Chelsea show ditches flowers for foliage as ferns and mosses dominate the gardens

The World Child Cancer's Nurturing Garden, designed by Giulio Giorgi
Flowers provide a splash of orange among the plants in the World Child Cancer's Nurturing Garden, designed by Giulio Giorgi - Guy Bell/Alamy

This year’s Chelsea Flower Show has been dubbed the “foliage show” as gardeners favour greenery over colourful blooms and focus on wellness.

The show gardens in the main avenue at this year’s event, which starts on Tuesday May 21 2024, heavily uses ferns, grasses and moss with flowers appearing as pops of colour among the green.

Sophie Parmenter, who has designed the National Autistic Society Garden with northern maidenhair and ‘Lady in Red’ fern, as well as several different types of moss, said the heavy use of foliage “provides a more restful space”.

“We have been looking at the form of the plants and the texture they provide, but not necessarily going mad on the colour,” she said. “We’ve got little bits of colour sprinkled throughout but it’s a little bit more subtle.”

She joked: “This is the Chelsea foliage show. We’re going to disappoint people; we’ve got very few flowers.”

St James's Piccadilly: Imagine the World to be Different
Robert Myers said his garden, St James's Piccadilly: Imagine the World to be Different, was 'more about foliage and texture'

Some gardeners also said their dependence on greenery rather than flowers had made their shows more resilient in the face of 2024’s changing weather.

“This garden doesn’t rely on massive amounts of flowers, it’s more about foliage and texture and it’s very green, so we are able to be less neurotic about the weather,” said Robert Myers.

His show garden for St James’s Piccadilly and Project Giving Back includes the Asplenium trichomanes fern alongside pheasant’s tail grass, hawthorn and ginkgo trees.

Mr Myers said the number of gardens commissioned by charities meant many of the designers were “looking to create these sort of calm, reflective spaces rather than lots of jangly, vibrant colours – with a few exceptions”.

The preview event on Monday welcomes the King, the new patron of the RHS, and the Queen alongside the Duke and Duchess of Gloucestershire.

The National Autistic Society Garden designed by Sophie Parmenter
Sophie Parmenter said the heavy use of foliage 'provides a more restful space' in her garden for the National Autistic Society - Clara Molden/The Telegraph

It then opens to RHS members on Tuesday, when the medallists will be announced, before welcoming the general public on Thursday and Friday.

Guy Barter, the RHS chief horticulturist, said the trend for greenery in the gardens at Chelsea was practical as well as tapping into a growing recognition of the mental health benefits of green spaces.

“All other things being equal, it’s going to be green for the entire duration of the show, and you’re not going to replace wilting flowers on Thursday or Friday if it’s hot,” he said.

“It’s very subtle, it’s soothing. Wellbeing and forest bathing and that sort of thing are very popular at the moment and very important. So greenery plays into that.”

Designer Matthew Childs said his Terence Higgins Trust Bridge to 2030 garden deliberately used resilient plants, including in the use of flowers.

“One of our star plants is Sisyrinchium ‘Quaint and Queer’, mainly because of the name and the association with the gay community.

“But it’s a really lovely little purpley yellow, indistinct flower. I think sometimes things don’t have to be big and blousy, it’s about appreciating the intricacies in colour and texture.”

The National Autistic Society Garden
'We've got little bits of colour sprinkled throughout,' Ms Parmenter said - Guy Bell/Shutterstock

Mr Barter said that while ferns and other foliage can require fewer inputs, a positive from a sustainability angle, they were not as good for pollinators as flowers.

Many of the gardens feature woodland areas, and Mr Barter said there had been a move away in 2024 from the trend towards rewilding or reclaimed urban spaces.

“I don’t think many designers have attempted hard-edged environmental criticism this year, they are sort of appealing to the more romantic side of it,” he said.

Ula Maria said her Muscular Dystrophy UK’s Forest Bathing Garden was inspired by the Japanese practice of “spending time in the forest, absorbing its atmosphere, being under the canopy of the trees”.

She said: “That in return has many mental and physical health benefits.

“The idea was to get sort of inspiration from woodland-style planting, quite naturalistic but still being a garden. So loads of greens and lots and lots of texture and then just pops of colour.”

She added: “I think we are all leaning more towards trying to understand how gardens can benefit us.”