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Chelsea Flower Show 2011 preview

With 17 show gardens and a warm spring forcing last-minute changes, the 2011 Chelsea Flower Show is set to be a memorable one. See our guide to the best Chelsea Flower Show gardens, the wildest, and everything inbetween.

This year the competition for Best Show Garden is hotter than ever

When it comes to the main show gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show, this is one of the most wide-open competitions in years. Vying for the coveted Best Show Garden award is a cluster of designers who have never won outright but whose time might have come: Luciano Giubbilei, Robert Myers, Tom Hoblyn and the Telegraph’s own Cleve West.

There can only be one winner, of course, and there are no sure things at Chelsea, especially in a year when all the designers have been forced to revise their planting plans in the light of the unseasonably warm spring. The competition, like the weather, has also hotted up: this year there are 17 contenders, four more than the “recession Chelsea” of the past few years.

Meanwhile, public interest is at an all-time high, with the RHS reporting that the show sold out 18 days before the event, faster than ever before.

Laurent-Perrier Garden — Nature & Human Intervention

Luciano Giubbilei

Giubbilei’s garden promises to be the most elegant and sophisticated at Chelsea this year, with a trio of sculptures by Peter Randall-Page and a delicate bamboo structure beneath multi-stemmed Parrotia trees. But it is the planting the judges will observe most closely (as ever).

The question is, will they be as impressed by Giubbilei’s romantic plant palette of dusky pinks and browns as they are with the spatial aspects of his garden? Whatever happens, the well-regarded Giubbilei has got to be the hot favourite this year.

The Daily Telegraph Garden

Cleve West

We can expect a typically idiosyncratic approach from Cleve West. He always ploughs his own furrow, creating a tone and atmosphere with his planting which is quite different from that of his neighbours.

The garden promises to be an intriguing mix of old and new, with modernistic sculpted “classical” columns, drystone walling and clipped yew hedges, offset by interesting horticultural combinations. These West creates in the same way as a chef might experiment with unusual ingredients.

This is a designer who does not like to create a planting plan; instead, he envisages an exciting tone or feel and then does what comes instinctively on site with the plant palette he has chosen. Perhaps it makes him the Heston Blumenthal of gardening.

The Cancer Research UK Garden

Robert Myers

Here is a designer who is not afraid to take risks, something he cheerfully acknowledges can lead to triumph or – well, if not quite disaster, perhaps not quite a triumph. This year Myers has taken the seaside as his theme, envisaging a stylised, formal version of a flat coastal landscape, rising to an exotic canopy and sitting area with palm trees and tamarisks.

This garden could exhibit strong appeal because of the designer’s novel treatment of a familiar genre but he has to be extremely careful with his (seasonally revised) plant choice, as the judges will come down hard on anything deemed unsuitable for salt and wind.

The Homebase Cornish Memories Garden

Tom Hoblyn

Not the best-known Chelsea regular, Tom Hoblyn has quietly been building a solid reputation over the past few years. His idea for a Cornish garden is clever because it ticks the “wild garden” box, which is very “now”, while also zipping it up horticulturally with the use of rhododendrons. These plants are also a canny counter-intuitive choice by Hoblyn: they remain deeply unfashionable, but several Chelsea judges adore their blowsy charms and will be thrilled to see them getting an outing at Chelsea. Perhaps they will choose to reward Hoblyn accordingly – a gold medal for “services to rhododendrons”, perhaps?

The Wild Ones

New Wild Garden for the Royal Bank of Canada

Nigel Dunnett

Leading the wild garden charge is Nigel Dunnett, of the Sheffield school of extreme-naturalistic designers. His New Wild Garden features a variety of different habitats and “plant communities”, to use the buzz phrase. There is a dry meadow, wet meadow and also a shady woodland section, all clustered around a shipping container converted into a green-roofed pavilion.

Candelabra primulas in the meadow are a charming idea, and Dunnett promises more bright colour from annual flowers. But has he tried to pack too much in?

SKYshades Wild Office

Marney Hall

The most experienced Chelsea designer in the main show garden arena, Marney Hall has been designing wild-flower meadows since the time they were considered as kooky as vegetarianism in some quarters.

