Hampton Court Garden Festival review: For the first time ever, this show has trumped Chelsea

·4 min read
Hampton Court Palace Flower Festival review - Malcolm Park/Alamy Live News
Hampton Court Palace Flower Festival review - Malcolm Park/Alamy Live News

The sun was out on Monday morning for the first day of the RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival, and the sunny disposition extended to the show’s visitors – with no masks in sight, you could see them beaming with happiness even before they had crossed the threshold.

There were half-hour queues for coffee. So what? Ice cream was £6 for two scoops. Good value! Raymond Blanc could not be heard during his cookery demo. Who cares? We’re free – yippee! You get the impression that the RHS could have stuck a few carnations in a bucket and put them on a crate, and everyone would have been happy. Even the menopause-awareness allotment, featuring a small curly-leaved lettuce labelled ‘Rage’, could not put a dampener on things.

The old "flower show" has been reconceived as a "festival", with multiple stages, performance spaces and activity yurts, where vocal chakra meditation sessions and shamanic drumming workshops are on offer, as well as more traditional flower-arranging. There are street-food vans all over the place and even a bar selling pints of beer.

It does mean that some of the traditional horticulture has been squeezed – the modest Festival of Roses, for example, has been dumped in a small, yellow-tinged tent near the Thames exit – but the rebalancing makes the show feel rather less like a retail experience than before. Even so, I did hear one visitor remark, "There seems to be more shopping than garden, doesn’t there?" But ’twas ever thus at Hampton Court.

Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival - Jeff Gilbert
Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival - Jeff Gilbert

The great triumph of this show is not even mentioned in the show guide’s "top 10 highlights", which is perhaps revealing of the RHS’s priorities. The Floral Marquee has come back in storming fashion – it is packed, buzzing and varied, with impressive, gold-medal winning displays from the likes of Jacques Amand, the bulb specialist (alliums and eremurus), Alchemy Ferns and Dibleys, showing both begonias and streptocarpus. Outstripping them all is Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, with a beautifully composed display featuring nursery-bred plants which could almost be wildlings – fashionably low-key things like Salvia sclarea ‘Vatican White’, Veronica longifolia ‘Charlotte’ and Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Xanthos’. Elsewhere the Plant Village (really a plant avenue) proves good fun, with the lilies from Harts Nursery standing out.

It’s impossible not to compare the joy of Hampton Court’s Floral Marquee with the let-down which was the Great Pavilion at Chelsea this year, with its wide open spaces and paucity of first-class nursery displays. For the first time ever, Hampton Court has trumped Chelsea as the place to go to see the best examples of the biggest range of plants. What to do? Perhaps the RHS needs to perform a swift 180-degree turn and begin thinking of the independent nursery trade as part of its charitable remit, not as a money spinner for its shows.

The show gardens at Hampton are a mixed bag, as usual. They are certainly much more colourful than this year’s Chelsea offerings, which will please most visitors. That’s partly because the emphasis here is more on well-being than pure ‘eco’.

The best show garden award went to Matthew Childs’s Over the Wall garden, which might as well have been named the "over the top" garden, featuring as it does the scintillating orange and red tones of Echinacea ‘Big Kahuna’ and Kniphofia ‘Fiery Fred’, dramatically but neatly enclosed by a huge swirl of coloured concrete wall.

Also worth seeking out is the RHS Vitamin G Garden, created by Alan Williams with DJ Jo Whiley, which features some creative themed planting ideas. Dave Green’s cool and calm, green n’ cream Forest Bathing garden is also well-realised and pleasant to experience, while there was an emotional moment for the Ukrainian designers of the ‘What Does Not Burn’ Global Impact garden, when they were awarded a silver-gilt medal.

My favourite garden was Ryan McMahon’s ‘Connections’ for Alzheimer’s Research UK, with a black ‘yarn-bombed’ framework contrasting strikingly with a wild and weedy planting of cow parsley, angelica and scabious. But it only got a bronze medal. Perhaps the designer should have followed the example of the controversial winning garden at Chelsea this year, and added some beavers to the mix?

Do you think Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival could beat Chelsea Flower Show as the place to be for plants? Let us know in the comments