Here are the best ideas for your garden from this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show (known as RHS Chelsea 2023).
Not all show garden ideas translate into real garden design, but I think these are the ones to watch out for.
Colour on walls and fences
If you have a small or middle-sized garden, your fence or wall is a big proportion of what you see when you step outside. It’s a major design element in the garden, but I think we often forget about it.
Colour transforms a small space. And because gardens have so much green, they can take much stronger colours than you would use inside.
We’re just beginning to think about painting fences dark. (See top designer Charlotte Rowe’s garden in 5 top design tips and gardener Jo Rutherford’s low budget garden transformation.)
But it’s time to take it forward a step and paint your fence blue, green, orange or pink! I didn’t see a single brown-wood fence at RHS Chelsea 2023.
It’s such an easy way to transform your garden. And if you don’t like the colour, paint it over. You don’t need to be an expert with a paintbrush for outdoor painting. Rough and ready brush strokes should be fine.
Practical tip: Paint tester panels and make sure you judge them outside. Colours that look quite strong inside can look much paler outside because there is more light.
Permeable patchwork paths
Almost all the paths at RHS Chelsea 2023 were more like stepping stones, with gravel or planting in between each paver.
This is a good way of saving money on a path because you need to buy fewer pavers. It’s almost the return of crazy paving, but not quite, because crazy paving was wedged into place with concrete.
This look is about giving sudden flash floods somewhere to drain off. And anything you can do to green up your garden is wonderful for insect life. I’m experimenting with allowing daisies, alchemilla mollis and creeping thyme to grow between the pavers on my terrace, in order to cut down on weeding between them. I think it’s working.
The kitchen garden takes centre stage
Edibles and ornamentals have traditionally been grown in separate spaces in the garden.
But as our gardens get smaller, we don’t have separate spaces. So it’s time to appreciate the beauty of the veggie patch. And our greenhouses, too, are no longer purely practical areas, but are spaces for living.
The Savills Garden by Mark Gregory was a ‘garden kitchen’. It featured an outdoor kitchen in a vegetable garden. And the vegetable garden had flowers mixed in. Chefs were actually cooking in the kitchen and harvesting the veg in the show garden.
Even if you can’t run to an outdoor kitchen (still a bit of a risk in the UK climate), put a table or bench in the veg patch.
Or grow your edibles nearer the house and add flowers to the veg borders.
In some allotments in the UK, there are rules against growing too many flowers. That’s because allotments were devised as a way to help people grow food. But flowers attract pollinators to your veg. And many ‘ornamental’ flowers are also edible!
There were several RHS Chelsea 2023 show gardens doing variations of this, particularly the greenhouse companies. Alitex grew all its own veg for the display at their headquarters. And, as I said, it’s been a difficult spring, so they admitted they found it quite challenging.
At Hartley Botanic, greenhouses are places to grow seeds and plants – but they’re also living spaces. If you’re lucky enough to have a greenhouse, set up a chair, sofa or table and spend some time there reading and relaxing, as well as planting.
Use tree stumps, logs and clippings as ornament
If you’re having a tree cut down, it costs either time or money to have it chipped up and/or taken away.
Keep it in the garden and use it as a bench. Or stack up the wood as an ornament to create a bug hotel, as in the Royal Entomological Society Garden.
Wood slowly breaks down, offering a habitat to beneficial bugs. And it looks good.
Could you have a ‘ruin’ in your garden?
There’s something very appealing about the texture of an old wall or a partially demolished house. I first saw this in a garden context in Mark Walker’s garden in Margate, where he left exposed walls, patches of paint and the remains of a mural, instead of clearing them away or painting over them.
And when I went to Great Comp Gardens to find out more about salvias, one of the most charming elements in the garden was the ‘ruins’ that had been created around the garden.
At the RHS Chelsea 2023, Cleve West’s Centrepoint garden was based around the ruins of a house. It was beautiful.
Willow is having a ‘moment’…
Willow is a natural, renewable resource, so it’s appearing back in gardens.
You can use willow for raised bed edging, as in Pollyanna Wilkinson’s ‘Horticultural Heroines’ raised willow beds.
Or use it in teepees or to make arches.
Practical tip: willow isn’t as long-lasting as timber or steel, so it won’t last as long. But it will last a few years, break down naturally and you may not necessarily need it to last!
‘Style your weeds’ to make it clear they’re deliberate…
RHS Chelsea 2023 has triggered something of a debate on whether we should be leaving weeds to work their magic on wildlife. Not everyone likes this look.
And there’s also an issue on which weeds to leave and how long you’ll let them grow. Nobody is suggesting that we simply abandon our outdoor spaces, so there will always be a cultivated element.
But while pundits and experts debate on where to draw the line, you can draw your own line. Outside the RHS membership tent, I saw a patch of weeds and wildflowers in a marked off space with normally-mown lawn on either side. It looked good, because it looked deliberate.
The area was also styled as a ‘wildlife-friendly’ area, with a mini pond and a bug hotel. I think this would work in a corner of any garden. Define its boundaries and add elements.
We have been turning our front lawn area into a mini meadow. Sometimes it just looks neglected, so I’m thinking of adding something like a bug hotel to give it definition.
Pin to remember RHS Chelsea 2023 ideas that will work in your garden
And do join us. See here for a free weekly email with more gardening tips, ideas and inspiration.