This year she has been hired to create an ambitious meadow scene to complement one of those futuristic office-shacks that frequently adorn the gardens at Chelsea. This particular “studio” looks as if it will be a bit of a brute, so Hall might struggle to make an impression with her subtle palette of native plants and flowers.

On the other hand, if anyone can create a convincing meadow in the middle of London, it is Hall.

The Times Eureka Garden in association with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Marcus Barnett

Sponsors new to Chelsea have a habit of being rather over-prescriptive when it comes to the symbolism in their show gardens, and it appears the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, may have fallen into this trap.

Designer Marcus Barnett has been asked to produce a naturalistic garden which is designed to “showcase the significance of plants in science and society” – a remit that will be regarded as a potential kiss of death in the design fraternity.

Barnett has dutifully included the familiar range of medicinal and “scientific” plants in his design, also incorporating a water system based on the idea of the capillaries in leaves. If he can make something brilliant out of this, he deserves to win outright.

The HESCO Garden

Leeds City Council

Most Chelsea regulars have a soft spot for Leeds, since it comes back year after year with its quasi-municipal approach, generally winning one of the lower-order medals. But that patronising attitude was checked last year when the council’s staff won a deserved gold for an impressive wilderness concoction featuring a pair of full-sized lock gates.

Can the Leeds team pull off the same trick to greater effect this year, when the post-industrial edifice of choice is a mill with working waterwheel?

A Beautiful Paradise (Making Memories With a Green Poem)

Ishihara Kazuyuki

Coming back for a second year, Ishihara Kazuyuki has eschewed traditional Japanese design in favour of a wild water-garden fantasy filled with the soft green foliage of acers and dogwoods. Waterfalls tumble around an amorphous central shelter with a roof of sedums. The designer is something of a wild card, but now he understands the unique Chelsea set-up and the expectations of judges, a Best in Show award is not out of the question.

High-end Fantasy

M&G Investments

Bunny Guinness

If Cleve West is the Heston Blumenthal of the garden world, on this year’s showing Bunny Guinness is its Delia Smith: reliable, competent, traditional – and a bit predictable?

Despite the rather Rosemary Verey, Eighties overtones, the idea of an elegant formal potager nevertheless has wide appeal: everyone loves to see healthy, good-looking vegetables given a starring role. The lack of daring may precludes a Best in Show award, but will do no harm to the garden’s gold-medal chances. M&G Investments is the main Chelsea show sponsor, so expectations will be high.

The Monaco Garden

Sarah Eberle

An exercise in chic modernism made for the Principality of Monaco, this garden also has a certain “blast from the past” savour – though here “the past” refers only to the past few years, when this kind of thing was common among Chelsea winners.

The fact this is the only garden in the “chic modern” mode this year shows how fast fashions can change (Luciano Giubbilei, usually seen as a purveyor of chic modernism, avoids this look by making serious sculpture and architecture the focus of his design). The garden also features a green wall – a little bit “last year”, which makes it an unlikely contender for Best in Show.

Out-there Conceptual

The Irish Sky Garden sponsored by Fáilte Ireland and Cork City Council

Diarmuid Gavin

Ah, Diarmuid, what would Chelsea be without you? This year’s offering features a “floating” pod attached to a crane, from which the ground-level section can be surveyed. When I spoke to him, Diarmuid was unsure if anyone would actually be able to have a go in the pod, for health and safety reasons (probably well-founded, for once).

British Heart Foundation

Ann-Marie Powell

There is no euphemistic symbolism or coyly hidden narrative in Ann-Marie Powell’s admirably upfront design for the British Heart Foundation, which takes as its theme blood, and the power of the heart. Light-up, blood-red resin “stepping stones” form a circle beneath red steel arches, surrounded by an overwhelmingly green planting. It is unlikely to take Best in Show, but its integrity and simplicity augur well for a respectable medal.

And the rest

Three gardens fall into the “exotic botanical” category: James Wong and David Cubero’s fantasy for Tourism Malaysia; the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne’s scaled-down version of its red-earthed Australian Garden; and Fleming’s Nurseries’ garden for Trailfinders, a celebration of Sir Joseph Banks’s botanical discoveries.

Finally, the B&Q Garden, designed by Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins, can best be described as corporate, since it showcases the superstore’s more “sustainable” products.

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