RHS Chelsea Flower Show burst into bloom, and our television screens, at the end of May, perfectly timed for superlative displays of plants and gardens. Far from a horticultural expert, I went, with my Mum for a great day out, free to wander and see what caught our eye. There were exemplary specimens and designs on display, fit to make the gardening enthusiast swoon, marvel, and for some, the occasional wry smile sparked by Diarmuid Gavin’s kinetic sculptures for Harrods’ British Eccentrics Garden; there were also powerful stories about the importance plants, gardens and healthy soils play in our lives.
This year’s aesthetic excellence was matched with celebration of the gardens and plants’ function, spearheaded by the RHS’s Greening Grey Britain campaign. With about 1550 Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation, covering over 30,000 hectares, or 19% of London’s total land area, you might assume that wildlife has space to thrive, but increasingly intense urban development is crowding out wildlife and natural processes. London Wildlife Trust’s London’s Living Landscapes initiative is working to create a network of natural green spaces, wild and managed, creating ecological networks that link core areas of wildlife habitat via corridors such as embankments, allotments, and gardens.
As the RHS’s 2015 report noted more of us are paving over our gardens, turning our cities grey. Nearly one in four UK front gardens are completely paved over, and London faring worst of all with half of all front gardens paved over, a 36% increase over the last decade. Paving might be an effective quick fix to a parking problem, but it comes with a big environmental footprint. Our gardens are vital habitats for wildlife and green infrastructure can maintain effective natural processes that help provide clean air and water, healthy soils, food production and flood management. Gardens soak up rain, helping to slow run off and reduce stormwater surges into drains. Trees, plants and climbers help summer cooling savings of around 30%, and plants absorb pollutants so we can breath easy.
Designer Tom Hoblyn used mango and palm trees (right), effective green infrastructure, to provide shade and encourage rainfall enhancing the micro-climate in Lifeworks Global’s kitchen garden. Unsustainable farming practices have degraded and polluted the soil in parts of Tamil Nadu, south India. Working with local charity, SCAD (Social Change and Development), Lifeworks provide traditional crop seeds, subsidised water filters and teach families organic farming techniques kickstarting a virtuous circle that heals the soil, and fosters community regeneration.
This year’s RHS Greening Grey Britain for Health, Happiness and Horticulture, designed by Ann-Marie Powell, looks to build resilient communities closer to home. The garden (pictured left), with bright bursts of colour, effused positivity even on a cloudy day. The on-message bee-friendly meadow helps boost the environmental impact, but the garden also addresses broader themes of resilience bringing communities together to grow food with edible potted plants and a small kitchen garden. This model community garden is now being relocated to Angell Town, Brixton.
Gardening gets us moving outdoors, and researchers at Coventry University are using the latest motion capture technology to catalogue the benefits. Their research reveals that gardening can improve bone mineral density, muscle strength, joint mobility and co-ordination.
Several show gardens focused on mental health benefits. The Vestra Wealth’s Garden of Mindful Living and the Morgan Stanley Garden for Great Ormond Street Hospital both took inspiration from the East to create calm sanctuaries for quiet reflection. Jekka McVicar’s garden for St John’s Hospice – A Modern Apothecary, inspired by Hippocrates words, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food”, and conversations with medical professionals. The garden includes plants with known health benefits. Red-leaved herbs, Atriplex, Beta, Brassica and Lactuca, are high in anthocyanidins, strongly linked to oxidative stress protection and cardio-vascular health. Herbs include rosemary effective for age related memory and mental function; hops for relaxation; and lemon balm for upset stomachs. You can even forage in your garden for chicory or salads.
The AkzoNobel Honeysuckle Blue Garden, designed by Claudy Jongstra, part of the Farm of the World initiative, celebrates traditional use of plants to dye fabrics. Knowledge and appreciation of natural dyes are disappearing, this garden showed off the plants and the subtlety and beauty of their produce to great effect.
RHS Chelsea provided plenty of inspiration for even the smallest balcony, and a reminder that if we crowd out nature and green space, we undermine our own prosperity and well-being. On that note, I am off to the garden centre to buy some pollinator friendly plants to create a wild fence to absorb the Euro 2016 chants bouncing down the street!
Image credits: St John’s Hospice, Claudy Jongstra