When the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2021 was postponed from its usual week in May to September (21st to 26th), due to Covid restrictions, the Garden designers had to grapple with how to adapt their designs to a completely different time of year.
It’s the first time in the Chelsea Flower Show’s 108-year history that it’s been postponed which, in turn, means it’s the first time ever that it will be held in autumn. The garden designers will swap late spring blooms, warm temperatures and lengthening daylight hours for early autumn flowers and colder growing conditions.
This momentous challenge has meant going back to the drawing board for many, and some in-depth thought about how their designs will need to change.
Country Living asked the designers exactly what they’ve had to consider to make sure their gardens maintain the ‘Chelsea factor’ at any time of year – and in some ways, the autumn show will play to their advantages…
1. New planting palette and more flowers
For most of the designers, turning May into September meant not having to change their core layout or design, but rethinking the plant palette they would use to cope with the seasonal shift. “In terms of the content of the garden, the theme and layout remain the same,” Tom Massey, designer of the Yeo Valley Organic Garden with Sarah Mead, for sponsor The Soil Association, told Country Living.
“The main challenge of the postponement came in adapting the planting scheme, as May-flowering plants will be over by autumn.” The later date has actually provided a greater range of plants he can grow for the show garden, particularly late-summer flowers like dahlias and rudbeckias.
2. Woodland woes
Springtime gardens get much of their colour and interest from plants that originate from woodland and the woodland edge, with fresh flowers and foliage shining beatifically in the dappled shade cast by the unfurling leaf canopy. As a result, the typical Chelsea show in May is often dominated by a woodland style or plant palette. But most of these plants would be plain green, uninteresting or dormant by the time September rolls in, so will have to be switched for alternatives.
Designer Jonathan Snow, who is creating a Himalayan-inspired garden for sponsor Trailfinders’ 50th anniversary, based his original idea on a glade of rhododendrons – the national flower of Nepal – which burst into glorious technicolour bloom in May. These gems won’t be offering much colour come September, however.
“I’m keeping some of the larger rhododendrons for leaf and structure,” Jonathan told Country Living, “but plan on using hydrangeas for colour instead. The primulas, blue meconopsis poppies, arisaemas, cardiocrinum lilies and aquilegias are out, and instead our fingers and toes are crossed for some late thalictrums, and persicaras, actaeas and ginger lilies.”
✅ Postponement positives:
- A greater range of plants, including late-summer flowers
- Prairie planting styles can thrive, including echinaceas and heleniums
- Grasses are at their best in September
- Seedheads can be used to fit the season
- Fruit trees will be bearing fruit
- More burnt oranges and gold
- New challenge for designers and first for the show
3. Pick of the prairie
Another designer who had his heart set on a spring woodland is Robert Myers, designer of The Florence Nightingale Garden – A Celebration of Modern Day Nursing, sponsored by The Burdett Trust for Nursing. Instead of switching to an autumn woodland scheme, Robert has reworked this sylvan space into more of a naturalistic meadow or prairie-style scheme, to take advantage of the plants that are naturally going to be at their peak in late summer and early autumn.
“The planting in the centre of the garden was originally conceived as a spring woodland garden, using plants that would be in flower under new, light-green tree foliage,” he explains, “but as those flowers will be long past in mid-September, we are looking at more open planting, using drifts of colourful perennials and grasses.”
Multi-Gold medal winning Chelsea designer Sarah Eberle has tweaked her approach in a similar way for The Psalm 23 Garden for the Bible Society. “It’s out with foxgloves and aquilegias and in with eupatorium and asters,” she tells CL.
“I did make some changes to the front of the garden to allow more planting to frame the scene, and tweaked colour highlights where they appear, and now, as a naturalistic planting scheme, in the main I think it will be better than it would have been in May!”
Other designers are sure to adopt a similar approach, so look out for lots of late-season blooms that originate from the North American grasslands, such as echinaceas and heleniums, which are stalwarts of the prairie or naturalistic planting style.
4. Grasses take centre stage
It’s a tough call to completely redo a planting plan, but the saving grace for many of these designers is the abundance of ornamental grasses available, which are at their best in September. These plants add height, texture and movement as well as softening the hard edges of a design, in the way that subtle pastel colours and verdant new growth would in spring.
