Give your garden a touch of Chelsea Flower Show glamour

An award-winning designer and a top judge reveal how you can bring a splash of style to your garden, whatever shape, size or state it's in...

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However big, small, unkempt, bedraggled or blooming your garden might be, there’s a way to give it a bit of the Chelsea Garden show touch. We’ve asked Ann-Marie Powell, a Chelsea Gold Medal winner, and James Alexander-Sinclair, a designer and Royal Horticultural Society judge, to make you be-leaf in your garden…

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If you only have one thing…

Ann-Marie Powell:  Go for large plants that lift the eye up. Things on a vertical plane work because they make small spaces look big – you aren’t just concentrating on the horizontal. Plants with beautiful stripped stems can look wonderful and original. I always appreciate bark and colour and a degree of being able to see through something onwards and upwards and behind them. Cornus kousa would do the trick, as would an Amelanchier, which brings flair and beautiful foliage in the autumn. It’s like a beautiful piece of sculpture, and brings a different vista to a garden.

James Alexander-Sinclair: A tree. A tree brings excitement and glamour to a garden, so choose one that goes through distinct changes during the seasons – one that has blossom, then fruit, then good autumn leaves. One example would be the Snowy mespilus, or possibly a Malus tschonoskii flowering crab apple. 

Just add flair

Ann-Marie: Plants that add flair – and that have worked very well at Chelsea in the past– are the ones that, in many ways, have been forgotten. Peonies, irises and lupins are all back in fashion now and they are the ones that get people talking. Lupins are so bright, they add a real splash of colour. They almost shout out at you. Peonies are voluptuous, with cups of flowers, the belles of the ball. I think there’s something nostalgic about them; they’re just so romantic and if you put them in the centre of the garden people fall in love with them. And an iris is just sublime – you engage with it and go off into a dream when you look at it. They are big and jewel-like with elegance and quality.

James: Generally, the rule of planting is that tall goes at the back and short at the front, but I’d overrule that. I’d put something tall and gauzy at the front – something like Allium hollandicum or Cirsium rivulare “Atro- purpureum”. Anthriscus or Chaerophyllum and topiary of all guises will add elegance.

Remember sex and death

James: Gardens are about sex, death and deliciousness. The sex bit is how the plant attracts the bees and pollinate it and then the garden grows. Eventually everything dies. The delicious bit is how we enjoy our gardens with our senses. We feel it, touch it, smell it, eat it. Gardens can be visual feasts, so my advice is to ignore what garden advisers tell you and do what makes you happy. You need to enjoy your garden, not worry about it.

Ann-Marie: I think the design needs to make sure that the garden makes life easy for the user visually. I like gardens to be cohesive and, oddly enough for me, that means putting landscape interruptions in. I don’t think gardens necessarily need to play it safe. The trend now for paving and paths is for straight lines, curves are out. But it does depend on the shape of your garden. Use every space of your garden to create a journey, a sense of theatre. Use polished stones, walls, bright flowers, anything to  create the unexpected. 

Your outside living room 

James: You have to take into account the style of building that the garden will be attached to. If you have a thatched
cottage with mullioned windows, then a contemporary garden will look ridiculous. Steel looks terrible in a traditional setting. Bear in mind the way that you live. If you are out all day and don’t get back until the evening and the end of the garden is where the sun is, then make that area something special for you to enjoy. 

Ann-Marie: The design of a garden has to take its lead from the interior of the building. I walk in and out of the home and round the garden many times to get a feel for the place. How will the garden be used? Who will be in it? I think about the space and how to use it before I think of any planting. For example, I might match the flooring of the house with paving in the garden. Or match the colour of the flowers to some wallpaper, or carry on oak panels from the inside to something oak on the outside. 

Add the wow factor

Ann-Marie: Go for something bold. I put huge red arches in a garden once (below) and I thought they looked great. Obelisks are good as they guide the eye. But red arches work because they are a thing of beauty in themselves and they straddle the garden. I think a few visual exclamation marks are good – arches and walls create a backdrop for a garden and make it interesting in a structural way.

James: If you really want the “wow” factor, then add some wildlife to your garden. I once designed a garden that had penguins and seals in it. That’s a bit extreme, but a discreetly positioned chicken run would get talked about. Good, and creatively placed, lighting can really make a difference. Or try a gazebo, but place it in among the flowers.

Big isn’t always better

James: Bigger is not always better. Big is fun, yes, but small containers on tables work very well. But remember that everything in a container is more difficult to look after than stuff in the ground.

Ann-Marie: Depends on the garden, but I do think that bigger is better! Anything that’s not framed by other plants is essentially saying, “look at me”. I am a big fan of Belgian stoneware pots and hand-thrown clay pots, because they are very textural. Then again, you could leave a pot empty and let it be the feature. I think pots add drama, as do water butts filled up that then reflect the sky. I love all sorts of pots. I’m a pot slut! 

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The Great Chelsea Garden Challenge Monday—Thursday 8:00pm BBC2