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Lessons on Trend from the 2023 Chelsea Flower & Other Shows

This is late to the party, but I am no less curious to examine what designers brought to the Chelsea Flower Show’s proverbial table.  For those unfamiliar with the show, try not to dismiss it as a simple flower display.  To be sure, there are numerous floral displays within the pavilions, which often introduce viewers to new species along with fanciful and thematic exhibits.   These displays, however, are not what drew me to the previous year’s show and why I hope to go again.

The Chelsea Flower Show is a premier UK destination for all horticulture subjects, and in 2022 I went to view the temporary garden installations designed by well-known landscape architects and garden designers.  There are similar shows in the United States, but nothing to my knowledge compares, and here is the main reason: the garden exhibits are installed months in advance and allowed to grow in place.  They are further enhanced by additional color or rare plants installed right before the show.  By contrast, years ago in the heyday of the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show; gardens would be installed just days before the show, often with plants remaining in their pots. Primarily, the SF show was held indoors.  When I attended and was honored to judge one year, the show was at Fort Mason, and subsequent shows were held at the dark, dreary and aptly named SF Cow Palace, but I digress.  The Chelsea show takes full advantage of a long plant establishment period in the great outdoors.  Is there any comparison in the U.S.?

There are many takeaways from the annual show that we in the U.S. should and do take seriously, both as designers and clients, primarily at the residential scale. And there are merits for commercial and institutional considerations. In an article, The Garden, the Royal Horticultural Society’s publication (RHS), offers us a glimpse into the “10 Lessons from This Year’s RHS Flower Shows” (September 2023).  They are worthy of looking at for parallels to trends in the U.S.

Rethink Weeds. “There’s no denying that this was the weediest Chelsea on record, with several show gardens featuring dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), common knapweed (Centaurea nigra) brambles and nettles” (p. 33).  Are some of these familiar to you, weeds that become our nemesis?  Editor Dan Masoliver, who compiled this show list, reports that designers recognize the challenges of introducing traditional weeds into our garden designs; however, a balance can also be sought to offer their benefits.  This discussion reflects current trends in small-scale “rewilding” to provide our gardens as places for wildlife, from small mammals to birds, reptiles, and insects.  Yet there is another missed conversation: why are we relying on weeds when we can provide greater benefits with native plant species?  This is where Americans need to be smart about what we consider a weed, and for Californians, we need to know if such species are listed on the California Invasive Plant Council list.  This first lesson is indeed a trend worth exploring here in California since a quick search on rewilding in the state reflects efforts to restore wildlife habitat on a regional scale.  Our efforts can undoubtedly expand into how we design spaces for people, too.

Waste Not, Want Not. The article highlights a garden design by Sarah Price.  In it, Price developed and explored a dry garden that reused “crushed and graded demolition debris as mulch” (p. 34).  The article emphasizes construction waste produced in the UK (a lot), which reminds me of construction waste here in California.  More personally, we are working on a construction project at our home, where the city requires our contractor to sort demolition waste, particularly soil, and concrete, via the Green Halo Systems, which is tracked and recycled where feasible.  More passively, I have designed gardens where we broke up existing concrete patios and reused them within the design for retaining walls, rustic pathways, or even as fill.  When it comes to landscaping projects, California takes this and similar initiatives seriously, which are well supported by Rescape and their eight principles, one of which addresses waste.

The Future of Horticulture is in Good Hands.  I want to think that the engagement of our youth in gardening, horticulture, construction, and design is at the forefront of my thoughts when pondering the future of our landscapes. Still, these efforts continue to be overshadowed by an emphasis on STEM.  The consequence is that careers in the industry, including landscape architecture, continue to be elusive and “fallen into” when people discover it independently.  RHS leads several initiatives that reflect the U.K.’s reputation in horticulture and gardening leadership, including a School Garden Challenge and an annual Young Designer competition.  We could learn from this effort by engaging more with local schools.

Don’t Make Light of Nocturnal Insects. When we speak of pollinator gardens, what comes to mind?  Hummingbirds, honeybees (and California’s native bees), and butterflies, but we should also consider our nocturnal pollinators, such as bats and moths. Designer Sharon Hockenhull created a Nocturnal Pollinator Experience at another flower show at Tatton Park.  There are two lessons: 1) integrate night-blooming flowers for nocturnal pollinators, and 2) minimize outdoor lighting that can potentially disorient night-flying insects.  Thankfully for us in the San Francisco Bay Area, our own West Valley College Biology Department recently installed a Moon Garden on campus, demonstrating native and Mediterranean plant species and a dark sky design for nocturnal pollinators.

