The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is one of the biggest events on the spring calendar, with the world-famous garden show representing the pinnacle of horticultural excellence. But lots has changed in this post-pandemic world in terms of how we value our outdoor spaces and care for them. More people have discovered the benefits and joys of gardening in spaces large and small, be it community gardens, windowsills or suburban backyards. So, has the greatest gardening show on earth risen to the challenge of changing the way we see our gardens and support and protect our environment?
Here are some of the ways in which RHS Chelsea 2022 demonstrated its eco-friendly credentials with some smart ideas that show how to garden more sustainably and give materials a new lease of life.
There are lots of changes we can make to our gardening habits and peat-free compost is really the only sustainable option for gardeners. To demonstrate the importance of protecting peat bogs, the Eden Project teamed up with wool-and-bracken compost makers, Dalefoot, to create a display that showcases the beauty of these stunning and unique ecosystems that support wildlife and capture carbon. An amazing slice of beautiful peatbog was recreated in the Great Pavilion. While the flower show is not 100 per cent peat-free, there are more and more peat-free options for gardeners to choose from.
Look out for Dobbies’ new peat-free compost mix which won the Chelsea Flower Show award for Sustainable Product of the Year. Hopefully peat-free will be the norm and not the exception at future shows.
In terms of our environmental footprint, the landscaping in our gardens is as important as the plants we choose. There were no manicured lawns at Chelsea and no fake grass either – showing how we might embrace a very different look for the traditional patch of garden grass. The alternatives on offer are wildflower meadow mats from Lindum, and now-mow meadow-style lawns.
Pathways were much softer in style with many designers using recycled gravel options, including upcycled concrete in the Hands Off Mangrove garden and crushed self-binding gravel for a softer, permeable and more natural look featured in many of the displays.
Brewin Dolphin Garden designer Paul Hervey-Brookes used recycled or reclaimed materials for all the hard landscaping. While paving featured heavily in the bright urban design by Cityscapes designers Darryl Moore and Adolfo Harrison for St Mungo’s Putting Down Roots Garden, it was made from a mix of brightly coloured recycled glass slabs and reclaimed pavers from Arit Anderson’s garden at the last Chelsea Flower Show.
In the All about Plants Core Arts Garden, the front garden had a permeable surface that allowed water to filter naturally and avoid the problems of flash flooding. And the water collection system allowed for the overflow caused by heavy rainfall to filter into a planter packed with moisture-loving plants.
Of course, we all want somewhere to sit, stop, admire and maybe work in our gardens, and the outdoor buildings, structures and furniture are important features in many of the Show Gardens. Natural building materials were very popular at Chelsea, from the repurposed wooden pergola in the Circle of Life Sanctuary Garden, with a reclaimed telegraph pole at its centre, to the beautifully crafted pavilion in the Meta Garden: Growing the Future, built from sustainably grown wood.
In the Place2Be Securing Tomorrow Garden, designed by Jamie Butterworth, large stone boulder seats are simple but perfect perching spots for children to encourage them to talk and play and relax outside.
There were some new eco-friendly materials being showcased on Main Avenue, in Sarah Eberle’s gold medal-winning garden, MEDITE SMARTPLY Building the Future. While the design might not be a garden to try and recreate at home, it’s fascinating to see how she has used MEDITE SMARTPLY in so many different ways. It’s a durable and sustainably produced, carbon neutral wood-based panel – use to edge the borders, build a waterfall and even to create industrial-style sculptural elements.
In the Kingston Maurwood Space Within Garden, designer Michelle Brown used scrapped western red cedar timber with a mix of natural branches and prunings to create her boundary. Woven willow features in many low-growing borders around the showground by VaRa Garden Design. The idea of upcycled fencing was taken to the limit in the Gardena display by designer Lynne Lambourne, who used wooden offcuts from the showground to build a patchwork wooden fence. Elsewhere, natural boundary solutions could be found in the form of traditional hazel prunings, cut, bound and woven together.
There were lots of ideas for repurposed containers, from painted steel drums, overflowing with colourful alstroemeria in the Great Pavilion, to Scottish whiskey casks in The Still Garden, to reused vintage, rusting cans and even an old chair, ‘reupholstered’ with a succulent sedum seat. Eco-garden designer and warrior on waste, Lynne, really made the most of the upcycling potential of waste and scrap materials.
In the Potting Balcony Garden, designer William Murray made super stylish window boxes out of a composite material made from recycled plastic yoghurt and plant pots, and he used this same material as a surface for his space-saving potting bench.
If you wanted to take a piece of eco-friendly Chelsea home with you, try AquaBloom, a solar powered irrigation set from the Gardena range, which made the Sustainable Garden Product of the year shortlist. It has the capacity to water up to 20 plants, so it’s great for container gardeners in smaller spaces. There’s also a great new EcoLine range of hand tools and watering products from Gardena that is made from over 65 per cent of recycled materials – so if you wonder where your household waste ends up, it could be in your new trowel.
You could also try Ocean Plastic Pots that are made from recycled sea waste and come in a range of bright colours. They are a brilliant and tough alternative to traditional black and orange plastic pots and are great for outdoor and indoor use.
And, when you step indoors from your eco-friendly, upcycled Chelsea-inspired garden, you can wipe your boots clean on an Ocean Mat, woven from thread recycled from fishing industry waste and landfill.
From containers and balconies to sumptuous and dramatic gardens, wildlife-friendly planting was the dominant theme and the showground was simply buzzing with bees and brimming with birdlife. In just a few weeks through build-up to opening the gates, the biodiversity thermometer in SW3 rose dramatically, demonstrating how much we can do in our gardens to encourage wildlife simply through introducing pollinator-friendly plants.
In the Brewin Dolphin Garden, the plants had another eco-friendly dimension as they were chosen to suit the poor soils that are often found in new-build brownfield urban plots. They will not only thrive in poor and polluted soil but help to improve it for future planting and absorb CO2, which really demonstrates the power of plants.
Around the show, there were amazing installations from top floral artists including WORM London, Simon Lycett, and Hazel Gardiner, that are floral foam-free, using felt planting pockets and alternative methods of support, like Niwaki’s traditional Japanese reusable Kenzan as alternatives.
Perhaps the ultimate piece of recycling at Chelsea is Project Giving Back, where 12 Show Gardens are either going to be deconstructed, with plants and features donated or auctioned off for fundraising, or rebuilt in new and permanent homes around the country. So, if you’ve been inspired by Chelsea Flower Show but didn’t get to go this year, you might be able to visit some of the gardens that get a new life beyond the Royal Hospital showground.
For example, the Wilderness Foundation UK Garden designed by Charlie Hawkes will be relocated to the Henry Maynard School in Walthamstow to inspire the next generation of Chelsea designers, while Juliet Sargeant’s New Blue Peter Soil Garden will move to the new garden at RHS Bridgewater to become the Blue Peter TV garden, so we’ll be seeing it on our screens a lot more. Elsewhere, the Hands Off Mangrove garden by Grow to Know’s Tayshun Hayden-Smith and Danny Clarke will be rebuilt as a community garden in North Kensington, London. Read ‘What happens to the Chelsea Flower Show gardens once the show is over?’ to see how all the Chelsea gardens will continue to live on.
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