Tom Massey is using grasses such as Miscanthus, Panicum and Molinia; and Charlotte Harris and Hugo Bugg, who are designing The M&G Garden for the show’s sponsor, based on beautiful and restorative green spaces for towns and cities, are featuring Calamagrostis brachytricha.
Naomi Ferret-Cohen, who is designing the Finding our Way: An NHS Tribute Garden for the University of Oxford and Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, plans to use Stipa gigantea and Anemanthele lessoniana.
❌ Postponement negatives:
- No woodland plants, like rhododendrons, foxgloves and aquilegias
- Summer flowers have reached the end of their display
- No blossom
- Less bright, fresh green colours
- Plants and trees dependent on summer weather and how quickly season turns/risk of early frost
- Autumn leaves on trees are very fragile and risky to transport
- Uncertain weather on the show weekend
5. Flowers become seedheads
September is the very end of summer, a time when most summer flowers are finishing their display or already spent. Some of the designers have decided not to fight this natural, inevitable process but make a feature of it.
“Rewriting the plant list allowed me time to think about succession in the garden, as if it were a real garden, rather than one that only highlights the show month,” explains Lilly Gomm, designer of A Swiss Sanctuary Garden for Switzerland Tourism.
“Last year, in between lockdowns, I was able to visit Switzerland to see the flora first hand, in August-September, so I have a direct reference of what’s fitting for September. I’m going to have a showing of seedheads to mark the change of a later summer garden into autumn.” NB: Lilly has now decided not to show her garden in the September show and will instead wait until Chelsea 2022.
Robert Myers is also going to be proudly using seedheads in his scheme, to reflect the time of year in a realistic way, and for the delicate structure and form they can provide.
6. Blossom becomes fruit
Pretty blossom is a feature of spring gardens that designers will now have to forego, but in keeping the same trees, several of them can actually capitalise on the fact that many of the same species have alternative interest later in the year.
“We had lots of flowering trees and shrubs in the original scheme, such as quince and medlar, which would have been in blossom in May,” Tom Massey tells Country Living, “but will be bearing fruit in September.”
7. Lush green to fiery foliage
Another obvious change from spring into autumn is the difference in leaf colour, from the bright, fresh, new growth seen in May, to the late summer time when foliage is starting to turn golden and scarlet autumnal shades.
“Our key trees, Nyssa, are full of the freshness of spring in May with their vibrant, lime-coloured leaves,” Charlotte Harris tell Country Living. “However, in September these will, we hope, be ready to burst into their autumnal glory with a brilliant mixture of orange, red and yellow.”
8. It’s a step into the unknown
There has never been a Chelsea, or any other high-end, large-scale flower show, at the end of September before, and so this is unchartered territory. The designers we spoke to are keen to emphasise the uncertainty everyone involved is feeling about how the Show Gardens will come together.
“To be honest, it’s a big gamble,” admitted Jonathan Snow. “No-one has ever tried to grow plants for a show to flower in the last week of September before. Normally every garden has a plant list that they can rely on to some degree, and there are only six to eight weeks of the growing season to deal with. This is very different. We have to pray that the late summer flowers behave, and get through almost six months of growing, with all the challenges that the weather will throw at us. If it works it should be good. If not, disaster!”
Naomi Ferret-Cohen echoes his concern. “I have chosen plants that we are hoping to use, but at the moment the industry is struggling with the amount of plants that people are buying, so there are huge shortages. So even though I have a list, it might be that I don’t get everything that I want.”
Like many of the designers, Robert Myers has a specific worry about his trees. “The state of plants, especially trees, is a little unpredictable in September, and is rather dependent on the weather over the summer and early autumn,” he explains. “Things can change very quickly at that time of year – one frost, and all those lovely burnished leaves can simply drop off a tree. We can’t know the foliage will survive transport – we could get our trees to site and find that they are suddenly completely naked. So we’ve had to develop back-up plans for various eventualities. We’ll need steady nerves this year, for sure!”
Despite these issues, however, all the designers are looking forward to taking on the challenge and being part of this unique, historic event. “I’ve always thought a late-summer show would be really interesting,” says Tom Massey, “and now I am excited to be a part of the first – and possibly only – September Chelsea.”
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