Engage All Your Senses. This is a recurring theme, so I am not convinced it is a new trend.  As landscape designers, we are taught to design with plants by considering their color, form, and texture.  What appears to be forgotten and consequently needs reminding of is to value our other senses: touch, taste, sound, and scent.  Our world isn’t limited to what we see, as those who experience blindness already know.  We really need to “stop and smell the roses,” regardless of whether the project is private, commercial, or public.

Savour the Plot-To-Plate Experience.  We may know this as “farm to table,” a trend with high-end restaurants that own farmland or might have a tight relationship with several farmers.  I immediately think of the Bay Area’s highly respected restaurateur, Alice Water, but also our beloved and published edible garden designer and landscape architect, Rosalind Creasy.  Her books, including the Complete Book of Edible Landscaping and a ten-volume series, focused on themes such as The Edible Mexican Garden, The Edible Asian Garden, and The Edible Heirloom Garden, deserve greater recognition.  Through her landscape designs, Creasy argued that we did not have to relegate kitchen gardens to the far corners of our designs but instead integrate edible plants for their uses and aesthetic values.  Methodologically, the counterargument will question its labor intensity, but there is the reward of enjoying food right from the garden, thus, see lesson five above.

Make Room for Shrooms.  This lesson comes at a time when some mysterious fungi are growing in my garden, and I do not know if they are friends or foes.  For RHS, the description is an account of a display not unlike the floral exhibits of the show yet integrated into the Centre for Mental Health’s The Balance Garden.  I do not know how mushrooms are a part of the design concept.  Their mention appears to be more relevant to the Plot-to-Plate experience.

Future-Proof Your Garden.  This statement may already sound familiar to Californians: “Hot, dry summers, wet winters, and unseasonable and unpredictable weather patterns are becoming more common and don’t lend themselves to an obvious planting palette.  Designers at every show this year attempted to respond to this horticultural conundrum, using lots of plants that display resilience” (p. 39).  We must remember that the U.K. has historically been a very different (and seasonally wet) climate from California.  Their recent bouts with droughts and heatwaves lead to new thinking about sustainability.  Californians are already familiar with these challenges, yet too often, retail nurseries are pushing water-loving plants like lawns, azaleas, and pansies.  Like the U.K., we have a long way to go to transform residential gardens and commercial landscapes.

British Blooms Make the Cut. 

We can learn from this:  “A scandalous 90 percent of cut flowers currently sold in the U.K. are imported, often having traveled thousands of miles in refrigerated containers, and racking up an exorbitant carbon footprint in the process” (p. 40).  While California is blessed with a moderate climate, wealth, and extensive greenhouses for more unusually cut flowers, we rely on imports for cut flowers…to what extent I do not know.  I imagine the data would be eye-opening.

Become an Ecosystem Engineer.  Masoliver summarizes designers’ initiatives by rewilding, being sensitive to nature, and incorporating native species; the U.K. can redefine lost ecosystems.  I immediately envision wartime posters with patriotic citizens taking up arms, or in this case, shovels and trowels, to make an impact on the war against climate change, overdevelopment, and well, lackluster and sterile landscape designs.  This call to arms, or shovels and ecological knowledge, is in the U.S., with efforts under the monikers of LEED certification, the Sustainable Sites Initiative, and green infrastructure.  These terms and the efforts behind them should not be dismissed but instead integrated into how we do landscapes, be it the gardener, contractor, designer, or project owner.  Are we there?  Not at all, but the groundwork is being laid for the ecologically-minded troops.

If becoming an ecosystem engineer is too daunting, then consider these principles and practices as smaller steps toward better gardening, landscape designs, and healthy living for people and planet. Here in the U.S., many municipalities have initiated similar project requirements, such as the aforementioned Green Halo waste reduction and encouraging the use of native plant species. The biggest challenge to designers is selling these ideas to clients that might have best intentions buy may draw the line if installation and maintenance costs increase. Thankfully, through this article and quick online searches, we can easily find examples of designers who are at the forefront of ecologically supportive designs.

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