Rubbing shoulders with gardening royalty at the Chelsea Flower Show

Paul Martin

Peter Dowdall took in the first few days of the international flower show this week and spent time talking to the some of the best and brightest gardeners and designers in the world of horticulture.

I first walked through the gates of the Royal London Hospital in Chelsea to see the world famous Flower Show in 1990. Now 26 years later I am still making the trek, if not every year, but certainly regularly.

I still get the same buzz, the same feeling of excitement as I enter this showground, similar perhaps to a fashion addict attending Paris or New York Fashion Week, or a sport’s fan going to see their favourite team in a cup final. 

To say that it is the standard bearer internationally for garden design and horticulture is absolutely true— but that says nothing about the show, the glitz, the glamour and the sheer buzz of the place.

Similar to the world of fashion gardening goes through trends and fads. Ornamental Grasses are very much ‘in’ this year and like the world best fashion show, Chelsea is where new and cutting edge design techniques and ideas are showcased. Show gardens are broken down into different categories and sizes, but inspiration is everywhere.

Ireland was well represented at this year’s show with Diarmuid Gavin and Paul Martin constructing Show Gardens on the main avenue. Diarmuid achieved Silver Gilt for his Harrod’s British Eccentrics Garden. This garden was all about fun, a drop of lightheartedness in the midst of the serious world of top flight design.

Paul Martin’s Garden of Mindful Living received a Gold Medal. This garden was a team effort and Paul used his experience and the opportunity that this garden gives in terms of profile to help develop the industry as a whole in Ireland. Many of the prize winning plants were grown in Schram Plants in Co Kildare and the stone came from Mac Monagle’s Stone in Donegal. 

Paul Martin's winning garden
Paul Martin's winning garden

To achieve this standard requires attention to detail at the highest level, Paul’s design was a contemporary modern, urban garden incorporating clean lines and smart details such as Corten walls, subtle grey-splashed limestone and large sliding shutters that open to reveal the city beyond.

Large multi-stemmed trees provide dappled shade over a planting scheme of soft greens and yellow geums, foxgloves and primulas which work well next to subtle, nearly unseen rills of water which escape through blocks of limestone. 

“Plenty of different greens have been used as this has a proven calming effect on children with ADHD,” said Paul.

Inspired by a love of Far Eastern travel and yoga this garden illustrates the importance of having an escape, a refuge in which to take time out from the hustle and bustle. It is intended to be a contemplative space where one can relax and restore life-balance.

Paul’s garden is one of only six which achieved the gold medal standard. Well-known British designer Andy Sturgeon also achieved gold and also the Best in Show award for his Telegraph Garden. This was designed to represent a ‘captured landscape’ and illustrates how a garden can exist within a larger, wilder setting.

Rubbing shoulders with gardening royalty at the Chelsea Flower Show

Paul Murphy’s garden was sponsored by Vestra Wealth UK who use the event to showcase its services and many of its clients had been entertained in Paul’s garden on Monday night at the £850 per person pre-show soiree. As with anything at this level, it’s big business this gardening and a garden like this will come with a price tag of over €200,000.

For me, Chelsea is about many things, the buzz, the designs, the atmosphere but most of all it’s about the plants. New plants and products are introduced and nurseries young and old exhibit their plants in the spectacular Great Pavilion, all in the hope of attaining that most treasured, Chelsea Gold Medal. 

Every time I enter the Great Pavilion I feel how I imagine Charlie felt on entering Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory.

Flowers, flowers everywhere all grown to perfection or else they wouldn’t be allowed enter such sacred space. Alliums, Amarylis, all grown and exhibited as cut flowers, Orchids, Roses, and for me, I think the star of the Marquee is the display of Delphiniums and Begonias grown by Blackmore and Langdon.

If I was to pick one favourite plant from the whole show, which is a near-impossible task, t would be one of the Delphiniums, a variety called Fanfare. Tall full stems of pale washed out blue blooms with hints of pink depending on the angle that you see it from. 

They are displayed as ever with tuberous Begonias of the brashest and loudest of colours. Blooms so huge they look like they’re on steroids. The colour combination shouldn’t work, but it does.

There are so many awards handed out and there is only so many times that I can use the word coveted but one award has to stand out on its own, probably second only to the Best in Show garden gong and that’s the Plant of the Year.

Ths year it went to a lovely new Clematis chiisanensis ‘Amber’. Grown by Taylor’s Clematis nursery, lovely nodding heads of creamy yellow flowers are produced from April to June with a second flush in September.

Rubbing shoulders with gardening royalty at the Chelsea Flower Show

Twenty plants were shortlisted for this award and the Clematis is a deserving winner but I think my favourite was Primula vialii ‘Alison Holland’. It’s a lovely white fowering form, slightly green in bud and similar to the pink/purple Primula vialii it produces lovely upright exotic flower spikes about 20cm in height.

Geum ‘Scarlet Tempest’ took second place. All Geums produce masses of flowers but judging by the specimen of ‘Scarlet Tempest’ that I saw, they could all be eclipsed by this new variety. Dozens of flower stems about 60cm high with hundreds of flowers are produced throughout the summer. 

Rubbing shoulders with gardening royalty at the Chelsea Flower Show

Slightly more orange than the name would suggest. it is a beauty.


Nepeta ‘Crystal Cloud’ was another contender which really took my fancy and will hopefully find its way into my garden before too long.


A low growing, neat form of catmint, the literature describes it as having soft pink flowers however I would describe the colour as more blue/grey, this was grown by Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants.


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