Gnomes return to Chelsea

The Chelsea Flower Show lifted its ban on garden gnomes for the first time in its 100 year history, but for designer models only

Inside the pages of the British garden historian Brent Elliott's fascinating new book, RHS Chelsea Flower Show: A Centenary Celebrat ion , is a reproduction of a letter typed by a potential exhibitor in the 1980s, politely beseeching the Royal Horticultural Society to reconsider its ban on the display of garden gnomes. Written over it in black ink are three short but emphatic words, the last one sternly underlined: "Sorry but No."

To the delight of some (but not all), that 100-year-old ban was temporarily lifted as part of this year’s Chelsea Flower Show centenary celebrations.

No less than 100 gnomes took up temporary residency in the historic grounds of the Royal Chelsea Hospital, each one hand-decorated by "celebrities" including Elton John, whose decidedly untraditional gnome sports sparkling golden boots, sunglasses and a fetching pink jacket. Gnomophobics need not fret too much; the ban will be reinstated next year.

Displays of a different kind occupy the show’s main avenue and rock garden bank , where the largest of Chelsea’s show gardens – 15 in total – traditionally take centre stage. This year’s exhibitors include the Swedish landscape architect Ulf Nordfjell (a recent speaker at the GLDA conference) and the British landscape designer Christopher Bradley-Hole, both seen as frontrunners for the Best In Show Award. Neither won it, although both deservedly received gold medals.

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Yet, as expertly executed as it is, I was strangely unmoved by Nordfjell’s show garden, a studied marriage of modernism and romanticism inspired by the late Swedish designer Ulla Molin and the French garden designer Nicole de Vésian that somehow fails to come to life. Many of its hard landscaping elements are wonderful, including the copper/wood arbour but the planting appears squeezed and a little stiff.

One possible problem – a theme throughout the show this year – was the frustratingly long, cold spring, which dramatically slowed growth and forced designers to juggle planting combinations right up until the last minute.

By contrast, I love Christopher Bradley-Hole's garden, where almost all of the available space is given over to a leafy grid of interlocking cuboids – yew, box, hornbeam – and secret pools, as well as three multi-stemmed hazels under which the designer has woven threads of feathery grasses and lacy umbellifers. Jewel-like, blood-red spots of colour come from Tulipa sprengeri, Astrantia 'Claret', Aquilegia 'Ruby Port', Paeonia 'Buckeye Belle', Cirsium rivulare 'Atropurpureum' and assorted roses. Along two sides of the garden, a formal colonnade of oak columns stand against a backdrop of walls in charred oak, a centuries-old method of preserving wood.

Just as Bradley-Hole's Telegraph showgarden is "wildness" reconfigured within a garden setting, so too is the Best in Show Trailfinders Australian garden designed by Paul Johnson and presented by Fleming's Nurseries. But while the Telegraph showgarden keeps physical interaction with the space at arms length, the Trailfinders garden invites it.

Making full use of the showgrounds’ tall perimeter wall, it features craggy rock faces, waterfalls, a billabong and a studio perched on the edge of the rocky gorge inspired by the Waratah flower of south-east Australia. Exuberant, thoughtful and expertly landscaped, using a palette of mainly Australian natives, this garden has a kind of youthful, high-octane energy that draws your eye. Sustainability and the importance of respecting and preserving regional biodiversity are two of its central themes.

Sustainably sourced timber is used for its “sunset platform” and boardwalk, while the Waratah flower studio was made from reclaimed timber. Planting is habitat-appropriate, solar panels power lighting and an outdoor shower while a sculptural nesting hive provides a habitat for bumble bees.

Non-permeable surfaces are kept to a minimum while any rain falling on nearby hard surfaces is collected and filtrated through the garden tank, with overflow going into the “billabong” to create an integrated water system that cleverly prevents flashflooding.