Musings of a Garden Designer

Key Trends from the 2024 Chelsea Flower Show

The Chelsea Flower Show, the annual spectacle hosted by the Royal Horticultural Society, remains the epitome of horticultural elegance and innovation. This year, despite a challenging winter marked by solid rain, an early spring, and more downpours, growers and exhibitors triumphed, presenting gardens that were, above all, welcoming and contemplative spaces. I was judging at the show this year, so had the privilege of seeing the gardens at their best on Sunday morning. Here are some of the key trends that I think defined the show this year:

1. Sustainable Gardening

Sustainability was a dominant theme at the 2024 Chelsea Flower Show. With increasing awareness about climate change and environmental conservation, gardeners, growers and designers showcased numerous plants and strategies. Key elements included:

  • Native and / or Adaptable Plantings: Emphasis on using native plants that require less water or those suited to our changing climate. In Ann-Marie Powell’s Octavia Hill Garden for the National Trust, for example, there were native hawthorns, the Chinese hackberry Celtis sinensis, and crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia ‘Natchez’. Similarly, Dan Bristow’s ‘Size of Wales’ garden was a horticultural experience of some 300 species evoking tropical forest but able to thrive in our temperature climate.
  • Rewilding Spaces: Designs incorporating wildflowers and natural habitats to support biodiversity. One of my favourite show gardens in this respect was Matt Childs’ slate quarry garden for the Terrence Higgins Trust, using a naturalistic landscape with imaginative planting for diverse habitats.
  • Water Conservation: Innovative irrigation systems, rainwater harvesting, and drought-tolerant plants. Tom Massey and Je Ahn designed the Water Aid garden, and the pavilion, which funneled rainwater into swales and rain gardens, was a standout example which skillfully combined drama with a coherent and practical message.

2. Edible Gardens

The trend of growing your own food has gained immense popularity, and this year’s show featured several impressive edible gardens. Designers demonstrated how to blend aesthetics with functionality, creating beautiful spaces that also yield fresh produce. Highlights included:

  • Edible meadows: Sid Hill and Chris Hull delivered a breathtaking garden for Bowel Research UK, using edible species to create a beautiful meadow drawing attention to the importance of our gut microbiome. Both passionate and knowledgeable, they even made the sculpture and structures in the garden themselves.
  • Community Gardens: Designs encouraging community engagement and shared gardening spaces. I would place Harry Holding’s ‘No Adults Allowed’ garden for the RHS high up the list here. Harry and his team managed to translate a potentially tricky brief into a charming, fun and engaging space which even adults could enjoy (yes I tried the slide!) and which subtly incorporated edible species for children to learn about and taste for themselves. >

3. Wellness and Mindfulness

Gardens as sanctuaries for mental health and well-being have been a key focus for some time. This year the show presented some beautifully thoughtful spaces designed to provide tranquility, promote mindfulness, and offer a retreat from the hustle and bustle of daily life. Features that stood out included:

  • Meditation Spaces: Quiet, secluded areas designed for meditation and mindfulness practices. Tom Bannister’s Ecotherapy balcony garden was a hugely skillful design for a small space promoting the benefits of water and contemplation in our outdoor spaces. The pools and planters, handmade from tufa, highlighted the link between crafting and mental wellbeing.
  • Healing Gardens: Spaces specifically designed for therapeutic purposes, including horticultural therapy. For me, Ula Maria’s Forest Bathing Garden, a dappled birch grove judged best in show, or Tom Stuart-Smith’s shady hazel coppice for the National Garden Scheme, held special atmospheres of peace and tranquility – one of the chief benefits perhaps, of gardening in the first place!

4. Innovative Use of Technology

Technology in gardening took a leap forward at the 2024 Chelsea Flower Show. From smart irrigation systems to AI-powered garden management tools, technology is reshaping how we interact with our gardens. Key innovations included:

  • Smart Gardens: Integration of sensors and automation to monitor soil health, moisture levels, and plant growth.
  • LED Lighting: Energy-efficient lighting solutions for indoor gardens and enhancing outdoor spaces.
  • Virtual Garden Design: Use of virtual reality and augmented reality tools for garden planning and visualization. Giulio Giorgi’s use of 3D-printed terracotta blocks in his garden in support of World Child Cancer won the show’s new award for environmental innovation. This garden was wonderfully planted with silvery dry-climate planting, and was deceptively simple whilst being visually arresting.

5. Artistic Expressions

Art and horticulture merged beautifully at this year’s show, with gardens serving as canvases for artistic expression. Designers used plants, structures, and sculptures to create visually stunning and thought-provoking spaces. Noteworthy trends included:

  • Botanical Art: Intricate plant arrangements and floral sculptures that double as art pieces. One of the finest surely had to be the South Africa display in the Great Pavilion – an astonishing arrangement of Proteas and other Cape species.
  • Themed Gardens: Gardens designed around specific themes or stories, often with cultural or historical significance. Catherine MacDonald triumphed with her design for Boodles, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the National Gallery. Catherine showed real restraint and control in creating a beautiful space inspired by the great art movements. 
  • Interactive Installations: Gardens that invite visitor interaction, enhancing the overall experience. The No Adults Allowed garden, mentioned above, featured an underwater den, a slide, and pond for bugs, highlighting playful and interactive elements to engage children in their environment.

6. Natural Aesthetic

A return to natural aesthetics was evident, with trees and plants allowed to grow in their natural forms rather than being meticulously pruned. Beautiful specimens like medlar, multi-stemmed hazel, and birch, many suitable for smaller spaces, featured prominently. I would say that the wilder extremes of planting styles seen at the show in 2023 have perhaps been superseded by a slightly more refined aesthetic this year, but with the focus still very much on gardening with, rather than against, nature.

7. Colour Trends

Colour trends in planting were vibrant and varied, charting a journey from lush greens to vivid oranges and purples. Leafy plants like Asarum europaeum and Farfugium japonicum were popular, as were irises in shades of pale blue, yellow, and rust. Welcome warm colours came from orange geums, Candelabra primulas and the rich claret tones of Papaver ‘Lauren’s Grape’. I think the award for most joyously colourful show garden has to go to Ann-Marie Powell’s Octavia Hill Garden for the National Trust and Blue Diamond!

Conclusion

The 2024 Chelsea Flower Show highlighted a blend of tradition and innovation, showcasing gardens that not only captivate with their beauty but also address contemporary challenges. From sustainability and wellness to technological advancements and artistic flair, this year’s show has set inspiring trends for gardeners and designers worldwide. As we look forward to the coming seasons, these themes will undoubtedly influence gardens big and small, fostering a deeper connection with nature and a more mindful approach to gardening.