Flower shows are among the best places to pick up fresh ideas for our gardens. It's here that designers set new trends and growers introduce the latest plants. Show gardens often reflect the economic, political and environmental concerns of the moment, so it's no surprise that the designs at year's Hampton Court Flower Festival focussed keenly on re-using, recycling, attracting wildlife and gardening sustainably and affordably. Here are five easy-to-replicate ideas I picked up, along with tips for getting the most from a visit to the festival.
1. Using gabions instead of brick walls
Rock-filled gabion baskets are not new, but to many of us, they’re a feature of major engineering projects, not gardens. The ‘Nurturing Nature in the City’ garden shows us how effective gabions can be used as a screen, providing shelter for insects and, as plants start to colonise, a vibrant wall of flowers and foliage. The Cornish have been making hedges from rock for centuries, and gabions feel like a natural evolution of that tradition.
2. Planting through gravel
There are many good reasons to use gravel as a surface for walkways and planted areas - it’s porous, easy to lay, relatively cheap to buy and creates a firm surface to walk or kneel on. Lighter gravels reflect light into the garden and help emphasise the form of plants, whether low and spreading or spiky and architectural. Gravel acts as a mulch, suppressing weed growth, with no need for ugly plastic membranes beneath. Gravel will also improve drainage as it’s drawn down into the soil.
3. Using vegetables as ornamentals
Vegetables are simply plants we’ve chosen to eat: just because they’re edible does not make them functional. Take another look at ruby chard, red shiso, cavolo nero, or the stately artichoke and tell me they’re not beautiful, ornamental plants. Mixing vegetables with flowers and herbs in a small garden is a brilliant way to create an attractive yet productive space. It creates biodiversity and reduces the likelihood of pests and diseases wiping out an entire crop.
4. Making a vertical log sculpture
We’ve all heard about leaving log stacks at the end of the garden to provide shelter for wildlife. Well, how about upending a few to create a sculptural feature? Drilling holes in the wood of between 0.5 cm and 1 cm in diameter will create homes for flying insects like solitary bees and ladybirds. Birds will use the upper ends as perches, and climbing plants will use the structure for support. Pack brushwood around the base to attract ground-dwelling creatures such as frogs and beetles.
5. Going green
Although Hampton Court is billed as a Flower Festival, many of the show gardens were predominantly green this year. Green is soothing, and foliage can be relied on for colour, texture and form for much longer than flowers. Planted areas keep the air cool at ground level, and trees provide delicious shade - they also block noise and remove pollutants from the atmosphere. Furnish your garden with foliage, and your garden will never be dull.
Making the most of your visit to the Hampton Court Flower Festival
Billed as the biggest flower show in the world, a visit to the Hampton Court Flower Festival is completely unlike the Chelsea Flower Show. Here are my top tips for getting the most out of your day:
- Check the weather forecast before you go. The exhibits are mostly outdoors: it can be hot and dusty in sunny weather, so hats and sunscreen are a must. In wet weather, there are limited places to shelter, so take a small brolly. Find cover in the Country Living tent or Floral Marquee if you’re caught out.
- Wear comfy shoes as you’ll be doing a lot of steps. The surfaces are mainly grass with some slatted metal walkways.
- Plan a route around the festival before you start - there’s no official circuit, so it’s easy to miss things.
- Many gardens no longer give out printed plant lists to save paper. Be ready to scan QR codes if you crave additional information.
- Make no mistake; this is a shopping event as much as a flower show. If you plan to indulge, take bags and trolleys to put your purchases in.
- Take advantage of knowledgeable RHS experts and specialist growers. There’s no better place to find the answers if you have burning gardening questions.
- There are many places to buy refreshments, from fish and chips to Fortnum & Mason, but they’re relatively expensive. To save money, take a picnic and use the free bottle-filling stations - unfortunately, they only dispense water, but staying hydrated is vital.
- Make a day of it. Hampton Court Flower Festival is a social occasion where plants and pleasure mix perfectly. Take your time, and you’ll have a fantastic day.