RHS Chelsea Flower Show: Autumn 2021

The Chelsea Flower Show is back this week celebrating the glory of autumn for the first time in its 108 year history: Rebecca Wallersteiner takes a look at the NHS Tribute Garden and the Florence Nightingale Garden and gives her pick of what to look out for.

The pandemic has twice moved RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Last year it went virtual, owing to the pandemic and this year it has moved from spring to autumn for the first time in its 108 year history. Like nature itself, it continues to renew itself this week returning with a dazzling show of colourful autumnal floral glory. RHS Director of Shows & Gardens, Helena Pettit, says, “For many designers the change in season has provided a rare opportunity to work with exciting new plants which you wouldn’t usually see at RHS Chelsea and I am so looking forward to seeing the array of later summer and autumn flowers and plants that will be on display – it is going to be an incredible and unique sight. When you plant a bulb in autumn you are thinking of the tulip that will emerge in spring, when you plant a small tree you are thinking how over the years it will grow providing shade, privacy and a home for many wildlife. Growing plants helps provide hope for the future and makes the world a greener and more beautiful place.”

With millions finding solace in gardening during lockdown, the positive impact of plants on our health and wellbeing is a prominent theme at all shows and the focus of a new RHS Chelsea category; ‘Sanctuary Gardens’.

For many designers their gardens have become even more relevant following the events of the last 18 months. Marking 200 years since the birth of Florence Nightingale, ‘The Florence Nightingale Garden – A Celebration of Modern Day Nursing,’ designed by Robert Myers, is a tranquil garden celebrating the remarkable legacy of the Lady with the Lamp, the critical role nurses play in healthcare which is more relevant than ever and the importance of gardens for wellbeing and recovery. Myers has adjusted his planting to reflect the show moving from May to September – from a shady garden with woodland plants to a bright and vibrant space with colourful late summer perennials, grasses and bulbs and calming water. The striking central feature of this restorative garden is pergola walkway. The garden will be re-located to St Thomas’s Hospital in central London after the show, so that doctors, nurses and patients alike will be able to enjoy it in the future.

The incredible work of the thousands of NHS workers who care for millions of people across the UK and have kept the health service running throughout the Coronavirus pandemic is being celebrated in the ‘Finding Our Way – a beautiful NHS Tribute Garden’ by Naomi Ferrett-Cohen. The garden provides an immersive experience with the sound of water running along shallow rills connecting larger pools, providing an oasis for reflection and contemplation and hope of better times to come.

The healing power of gardens and nature also inspired the design of ‘The Bible Society: Psalm 23 Show Garden’ by multi-award winning designer Sarah Eberle, reflecting the natural landscape near her Devon home and ‘The M&G Garden’ by design duo Harris Bugg, designed to raise awareness of the increased need to introduce beautiful and restorative green spaces within our towns and cities.

With millions more people growing their own plants on balconies, window sills, or inside flats, the Royal Horticultural Society has introduce two new garden categories providing a wealth of inspiration for anyone interested in growing plants in small spaces. Alongside the new ‘Houseplant Studios’ the new ‘Balcony and Container Gardens’ at this year’s show will demonstrate the different ways small outdoor spaces can be transformed into functional and interesting gardens.

Balconies have been a lifeline for many NHS staff over the pandemic. A prominent theme of the category is how to turn a balcony into a calming space to escape and relax in using an abundance of plants and vegetation that will create a sense of being immersed in nature. Lush evergreens interspersed with rainbow colours and exotic touches feature along with herbs, chillies, fruit trees and other edibles. Drought-tolerant, pollinator-friendly planting and seasonal favourites like berries, seed-heads and dahlias will also be on display.

The ‘Green Sky Pocket Garden’ by James Smith is an oasis away from busy city life, while Martha Krempel’s ‘Arcadia’ garden uses subtropical planting and an idyllic painted backdrop. In contrast Michael Coley’s ‘Sky Sanctuary’ uses a colour scheme of soft pastels and greens. Coley also uses recycled plastic as the garden’s main material element. Yellows and purples dominate the colour scheme of ‘The Landform Balcony Garden’ designed by Nicole Hale as the two colours most attractive to bees, while ‘The Balcony of Blooms’ designed by Alexandra Noble features blooms for pollinators and culinary herbs to show how small spaces can be productive, practical and enchanting which supporting biodiversity.

In a year where international travel is restricted, gardens taking inspiration from foreign landscapes will transport visitors to far away destinations. First time designers Tawatchai Sakdikul and Ploytabtim Suksang will transport visitor to ‘The Calm of Bangkok Gardens’ to Thailand. The two sides (bustling and tranquil) of Bangkok are combined in this beautiful, minimal garden with tropical planting, shelter and hammock.

Other garden designers taking inspiration from foreign landscapes include first time designer Taina Suonio’s ‘Finnish Soul Garden’, whose design celebrates the Nordic tradition of seaside life, with Baltic vegetation, a sauna and a cool-off area. Jonathan Snow’s Himalayan inspired garden for Trailfinders transports onlookers to the Far East. Key features include a shelter next to a stream, criss-crossing paths and some late flowering Hydrangeas, ginger lilies, trees, shrubs and ferns.

Back on home soil ‘The Yeo Valley Organic Garden’ by Tom Massey supported by Sarah Mead brings the Yeo Valley Farm in Somerset to Chelsea, inspiring visitors to adopt organic gardening practices and put nature first. Their range of flowering plants reflects the understated charm of autumn, including dahlias, Echinacea and rudbeckia, which flourish in Somerset during the autumn.

September is generally a mixed month when it comes to weather, part-summer, part- autumn – but unless there is a hurricane, get planting and enjoy the palette of late summer flowers and plants at the Chelsea Flower Show 2021 – with late flowering dahlias, echinaceas and deciduous trees chosen for their autumn hues. In the Great Pavilion there should be some impressively large pumpkins.

The Royal Chelsea Flower Show runs from September 21 – 26th. Tickets still available at rhs.org.uk

Rebecca Wallersteiner
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