garb wafting around: this is a quiet, gentle show for people who really, really love plants. But the stands at these shows are spectacular and inspiring. They encourage gardeners to think about how their garden might lift their spirits at just the very time when they need it. 

So it's easy for designers to think of yet another cottage garden, or to bring a few later-flowering plants on with the help of a hairdryer, as sometimes happens at Chelsea. More of a challenge is to create a garden for all seasons, or at least for the seasons when many of us start to feel a little more miserable.